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On the question of the consultation ending on 31 January, that date is three months away, but no one is starting out with a fresh sheet of paper as though they had only just started thinking about these matters. The debate has been going on for four years and it is three years since the royal commission was set up. By now, the Opposition should at least have some idea of what they want to say by 31 January. We are putting the White Paper out for consultation, but it would not be satisfactory for that consultation to be confined to a Joint Committee of Members of both Houses. I want to extend it to the public and want civil society, the devolved bodies and local authorities to take part.
It is important that we cap the upper House at 600; the number should not indefinitely expand with each election. The cap will impose a discipline, and we have accepted that discipline. Even though we are in our fifth year in office, we have still not matched the number of Conservative peers in the House of Lords. We have accepted that as a restraint on us and we will recognise it until we ensure that we have the numbers available in the House of Lords to be replaced by those who will provide a balance that reflects the way in which the nation voted in the general election.
I did not imagine that the right hon. Gentleman would like the reference to a minimum of 30 per cent. women and I was right, but everyone on the Labour Benches, and many on the Opposition Benches, support a statutory requirement that there should be fair play so that both genders are adequately represented in the House of Lords. If some hon. Members find that an offensive principle, I look forward to the debates in Committee.
As for the rest of what the right hon. Gentleman said, I can only say that I genuinely admire his brass neck. It is a new departure for the Conservatives to say that they want a more robust and effective Opposition in the House of Lords. In office, they so packed it with their placemen and, occasionally, placewomen that they received total support and even managed to get the poll tax through without a murmur.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, in opposition the Conservatives have resisted every Government attempt to remove the hereditary peers. They so much disliked what Viscount Cranborne did that they sacked him for it. They voted against Second Reading and Third Reading of the House of Lords Act 1999, which gave effect to reform, and the right hon. Gentleman was one of those who voted against.
In 18 years, the Conservatives never once proposed that there should be a single elected Member of the House of Lords and never once made a single proposal for reform. Now we are invited to believe that they want a more democratic House of Lords than that proposed. If that is the case, the right hon. Gentleman must answer a simple question, or perhaps one of his colleagues who takes part in these exchanges will do so: what proportion of elected Members would they support?
I know that the Conservatives find that question difficult, because we heard the Leader of the Opposition in House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, say this morning that they cannot agree on what proportion should be elected.
I tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have three months for consultation. I want to build a cross-party consensus. I look forward to discussing with the Opposition their plans for a democratic House of Lords, when they have plans to discuss. I hope that they can produce them in the next three months.
Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): I welcome the statement made by the Leader of the House. This is a very exciting day, because many of us have campaigned for such reform for years and it is wonderful to see how it is being conducted. I congratulate him on the way in which he is carrying out the consultation, because bringing the rest of the country with us and showing how we want to change the House of Lords is crucial.
May I express my astonishment at the position of the shadow Leader of the House on the 30 per cent. quota? His comments show his complete misunderstanding of equality of opportunity and gender. He does not understand the issue at all. May I ask the Leader of the House about his comment on breaking the link between being a Member of the House of Lords and a member of the peerage? Everyone will welcome that, but how does he propose to deal with the title of the House of Lords? I believe, and many people agree, that it is wrong that individuals should be called your lordship, baroness or whatever. Perhaps that is going a bit far, but should not we consider changing the title of the House of Lords? Is that part of the consultation? Are we inviting comment?
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I welcome the White Paper and the statement and thank the Leader of the House for giving us copies in advance. I particularly welcome the White Paper's emphasis on what the body should do, rather than who should do it. I shall no doubt return to that.
Does the Leader of the House accept that that is not the promise given in the 1997 manifesto and in the agreement made with the Liberal Democrats? Does he accept that the formula proposed120, less than a fifth of the total of 750 at the beginning of the processmeets neither the 1997 manifesto commitment nor that in the 2001 manifesto, on which Labour Members stood for election by the public just a few months ago? Does he subscribe to the ludicrous view, expounded this morning on the "Today" programme by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), that elections are somehow undemocratic because turnout is so low in safe seats? Does he really want to continue to appoint Archers and Ashcrofts to that body or is he prepared to accept that direct democracy is a more preferable way to ensure that the second Chamber is a true part of a parliamentary democracy?
Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept that it will be ridiculous if the parameters for consultation on the composition of the second Chamber are set just above or below 120? Surely the consultation must provide an opportunity for hon. Members on both sides of the Houseespecially, perhaps, those on the Labour Benchesto show that many of us believe that that is totally inadequate. The fact that the Conservatives cannot come up with a figure is an additional reason for the rest of us to consider establishing a more democratic House.
While accepting, as we all do, that the pre-eminence of this House is important, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the White Paper is absurdly cautious in finding ways to guarantee it? There are other options. Disentangling appointments from general elections would clearly make it much easier for this House to be demonstrably the first House.
Does the right hon. Gentleman also recognise that an element of indirect election from the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London Authority and the English regional authorities, which we hope will be created soon, would ensure greater democratic legitimacy?
In short, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, for the health of Parliament, we must go further than this timid step? Otherwise, we will have to return again and again to what is unfinished business. Does he realise that he is perpetuating instability at the heart of our parliamentary democracy by going only so far?
Mr. Cook: Let me respond first to the hon. Gentleman's specific points before concentrating on his central thesis. The Wakeham Commission took evidence on indirect elections to the House of Lords and found no enthusiasm for it, although the devolved bodies had just been set up. We refer to that in the White Paper. It is open to devolved bodies and other regional bodies to respond to the consultation. Obviously, if they are interested in pursuing that indirect route we can reflect on that when we formulate our response. It is a brute facta realitythat the great majority of England does not have a regional body or elections to such a body, which inhibits the extent to which we can go down that road.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on his central point. Although he did not use these words, in effect he wants a House of Lords that is wholly democratically elected. Many in his party would agree, and many would not. It is a legitimate view and I respect the sincerity of those who hold it, but they should be honest with themselves and the House.
I cannot conceive of a wholly elected House of Lords that would not regard itself as having a legitimacy equal to that of the House of Commons. It is impossible to think of such a Chamber accepting that it could not legislate on taxation or that it could only delay legislation, not throw it out. A significant change in the balance between the two Chambers would be involved. I do not regard my role as Leader of the House of Commons as presiding over such an historic shift in its powers.