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9 pm

Mrs. Beckett: At the outset of the debate, the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said that nothing on aims divided us and that it was a matter merely of how the aims that we shared were given effect. For once, he and I are wholeheartedly in agreement.

The hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement on another matter. He kindly said that he was positive that the Government were acting in good faith. I return the compliment. I am sure that the Opposition are also acting in good faith in feeling that their amendments will improve the Bill. However, the suspicion--which is perfectly natural; I would never attack an Opposition for being suspicious of a Government's motives--with which he has viewed what the Government are doing, as well as his initial confidence in the drafting of the Opposition amendments, is misplaced.

I do not deride the hon. Gentleman for that. We have all had experience in the House of tabling an amendment, feeling confident that it was impeccably drafted and that we had foreseen all its implications, only to discover on wiser advice that that was not quite the case. We are all trying to get to the right outcome. That is a good basis on which to begin the debate.

The amendment of the hon. Member for West Dorset is intended--his remarks confirmed it--to ensure that, after the passage of the Bill, those who lose their right to sit in the House of Lords have equal treatment with other citizens. The amendment also explores the Government's intention and seeks to put that intention, as he understood it, correctly in the Bill.

I have no quarrel with the intention that lies behind the amendment--that the House should clearly understand what the Government are seeking to do. As I say, we all know that it is not easy to draft amendments that have

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exactly the effect that one desires, but I hope that I can reassure Conservative Members that the Government are genuinely seeking to do what those Members want, and that the Opposition could even withdraw their amendments.

The underlying aim of the method that the Government have chosen to give hereditary peers the same voting rights as any other citizen is to maintain the maximum amount of flexibility. That is so that nothing in the Bill inadvertently delays or impedes the granting of those rights. The last thing that the Government want is that, by trying to draft the legislation in just the right way and by placing everything in the Bill, we hold up people's right to vote or, indeed, to be candidates for election to this place. No one on either side of the Committee wishes that to happen.

Hon. Members have put great stress on amendment No. 22. It would give someone the right to be added to the electoral register. The first part of the amendment would add hereditary peers, deprived of the right to sit in the House of Lords, to, for example, the register that would run, if the Bill were to be passed at the end of the Session, from now until February 2000. It would not add them to any subsequent register. I presume that that is the aim of the second part of the amendment. That, unfortunately, as the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) wisely observed, has the inadvertent effect of also enfranchising an hereditary peer who would normally be barred on other grounds of a general application, such as age, incapacity or imprisonment or being a life peer.

It is to avoid listing grounds for disqualification and all the other territory that would be involved in getting the proposal exactly right that the Government took the path that is reflected in clause 2. I say openly to Opposition Members that we considered putting something like the amendment in the Bill. It was only the process of exploring the necessary detail so that we could be absolutely confident of getting the procedure right that persuaded the Government that it might be wiser to take the course that we are now pursuing.

Amendment No. 32 paves the way for amendment No. 33, which I fear is also defective. The power that it cites relates to clause 2, but it is not a power to give effect to the clause. I am advised that, in consequence, it would be an impediment to implementing the clause, which I am sure was not intended.

Amendment No. 34 raises the separate issue of European elections. I think that the hon. Member for West Dorset was slightly suspicious because he could not immediately see any reason why a reference to the European Parliament should be needed. He said correctly that, at present, hereditary peers have a right to vote in European elections because their disqualification relates only to voting for the Westminster Parliament, of which at present they are Members in perpetuity. It rests on that basis.

However, the reference to the European Parliament in clause 4 is intended to assist those hereditary peers who are resident overseas and to put them on exactly the same basis as any other citizens who are resident overseas, who enjoy rights to vote in European parliamentary elections on the basis of their right to vote in Westminster elections. It would be possible to address the issue by other means, but that would be more administratively tedious. It would

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duplicate another procedure and cause greater difficulties for the group involved. I repeat, we are anxious to ensure that everyone who ceases to sit as an hereditary peer has the same rights as any other citizen who is in the same circumstances. As it happens, the amendment would prevent a simple method of securing equal treatment from being implemented.

Finally, we come to amendment No. 7. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) correctly says that the amendment does not propose to change the Government's procedures as identified, but proposes an affirmative rather than a negative procedure in respect of the power to make the necessary provisions. Again, that is not the end of the world.

The Government have gone for the negative procedure to be helpful. We wish to provide maximum flexibility to give effect to these rights at the earliest possible date after Royal Assent. Hon. Members will be aware that the affirmative procedure requires an instrument to be laid while the House of Commons is sitting. None of us can predict precisely the circumstances in which all this procedure may come into effect. For example, so as to include hereditary peers in a register being prepared in, say, November, it might be to the benefit of sensible administrative practice and to the individuals involved for such an order to be made between the end of one Session and the beginning of another. That might get individuals on to the electoral register in the simplest and speediest way, in a way that might not be possible if the House of Commons happened not to be sitting.

The Government's overall approach has been taken in a wish genuinely to be helpful. This is all on the record so that right hon. and hon. Members can turn to it should they in any way be concerned that things are not working out as we hope they will. However, the power is tightly defined. There are only a limited number of ways in which it can be exercised. The fact that we are talking of a transitional power might have been overlooked. Although I understand, of course, all the anxieties about Henry VIII powers, attacks on those powers are usually based on the fear that rights will be taken away. In this case, we are proposing a transitional power which will not remove, but add to, people's rights.

The power has been described in the debate as completely open-ended, but it is not. It is a transitional power to deal with a transitional situation. I say, with great respect, that our short debate, to which hon. Members have brought ingenuity and skill, has admirably illustrated the nature and scale of the problems with which the Government were trying to deal--by retaining maximum flexibility in dealing with the matter in secondary legislation.

I assure the Committee that the only reason for the proposals and for the way in which they have been made is to create the maximum opportunity to deal with the proper concern that no one who might be removed from the House of Lords should lack the normal right of any citizen to participate in elections to this place or, should they wish to stand for election to this place, be excluded from doing so for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The right hon. Lady made a conciliatory speech, and said that she appreciated the

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sincerity, good faith and all the rest of it that lay behind the amendments. Although we are grateful for that, her argument did not sway us. It was not a powerful argument. We are considering a Bill that is paving the way for major constitutional change. There is no guarantee of how long the new House will last, or of whether it will become a permanent House or a semi-permanent House or be swept away within a year or two; we do not know. I shall not and I cannot--as I would be ruled out of order--seek to rehearse those arguments again in the debate on this group of amendments.

We are considering a major constitutional change, and the Government are taking draconian powers to themselves. I should have thought that the right hon. Lady would instinctively be against Henry VIII clauses. It is really not the way to legislate. The Government are taking more power for the Executive, and taking power away from the House.

I held out to the right hon. Lady the olive branch of amendment No. 7. I asked her whether, if the Government could not accept amendment No. 22, which we wanted them to accept, they could at least accept amendment No. 7. Had they done so, as an earnest of their good faith, we should have been moderately content. We would at least have been encouraged and have felt that they were moving in the right direction.

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