Contrary to what many people thought, to what the Prime Minister suggested yesterday in the House when he said that there were as many views on Lords reform as there were MPs, and to what the Leader of the House said today when he implied that lack of agreement might be a basis for preventing any change at all, consensus is emerging in the House on the most contentious issues. Many hon. Members have alluded to that fact, including the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and the hon. Members for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), with whom I had the pleasure in the last Parliament of jointly sponsoring an early-day motion on this issue that secured widespread support throughout the House.
What are the most contentious issues? First, do we really want a second Chamber? Secondly, what powers should it have? Thirdly, what composition is required to enable it to exercise those powers effectively? On the first issue, there used to be complete disagreement throughout the House. There were many unicameralists, but now even the unicameralists are saying that they are prepared to be realists. The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), who is no longer in his place, has made a welcome conversion to that position, and as far as I know, he was the last remaining significant unicameralist in the House. The Conservatives have always been bicameralists, and we seem now to have been joined by the whole of the Labour party. On the first fundamental issue, therefore, there is widespread agreement.
There is also widespread agreement on powers. We do not want radically to alter the existing powers. The plain fact is that the House of Lords does not feel able to use the powers that it has at present because it does not have the moral legitimacy to do so. It rarely uses the power of delay. It has used its power under the Parliament Acts only three or four times this century, and there is very little chance of its wanting to do so again on a major issue. I would like to see some of its powers increased. I would support the beefing up of the second Chamber's role as a constitutional longstop, but I would not go to the stake for that if it were the price of getting a measure through. We largely agree, therefore, that the existing powers are roughly right.
Composition is the key issue. What composition of the Lords will enable it to fulfil a bicameral role in our constitution? In the 21st century, only a House that has the legitimacy of the ballot box behind it can hope to play a meaningful role in this country. The truth is that a wholly appointed House of Lords is no more than a consultative quango. It is not a House of Parliament, and to argue that we should retain an appointed House is really an argument for a form of unicameralism. Only a largely elected House can hope to take on the Executive in this place.
That is the central flaw of Lord Wakeham's proposals. He wants an appointments commission to deal with the problem of patronage. Perhaps it would be possible to create such a body to prevent the growth of patronage, but at the very best an appointments commission would
Many hon. Members have alluded to crucial objections to the argument that I have just made. I will not rehearse all the arguments, but I will deal with two. The first is that an elected House of Lords could duplicate what goes on here, and the second is that there is a risk of gridlock. Both those arguments are largely false. There will be duplication only if the electoral system and the terms of office are the same, but nobody is suggesting that they should be. We will of course elect Members of the Lords on longer termsI favour non-renewable termsand as a result the Lords will have a fundamentally different culture. In any case, the House of Commons will remain the major source of Executive authority, as the Government are formed from its Members. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central would like to beef that up by removing Ministers from the House of Lords altogether; I support that.
The gridlock argument is also false. We have the Parliament Acts and there is no practical chance of them being removed from the statute book. We shall therefore get our way after a year at worst; this House will remain supreme. I urge people who disagree to look at the detailed argument on this set out by Lord Mackay in his report; he concluded that the gridlock argument was "a sterile debate" and I largely agree.
I have outlined quite a lot of consensus on powers, composition, functions and bicameralism. There is also growing consensus on the practical steps to take us from where we are now to where we want to be. Most Members on both sides of the House would be prepared to accept the setting up of an all-party consultative body such as those established in 1948 and 1968. In 1948, consultation led to further amendment of the Parliament Act, but in 1968 it failed. However, the Government are rejecting all possibility of a joint Committee, which I deeply regret.
Once we have thought about it a bit, most of us would be prepared to accept a long transition to a substantiallythat is the favoured word these days and I am a "substantially" manelected House of Lords. There is no need for brutal or instant expulsion of current Members. People have said that the existing members of the House of Lords will be around for a long time if we do not do something more brutal, but they probably will not. There is a low drop-out rate among life peers with an average age of 70, but if they are not replaced, they start falling off the shelf rather faster once they get to 80.
There has never been greater consensus than we have now. The majority of the Labour party, but not those on the Government Front Bench, want to go down the road of much more electionat least 50 per cent. The majority of the Conservative party want to go down the same road, but not just yet our Front-Bench Members, although I am optimistic that they will. An overwhelming majority of the wider public want to go down that road.
I am afraid that for much of the 20th century, Parliamentboth the Lords and Commonsbehaved as if it were in the 19th century. We now have a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of growing support on both sides of the House and in the country to create a second Chamber for the 21st century; let us not miss that opportunity.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I shall not use my full 10 minutes, as I know that many colleagues wish to contribute to our debate. However, there are a number of things to which I wish to draw attention.
Labour Members are being told by their own Government to support the White Paper; we are told that the Labour party supports the conclusions of the Wakeham report and will seek to implement them as effectively as possible. I do not believe that; I do not think that there is a majority in the parliamentary Labour partyI do not know, because we do not vote in the parliamentary Labour partyin favour of the Government's proposals and, indeed, those in the Wakeham report. I suspect that there is no support whatever in the wider Labour party for what is being proposed. Yesterday, however, the Lord Chancellor, opening a debate in the other place, said:
I do not think much of the Government's White Paper, and I did not think much of the Wakeham proposals either. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) said that it was a fix. We all know that what has been proposed for the other place was just a fix. The fascinating thing now is that it is all beginning to unravel. We are getting suggestions from the leadership that nothing is preserved in aspic or set in stone and that the Government are now going to listen. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that they were going to search for the centre of gravity. That is great. They should have done that searching and looked for a consensus ages ago, because a consensus does exist out there.
I want the House of Commons to retain its primacy. It is perfectly possible for it to do so, as long as the powers and functions are properly defined. That has been mentioned by colleagues in all parts of the House. Yet we get fed this stuff from the Front Bench saying that we cannot do anything too radical. I exclude the Leader of the House from that, as he is an ally. [Laughter.] I think that I have fatally wounded my right hon. Friend. Yes, I think that we need a second Chamber and I am relaxed about giving it some additional powers. I am relaxed about scrutiny of public appointments. The Liberal Democrats recommend scrutiny of World Trade Organisation treaties. Why not? I am completely relaxed about that. I do not go to bed at night saying, "We must retain all the powers that we now have in the House of Commons." I am chilled out about it, and I believe that that applies to many Labour Members. I do not accept the assertion that the Commons would be fatally undermined.
I believe that we shall move towards a largely elected second Chamber. The Liberal Democrats want 80 per cent. of it to be elected and 20 per cent. nominated. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who is not in his place, and other Conservative Members said that 75 per cent. of the Conservative parliamentary Labour partythat was a Freudian slip; I meant the parliamentary partywant a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, who carries a great deal of weight, said that his personal preference was for direct election of two thirds of Members of the other place. Although it is denied by a few at the top of the Labour party, a huge majority of the parliamentary party supports a wholly or substantially directly elected second Chamber.
How do we get there? I was disappointed in the Government when it was not possible to establish the Joint Committee. I took up the matter some time ago with the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who said in a parliamentary reply:
If the Joint Committee gets nowhere, and Government obfuscation and foot dragging mean that it runs into the sand, Labour Members should demand a Bill to reform the other place. Opposition Members would support that. I would prefer a multi-option Bill. We have been down that road with Sunday trading and hunting. Such a measure would allow hon. Members to vote on an issue about which we have been prevented from expressing an opinion for years because that is not what new Labour does.