Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Garnier: Is not the hon. Gentleman a little surprised that in the 18 years of thinking time that the

3 Mar 1999 : Column 1123

Labour party had, it did not come to the House much earlier with definite ideas about stage 2? We still do not know what the Government think about stage 2.

Angela Smith: The Conservatives did not do much thinking.

Mr. Winnick: As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) rightly says, the Conservatives did not do much thinking. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is conceding what I said earlier--there was no wish to change the composition of the House of Lords. We have heard from his mouth what we already knew.

If the present Government came up with a blueprint and said that they were going to do away with hereditary membership of the House of Lords and rush into the second stage, I know what the reaction of Conservative Members would be. They would say that it was being imposed arbitrarily, that there had been no royal commission and that it was wrong that such a step should be taken.

In effect, what we are doing is in accordance with what we said during the election. We said that we would remove the hereditary peers and then give proper consideration to the make-up of the second Chamber. What is wrong with that? What is undemocratic about that?

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting soliloquy on the Government's approach to the Bill, but we are dealing with precise amendments. Does he agree that those amendments allow for all the things that he is seeking, but also say simply that there will be a limit after which a decision on the final form of the second Chamber has to be made and brought to the House?

Mr. Winnick: I do not believe that there should be such a strict limit, which is why I oppose the amendments and new clauses. I do not believe that it is desirable. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) said in an intervention, if the amendments were carried, there would be a possibility that the hereditary peers could be brought back, which is just about the last thing that Labour Members want.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman is very generous in giving way. However, what he says is not so, and he knows it. The amendments and new clauses would simply concentrate the Government's mind. The Government would have to come to the House for a renewal of the lease of the interim House, and this House would then decide. In a new Parliament, this House may take a very different view from the present one. It is very important that we do not lurch or drift, which is the Government's policy at the moment. Frankly, it is unacceptable with such an important constitutional issue.

Mr. Winnick: If it is not desirable to lurch or drift, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, it is also not desirable to fix a wholly inflexible time limit which has no purpose whatsoever.

When the party battles are over and this measure becomes law--this is not simply a party political point in support of my Front-Bench colleagues, although I support

3 Mar 1999 : Column 1124

the line that they are taking--we must, in all seriousness, find a proper balance between the two Houses. If possible, we should reach a consensus between the three main parties about the make-up of the second Chamber. That would be more desirable than introducing legislation for the second stage in a controversial way, as we are doing in respect of hereditary peers. It is necessary to pause, as I have said, and give the royal commission time to make its recommendations.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Does the hon. Gentleman concede that the time that the royal commission has been given is indecently short?

Mr. Winnick: No, I do not. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman even about that. It is desirable that the royal commission should report as soon as possible. Judging by the arguments deployed by the Conservatives today, I should have thought that that was their point of view, too. Indeed, I believe that the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) agrees that the time given to the royal commission is right.

All in all, I believe that we are taking the right step. I have served in the House for a long time, and I am pleased that I sit on the Benches of a Labour Government who are at long last doing what no previous Labour Government have been able to do--remove the undesirable principle whereby people should sit in Parliament for no reason other than their ancestry. Once that is done, it will be possible--if there is good will--to move to the second stage.

There is no reason why the amendments should be accepted. They are wholly inflexible and, as I said, they are simply a ploy by the Conservatives who know that they can no longer defend the hereditary principle.

Mr. Maclennan: If one peers through the miasma of conflicting options and the spun arguments in support of them put to us by the official Opposition, one sees that, notwithstanding their contradictory nature, there may be a grain of concern which we should address in respect of the undesirability of the stage 1 settlement lasting indefinitely. On that there seems to be no division among the hon. Members who have participated in this debate, and no difference of opinion with the Government. Indeed, I venture to say that those who have expressed uncertainty about consensus have witnessed consensus on that point.

It has been clear from the beginning that stage 1 is a phase of reform that is being embraced to improve the upper House, but it is by no means to be the last resting place for the second Chamber. I find it puzzling that the official Opposition keep coming back to the same point. They see no reason to accept the Government's commitment on this issue, but the Government's record on constitutional reform has not been one of delay, dither, uncertainty or unwillingness to take major, remarkable and almost revolutionary steps--quite the reverse. The record of this as yet rather short-lived Government is one of unparalleled readiness to change. Notwithstanding that record, why are the official Opposition hung up aboutthe Government's commitment to consider a plainly democratic, representative and accountable second Chamber?

3 Mar 1999 : Column 1125

6.30 pm

Mr. Letwin: If the right hon. Gentleman is right about the Government--he may be--does he accept that they ought to agree to some amendments, such as those before us?

Mr. Maclennan: No, I do not, and for the following reason. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman has not told me which of his amendments he would prefer Liberal Democrats to attach themselves to. We listened to him at some length, but at no point did he say, "This is the one on which I propose to make my stand." When dealing with possible constitutional alternatives, a little clarity, certainty and perhaps even priority are needed.

We should not embrace such a mechanistic device when proposing constitutional change. Indeed, it is odd that the Conservative party, which is noted for its interest in promoting stability, should seek to include in legislation something as unstable as any of the amendments that it has tabled, which would create massive uncertainty. Plainly, it would be fantasy to cling to what Parliament is legislating now, in the expectation that we could resurrect what it replaces. The idea that we could get rid of hereditary peers under the Bill and that, somehow, they might rise from their graves with their cerements around them and reinvent themselves as a legislature is extremely fanciful.

Mr. Letwin: Surely the right hon. Gentleman accepts that all we are trying to do is to trigger a need, as myhon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said, for the Government to renew the lease. Is that not a reasonable device?

Mr. Maclennan: I like the hon. Gentleman's word device; that I agree with. The proposal is a device--not a constitutional settlement--which we should not accept. It is a device for a debate--

Mr. Grieve: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan: I am dealing--I hope adequately--with the point made by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). The proposal is a device to enable us to focus on the undesirability of our living with an all-appointed upper House. In so far as it is focused on that, it is a perfectly acceptable rhetorical way of proceeding--a sort of university debating society way of proceeding.

Mr. Grieve: Is not the whole of stage 1, on the Government's admission, a device, because, they tell us, it will enable stage 2 to occur by removing the power of hereditary peers to block the consensus that they claim is available?

Mr. Maclennan: There we part company. I do not go along with the view that the Bill in itself is not important. It is of great importance that we should abandon the hereditary principle in our legislature once and for all. I am not happy that there are threats to water it down later, although I understand why the Government are playing with that notion. I do not doubt for one minute, however, that, when the Bill is enacted, it will constitute an important improvement in our legislature. It will not

3 Mar 1999 : Column 1126

make a perfect democracy--far from it--but it will have disposed of one of the most indefensible aspects, which undermines the strength of the upper House and its ability as a democratically legitimate Chamber to pronounce on the great affairs of state with authority, in a way that forces the Executive to pay attention, listen, act and respond.

Even if there were to be no further change--that would not be desirable or likely--what is proposed is preferable to what we have at present. I hope that the interim period will not be extended. Therefore, to that extent, I go along with what I take to be the underlying wish of other Opposition Members that the Government announce, as early as possible, proposals for stage 2.

Next Section

IndexHome Page