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Several hon. Members rose--

9.21 pm

The Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): This has inevitably been a wide-ranging debate. It is not surprising that it sometimes strayed from the contents of the Bill, given the importance of the issues. The Bill's provisions are clear, simple and straightforward. They are--perhaps surprisingly, given the sound and fury of earlier stages--now relatively uncontentious. I say "now", because the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) accepted that there will be no permanent place for hereditary peers, whichever party wins the next general election. I do not

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understand why, having made that considerable concession, the Conservatives intend to continue to oppose the Bill. They have, in the short time since the general election, abandoned a fundamental principle on which they were each elected.

The Conservative manifesto made it clear that Conservatives see no need to reform the House of Lords and it contained no proposals to do so. It is now clear that, one by one, Conservative Members are ripping up the manifesto on which they were elected, presumably in order to find a new manifesto in time for the next general election.

As my right hon. Friend the President of the Council pointed out, notwithstanding the fact that we have reached the conclusion of the first main stage of proceedings on the Bill, we still do not have any clearer an understanding of the Opposition's position on the question of House of Lords reform. We know what the Conservatives are against, although it seems to be limited only to the contents of the Bill and--it would seem--any Bill that would deal with House of Lords reform in separate, discreet stages.

Dr. Ladyman: I must disagree slightly with my hon. Friend. He suggests that Opposition Members have dropped their support for the hereditary principle, but I have not detected that happening. Only a few moments ago, we heard a speech from the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) who clearly said that he was still in favour of the hereditary principle.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend may have missed the significant speech in which the hon. Member for Woodspring said that, in the highly unlikely event of the Conservatives winning the next general election, they would not seek to restore the hereditary element to a second Chamber. In the light of that concession, I invite Conservative Members to consider why they continue to oppose the Bill. If that is to be their policy at the next election, we are surely assisting them by sorting out one difficulty before they prepare their proposals on what a reformed second Chamber should look like.

We have heard that the Conservative party is against the tradition of evolutionary change that is the hallmark of our constitutional arrangements. Instead, and quite inconsistent with the manifesto on which each of them was elected, Conservative Members have argued in favour of what has been described as a big bang. They have argued that all House of Lords issues--composition and powers--should be resolved at the same time in a single stage, however complicated the process.

I observed previously that a Conservative Government carried through the Life Peerages Act 1958, a single-stage reform that, according to Conservative Ministers of the day, significantly altered the composition of the House of Lords, improving its efficiency and operation. They argued precisely the virtues of single-stage reform to improve the operation of the second Chamber, just as we are arguing the same today to justify our reform of the second Chamber.

Mr. Tyrie: Is the Minister aware that when the Conservatives tried to introduce life peerages in 1958,

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the Labour party opposed the Bill on Second Reading, and that Gaitskell made an impassioned speech against the proposals?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The Labour party opposed that Act, arguing that there should be more fundamental review of the House of Lords.

Mr. Tyrie: That is exactly what we are arguing. We do not want a half-way House. We want to go the full hog, just as the Labour party did in 1958. Allusions to 1958 do nothing for the Minister's case.

Mr. Hoon: The difference is, of course, that the Labour party lost the argument in 1958. The reform provided by the Life Peerages Act 1958 was a successful single-stage reform of the operation of the second Chamber. History has proved that the Labour party was wrong and Conservative Ministers were right in 1958.

Mr. Fisher: My hon. Friend is beginning to worry me. Is he saying that the Government intend to stop at single-stage reform? The White Paper--and all that I have heard from my right hon. Friend the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons--gave an absolute and clear commitment to a second stage, presaged by the royal commission. Will my hon. Friend confirm that there will be a second stage?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, because I would not want to give him or anyone else the impression that the Government were not committed to the second stage. I shall deal with that commitment in a few moments.

Dr. George Turner: Does my hon. Friend accept that we will not know what the Conservative party and many Members of the House of Lords really think until the Bill is enacted? The argument over the Bill has been bedevilled by bluff and double bluff, by arguments designed to raise cohorts of opposition rather than to get down to the nitty gritty of what we really want. The advantage of proceeding as the Government are is that there might be an honest debate in the country once the Bill is an Act.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend anticipates my argument. By proceeding as we are, and by demonstrating our commitment to the first stage, we have opened up a serious debate about the second stage of reform. That would not have been possible but for our determined commitment to carry through stage 1, which has been advantageous to all those who take seriously the reform of the second Chamber.

We have not been told precisely what reform Conservative Members favour; no doubt, in due course, we shall hear their proposals. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made more eloquently than I can the observation, which I paraphrase, that the Conservatives' position is essentially, "Make me virtuous, but not yet." That appears to characterise their attitude toward reform of the House of Lords. From their opposition to change, we can conclude that they are at least being consistent--consistently conservative and, like all conservatives,

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arguing that change is difficult, dangerous and will inevitably open the floodgates. Woodrow Wilson defined conservatism. He said:

    "make no change and consult your grandmother when in doubt".

Whenever I hear the hon. Member for Woodspring talk about constitutional reform, I am sure that he has consulted an ancestor before speaking, but that attitude has characterised the approach taken by all Conservative Members' towards each of the important constitutional changes that the reforming Labour Government have introduced.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made the point, echoed by others, that the Conservatives' opposition to the Bill is a smokescreen for their determination to do nothing, to preserve the hereditary element by default and to ensure that there can be no change at all because of the complexity of sorting out both composition and functions in a single stage. That complexity has repeatedly frustrated reform in the past. When we discuss the composition of the House of Lords, as the Bill enables us to do, Conservative Members furiously debate the question of functions, so it is likely that if we were to set out proposals on functions, they would get extremely anxious about composition.

My suspicion and cynicism have been confirmed this evening by my taking a look at the manifesto on which Conservative Members were elected. It contained no reference to any intention to reform the House of Lords; indeed, there was a clear commitment to retain the hereditary element in the legislature. It was an attempt to satisfy the electorate that the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom were quite satisfactory. The hon. Member for Woodspring has started a process of abandoning those commitments, but it has taken him some time to do so.

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend is on the subject of the Conservative manifesto, but I wonder whether the Conservative canvassers guide for the last election has been brought to his attention. In that document, Conservative canvassers were instructed to argue on the doorsteps in favour of the hereditary principle.

Mr. Hoon: Entirely by coincidence, I have a copy of that document here. It states:

As I said, the hon. Member for Woodspring has moved a little from that position today.

Dr. Starkey: Does my hon. Friend suspect that that instruction might have been a last desperate attempt by the Conservatives to try to keep their voters with them by relying on the hereditary principle when the argument had been defeated?

Mr. Hoon: It would not have done them much good in Ashfield.

If one doubts the Conservatives' intentions, one need only examine their record of achievement between 1979 and the introduction of the Bill. Not once in that entire period has any senior Conservative Front Bencher called for fundamental reform of the House of Lords--or, indeed, for any sort of reform of the House of Lords.

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