Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I thank the Leader of the House for the generous notice that he gave me of his statement which, however, I can only characterise as Laurel and Hardy or perhaps Robin and Derry"A fine mess you've got us into now". Or, if we wanted a one-word title for the statement, it would have to be "mañana". In April 1997, the Labour party published a manifesto.
May I ask the Leader two rather obvious questions? First, he has outlined what he chooses to call phase 1, which will be a broad look at composition and powers. Will he give me some idea of the time scale for that? For example, will it go well into 2003? Then there is to be consultation of both Houses of Parliament, followed by phase 2, in which there will be detailed examination of the results of the parliamentary deliberations.
Does the Leader of the House envisage that we might run out of parliamentary time in this Parliament before anything further can be done, or can he give me an undertaking now, which will hold more water than the previous undertakings, that the Government believe that they will be in a position to bring forward proposals during this Parliament? It is important that we understand that at this stage of the process.
Secondly, speaking of the consultation of both Houses that is to be undertaken and which I welcome, and the Government's commitment to free votes on the matter, can the Leader tell me what he believes will happen if the two Houses find themselves in conflict? Supposing the House of Commons concluded that there should be a large element of elected Members in the new upper House, and that the House of Lords reached the opposite conclusionthat there should be a small element or no element at all of elected Members. How does the Leader imagine that that would be resolved? Will we go through the loop again? Will it be a "Groundhog Day" procedure, whereby we revisit the issue indefinitely for the rest of our parliamentary lifetime?
Having belatedly announced a Joint Committee, the Leader owes it to us to give a much clearer idea of what is in the Government's mind in terms of time scale and commitment, so that we are not led up yet another garden path to something that lies beyond, but we know not what. So I can only refer to what the Leader of the House said and quote his own words back to him:
Mr. Cook: The House will recall that, in the last sentence of my statement, I invited hon. Members in all parts of the House to respond as parliamentarians and not as party politicians. The right hon. Gentleman's opening observations fell some way short of that invitation and of the response of the Conservative party in the House of Lords. This afternoon, its Lords spokesman welcomed the statement as an "historic statement" that was "clearly welcome" and a "statesmanlike step". I fear that before right hon. Gentleman speaks about conflict between the two Houses, he should consider the conflict between the Conservative Front Benches in this Chamber and the other place.
The right hon. Gentleman recounted some of the history. Of course, that includes 18 years when his party was in power but never made a proposal for a single elected Member of the second Chamber. It also includes four years in which the Conservatives opposed every
Mr. Cook: He makes that comment, but now he wants us to believe that he is committed to ensuring that 80 per cent. of Members of the second Chamber are electeda point for which I observe he does not have unanimous support on his Back Benches.
The timetable will be primarily in the hands of the members of the Joint Committee, as it should be. There is nothing new to be said about composition. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman, I and others in the House try to find something new to say about it, but the task is very challenging. I see no reason why a Joint Committee that was appointed now could not quickly move to a decision on the options on which the House should vote.
On conflict between the two Houses, the first step is to try to find a way forward and to avoid such conflict. In the event of a disagreement in the vote, it will in the first instance be for the Joint Committee to consider the implications. I am inclined to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I anticipate far less conflict between the Labour Benches in this Chamber and in the House of Lords than I envisage between the Conservative Benches in the Commons and those in the Lords. I remind him that he has a long way to go before he will get Conservative peers to agree to Conservative party policy of 80 per cent. of Members of the House of Lords being elected. In the two days of debate on reform in January, more than half the Tory peers who spoke wanted no elected peers at all. In those circumstances, it is not we who should be worrying about conflict with the House of Lords, but the Conservative party.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): It would be churlish not to congratulate the Leader of the House on his victory in Cabinet against the odds, although I refuse to identify who the odds are. My hon. Friends and I genuinely congratulate him and believe that he is right in sayinghe has done so on a number of occasions since the publication of the Select Committee reportthat there is a centre of gravity for reform. We believe that it is possible rapidly to make progress in the Joint Committee. I remind him that the suggestion of a Joint Committee goes back to the discussions between his party and mine
Will the Leader of the House give us a more precise indication of what timetable the Government would like? Does he recognise that this is already the longest-running Whitehall farce in more than 90 years, and that it is time we wrote the final act? Does he accept that there should be a sunset clause? The Joint Committee should be given a limited life, then disbanded if it is not making progress.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, once the two Houses have had a free vote on phase 1, it should be possible to put a draft Bill before the Joint Committee so as to make as much progress as possible on a consensual basis?
The right hon. Gentleman said that he intends to try to achieve the reforms in time for the next general election. Will he take this opportunity to dispel the mischievous rumour that the Government believe that it is impossible to take both legislation on House of Lords reform and an anti-hunting Bill through both Houses? That could be a major problem.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that even if the Joint Committee is permitted to consider transitional arrangementshe says that it will beit will be extremely important to prevent a hiatus, because otherwise Parliament's job of scrutinising the work of the Government could fall by the wayside?
Finally, there is a dilemma in having a small and manageable Joint Committee and having one that is truly representative. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it must be of sufficient size to enable parties that are split down the middlethe Conservative party in the other placeto be fully represented?