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Mr. Peter Bradley: I am somewhat confused, because I am unsure whether the Conservative party is being

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consistent with its manifesto pledge to stick with the hereditary principle, or whether, in opposition, it is capable of breaking its promises to the electorate. Can my hon. Friend enlighten me?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The debate is on Third Reading of the Bill, not anything that is happening on the other side of the Chamber.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, it is relevant to Third Reading to consider why the Conservative party might be anxious to maintain a composition for the House of Lords that is different from the one set out in the Bill. Judging from the arguments that we have heard in the course of the proceedings, because Labour Governments have suffered consistently at the hands of a Tory-dominated second Chamber, Conservative Members might be content to preserve the rights of hereditary peers precisely because, having lost an election, they want to retain their rather tenuous grip on some remaining legislative power.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South): If Conservative Members are advancing that argument, Conservative peers certainly are not. As evidenced by not just the arguments on this side of the House but the lack of arguments on the other side and the failure to defend what was accepted along the corridor, surely it is Conservative Members who are out of step. Indeed, Conservative peers--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We have heard quite enough about that issue.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, but I will not risk your further wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The point that I was setting out was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) who pointed out that, in the short time since the 1997 general election, the Labour Government have been defeated 33 times in the House of Lords. That point was developed further by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West.

Dr. George Turner: Can my hon. Friend think of any example when a Conservative Government were defeated only by the votes of hereditary peers? Conservative Governments have suffered a modicum of defeats in the other place but, on every occasion that I can recall from my interest in politics, they were defeated also by the Cross Benchers.

Mr. Hoon: I certainly cannot recall any such occasion.

Mr. Gerald Howarth rose--

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) rose--

Mr. Hoon: I see that I am about to get some help.

Mr. Garnier: I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) was about to cite an example that even the Minister will remember: the War Crimes Bill.

Mr. Hoon: The essential question that we are debating is whether the Government are right to make the reforms

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in two separate stages. The Government firmly believe the answer is an emphatic yes, and there are several reasons for that.

Dr. Ladyman: Before my hon. Friend continues, he should refer to the occasion when hereditary peers in the other place kept one of the Conservative Government's Bills going. Hundreds of hereditary peers were bussed in to support the Maastricht treaty and force through a Bill that Conservative Members now say was completely wrong.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Ever since the passage of that legislation, many Conservative Members have complained about the fact that it was passed at all.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, South): Is it not interesting that the only example the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) could give of the other place's defeating the previous Government involved the War Crimes Bill, which the vast majority of Labour Members believed was absolutely essential? We have no apologies to make about it.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's observation.

There are clear reasons why the Government are right to proceed in two stages. Arguably, the least important reason is that it was a clear manifesto commitment. However, the Opposition must not ignore the fact that that commitment was carefully drawn, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) pointed out in his typically elegant contribution. Conservative Members should be cautious about the consequences of claiming too stridently that that is irrelevant. They should bear in mind also the thoughtful words of the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan).

The commitment appeared in the manifesto in a particular form for several very good reasons. First, the hereditary membership of Parliament is, in principle, wrong. We are not debating the monarchy or the inheritance of a family home: we are discussing the power to make laws by which the rest of the country is required to live. The social and economic conditions that might once have been said to justify the hereditary element in the legislature have long since passed into history. Even in the heyday of the hereditary peerage, many of the most distinguished Members of the House of Lords were the peers of first creation, not those who sat as the result of inheritance. In those days, the House of Lords constantly renewed itself by new appointments, as confirmed in the interesting historical survey made by the right hon.and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire(Sir N. Lyell) and the more entertaining survey by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton).

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because he is just getting to the point, which is that, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) said, the Bill is destructive, whatever the Minister may say. What is important is what will happen in the interim between now and the second stage. Will he say a little about the contribution that the hereditary peers

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continue to make and the plans that he and his Government have to enable them to continue to do so as long as they are not frustrated in their overall objectives?

Mr. Hoon: I shall not be tempted on to that subject, because it is not within the terms of the Bill that we are debating. In the event of such an amendment being tabled in the other place, there will clearly be opportunities for further discussion of that point.

The second argument for our proposal is that experience suggests that small evolutionary steps to reform are the way to make effective progress in changing our constitution. That is, as the Conservative party's general election manifesto indicated, completely consistent with our country's constitutional arrangements. I have previously related the comments made by Conservative Ministers in debates on the Life Peerages Act 1958 which support that view.

The House of Lords is not the same as it was in 1900. Its powers and its composition have been altered. Attempts in 1948 and 1968 further to change it foundered. Progress was made in 1949 because the then Government had a fall-back of partial reform already decided. This Government have learned those lessons of history.

There is also a practical difficulty in having any sensible debate on the future while the position of hereditary peers remains unresolved. By removing that issue, we are all forced to consider the future, instead of merely debating the past. That strategy, as I said in response to a question from one of my hon. Friends, is already working. We already now have a detailed debate about the second stage and what will happen when the Bill is passed.

It has been suggested that we do not intend to proceed with a second stage. I refute that. The royal commission has been appointed and started its work. It has been asked to report by 31 December. That is an entirely realistic timetable. We have said, moreover, that we shall use our best endeavours to ensure that Parliament has the opportunity to approve the second stage of reform by the next general election.

It has been suggested that we intend to subvert the House of Lords in the meantime. Again, I shall set out the principles on which the transitional House will operate, in particular to answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) in his opening remarks.

First, there should be broad parity between the two major parties, with appropriate and proportionate creations for the other parties and Cross Benchers. Secondly, we have made a public pledge to allow party leaders a free hand with their nominations within the previously agreed ballots. That is the first time that such a public pledge has ever been made, and we could not have expected it from the Conservative party.

Mr. Winnick: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hoon: If my hon. Friend will allow me, I must make progress.

Mr. Winnick: That's gratitude for you. [Laughter.]

Mr. Hoon: Fortunately, I did not hear that remark.

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Thirdly, there is a pledge to maintain the independent Cross-Bench presence. Those peers will be genuinely independent and can be life or hereditary peers. The Government are committed by our manifesto and White Paper to retaining that presence.

Finally, a power to recommend non-political appointments and to vet all appointments will be passed to an independent appointments commission, itself appointed under Nolan principles and subject to the jurisdiction of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. That adds up to a considerable reduction in the Prime Minister's powers of patronage. It is the first time that a Prime Minister has volunteered to reduce his patronage in that way, and I hope that that is a complete answer to the criticisms of patronage made by the hon. Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).

This Bill, despite its modest length, provides fora significant, long-overdue constitutional reform. It constitutes a vital step in modernising our Parliament, preparing it for the conditions of the 21st century. It is not simply about the legislative process and the role of a second Chamber. It is fundamentally about the rights of the British people to have the kind of government and legislation for which they vote in parliamentary elections. It is about the kind of democracy in which we live.

It is right to place on record the fact that we are grateful to those hereditary peers who have served with distinction in the House of Lords. The more thoughtful of them have known that there can be no real justification for their presence in Parliament. The time has come for them, and for the country, to move on.

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