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7.36 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I happily pick up the challenge that the Leader of the House has laid down. The official Opposition welcome the motion, not least because it is something that we have urged on the Government for some time. Although I understand the courteous but firm reprimand that the Leader of the House has just offered us, I could reciprocate and say that I welcome the Government's late conversion to the idea of a Joint Committee as the way forward. It is sad that it has taken the Government so long to realise that, but I welcome their late conversion to something for which we have long argued.

I also welcome the terms of reference, which are appropriate. They are appropriately broad, and at the same time they are appropriately focused. That is the right approach. I would differ from them only in one small but important regard—and this is a personal point, rather than on behalf of my party. I make my point as a self-confessed anorak and lifelong devotee of the House of Commons. I have devoted the past 19 years of my life to the House of Commons and, indeed, many of those present may feel that I have spent too much time here. The Leader of the House mentioned the pre-eminence of the House of Commons and said that most Members of this House accept that almost without argument. However, I regret to say that I believe that even that principle should now be considered. To the extent that the role of the Commons has been diminished—and I believe that it has been—and its primary role is now the provision of, and support for, the Government of the day, there is at least an argument for an enhanced role for a reformed upper House, with stronger powers to offset the diminution of the role of this House in the scrutiny of the Government. I put the point no more strongly than that, but I wished to add that footnote to the debate and leave it to the members of the Joint Committee whether they want to pursue that issue.

In that respect and in others, it will be interesting to see whether the joint membership of the Committee will bring a different perspective to its considerations than the single-dimensional focus of Members of this House, who readily accept the idea that the House of Commons should be pre-eminent in all legislative matters.

It is with some slight regret that I say that I cannot recommend to my colleagues that they should support the amendment tabled in the name of the Chairman and

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members of the Public Administration Committee. As the Leader of the House said, we should at this stage be prepared to allow the Joint Committee to perform its task in the way it sees fit. An arbitrary time limit on its deliberations would therefore not be appropriate at this stage. However, we should also make it clear that the House will feel free to return to the issue if the Committee appears to be delaying unnecessarily or unduly in its deliberations. We are giving the Committee an important remit and responsibility and it is right to respect its freedom of action at this stage. As the Leader of the House has said, however, and as I would wish to endorse, it is not unreasonable, given the amount of work that has already been done, not least by Committees of the House, and the amount of deliberation in both Houses, to expect their work to proceed with proper expedition.

On membership, I hope that the House will accept that the Members of the House and of another place that the official Opposition have put forward reflect the seriousness with which we take this Committee's work and deliberations. The Leader of the House has been kind enough to pay respect to those Opposition Members and I would like to reciprocate, as the Labour Members and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) are of sufficient seniority and seriousness—with a leavening of freshness, if I may say so, with regard to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant)—that we can expect proper weight to be given to the Committee's work.

I was intrigued that the press contained speculation about who might be the Chairman of the Committee. Does the Leader of the House know something that the rest of us do not? I presume that the Committee is free to establish its own chairmanship. I have noticed that the name of the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has been mentioned in this regard. I would imagine that his qualifications for being Chairman are many. I looked up his entry in "Who's Who", and, first, I saw that he has a PhD in chemistry, which, in a peculiar way, might suit him well to guiding the Committee in its deliberations. Furthermore, the right hon. Gentleman was shadow Leader of the House in a previous existence, which surely must give him the qualifications to add to the lustre of the Committee and its proceedings.

Most intriguingly, however, the last recreation that the right hon. Member for Copeland lists in "Who's Who", after fell walking, fly fishing, gardening, classical and folk music and reading—which must keep him very busy, although not too busy, I hope, to spend a lot of time on the work of the Committee—is listening to other people's opinions. I shall leave the House and, more appropriately, the Committee to decide whether that is a qualification for chairmanship. It will, at least, give members of the Committee something to work on if the right hon. Gentleman should emerge as their choice for Chairman. I am sure, however, that the right hon. Gentleman would be the first to concede that there are other Members on the Committee with almost equal seniority and experience in parliamentary matters.

Having said all that, I am sure that we all wish the Committee, its members and whoever becomes its Chairman well. We are placing a great responsibility on the members of the Committee. They will be in no doubt—and they will still be in no doubt, I suspect, by the end of the debate—about the seriousness of the task that faces them and the expectations that we lay on them. I hope that they will be able to discharge their

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responsibilities fully but reasonably quickly. I hope that we will see the first products of their deliberations—it will be a multi-phase process, as has been laid down—in the very near future.

The Leader of the House has given an interesting hint—if I may so describe it—about the possible constraints on the timing of the Committee's deliberations. I cannot and would not want to add to that. We should all listen carefully, however, to what the Leader of the House has said and consider what is in his mind.

Having said that, I thoroughly commend the resolution to the House. As this is a free vote, being on a House of Commons matter, I hope that my hon. Friends will support the resolution. Sadly, however, I would recommend that, if it is put to the vote, they do not support the amendment that has been selected.

7.44 pm

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): This is not a moment to explore the substance of the issues in relation to the House of Lords. It is the moment, however, to say a few words about process.

I commend the final section of the report of the Public Administration Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, which is simply called, "Getting from here to there". Historically, getting from here to there has been the most difficult thing of all. There has been no difficulty in coming forward with schemes for House of Lords reform; indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred to Harold Wilson and the 1960s. The lesson of all that is that one can easily not achieve reform. The task and challenge for the House is whether we can devise a process that will get us to where we would like to be from where we are now, given the diversity of opinions.

Without intending to seem churlish, I want to express a note of regret that it has not been thought possible to include a member from the Public Administration Committee on the Joint Committee. I can think of Members from all parties who were represented on the Committee who have developed a good deal of expertise in this area. That expertise would have been well put to the service of the House.

I also want to offer the experience of the Public Administration Committee's deliberations to the Joint Committee. When we began our work, we felt a sense of urgency, as one of the paradoxes is that we were told from the beginning that reform of the second Chamber was very urgent. Hon. Members will remember that the Wakeham commission was told that it had to proceed with enormous urgency. Indeed, it was told that it had to report within a year—by the end of 1999—because reform of the second Chamber was so urgent. It has all gone funny since then.

We must reclaim that spirit of urgency now. The Public Administration Committee felt an obligation to be urgent in our deliberations and to come to a conclusion that would be helpful to the House so that the process of reform could continue. We also felt an obligation not simply to repeat previous positions. There we were, representing the three major parties, all with different views. Some people wanted to abolish the second Chamber; some wanted a wholly elected second Chamber; some wanted a wholly appointed second Chamber; and some wanted a variety of intermediate positions. The

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question was: would we simply repeat our previous views, or would we seek to reach a position that would enable the process of reform to continue? I say "process" deliberately, because, if one thinks that one is concluding the process of reform, one will not be successful. So much is changing in the wider landscape that all that one can hope for is to achieve a reasonably secure next phase of second Chamber reform.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred to the fact that we may be moving to an era of seriously devolved government inside England as well as in the wider United Kingdom. If that is the case, different kinds of options will become available in the longer term as to how we might compose a second Chamber, and there will be different reasons for doing so.

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