Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Patrick Cormack: For clarity, will my right hon. Friend say whether he believes, as he did a year or so ago, that we should have an American-style system, with a directly elected Senate-type Chamber? He argued passionately for that before.

Mr. Forth: I believe what the shadow Cabinet believes. If I did not, I would not last long in it. My thought process, as my hon. Friend knows, is legendarily dynamic. I am capable of making infinite adjustments to my view on this and other matters.

The White Paper asserts in paragraph 40 that a mainly elected chamber would mean that

and we would

But I notice that the Leader of the House, picking his words carefully as he always does, referred throughout his contribution only to a wholly elected Chamber.

To my recollection, the right hon. Gentleman did not address the argument about a substantially elected Chamber, which could include a significant number of independent and appointed Members, so he failed to address, as did the White Paper, what is probably the preferred option of the majority of people. Very few

10 Jan 2002 : Column 717

people are saying that the upper House should be elected on the same basis as the lower House, and very few would deny that a substantially elected House could contain a significant number of independent Members, thus answering the point that the Leader made.

It is when we turn to the White Paper's proposals on composition, however, that we see the real absurdity, because it tries to say that there will be a limited or capped membership that will be largely nominated, which, as I said earlier, must surely be an affront to democracy in the sense in which the Prime Minister and others have referred to it over the years, but at the same time, by some process that I cannot for the life of me understand, there will be representation of political parties reflecting the votes cast in the preceding general election. I cannot see how those elements can be squared.

The White Paper goes on to talk, in a sinister way, about regional elections on the same proportional system as is used for the European Parliament. Oh, dear. If that means closed lists, then we are back, effectively, to nominations through another route. How are we to square the inherently contradictory and conflicting principles of a limited membership and a membership that reflects the result of each general election? How on earth could a House whose membership is largely nominated but fixed reflect a change as dramatic as the one that occurred in 1997? In 1974, we had two elections in quick succession, in February and October. How could the upper House reflect that degree of alteration in its composition?

The Government's most difficult task, however, is to solve the problem of transition—the polite name for the question of how we deal with the lifers while introducing the Government's proposals. In a rare moment of realism, the White Paper says:

It goes on to offer, as an alleged solution,

Anyone who listened to the debate in the other place, as I did, and read the account of it, as Members here have, will agree that it is unlikely that Members of another place will be persuaded, even by the charm of the Leader of the House, formally to retire from the upper House before their life term naturally expires. That is one of the great difficulties inherent in the White Paper's proposals.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a solution would be for life peers to vote themselves out, just as hereditary peers had to do?

Mr. Forth: That is a positive, interesting proposal, which will have to be considered. I am sure that the Leader of the House will want to pursue it.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of composition, will he reflect on the following point? As I understand it, he is a substantial man, but not a total man. We all understand the rush of blood to the head that we get when we have the legitimacy granted by the electorate and the problems that it would cause in the House of Lords. Under these principles, some Members of the Lords will suffer

10 Jan 2002 : Column 718

from those urges, and some will not. We are to have two species of Member, one superior to the other. Are the appointed Members to act as a brake on those who have urges inflicted on them by the electorate?

Mr. Forth: That is a fair question. It will depend very much on the length of the term served by elected and appointed Members in a hybrid House, which will affect considerably their attitude towards each other. It is a legitimate question, and there are answers to it, but it remains to be seen whether different sorts of Members in a hybrid House will manage to find accommodation with each other, and it will depend on the length of term, electoral cycles and the like. Whether the appointed will envy the elected or vice versa is an interesting question to which I cannot give a ready answer.

We still believe that the way forward is to have a joint Committee of both Houses consider the matter, to see whether we can expand the common ground that undoubtedly exists and build on the contents of the early-day motion, on what has been said in another place and on what we will hear in this debate. We want to make a genuine attempt not only to find a means of having an effective, reformed upper House but seriously to consider the role that the Commons plays in the parliamentary context. Let us not imagine that that can be done by focusing on the nature, composition and powers of the upper House without looking equally seriously at the role of this House, its relationship to the Government of the day and the dynamic that is created by one Chamber of the legislature producing the Executive and the Executive being part of it.

Until we deliberate on all those factors together, it will be very difficult for the Government to find a way forward. We make a genuine offer. We would want to play a positive role in a joint Committee. We urge it to be set up because we fear that the White Paper is going nowhere. I do not want the Government to use the fact that their White Paper has so little support as an excuse to shelve any further reform of the upper House. That cannot be allowed to happen, and I ask the Leader of the House to give serious consideration to a joint Committee.

2.57 pm

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury): Let us remind ourselves what, at heart, this debate is about and why it is important. It is about power and the nature of that power, how it is exercised, who determines who wields it and how the people of this country are involved in that process. Surely, what we are seeking to achieve is greater democratic and representative legitimacy in the way legislation is framed and passed and the way the Government are held to account. That must be the test of any proposals. I am afraid that I do not believe that the Government's present proposals pass that test. Quite simply, the Government have not got it right.

There are some things on which virtually all of us can agree. First, there is no place for the hereditary principle in the legislative process. It must go. Secondly, I believe that the primacy of the Commons must be clearly established and confirmed. There can be no substitute for the direct relationship between MPs and their constituents. There is an important objective in avoiding legislative gridlock. Of course the Opposition like the idea of gridlock—it is a recipe for permanent Conservative bias in the system—but effective government requires that we seek to avoid, as far as possible, the prospect of gridlock.

10 Jan 2002 : Column 719

Thirdly, there ought to be a second Chamber. The Commons does not always get everything 100 per cent. right. Fourthly, the powers of the second Chamber should be broadly similar to those at present: to revise, to advise and to hold to account, but not to overturn or override the main thrust of legislation. Let us not forget that the other place has considerable powers. For example, to my grief over many years, its Members have caused enormous damage to our lesbian and gay citizens. I do not wish to remove those powers from it, but it is important to maintain its revising role, rather than a principal role of initiating and passing legislation. Finally, it makes sense to divorce the honour of a peerage from membership of a legislative assembly.

There is broad agreement on both sides of the House on all those points. Beyond that, we enter more difficult territory, but that should not deter us from making the attempt. There will be a multitude of proposals on how to proceed, but the worst thing would be for us to do nothing as a result. We should have a genuine debate about how to achieve better democratic legitimacy without sacrificing the important principle of the supremacy of the Commons.

I shall offer some basic principles for consideration. Any new Chamber needs to be substantially elected. In my book, "substantially" means at least 50 per cent; 20 per cent. will not do. Surely there is also a need for representatives to be sought from regional assemblies, national Parliaments and assemblies and local government. Their appointment or nomination should not be made by party leaders, but should come directly from local or regional bodies. Is there not also scope for seeking representatives who are drawn directly from other parts of society—business, trade unions, voluntary and charitable sectors and faith communities? In that context, we should end the unjustified automatic inclusion of a number of Church of England bishops. We should divorce the judicial system from the legislature, establish a separate highest court and end the automatic inclusion of judges. We should aim at a much smaller overall membership of the second Chamber. There is talk of 750 Members as a transitional figure, and 600 Members as a final total; but those figures are far too high.

One problem that the Government have brought upon themselves has arisen from the fact that they started from the status quo, which they tried to push, pull and squeeze in a more rational direction, rather than starting with a set of principles and working from that point. We should not let the present composition and nature of the House of Lords dictate what happens in the long term. Of course, getting consensus will not be easy and there will be different options to consider. However, the present set of proposals is not the right starting point. I urge my colleagues in government, with understanding and respect, to make another start on their proposals.

Next Section

IndexHome Page