I must correct the hon. Gentlemanthere are a number of Conservative signatories to the early-day motion. We have gone to some lengths to allow for the opinions of my parliamentary colleagues in both Houses to be expressed and to be gathered. Meetings and consultations have been held and, in whatever direction we proceed, it will be in full knowledge of the views held by my colleagues in both Houses. That is the way in which we proceed, and that is the way in which we have proceeded in this case. I hope that all my right hon. and hon. Friends will agree that they have had ample opportunity to express their views on this matter.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall):
I have read with interest the Hansard reports of the debate in the other place and I have failed so far to find any Conservative speaker who wished to have any elected element at all. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that is the case?
It is fair to say that the perspective of Members in another place is somewhat different from the perspective of colleagues in this place. That is necessarily as it should be, but we should always bear that in mind when we give great weight and consideration, as we will, to the views expressed in another place about its future.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will, but the House will want me to make progress because many Members wish to speak.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) might care to take a look at the speech of Lord Goschen and a number of other speeches made by Conservatives. They all supported the principle of election.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.
I was about to say that we agree with the sentiments expressed in 1993 in "A New Agenda for DemocracyLabour's Proposals for Constitutional Reforms". It stated:
"a second chamber is a necessary and important check on the power of the first".
However, if I am to be criticised for going too much into the pastfortunately, it is about the only thing for which I have not yet been criticisedand for selecting quotations made mysteriously before the Labour party was in government, I shall refer to the early-day motion that the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) tabled, which has attracted 177 signatures.
The early-day motion was initiated by six of the hon. Lady's colleagues in the Labour party and, by my reckoning, more than 130 Labour Members have signed it. It states:
"this House supports the democratic principle that any revised Second Chamber of Parliament should be wholly or substantially elected."
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It is in that context that we are entitled to assess the direction in which the White Paper wishes to take us.
If we take the assertions of the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor in their earlier incarnations and the contents of the early-day motion, it is true to say that the proposals in the White Paper are inadequate. I will argue that they are incoherent and lack consistency and credibility. Eight key proposals are enumerated on page 7 of the White Paper. I could probably endorse three or four of them, but by no means every one. There is some shared ground, but I fear that there are substantial differences on the essential elements, which I suspect will be reflected in the debate.
I challenge much of the analysis that underpins the Government's proposals. It is apparent from some of the statements in paragraph 16 on page 9 where their ideas start to go astray. For example:
"General Elections return individual MPs who are expected to look to the interests of their constituents irrespective of Party affiliation."
Tell that to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden); he did not seem to think that. In fact, he thought so little of it that he left the Labour party to cross the Floor of the House, as he said at the time, to have the freedom that the White Paper asserts should belong to all Members of Parliament.
How about the statement:
"The Party which secures a majority has the right to form a Government and . . . to carry through the programme set out in its election Manifesto"?
Does that mean irrespective of all changes in circumstances? Does it mean only the measures in the manifesto? Does it mean regardless of any revisions that may be made by the second Chamber, which is crucial to this debate? All those matters are important glosses on what appears on the face of it to be an unarguable statement.
It is no surprise to me that the Government wish to reassert so vigorously, as indeed the Leader of the House just did, the doctrine of the absolute primacy of the House of Commons. However, they have made the Commons their creature to an unprecedented extent, and they continue that process through the so-called modernisation procedure. A combination of the routine timetabling of Bills, deferred Divisions, the elimination of debates on money resolutions, timetable motions and so on, and the almost regular delay in answering parliamentary questions or the non-answers given to them, set in context the repeated assertion that the House of Commons must be supreme. What I suspect that really means in today's context is that the Government in the House of Commons shall be supreme. It is against that criterion that we have to measure the White Paper's contents.
That would be bad enough, but when we examine the Government's attitude to what they call the reformed second Chamber, as revealed on page 11 of the White Paper, we see that the upper House
"has the duty, and the power, to press the Government hard to justify its actions".
That is hardly an impressive endorsement of the powers of an effective upper Chamber. It goes on to state:
"The House of Lords is a powerful deliberative assembly".
That is hardly a ringing endorsement of the concept of checks and balances to which the Leader of the House claims he is so attached. The House should notice that the
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other place is referred to not as a legislative body, but as a deliberative body. That important distinction gives an important insight into the Government's real thinking.
The White Paper goes on:
"The second chamber can question and criticise individual Ministers".
Well, that is a real concessionexcept, of course, that only those Ministers who are Members of the upper House can be questioned on the Floor of that Chamber, which sets a limit on that power. It also states:
"There is no case for giving specific new functions to the House of Lords."
That is an assertion; it does not make the case. I pray in aid again what Lord Strathclyde said in yesterday's debate:
the House of Lords
"should not have its powers reduced, as the White Paper proposes. It should retain the power to reject secondary legislation; the White Paper proposes removing it. It should have more power to consider and advise on financial matters; the White Paper has nothing to say on that matter whatever. The White Paper is nothing to do with authority, with legitimacy, with democracy or even with the core proposals of the Royal Commission's report."[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 January 2002; Vol. 630, c. 569.]
There is a case for at least looking, within the context of the balance of the powers between this place and another place, at perhaps increasing the role and participation of the upper Chamber, not reducing it as proposed.
Having said that, the greatest difficulty arisesas the Leader of the House was characteristically generous enough to accepton the issue of the composition of the upper House. Hardly anyone seems to support the Government's proposal on that, except the payroll and some of the wannabes on the Labour Back Benches. Funnily enough, page 17 also contains eight pointsthe Leader of the House seems to have a thing about eight; perhaps it is his lucky number. I can agree with five of them, but that does not get the Government off the hook. The proposal for a majority of nominated Members creates the difficulties that follow in the rest of the White Paper. For example, the statement,
"It is sometimes argued that only direct election can provide legitimacy for the second chamber. This was not an argument accepted by the Commission or by the Government",
sits oddly with the repeated assertion by the Prime Minister and others, including the right hon. Gentleman today, that a hereditary element in the House of Lords is an affront to democracy. It is beyond me how the Government can go on to assert that a nominated element in the House of Lords is not an equal affront to democracy, and that has never been satisfactorily explained.
In paragraph 38, the Government argue:
"a second chamber constituted on the same elected basis as the first chamber would be superfluous and dangerous."
That may be so, but I am not aware that anyone is arguing that a second Chamber should be elected on the same basis as the House of Commons. Many people argue that the upper House could have a different electoral arrangement, different constituencies, a different electoral cycle and so on, and I suspect that we will hear those arguments today. However, the assertion in the White
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Paper does not deal with them; instead, it deals with the completely different argument, which I have heard no one make, that the upper House should be elected on the same basis as the House of Commons.
In paragraph 39, we get to our old friend, the bogey of gridlock in the case of
"A parallel elective basis of authority for two chambers with parallel functions".
The Government reinforce that with a further threat that if the second Chamber were wholly elected, but on a different system from that used for the House of Commons, the two elected Chambers
"within the Westminster system would be a recipe for gridlock and the Government therefore joins the Royal Commission in rejecting this option."
That is a familiar argument, and it is well understood here and in another place. In some ways, it is at the heart of the differences between the Government and nearly all the Opposition parties and more than 130 Labour Back Benchers.
Surely gridlock is not always a bad thing. It may sometimes provide an extra opportunity for deliberation, scrutiny and second thoughts before legislation is hurried through the parliamentary process. I freely admit that it would require a formal conciliation procedure between the two Houses if disagreement and gridlock arose, but that is not beyond the wit of man. We all know that the system has operated for nearly 200 years in the United States and in other contexts as well. That is not a final or definitive argument. Gridlock can, indeed, provide a safety measure if a party with a large majority in the House of Commons tries to force through a measure that is unpopular or unacceptable. That would apply whatever party was in government. In all those ways, the concept of gridlock is not necessarily the unacceptable or negative idea that is construed in the White Paper.