|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Pete Wishart (North Tayside): On behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, I welcome this debate on Lords reform. I share the views of many who have spoken about the lack of democratic accountability in the proposed new House of Lords.
We see this as a lost opportunity for the Government. If they had been clever, Lords reform could have been used as an exercise to re-engage the electorate and show that the House is concerned about voter apathy and the perception that the political institutions are beyond the control of the British public. Lords reform was the Government's big opportunity to show that they are prepared to address what is seen as a widening democratic deficit between the governing Executive and the governed electorate.
With Lords reform, we could have started to re-engage the public with the whole process of government. What do we have in its place? It is proposed that the institution will have only a small minority of its membership directly elected. The unelectable House of Lords will be transformed into the indefensible new Labour house of cronies.
We already know what the public think. Only some 14 per cent. of the public support the White Paper's proposal that the second Chamber should have a majority of appointees and only a minority of elected Members. It is easy to see why. The public do not like the idea of political carve-ups and fixes in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors. When the public have no say in who inhabits our political constitutions, it leads to immediate alienation. When the public have no sense of public ownership of our political institutions, they view them with justified suspicion.
The majority of places in the new House of Lords will be decided by a statutory, independent, Appointments Commission. Am I the only one to see that as a fig leaf for extended prime ministerial patronage? The majority of people who will serve on the commission will be Labour party members who, I suggest, will be informed by the Government. Is there any real difference between Government and prime ministerial patronage? If there is, I should like to hear what it is.
We can also presume that there will be no place for minority parties on the commission. We in the SNP and Plaid Cymru are the main Opposition parties in our nations, yet we have no meaningful role within the United Kingdom Government. I am not making a pitch to be involved in part of the process but simply showing that, given the House's careless establishment approach, any new Chamber must be a decision for the public and not subject to a centralised decision-making process.
The one question that has to be asked and which has been missing from the debate, other than being put by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall- Andrews), is whether there is a need for a second Chamber at all. If we asked the public what their predominant image of the House of Lords was, I would wager that a majority of the responses would describe a belligerent old soul napping while listening to an interminable speech by a fellow octogenarian. The belief that the House of Lords is viewed with any great affection is misplaced. There is genuine bemusement as to what it does and what function it performs.
Throughout the years,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well".
Do we need a second Chamber at all? Let us look at the experience elsewhere in the world. Bicameral legislatures are in the minority. A comprehensive survey of national Parliaments undertaken by the Inter- Parliamentary Union in 1995 identified that, of a total of 178 state legislatures, about 127 were unicameral. Indeed, bicameralism seems to be some strange historic throwback to pre-democratic daysoften, as with the existing House of Lords, a desire to reflect deep class differences. It is even argued that originally bicameralism was a means to incorporate different classes in government. The lesson of bicameralism that the United Kingdom has to offer is that it has ensured the maintenance and accentuation of class differences. It has done little to ensure that the Government and Executive of the day are held to proper account.
Lords reform is also an important issue for the self-government and independence movements of the United Kingdom nations. We are faced with the possibility of another layer of elected Government. In Scotland, for example, we will have elections for this place, for the Scottish Parliament, for the European Parliament, for the local authority and for this new House of Lords. The SNP's solution for this democratic smorgasbord is to have direct elections to a normal, independent Scottish Parliament and to the European Parliament, with scrutiny provided by strong pre-legislative committees in the Scottish Parliament.
The committee system of the Scottish Parliament shows that unicameralism can work. That system is one of the Parliament's main successes and, because of it, Scotland does not require a second Chamber to scrutinise the large Scottish domestic health, education and criminal justice Departments. Pre-legislative committee scrutiny means that most of the work is done before the legislation even reaches the Chamber.
Pre-legislative scrutiny by powerful committees can allow for expert witnesses to be called and for a proper examination of all the issues involved. Powerful pre-legislative committees could combine the roles of the Standing and Select Committees of this House. They could be given extra powerful functions. Those committees could initiate their own legislation, scrutinise primary and secondary legislation and conduct inquiries into matters as the Administration and Executive require.
That is a modern, 21st-century solution that would eliminate the need for a second Chamber. It is an illustration that what is needed is not Lords reform, but Lords abolition. I appreciate that abolition is not an option for this Government. It is a long time since there was a strong abolitionist wing in the Labour party. However, we are not too far from the days when the Labour party believed in a fully democratic second House. In its 1992 manifesto, the party promised
The main line of argument that is now deployed by Ministers is that a full and democratic House of Lords would be a challenge to this place. Why did they not think of that when they were in opposition and they were suggesting full democratic elections? Why did it only occur to them when they came to government?
Furthermore, the argument is fundamentally flawed because the proposed plan for the second Chamber is to diminish its powers and not to strengthen it. If this House cannot, and should not, withstand the challenge from another element of the parliamentary system, why should we bother with a second Chamber at all?
We live at a time when the right to choose or dismiss our rulers is beginning to be seen as under threat. It is the standard refrain that the electorate are too bored or too cynical to vote. We only need to think of the turnout at the general election last year to realise that that may be the case. There is a world of difference, however, between the voters choosing whether to exercise their franchise and the politically weak using that fact as a justification for curtailing it. It would be better to have no upper Chamber than to have one that entrenches the political cronyism that is in danger of becoming such a trademark of this Government.
It is difficult to know what is being attempted by the second Chamber. It will still be a House of Lords but it will be dissociated from the peerage, and those who sit in it will not be Lords but will still be MLsMembers of the Lords. It seems to be the worst of both worlds: a Chamber that is neither democratic nor fully meritocratic.
Modernisation has proved something of a difficulty for the self-styled modernising new Labour Government. Modernisation, whether in this place or in the other House, seems to have been one long-drawn-out fudge with no focus or any clear attempt to define what it is hoped to achieve. Scrutiny is important, but so is democracy. What is proposed for the second Chamber is a shabby compromise, which will satisfy absolutely no one.
Until I heard the speech by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), I did not think that I would hear one that actually strengthened the arguments for the proposals in the White Paper. However, whatever the deficiencies in the proposals, about which we have
The Lords has required reform since the day of its inception, precisely because it has provided privileged access not just to wealth but to political power, irrespective of the merit of those who wield it and irrespective of the will of those over whom they have exercised it. It must be said that it has been a privilege that has been largely upheld, and indeed shared, for centuries by the Conservativesthose same Conservatives who have opposed Labour's attempts to reform the House of Lords for the past 100 years.
Now the caravan has moved on and we cannot turn back the clock, as was memorably said this afternoon, and the Conservatives are yet again demonstrating their unerring instinct for survival in the face of constitutional change. I welcome that, and Opposition Members have made some thoughtful and important contributions to the debate.
This is an historic opportunity, which brings with it historic responsibilities. It is not, in my view, a time for tinkering. It is not, in my view, a time for equivocation, or for incremental change that will require yet more hand-wringing and anguish and further incremental change year on year. We have a duty to get this reform right. We have a duty, indeed, to bring about a radical break with the past that shows that this Parliamentand the broader society that we represent or seek to representis forward-looking, confident and progressive. If that means that we must find ourselves in conflict with vested interests, whether the Law Lords or the bishops, that is unfortunate, but so be it. In the House of Lords, or the second Chamberor the house of correction or whatever it is known as in futureno one should enjoy privileged access to their seat in our legislature.
The Government have a right to be proud of the programme of constitutional reform that they have pursued over the last four or five years and of the way in which they have ceded rights and influence to people outside Westminster. They have been much more radical than they have received credit for being. We have had the Human Rights Act 1998. We have had devolution to Northern Ireland, to Scotland, to Wales and to London. We have had the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We have had the first crucial phase of Lords reform. But in most of those measurescertainly in devolution to Wales and to London, and in the Freedom of Information Actthere has been a real difficulty for Government in simply letting go. This White Paper is constipated beyond most people's experience of anal retention.
The second Chamber has to embody some key principles. It must be distinctive in its role and function, as many hon. Members have said today. It must not replicate, imitate or duplicate the work of the House of Commons. It must be complementary, not competitive, so it must inevitably have subsidiary powers. It must be legitimate, and much of that legitimacy will come through election, whether whole or substantial. It must be representative of society and the nation at large. Indeed, it must be efficient. There have been many arguments for a smaller Chamber than that proposed, which would be in the interests of efficiency, as well as those of democracy and accountability.
The problem with the White Paper is that it would not confer legitimacy of election on 20 per cent. of the membership; nor would the political patronage that it would preserve. It is absurd to claim that introducing democracy to the second Chamber would somehow undermine the democratic credentials of the first Chamber. It would strengthen the legitimacy of Parliament, and it would be good for the second Chamber, as well as for the House of Commons.
As many hon. Members have suggested, introducing such democracy would strengthen not only the confidence that the electorate have in their Parliament, but their rights to hold Parliament to account. Too little has been said not only about our vested interest in holding the Executive, the second Chamber or Parliament to account, but about the interests of the people who send us here.
Election, not appointment, must be the principle on which the second Chamber is founded. It is perfectly possible to preserve the democratic principle of election without challenging the primacy of this place. The latter is the chief argument against election made in the White Paper.
What makes our legitimacy special is the constituency link. We are elected by and accountable to defined communities, which we seek to represent. It is perfectly possible to elect people indirectly in a way that confers a legitimacy on them that is not confrontational or equal to our own in this place. However, I accept the role of appointment in improving and extending the representativeness of the second Chamber to encompass not just the regions and nations of this country, but the various walks of life and professions, whether those involved are humbleperhaps I should not use that wordor are engineers or professors of medicine.
Representativeness is important, but we know that the vagaries of the electoral system cannot guarantee it. We complain and wring our hands in this place, saying that we are not sufficiently representative of the community at large, so there must be a role for appointment, but no more than a third of the second Chamber's membership should be appointed. I agree with much of what the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) said in that respect.
If the second Chamber were to have a membership of 450I suggest that it should be smaller, but 450 is the upper limiton the basis of the national share of the vote at the general election in June there would be 122 Labour, 95 Conservative, 55 Liberal, 28 other and 150 appointed
Finally, we need a truly modern second Chamber. I spoke earlier about the need for radical reform. If we ask people to sit, or if they ask us to allow them to sit, in our legislature, they should regard that as their principal occupation, and they should be paid for it. They should be expected to attend or face disqualification. In no way should the bishops or the Law Lords believe that they have a moral entitlement automatically to be given seats in the legislature, but there is nothing to prevent themas nothing prevented the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)from putting themselves forward for nomination or, in theory, election; and the same applies to all current peers.
All the peers should go, but if they wish to seek election or nomination, they should be free to do so; otherwise they should be given the same severance payments as Members of Parliament enjoy when we retire or are defeated in the polls.
The warning that I would issue to my colleagues is that we must build a consensus that goes beyond the consensus that simply opposes the White Paper. As has been repeated in the debate, previous reforms have foundered precisely because of lack of agreement about the shape of the second Chamber. That is the last defence of those who support the White Paper.