|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The White Paper invited views on its proposals and, on some questions, it set out options for discussion. However, there are two points on which the White Paper is robust and on which the Government will not compromise.
The first is that the hereditary principle has no place in a modern Parliament. In the last Parliament, the Government took the historic step of breaking the dominance of the hereditary vote in the House of Lords. However, there remain 92 hereditary peers. We are the only Parliament in Europe which still permits members of the legislature to vote on the laws of the nation on no other basis than that of privilege of birth. The White Paper finally severs the link between the hereditary peerage and a seat in the House of Lords.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Given the vehemence of the right hon. Gentleman's statement about the hereditary peers and the support that he has from his colleagues, will he therefore guarantee that there will be a Bill on the reform of the House of Lords during this Parliament, and that under no circumstances will he allow the hereditaries to remain beyond this Parliament?
Mr. Cook: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is indeed our intention to make sure that a Bill is brought before the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the course of this Parliament. That, after all, is the whole point of this debateto establish the weight of gravity that will enable us to bring forward such a Bill.
Mr. Cook: I will address the question of a wholly elected second Chamber in the course of my remarks. I have grave concerns about a wholly elected second Chamber for reasons that I shall put before the House. On the broad principle, of course we will listen to what is said during the consultation period. In the period of reflection that will follow, we will see where we can find the centre of gravity in order to move forward with reform.
The second core principle of the White Paper is that the second Chamber of Parliament must reflect the broad political balance in the country. The Conservative party remains the largest single party in the House of Lords, despite successive record defeats in general elections. I hope that, even among the Conservative party, this debate will establish that there is a consensus that a modern second Chamber must more fairly represent the balance of how Britain votes.
That is why the White Paper proposes a new statutory appointments commission that will determine independently the proportion of political appointments to the Lords in line with the distribution of votes for the parties cast at the previous general election. 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 their political patronage to guarantee themselves a secure majority in the House of Lords, as the Conservative party did throughout its 18 years in office.
Indeed, given the distribution of votes in general elections, never again will any one party hold an outright majority in the second Chamber. That will make it a real check and balance on the majority in the Commons, which it was not during those 18 years of a Conservative majority in both the Commons and the Lords.
Mr. Howarth: I am most grateful. If the Leader of the House wants the other place to be an effective check on this place, why has it proved necessary for the Prime Minister to appoint so many people of his own persuasion to enter that place, thereby reducing significantly its capacity to act as a check on this House?
Mr. Cook: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to respond to that misconception. Throughout the Conservative years, there were two Conservatives to every Labour person appointed to the other place. Throughout the years since 1997, we have
Mr. Tyrie: If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the facts he will find that, until last year, it was not the case that only a minority of Labour peers were appointed. This Prime Minister was the first ever to appoint a majority from his own side in his first three years in office. Secondly, the main reason why such a small number of Labour life peers were appointed during the 1980s was that Labour refused to nominate any.
Mr. Cook: I assure the hon. Gentleman that he is wrong on that last point. However, he has confirmed that over the four and a half years of this Labour Government we have appointed only a minority of Labour peers. We still do not have the majority that he attributes to us in the House of Lords. We are still only the second largest party there. I very much doubt whether Baroness Thatcher would have tolerated for four and a half years her party, through appointment, being only the second largest in that Chamber.
I said that I was confident of a welcome for the two core principles. Of course, I recognise that not all Members who support reform and those principles of the White Paper will necessarily support all the solutions by which it achieves those principles. What is now urgent is to find the package that would establish the greatest consensus among those Members of Parliament and the public.
The sole reason why Westminster has entered the 21st century still dignified by the presence of hereditary peers is that those who wanted reform could never agree on what to put in its place. I have heard many references in the past 48 hours to the alliance in the 1966 Parliament between Michael Foot and Enoch Powell to halt the proposals for reform. One of them wanted more reform and the other wanted no reform. Between them, they stopped any reform for 30 years. We must not let history repeat itself. The year 1911 is so long ago that many Members may have forgotten the preamble to the first Parliament Act
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Does my right hon. Friend envisage that the Bill that will be introduced will provide a permanent solution to the reform of the House of Lords, or will it be an interim stage towards yet further reforms in the years ahead?
Mr. Cook: I personally do not see much point in our introducing a Bill if it does not stand a reasonable test of time. However, no Bill introduced on any subject or any issue of public debate can necessarily be the last word. It is in the character of Parliament that we evolve over the decades and centuries. What is important is that we achieve the right balance between a Bill that pretends to be the ultimate statement and a Bill that will nevertheless stand for a reasonable period and achieve progress that those who back it regard as worth while and worth the effort.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Does the Leader of the House agree that any Bill must clearly state the ultimate aim of proportional representation for the House of Lords but also allow for a transitional phase to enable us to see how those proportions will be achieved over time?
Mr. Cook: Obviously, any Bill that is presented must in its legal text seek to give effect to its purpose but, having studied the matter over the past six months, I see no way in which reform can be achieved without a transitional period. That is not to say that the Bill should not in itself state what will be the situation at the end of that transitional period.
I was saying that although there is support for the principles, we must ensure that we find sufficient agreement on one alternative to make progress. I would therefore ask those who have come to the Chamber not to praise the Government's package but to bury it at least to be clear in their mind about the alternative that they would put in its place. That applies particularly to the official Opposition.
This morning[Interruption.] Conservative Members are pointing at us, but in these circumstances there is comfort in numbers. This morning I read in my Daily Telegraph that last night the shadow Cabinet decided on a policy. I would ask the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth): do tell. Let us know the new policy. For a century the Conservative party has championed the hereditary principle. In their time in government, the Conservatives never once proposed that there should be a single elected Member of the House of Lords. [Interruption.] Indeed, I see that some of them are still not up on the new policy agreed last night. In the last Parliament, they sacked Lord Cranborne for pulling the
I recognise that the question of composition is the issue on which there has been most debate on the White Paper. Before I address that question, we should first be clear about what we see as the functions of a second Chamber. We cannot decide on the composition of a second Chamber unless we first decide what is its function.
The Government's view is that the second Chamber should remain a Chamber of revision of legislation, of scrutiny of Government decisions, and of deliberation on public policy. It should have the capacity to recommend policy and it should have the power to delay legislation that requires second thoughts, but it should not have the right to compel the Commons to change the view of its elected majority.
If the second Chamber is to discharge those functions in the public interest, it is essential that it should contain some members elected by the public. That is why the White Paper proposes for the first time that there should be members directly elected by the public to the second Chamber.
That principle of direct elections to the second Chamber has been broadly welcomed. The precise proportion proposed by the White Paper of those to be directly elected has not enjoyed quite such a welcome. That will be one of the issues on which the Government will need to reflect in light of the views expressed in this debate and in the country.
However, I would place firmly on the record my anxiety about a wholly elected second Chamber. I have served three decades in the House of Commons and I do not wish to see the supremacy of this place undermined. The White Paper starts from the principle that the House of Commons will remain the pre-eminent Chamber. It will retain the right to the final decision on whether legislation can become law and it will retain the sole right to decide legislation on taxation. The right to form a Government of the United Kingdom will depend on whether the Government can command a majority in the House of Commons alone.