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4 Feb 2003 : Column 141continued
The President of the Council (Mr. Robin Cook): It will be for the Joint Committee to consider how it can take forward detailed proposals for reform of the second Chamber in the light of the votes of both Houses. In the meantime, it would be most unwise to announce a response to votes that have yet to take place but will shortly be upon us.
Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the President of the Council, whose principled defiance of the Prime Minister is to be applauded. If we vote for a substantially elected second Chamber, and the other place, acting as judge and jury in its own cause, votes for the alternative of a fully appointed second Chamber, what remit will the right hon. Gentleman give to the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, and how does he intend to fulfil the Labour party's election manifesto commitment to complete Lords reform within the lifetime of this Parliament?
Mr. Cook: I know well enough that it is always wise to sniff any offers of compliments from the Opposition carefully before swallowing them. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is not an act of defiance but a free vote on the Government Benches and, I very much hope, a free vote on the Conservative Benches, too. On the question of what happens after tonight, the crucial issue is whether we can develop a clear, coherent, commanding lead in this Chamber for one of the options for reform. There is no need for any fresh remit for the Joint Committee. The House and the other place set up that Joint Committee with the remit to finish its job, and the report before us today is only an interim one. It will continue its job without any further revision to its remit.
Mr. Cook: I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend about that being excluded in the options before the House. I have argued on a number of occasions that there is a case for an indirect component to those who go into the second Chamber with a democratic mandate, but they would, of course, be elected. I urge those of my hon. Friends who are attracted to indirect election to make sure that they therefore support one of the elected options. Those who are indirectly elected would not be appointed, and a vote for an appointed Chamber would exclude indirect election, not assist it.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): May I urge the President of the Council to make another attempt to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)? The right hon. Gentleman must surely have given some thought to the way in which he sees this matter moving forward to fulfil the pledge that was given in his party's manifesto. He must have given some thought to the way in which he expects the Joint Committee to react, to whether primacy should be given to a vote in this House or to a vote in another place, and to how the matter will therefore be resolved. The right hon. Gentleman cannot duck behind the statement, "I don't know what's going to happen. I've no idea what the Joint Committee's going to say. I can't envisage the outcome of this matter. We're drifting with absolutely no idea of where we're going." If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that, he is a lesser man than I thought he was.
Mr. Cook: I cannot predict what will happen between 5 and 7 o'clock this evening. If I were to tell the House now what the results will be between 5 and 7 o'clock, I doubt whether the House would respect me for anticipating what it was about to decide on a free vote.
I am very much committed to the idea that this House should seize what is a unique and historic opportunity to make clear its preference for a reformed second Chamber. I very much hope that in the votes we will get a substantial majority and a mandate for reform. As Leader of the House, I will seek to do all that I can to ensure that the will of the House is carried through.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of all the mixed messages that are coming out on how to deal with the House of Lords, the second Chamber, there has been a resurgence in the past few weeks, principally on the Labour Benches, in the call for the abolition of the House of Lords, in line with the 1976 resolution at conference, which I think my right hon. Friend supported in those halcyon days? Will he add his weight to that? It would resolve the problem and everybody would go home happy. Finally, do not
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend is in excellent robust form today. I fully understand that a large number of hon. Members have put their names to an amendment and I hope that it will be possible for that amendment to be tested in the House in the course of today's proceedings. However, if that amendment is not carried, I would urge all colleagues who may prefer abolition to express their own view on a second-best option on how to have a reformed second Chamber.
I say to my hon. Friend that we should bear in mind that the last time that we went to the country with a commitment to abolish the second Chamber was in 1983. I do not recollect that we got a mandate from the public for it.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am not asking the President of the Council to predict the outcome of the votes this evening, even on the abolitionists' amendment. However, will he assure the House that, after the votes this evening, he will give careful consideration to what guidance should be given to the Joint Committee? As a member of the Joint Committee, I am sure that my colleagues would welcome that. For example, does the right hon. Gentleman think that we should give the same relative weight to the vote of a hereditary peerhowever he or she has votedwho clearly will not be part of a reformed House of Lords, as everybody seems to agree? What weight should be given to the votes of those life peers who, having left this place and gone up the Corridor, no longer believe in democracy?
Mr. Cook: Reading the debates of the other place, I was rather struck at the number of our former colleagues who have gone there and who now appear to have discovered that being a professional politician is something rather suspect. I rather wonder how they would describe their years in this place, if not as professional politicians.
For me, the crucial issue is whether this House can express a clear view. If this House can express a clear view, we will, of course, have a basis on which we can enter into negotiations in which the view of this House may prevail. However, first of all, we need to ensure that this House expresses a clear and commanding view.
Sir Archy Kirkwood (on behalf of the House of Commons Commission): The Commission has accepted the advice of the Finance and Services Committee on the priorities for implementing the Committee's recommendations on matters that fall to the Commission. Work is already under way on a number of those issues and the Finance and Services Committee will monitor progress.
It may be of interest to the House to be reminded that one of the main objectives of the strategic plan for House administration is to improve public understanding and knowledge of the House and to increase accessibility to it. I think that the Information Committee's report certainly helps in that.
Margaret Moran: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. He will be aware that the excellent report by the Information Committee suggests that we use technology to engage electronically with citizens to ensure that the usually unheard voices are heard in this place and to enable individual MPs to engage in e-participation. Will he consider whether moneys could be set aside for such experiments, not just to enable us to use technology in pre-legislative scrutiny, but to enable individual MPs to participate in pilot schemes to ensure that we can use e-consultation to engage citizens and to reconnect them to politics in this place?
Sir Archy Kirkwood: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for that suggestion. Her advocacy of information and communications technology in this place is admirable and I encourage her to continue in her attempts to get the House facilities improved in that way. Certainly, the Liaison Committee is looking at ways of promoting online consultations for those Select Committees that want to go in that direction. Any specific plans that she has for engaging individual Members in online consultations would be considered positively.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): May I ask the hon. Gentleman how he expects the growing campaign, led so effectively by the Back Bencher of the year, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), for the wider public to be involved in the consultation process on draft legislation to take effect? Is it not high time that we were doing much more in that respect?
Sir Archy Kirkwood: It is possible that we should be putting more facilities in place for online consultations. As the Information Committee realised at recommendation (p), a good deal needs to be done to set up an online consultation. It needs someone to act as a moderator and those who participate need to be led clearly into an understanding of what they will get out of it. It also requires hon. Members who contribute to the online process to put in quite a bit of time. All those things need to be carefully worked out to ensure that the consultation process is successful for those who participate in it. We are actively pursuing, in every way we can, the promotion of such consultations for those hon. Members and Select Committee that wish to pursue them.