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Mr. Tyrie: The right hon. Gentleman said that the interim Chamber would be preferable to what we have at present. In that case, he clearly disagrees with the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who said at his party conference in September 1995:

Why have the Liberals abandoned nearly a century of belief in an elected House to get into bed with the Labour party in the hope--

The Temporary Chairman: Order. If the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) wishes to deal with the intervention, I hope that he does so only briefly, because it concerned the merits of the Bill as a whole, not time and commencement, with which the group of amendments deals.

Mr. Maclennan: I certainly would not deal with that intervention at length, apart from saying that the Liberal Democrats are committed to this process because we have confidence that this is a facilitating measure, which will assist the process of reform which has eluded other Governments and parties more disposed to reforming the upper House than the Conservative party has ever been. Such reform defeated the Labour party in the 1960s; I was present during those dreary debates.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Is not the right hon. Gentleman merely parading a guilt complex, because the most notorious sale of peerages occurred under Lloyd George?

Mr. Maclennan: Lloyd George may have known my father, but I am not prepared to have the sins of my father visited on me.

The Bill is justified, and should set up a Chamber that is more legitimate than what it replaces. Appointees on merit of a range of Prime Ministers over the past three decades are certainly to be preferred to the serendipitous accidents of emergence in the upper House to which the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) referred. Views would have been split if the proposition was that the Bill is the point on which we are all going to stand. We are not. This is the first step of reform.

Yet again, I draw the White Paper to the attention of those who doubt that that is so. Governments cannot propose such changes more clearly than this Government

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have. In considering the timing of the successor Chamber, it is important to remember these words in the White Paper, which was published in January:

    "If there is consensus, the Government will make every effort to ensure that the second stage of reform has been approved by Parliament before the next election."

That is where the word "consensus" comes from--the Government themselves. That is the right way in which to approach the matter: to seek consensus and, if there is consensus, to act as quickly as possible.

I cannot guarantee consensus; if there is not a consensus, I hope that the Government will continue the process of reform, so that, at least by the next election, a scheme can be put before the country in the manifestos of the parties committed to it, which the electorate may ratify by their votes. At least then, in the early years of the next Parliament, the anomalies which we are undoubtedly creating will be short-lived.

The choice seems to be straightforward: to have either consensus before the election, in which case a Bill could be introduced in the current Parliament, or for the parties to state clearly at the next election how they will democratise the upper House, with the decision being made by the people, to whom, ultimately, the upper House will, we hope, relate much more closely than the present Chamber can.

Therefore, we should do no more than express our enjoyment and appreciation of the fun that we have had because of Conservative Members, and the hope that their pessimism is misplaced. I believe that it is. For those reasons, we should have no truck with any of the alternatives.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I wish to make a brief contribution, and, in doing so, to pick up on some of the comments by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). He referred to the Bill as a constitutional outrage. As a Member of Parliament, I have received two letters on the Bill. I think that other Labour Members have had a similar response. That does not suggest that the Bill is a constitutional outrage. That is not the reaction of my constituents. By and large, it is not the reaction of people throughout the country.

In previous Parliaments, when constitutional outrages were perpetrated on the British people--such as the abolition of the Greater London council and the introduction of the poll tax--many more letters were sent to constituency Members of Parliament. People rightly understood the difference between what was genuinely a constitutional outrage and what was not.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Does not the hon. Gentleman's postbag just illustrate that the issue is not the people's priority?

Mr. Rammell: No. My postbag shows that, having seen the explicit commitment in the Labour party's general election manifesto and seen the Government go ahead with great intent to implement that manifesto, the people are comfortable with what the Government are doing.

The hon. Member for West Dorset referred to the quality of debate in the House of Lords in the recent discussion on the White Paper. I wonder whether he was

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referring to the contribution from one of the hereditary peers who argued that democracy was a relatively new invention that should be given time to bed down before the protection for hereditary peers was abolished. Some of the blithe statements from Conservative Members about the supposed quality of debates in the House of Lords and of contributions from hereditary peers need to be, and should be, challenged.

Let me say deliberately and explicitly why the Government and I support two-stage reform and will not agree to the amendments. First, two-stage reform was in our general election manifesto. Most of us, I think, have a quaint notion that parties, once they are in government, should implement the commitments that they explicitly make in their general election manifesto. It is part of a process in which we believe: restoring faith in government and politics.

Secondly, my party, the Government and I have learned the lessons of history.

Mr. Grieve rose--

Mr. Tyrie rose--

Mr. Rammell: I will continue with the point, and then give way.

Three times this century, there has apparently been a consensus on reform of the House of Lords. The last time we had such a consensus, there was a 5:1 majority in the House of Lords for the abolition of the right of hereditary peers to vote. The first occasion was 88 years ago. However, on every occasion on which that apparent consensus existed, the reform was ultimately blocked by apparently reasonable people, apparently advancing reasonable arguments. Although in principle they supported the abolition of hereditary peers, they could not quite agree on what would replace them and on the nature of a reformed second Chamber.

There is at least a suspicion on my part and that of some of my hon. Friends that some of those people never really wanted reform and used those arguments illegitimately to block it. The net result--we are still seeing it after 88 years--was that the vested interests of hereditary peers and of the Conservative party were maintained.

Were we to agree to the amendments that the Conservative party has tabled, we would allow such disingenuous supporters of reform--if they exist--to say that they want change, but not to say quite how they would agree to it. If we agreed to the amendments, there would be a built-in incentive for filibuster, spurious objections and arcane parliamentary tactics to delay the second-stage debate and legislation. The time limit which is referred to in the amendments would then be introduced, we would come to the end of that period, and reform would not have been agreed.

Mr. Grieve: I realise that the hon. Gentleman will not accept my word for it, but nothing could be further from the truth. The amendments are designed precisely to concentrate the mind. I fail to see--I will be interested to hear him deal with the matter--how they are incompatible with two-stage reform. In fact, they will ensure that the second stage comes about within a certain time.

Mr. Rammell: The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me if I do not have the greatest confidence in the

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conviction with which the Conservative party tables the amendments. We have heard much comment about concentrating minds. For the Government, but for the Conservative party in particular, carrying out reform in two stages genuinely concentrates minds, because we will then definitely have to create a reformed second Chamber.

6.45 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Does my hon. Friend agree that, apart from delaying matters, the amendments are about the desperation of the Conservative party to salvage some credibility in the whole debate about democracy? We are confident that we will reach the second stage, but, by tabling the amendments, the Conservatives are trying to claim some credit for making it happen. Will it not happen without their amendments?

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