Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Hoon: We have debated the two amendments and five new clauses together because they all deal, in one way or another, with the question of whether reform should proceed in one stage or in two, or whether attempts should be made to force the process into one stage or to provide a legal commitment to the second stage. Having heard two speeches from Conservative Front Benchers, we do not know which they would prefer.

We have had a great deal of sound and fury, particularly from the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who talked about constitutional outages. He referred to an 88-year Chamber--harking back, I assume, to the 1911 Act. Had he analysed the constitutional history of the other place properly, he would have referred to 1958, not 1911. The 1911 proposal did not deal directly with the composition of the other place. The 1958 one did.

On Second Reading, I referred to comments made at that time by Conservative Ministers, who were proposing reforms that would lead to the greater efficiency of the House, and therefore to the better working of Parliament,

3 Mar 1999 : Column 1142

bringing the House more abreast of the times. That was to be a reform in relation to composition, without dealing with the fundamental questions.

Despite what the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) may say, Labour Members want both stage 1 and stage 2. That was set out clearly in our manifesto. The amendments and new clauses are a fairly obvious attempt to delay the removal of the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote. It is perhaps significant, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said,that Conservative Members now limit themselves to attempting merely to delay the reforms and do not oppose them outright.

Dr. Fox: If it is such a point of principle and the Government want stage 1 as an end in itself, as something that they promised in their manifesto, why has the Leader of the House already said that the Government will accept the Weatherill proposals, which are the complete opposite of what was in the manifesto?

Mr. Hoon: I will deal with that point in a moment. We are discussing the means, not the ends in themselves. In 1958, the then Lord Chancellor pointed out that there had been no fewer than 10 unsuccessful attempts over a period of 100 years to change the composition of the House of Lords. He said that they were all unsuccessful because someone had forgotten that the best can so often be the enemy of the good.

The Government want both stage 1 and stage 2. The amendments and new clauses will not help us to achieve that. We have made it clear, in a White Paper and elsewhere, that we are committed to reform of the composition of the House of Lords. The first step, as was made perfectly clear in the manifesto, is to end the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote.

Mr. Tyrie: Are the Government also committed to a democratically elected second Chamber?

Mr. Hoon: That is clearly a matter for the royal commission to advise on, for both Houses to resolve, and for further debate. We have said how that debate can take place.

Our ambition is to remove the rights of all hereditary peers. The point about the so-called Weatherill or Cranborne proposals is that there will be a great deal of enthusiasm behind me at the Dispatch Box for ensuring that the interim arrangements, if they are approved, are indeed only interim arrangements. Government Back Benchers will expect the Government to deliver the manifesto promise to remove the right of all hereditary peers to vote.

Mr. Letwin: To allay our suspicions, what is the Government's timetable for the implementation of phase 2?

Mr. Hoon: We have had a great deal of discussion about consensus. If there is consensus, and we move quickly through the royal commission and the Joint Committee, there is no reason why measures could not be introduced before a general election. That is a perfectly possible timetable; it is set out in the White Paper and it could be achieved. It clearly depends on achieving consensus.

3 Mar 1999 : Column 1143

We have been debating this for a very long time, not just 88 years, because the Parliament Act 1911 was the culmination of a long period of debate about the role and composition of the second Chamber. The royal commission will have plenty of material to be going on with, and there is no reason why it should not review that material and reach a judgment fairly quickly.

Mr. Leigh: The Minister knows perfectly well that there is no consensus. The Government must govern. Will he give a commitment that the nature of stage 2 will be clear to the British people by the next general election?

7.45 pm

Mr. Hoon: I am disappointed in the hon. Gentleman's pessimism about the possibility of achieving consensus. In the most recent example of efforts to reform the second Chamber, in 1968, there was consensus. The Conservative party accepted the results of the various discussions and withdrew from supporting the proposals not because it opposed them in principle, but for a completely different reason. Consensus was reached fairly quickly in 1968. Why should not the royal commission do the same this time?

We are debating resolving the question of eliminating from our further discussions the issue of hereditary peers, and there is no need for us to debate the second stage in that context. We want to concentrate the discussion on the future, not the past, and ensure that we have a properly informed debate without the role of the hereditary peers interfering in it as it has in the past.

Many Conservative Members have referred to the fact that we have not been able to have a proper debate about the future composition of the House of Lords, simply because the issue has been confused by the context of the hereditary peers. It is important to resolve that question once and for all. That is what the Bill will do.

Amendment No. 5 is designed to delay the removal of the hereditary peers until the end of the current Parliament, and we have made it clear that it is important not to delay that long. Amendment No. 6 is presumably intended to be consequential on it, but it could have separate effects. It is designed to prevent the cancellation of existing writs of summons, which run the length of the Parliament.

Amendment No. 6 would import uncertainty to the Bill because it is not certain that without the provision peers would still be able to claim that their writs entitled them to a seat. There is a danger that it would operate separately, in that if amendment No. 5 were to be rejected and No. 6 accepted, a peer would have the right both to sit and vote in the House of Lords and to seek election to the House of Commons. I assume that those who tabled the amendment did not intend that.

New clause 1 would provide for the Act to lapse automatically at the end of the Parliament in which it is passed. In that case, unless further legislation had been passed in the meantime, the House of Lords as it is today would be recreated, and hereditary peers would once again become Members of the House of Lords. There are various objections to that. It would promote considerable

3 Mar 1999 : Column 1144

uncertainty, but above all else the new clause is unacceptable because it would give those opposed to reform an incentive to delay the second stage and restore the status quo ante. We cannot support that and I doubt, in reality, that it can really be the Conservative party's intention.

New clause 2 would provide for the Act to lapse automatically two years after the proposed Joint Committee reported on the outcome of the royal commission's work. Again, unless further legislation had been passed in the meantime, that would mean that the House of Lords would be recreated. Hereditary peers would become eligible for membership of the House of Lords, but would lose their right to vote or stand in parliamentary elections, although in the mean time they could quite legitimately have been entered on the register of electors.

If the trigger point fell just before the next general election--possibly during the campaign--the effect on those hereditary peers who had been selected as parliamentary candidates would be far from clear. If it fell in the middle of a parliamentary Session, the effect on legislation already before the House of Lords is also not clear. The Bill provides for its coming into force after the end of the Session, precisely to avoid such problems. New clause 2 is confused and should be rejected, if for no other reason than that it is legally and politically uncertain in its effects.

New clause 13 provides that the Act will lapse and the provisions of the Peerage Act 1963 will be reinstated if a further Act has not been passed in this Parliament dealing with the composition of the House of Lords. Again, it is far from clear, because it does not define precisely what the trigger Bill might be. For example, would a Bill amending the Life Peerages Act 1958 so as to allow for a retirement age or a disclaimer of titles count? Such uncertainty is obviously unsatisfactory, and the new clause should not be accepted.

New clause 18 would provide for the Act to lapse three years after Royal Assent. The Bill provides for its substantive provisions to come into force at the end of the Session in which it is passed. That is precisely to avoid problems with legislation caught in mid-Session. The new clause would not avoid that danger and the Act could well come into effect in July or October 2002, right in the middle of a parliamentary Session, once again producing considerable uncertainty as to its effects.

New clause 10 was briefly mentioned in today's debate. It would add nothing to the Government's existing commitment to progressing further with Lords reforms. It would have no legal effect and there is no good reason why the statute book should be cluttered up with extra material of no consequence. On that basis, it should not form part of the Bill.

I repeat what I said at the outset: the Government are committed to stage 1 and to stage 2. If we do not definitively settle the question of the hereditary peers, we present ourselves with an obstacle to sensible debate and long-term reform. We have one party with a large vested interest in the status quo, and the very presence of the hereditary peers increases the temptation to look for difficulties, not solutions, in the reform of the House of Lords. The two-stage process is entirely consistent with

3 Mar 1999 : Column 1145

British traditions of proceeding by evolution rather than by way of dramatic change.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 125, Noes 322.

Next Section

IndexHome Page