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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Broad Economic Guidelines

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Question agreed to.

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House of Lords Reform (Joint Committee)

7.14 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I beg to move,

This motion fulfils the commitment that I gave the House before the recess that we would establish a Joint Committee to take forward the next step in reform of the House of Lords and that we would put its proposals to a free vote in both Houses of Parliament. That commitment was broadly welcomed in this Chamber and in the wider media beyond Westminster, where a broad welcome these days is unusual. It puts Parliament itself in the driving seat on how we approach reform of Parliament's second Chamber.

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Tonight's debate is on the narrow point of how we set up the Joint Committee. I am painfully aware that progress on reform of the House of Lords can be measured in centuries, but even in the context of House of Lords reform, three hours should be sufficient time in which to set up a Committee. I have no doubt that some Members will wish to use the debate to rehearse some of the wider questions on the future composition of the House of Lords, and I make no objection to that. Practice makes perfect, and the future debate, on a free vote, will be all the better the more that Members try out their arguments on us tonight. I simply remind Members that the debate to decide what we do with the House of Lords will be taken after we receive the report of the Joint Committee and not before we even appoint it.

The House is fortunate that Members of great standing on both sides of the House have been willing to serve on the Joint Committee and to prepare its report.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: I will happily give way to any distinguished Member.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. The Joint Committee of 24 people will consist of 12 members of the Government, seven Members from the Conservative party, three Liberal Democrat Members and two Cross Benchers of the House of Lords. The Cross Benchers represent no particular constituency and have no democratic mandate; the minority parties represent some 1.5 million people, yet we have no place on the Committee considering this vital constitutional reform. How can that be fair?

Mr. Cook: May I gently correct the hon. Gentleman on one point? There are no members of the Government on the Committee, although it is perfectly true that there are 12 members of the Labour party. On the arithmetic, of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He and his party have been through this matter with me on a number of occasions and, as he knows, I do not have a closed mind. However, it remains the fact that 95 per cent. of the membership of this House belong to parties that are represented among the 12 members whom we are appointing from the House of Commons. As the minority parties represent, in total, 5 per cent. of the membership of the House of Commons, a pro rata division would entitle them to membership of a Committee of 20, not of 12. Traditionally, the minority parties were always dealt with using the same arithmetic and on the same basis as the Liberal Democrat party. The Liberal Democrats have one place on the Committee; it is up to the minority parties, if they so wish, to try to press the Liberal Democrats to give them that place.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): For someone who is making a reputation for himself as a defender of the interests of all parts of the House of Commons, does the Leader of the House not appreciate that, given that arithmetical logic, there will be no minority party representative on any Joint Committee that is set up in this Parliament? If 5 per cent. of the House of Commons with a democratic mandate are represented by the minority parties, should not there be at least one member

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on a Committee of 24 to consider a matter of such vital interest? Can the right hon. Gentleman not find it within himself to agree and do something about it?

Mr. Cook: I am not responsible for the 24 members of the Committee. I am responsible, and my motion is responsible, for the 12 members from the House of Commons, and 5 per cent. of 12 does not really add up to a place. However, I am not unsympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point. Indeed, it is precisely so that we can get the broadest possible coverage across the House that the Committee is so large, with 24 members. Over the totality of a Parliament, I think that it would be entirely reasonable for minority parties to look for representation on a Joint Committee, but they cannot, on the basis of the arithmetic, demand a place on any one Joint Committee when that Committee has only 12 members.

I should like to make progress. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) is right that it is my role to defend all interests in the House, and I have defended the place of 95 per cent. of the membership of the House of Commons who are represented on the Committee. From the Opposition Benches, we have the nomination of a former Conservative Leader and a former candidate for Conservative Leader. I am gratified that the Liberal Democrats regard the Joint Committee as so important that they have proposed my shadow to the Committee. On the Labour side, our nominations are headed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who has the double distinction of having been a Cabinet Minister in this Government and of being one of only half a dozen serving Members who served as Ministers in the Callaghan Government.

The Labour members also include a number of those who have followed our debates on the House of Lords closely over the past year, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), who has come close to being the shop steward for those who favour reform. I am pleased that the list includes my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), who was my number two on foreign affairs for a number of years in opposition and in government. The House can have full confidence that that distinguished membership will discharge the duty that we are placing on it with care and commitment.

Before I turn to the task that we are asking of Committee members, I will deal with the issues raised in the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), which would impose a timetable on the proceedings of the Joint Committee. At the time of my statement to the House last month, I said in response to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that it would be wrong for us to predetermine a specified date by which the Committee had to respond. It is for the eminent members of that Committee to determine the speed at which they can make progress on the remit. For that reason, the motion does not impose an external limit on their proceedings.

Moreover, even if it were thought acceptable in principle to impose a deadline, the timetable set out in the amendment would be tough—it would require a report by 17 July, which might not be realistic given that the Joint Committee will not even meet until July. Having said that, the Government would welcome the Committee tackling its task with expedition. Members of the Public Administration Committee, nearly all of whom have

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signed the amendment, provided a sterling example of such expedition. They commenced their study of the Government's proposals in mid-November and published a report in mid-February. They demonstrated that it is not necessary for a Committee, to borrow the phrase of Harold Wilson, to take minutes and to last years, even on this topic.

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