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House of Lords Reform

3.31 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): With permission, I shall make a statement on further reform of the House of Lords.

In the previous Parliament we began to reform the House of Lords with an historic step that ended the dominant vote of hereditary peers. I freely acknowledge the generous help of Viscount Cranborne in making that step easier. However, we were always clear that that step was only the first phase of reform. There remains much more that requires reform.

There remain 92 hereditary peers, and there is no place in Parliament for those who owe their presence there solely to privilege of birth. The largest single party in the House of Lords has twice been voted into opposition in the House of Commons, and the second Chamber should more fairly represent how Britain votes. No Member of the House of Lords has been elected by the public to represent them there.

Today the Government launch the second phase of reform of the House of Lords with the publication of a White Paper, "The House of Lords—Completing the Reform", copies of which are available in the Vote Office. We ask for comments on all or any of the proposals, especially the overall composition of the new House of Lords, by the end of January.

At the outset, I recognise the major contribution of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor in overseeing today's White Paper. It builds on the report of the Wakeham Commission, and its central principle is that reform of the House of Lords should preserve the present balance of power between the two Chambers. We do not need a second Chamber that merely mirrors the House of Commons; nor do we want a House of Lords that could challenge the right of this House to be the representative body of the British people.

The House of Commons will remain the pre-eminent Chamber, with the sole right to pass legislation on taxation and the final right to decide on all other legislation. The right to form a Government of the United Kingdom will continue to depend on whether that Government can command a majority in the House of Commons.

The House of Lords will remain a Chamber of revision, of scrutiny and of deliberation. It will retain the power to delay, but not to block, Government legislation. It should continue to be bound by the convention that it does not oppose the Government on a manifesto commitment for which the party in office has an election mandate. Its powers over secondary legislation will be changed from one of veto to one of delay to put that on the same footing as primary legislation.

The Government accept the conclusion of the Wakeham Commission that our two objectives of promoting reform of the House of Lords while preserving the pre-eminence of the House of Commons will be best achieved by a mixed membership of elected and appointed Members of the second Chamber. The White Paper invites comments on the overall balance between independent Members, elected Members and appointed party Members.

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The retention of independent Members who can speak from a range of expertise and authority is important if the House of Lords is to continue its distinctive contribution to national debate. We therefore propose to put on a statutory basis an Appointments Commission to nominate independent Members, who will constitute a fifth of the reformed Chamber.

The Appointments Commission will be independent of Government and accountable to Parliament, not to Ministers. It will be under a statutory duty to ensure that all new appointments contain a minimum of 30 per cent. of both women and men and a fair representation of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom and its ethnic communities. Those requirements will also apply to all future party nominations. This will ensure a second Chamber that is representative of United Kingdom society as it is today, not as it was yesterday.

The Wakeham Commission recommended that there should be elected Members to provide a direct voice for the nations and regions of the United Kingdom in the House of Lords. A majority of the royal commission supported option B, which provided for 87 elected Members. The White Paper proposes that that number be increased to 120. This is the first time that any Government have made proposals for the introduction of elected Members to the second Chamber.

The White Paper invites views on whether the elected Members should be returned on polling day for the European Parliament, on general election day or on polling day for the devolved and regional bodies in those parts of the United Kingdom where they are established.

The Government believe that the proportion of appointed party Members should broadly match the distribution of votes between the parties at the most recent general election. We will empower the Appointments Commission to validate those proportions independently. That will remove from the Government of the day the right to determine for themselves the political balance of new appointments. Never again will it be possible for a Government to use political appointments to give themselves a secure majority in the House of Lords, as the Conservative party did throughout the 1980s and 1990s, nor will a Government ever again be able to dominate voting in the second Chamber.

Our proposals for independent Members chosen by an Appointments Commission and for elected Members returned by proportional representation will guarantee that no party, including a sitting Government, will ever have a majority of the votes in the new second Chamber. That will ensure that the reformed Chamber will be a more effective check and balance on the Government than was possible during the years that the Conservative party was in government.

All new appointed Members will be appointed for a fixed term. That will end the practice of someone being appointed to Parliament for life. The royal commission recommended that the term of appointment be 15 years. That would be a long period—longer than for any other public appointment in the UK. The White Paper therefore invites comments on whether the term of appointment to the reformed Chamber should be 15, five or 10 years. No new Member of the reformed second Chamber will become a member of the peerage by virtue of their membership. The link between a title and a seat in Parliament will finally be severed.

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We propose that the reformed Chamber be capped at 600 Members, after a transitional period of 10 years. In line with the conclusion of the Wakeham Commission, we propose to reduce the number of bishops sitting in the House of Lords from 26 to 16. The Law Lords will continue to be Members of the Chamber.

The White Paper invites comments on two other issues. First, we invite views on whether to retain the present system of daily expenses for Members of the House of Lords or to move to a more formal system of payment in view of the new requirement for elected Members from all parts of the UK. Secondly, we invite views on the circumstances in which a Member should be removed from membership of the second Chamber, such as the expulsion of any Member sentenced to imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.

"Completing the Reform" contains the Government's proposals for a House of Lords for the future, but Parliament belongs to the British people. It is right that we should now consult the British people on the design of the second Chamber of their Parliament.

Those proposals will produce far-reaching reform of the House of Lords. They will remove the last of the hereditary peers from Parliament. They will introduce the first ever elected Members to the House of Lords. They will put the appointment of independent Members outside political patronage. They will ensure that the British electorate voting in a general election, not the Government of the day, decide the proportions in which party appointments are made. They will give Britain a modern second Chamber, which will be able to complement the Commons, but unable to compete with it for power. I commend them to the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I thank the Leader of the House for letting me have an advance copy of the statement and the White Paper.

The Leader of the House has recently been posturing, not least in the press, as a democrat and a great parliamentary reformer. That leads immediately to the question whether he is content with the 20 per cent. elected element in the proposals that he has put before the House. When the hereditary peers were eliminated we were told that they were an affront to democracy, so the question arises as to whether the Leader of the House and the Government are content that their proposed format for the upper House is any less of an affront.

Is the statement exactly the same as the one being given in another place? It would be instructive to know of any variation. Is the statement the work of the autocrat at the other end of the building, the Lord Chancellor, or the democrat and reformer, the Leader of the House? It strikes me that the White Paper comes as neither one thing nor another—it is a fudge.

The Government have generously—not—allowed us until 31 January 2002 for consultation on this very complex and important matter. Does the Leader of the House seriously suggest that from now until the end of January gives sufficient time for all the varied and legitimate interests to make their considered views known to the Government? That is surely an insult and an absurdity.

In that context, what happened to the Joint Committee of both Houses that was supposed to consider these matters? We have heard nothing of it today, and I am not

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surprised. The Government made a commitment to it in July 2000; they renewed that commitment in March 2001, but it has now been quietly dropped. Why? Surely the answer is that the abbreviated and truncated period of so-called consultation is presumably designed to replace an approach by a Joint Committee that would at least allow the possibility of cross-party agreement, which the Government have always said that they want to achieve. Indeed, they repeat that in the White Paper.

What support does the Leader of the House think his proposals will attract in the parliamentary Labour party? He will no doubt be aware, as we all are, of early-day motion 226, which at the last count had 149 signatures, most from Members of his party. They seem to want a wholly, or at least largely, elected upper House. How will he satisfy his parliamentary colleagues with the contents of the White Paper? I think that we should know.

The Government suggest an upper House with an eventual limit of 600, with 120 elected and 120 Cross Benchers plus the Law Lords and the bishops. That leaves about 300 others, although currently there are about 560 in the remaining category. That leads to an interesting question, which I do not think is answered in the White Paper: when the 600 limit is finally implemented, will new Members be appointed only on the demise of existing Members? That will obviously have an important effect on all the mechanisms outlined in the White Paper.

The White Paper suggests at one and the same time that there will be 600 Members, that that total will come into force after 10 years, that during the 10-year transition period there will be a maximum of 750 Members and that there must always be a lead for the governing party over the main opposition party in membership of the upper House, although current life peers will retain their membership for life. However, there could easily be at least two general elections during the 10-year transition period. The White Paper also asserts that the potential membership must reflect party balance at each previous election.

For the life of me, I cannot see—perhaps the Leader of the House will explain—how on earth one can fulfil all those requirements without them conflicting and undermining one another. They strike me as completely and utterly inconsistent.

The Leader of the House made great play of the Appointments Commission and the key role that it will play in the process, but how will the initial Appointments Commission be appointed? Will it be appointed by the House of Lords as currently constituted? Will that be done by a motion of that House? Will that House be able to vote on or amend that motion? Even if one were to accept the intention to create the permanent Appointments Commission, of which great play is made in the White Paper, if not the reality of that—a great deal of further scrutiny is required—the initial Appointments Commission will be crucial and we must know more about it.

A minor question that arises from page 25 of the White Paper is the intriguing statement that

The mind boggles as to what the rest will be, but I am sure that the Leader of the House will be able to satisfy us on that matter with his usual facility.

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We would not have started where the Government started in this process—that is clear. We thought phase 1 ill-conceived, but we gave the Government the benefit of the doubt and believed that phase 2 would be taken seriously and done properly. We all share an interest in having the most effective upper House possible, but what has been proposed today falls far short of that. It satisfies no criteria that even the Government set out. It satisfies few criteria set out by the Wakeham Commission. All in all, it is an enormous disappointment.

There is a danger that the proposal will provide a fig leaf of democracy over what continues to be a largely unrepresentative appointed body. At worst, we shall have a continuation and indeed an institutionalisation of Tony's cronies. The Government should either withdraw the White Paper or at the very least refer it to a Joint Committee of both Houses, which was always intended to be the vehicle by which this reform would proceed.

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