On a timetable, it would be wrong for us to predetermine a specified date by which the Joint Committee has to respond. However, this is plainly not an open-ended commitment, and we will watch and work with the Joint Committee to enable it to come to a speedy conclusion. Part of that co-operation may well include presenting it with a draft Bill. We have by no means ruled out that possibility, and look forward with interest to hearing what its members may wish to say about it during the first stage of their work.
I assure the House that the decision that I announced has nothing whatsoever to do with the Hunting Bill. If we should find it necessary to introduce both the Hunting Bill and the House of Lords reform Bill in the same Session, so be itwe will seek as business managers to see what we can do to ensure that we secure both those objectives.
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. It shows, especially in the light of last week's statement on regional government, that the Government's appetite for constitutional reform remains keen and has not become jaded. I hope that progress can be made as quickly as possible.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the results of the consultation on the White Paper. Will he confirm that it showed that a majority of people favoured either a wholly or substantially elected upper House?
Mr. Cook: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's comments on the Government's programme of constitutional reform. It is within that context of a programme of measures to modernise our democracy that we should view this commitment to seek a parliamentary solution to ensuring that we have a second Chamber that can work as our ally, thereby enhancing respect for Parliament.
The consultation paper is available to hon. Members in the Vote Office. As I have said before in answer to oral questions, it showed that a substantial majority support a substantially elected second Chamber. I can confirm that of those commenting on composition, 89 per cent. favoured a majority elected second Chamber.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the announcement. Does he agree that, in constitutional matters, festina lente is not a bad motto? Will he say something about the composition of the Committee? Will it be chosen through the usual channels by the usual channels? Will there be a proper opportunity for Members with a robust view, such as my friend the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and me, to serve? Will he assure the House that he will not be the Chairman, and might he consider inviting the hon. Member for Bolsover or me to chair the Committee?
Mr. Cook: To do justice to the last point, I would have to reflect on it rather than give an off-the-cuff answer. However, I can confirm that I have no wish to chair the Committee, and I think that it would be wrong for any Minister to chair it.
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his extremely positive statement, which clears the blockages in the way of the reform process. I direct him to annexe A to the report on House of Lords reform that the Public Administration Committee issued in February, in which it gave a detailed month- by-month and year-by-year timetable for the way in which reform might proceed. Under "May 2002", it said:
Mr. Cook: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. He speaks with authority as the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, which issued a valuable report and showed that it was possible for people who wanted reform of the House of Lords but who came to the task with different perspectives to find a consensus. The task now is to ensure that we find that centre of gravity among the wider Parliament. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that the matter is now in the hands of Parliament. The speed and radicalism with which we move is very much down to the way in which Members of Parliament proceed and subsequently vote.
I cannot promise that we will keep to the timetable outlined in the report at all intermediate stages, but I share my hon. Friend's view that reform should be implemented in time for a general election in 2005, should there be one, so that elections can take place in the same year.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): This is very long grass indeed. The right hon. Gentleman's comments confirm what many of us have always fearedthat the Government were not serious about reform of the second Chamber but instead wanted to abolish the hereditary peers and replace them with the Prime Minister's cronies. They have achieved their objective.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that the Joint Committee will be able to consider a fully nominated second Chamber. Does he agree that the revising, scrutinising and deliberative Chamber that he has described would be able to carry out its duties most efficiently if it was made up of people who were experienced and well qualified to do so? Does he also agree that direct elections would not necessarily result in such an outcome?
Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his endorsement. It will not only be for the Joint Committee to consider the option of a fully appointed second Chamber; my hon. Friend and all his colleagues will also be able to argue and vote for that option when we debate the options in this Chamber. I have only one reservation about what he said. While he is perfectly right to say that any legislature must comprise well-qualified and experienced people who can bring judgment and integrity to their decisions, as Leader of the House I must say that we can find those qualities among elected Members of the House of Commons as well as among those who are appointed to the other place.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that his statement this afternoon is a most eloquent admission that the Government did not have a clue where they were going when they started reforming the House of Lords, and that, even now, after a further general election, they still have no clue about how they want to go forward? Does he also accept that their handling of this matter has been characterised by vandalism against the constitution and by vacillation in completely failing to come forward with any set plan for the future, and that he is not modernising but trying to muddle through, causing further delay without any resolution?