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Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and hope that he will recognise that we tabled this smorgasbord of possibilities to show the Government that we had no fixed view on the precise time that should be offered. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) offers another possible view, and if my right hon. Friend has a particular preference on that menu--for example, the herrings rather than the mackerel--his view would weigh heavily with all of us.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend does not often make a fishy point, but this might be one of those rare occasions. I am slightly disappointed that he is being so generous to the Government, unless--I will share his generosity for a moment--he believes that the Minister will, at some point in this debate, offer the possibility that one of those reasonable time limitations will be acceptable to the Government. Only in those circumstances will we receive the reassurance that we seek. Why do we seek that reassurance? It is because, so far, neither I nor my hon. Friends have heard anything that would suggest that the

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Government are serious in claiming, as they have sometimes done, that stage 1--as it has come to be known--will be only interim and temporary and will be followed by stage 2.

To be reasonable, my hon. Friends are offering rather generous--indeed, overly generous--time limits, so let us take them as workable propositions. I shall not dissent unduly because, although I shall express my preference in a moment, I tabled no amendments and the implication is that I am prepared to accept one of those offered by my hon. Friends. We believe that the Government should be perfectly capable of coming to a proper conclusion about the second Chamber that will emerge within the reasonable time limits that we are offering in the new clauses. The Government envisage that the royal commission will undertake the substantive work of analysis, and there will then be a Joint Committee of both Houses which will enable the parliamentary part of the process to be undertaken. It strikes me that 24 months after the publication of the final report of the Joint Committee of both Houses is a more than adequate length of time for this important process.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Twenty four months would take us beyond the date of the next general election. If there were the kind of immobility on the part of the Government that the right hon. Gentleman anticipates, the issue would become a matter of contention between the three political parties in their manifestos for the next general election. Under the circumstances, it is not credible to challenge the good faith of the Prime Minister--who has staked his personal authority on this matter--by saying that the Government will not advance proposals for stage 2 if there is consensus by the next general election.

6 pm

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman invites me to express my utter faith in the Prime Minister, but I am reluctant to do so at this stage.

Mr. Letwin: Did my hon. Friend understand the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) to say in his intervention that he interpreted the Prime Minister as saying that he would bring forward proposals for a fully fledged, long-term second Chamber if there were a consensus? Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an extraordinary caveat when there is clearly no such consensus on the Labour Benches?

Mr. Forth: Indeed. Comments such as that--uttered in good faith by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I accept--add to the unease of Opposition Members.

Mr. Grieve: May I reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice)? His remarks are made in good faith because they are a precise reproduction of the words of the Prime Minister, with all the accompanying caveats. The hon. Gentleman has accurately reflected the Prime Minister's precise comments on this subject.

Mr. Forth: I will leave it to the hon. Member for Pendle to decide whether he wishes his remarks to be categorised in that way. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising a most important point by asking

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whether we believe it is proper--indeed, essential--to resolve the matter during this Parliament and to put in place the appropriate mechanisms that would define, and perhaps establish, the new, permanent stage 2 upper House by the next general election.

There is no doubt that we face a serious dilemma: how do we see the relationship developing between the final, reformed upper House and the House of Commons? How will the interplay of forces leading up to the next general election for the House of Commons affect the final definition of the upper House? I share the view expressed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg): I believe that we should have a properly and directly elected upper House. For that reason, it is particularly important to define as soon as possible, the relationship between elections to this place and elections to the upper House. That is why the hon. Gentleman's point is so important.

Mr. Letwin: Does my hon. Friend agree that--unless it is disavowed by his Front Bench--the hon. Gentleman's intervention represents a change in policy? The foreword to the White Paper does not mention consensus. It states:

Mr. Forth: Indeed--and it would probably be better not to intrude into this area. I am sure that it would be a most unusual experience for the hon. Gentleman if he and his Front Bench were to disagree on this matter.

Mr. Gordon Prentice rose--

Mr. Forth: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to elaborate on his views.

Mr. Prentice: I am not entirely sure what the Prime Minister said--and I cannot recall the antecedents of the word "consensus". However, in the context of the royal commission that has been established and will report speedily by the end of the year, I am sure that most reasonable people would accept that, if a consensus emerged between and among the political parties, it would be possible to move towards stage 2 and reach an agreement on that by the end of the Parliament.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman has added something very important.

Mr. Prentice: The right hon. Gentleman keeps saying that.

Mr. Forth: I shall continue to do so as long as Mr. Winterton allows it. If the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues echo his comments--which he has made on his own behalf or on behalf of his party--that will introduce a new factor. I do not know what "consensus" means. I have always been very suspicious of consensus as a political concept: it is not something with which I have ever felt particularly comfortable. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I could discuss over a cup of tea exactly how consensus would emerge, how it would be defined and identified and how far any dissent from that consensus would be accommodated. We could discuss all of those things some other time. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the matter will be resolved in a timely fashion only if

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consensus--however that is defined--emerges, my unease is multiplied. I believe that that adds to the argument in favour of the new clauses that we are discussing.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I, too, am troubled by the word "consensus". It is usually achieved in one or two ways--although there may be more. The first involves some kind of deal brokered between party managers and the second, perhaps cleaner and more straightforward, involves a guillotine. Is that the way to achieve consensus?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend and I share the burden of having served in the European Parliament. He and I moved in an environment of consensus for longer than I wished--and perhaps for longer than he wished. We have experience of a political system that is based on consensus--which may be shared by the hon. Member for Pendle, I know not. That perhaps explains the unease with which I greet this new element that has been introduced into the debate--and my hon. Friend obviously shares my unease.

Mr. Taylor: My hon. Friend is perfectly right to refer to a time when he and I were Members of another place in Strasbourg, where consensus politics was practised--although I am not sure whether it was the same as the consensus perceived by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). Under that consensus politics, the spokesmen of nine or 10 groups would spend 24 hours working out a text to which all could agree, by which time the text would be completely meaningless.

Mr. Forth: That is the danger. We cannot have anything that is meaningless when dealing with such crucial matters. In this group of new clauses, we are considering whether it is our duty to try to ensure, as far as we are able in this Committee and the House of Commons, that the process upon which we have embarked and upon which the Government have taken us will be completed properly in a way that may be anticipated and defined.

Dr. George Turner: I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's concern about the speed of the process. However, one of the amendments seeks to involve existing hereditary peers in the debate about what will replace them, and the other two amendments seek to resolve any kind of unforeseen delay by bringing back hereditary peers. That is the effect of the amendments. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why bringing back hereditary peers or allowing them to be involved in the debate addresses his concern?

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