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4 Feb 2003 : Column 152—continued

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As one who is very glad that you have selected that amendment, I wonder whether you could possibly help those of us who are in a slightly difficult position. If the motion that I favour is not approved, I would rather vote for a unicameral House. Having talked to hon. Members in all parts of the House, I believe that a number of them share the view that, if their own particular preference is not selected, they would rather go unicameral. Would it be possible, therefore, to have that vote at the end of the proceedings, rather than the beginning?

Mr. Speaker: That option is at the beginning, not the end.

12.51 pm

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

I am conscious of the rich irony that that is the motion for an all-appointed second Chamber.

The other week, I found myself listening to a radio discussion on "Waiting for Godot". I believe that it was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first production of the play. I was struck by the fact that there is a real possibility that we could drift into House of Lords reform becoming our parliamentary equivalent of "Waiting for Godot", as it never arrives and some have become rather doubtful whether it even exists, but we sit around talking about it year after year. The first attempt to achieve reform of the second Chamber was made in 1911. In our case, this particular performance has been going on for much more than 40 years; it has lasted almost a century. Tonight, the House has an opportunity to bring down the curtain on what has been the longest political indecision in our history. It can make a conclusion and, I hope, a bold decision for a democratic second Chamber that belongs to this Chamber.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) rose—

Mr. Cook: If I may, I should like to continue a little longer, as I have only just got into my stride.

The decisions tonight will take place on a free vote. It is to the Government's credit that they have said that this is a parliamentary matter that should be decided by

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Parliament on a free vote, not a whipped vote. I have been rather struck in the past few days by the fact that the media have found it difficult to find the language to report this process. It has been particularly difficult for some of those in the media who have for years been urging Members of Parliament to be more independent and less dragooned. If we are to have a free vote, we should not be concerned that there will be differences of views. On the contrary, we should celebrate the fact that the free vote is allowing us to express differences of views, rather than deplore it.

Mr. Hogg: As one who supports the right hon. Gentleman on this matter, may I ask him whether he can tell the House that, even if the second Chamber itself votes against a House that is elected either wholly in or in part, the Government will introduce legislation to reflect the will of this House?

Mr. Cook: We had an extended exchange on exactly that point only half an hour ago during oral questions. As I told the House then, it would be most unwise of me to anticipate at this particular point the votes made in either Chamber in four or five hours' time. As I said on that occasion—I am fortunate that there is now a rather larger audience to hear my plea—what is crucial is that the Commons come to one clear, single and commanding view on the way forward. If we can secure that in the Commons at five o'clock, as Leader of the House I shall certainly seek to do all that I can to ensure that that option is carried through.

It has famously been observed that there is a range of views on what the reform should be. My personal view is that, if we are serious about reform, we should have a largely or wholly elected second Chamber. In the modern world, legitimacy is conferred by democracy. That is why we committed ourselves in our manifesto to a second Chamber that is more representative and democratic. I do not see how it can be a democratic second Chamber if it is also an election-free zone.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Will he clarify whether his interpretation of election includes indirect election from regional assemblies or other such bodies?

Mr. Cook: It is the case that a number of countries in Europe have found a way of assembling a democratic second Chamber through indirect elections. That is the case in France, Germany and the Netherlands. I fully respect the fact that a number of hon. Members in the Chamber would want indirect election to be at least part of the way in which a second Chamber could receive a democratic mandate. Personally, I am not unsympathetic to that perspective.

We all need to be clear about our terminology. If colleagues wish to have an indirectly elected Chamber or a partly indirectly elected Chamber, they are opting for an elected Chamber and should vote tonight for one of the elected options. If they vote for an appointed Chamber, they will be ruling out elections, whether direct or indirect.

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John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) rose—

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Cook: I shall give way on this occasion, but I remind the House that a very large number of hon. Members wish to speak and that there is a limit to the number of occasions on which I can give way.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. As somebody who wanted to vote for a directly elected Chamber, I have great difficulty in voting for a Chamber that is elected on the basis of a list system and not a first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Cook: There is nothing in the options that specified the precise method of election, but if we want to avoid friction between the two Chambers, it is important that the second Chamber is not elected on exactly the same basis and most certainly not with the same constituencies as the lower Chamber.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must make some progress with my speech.

I said that we had committed ourselves in our manifesto to a democratic second Chamber. On previous occasions, my party has been even more explicit in saying that we want an elected second Chamber. Indeed, in the Plant report of 1993, we observed that

The Plant committee had a truly distinguished membership. Among those who were members of the committee in 1993 are four members of the present Cabinet, including the Chief Whip. Lord Plant himself made an eloquent plea for a democratic Chamber in the debate in the other place. He said that

That consent can be obtained only by free and open elections—a principle that is powerfully entrenched in the attitudes of our country.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. Is not the nub of the point Lord Plant's reference to power? The Prime Minister believes that the second Chamber should be a revising Chamber without the power to revoke. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that it should be a revoking Chamber or a revising one? If he takes the latter view, how will he get the right number of people with the right expertise to stand for election?

Mr. Cook: Of course it must not be a revoking Chamber. The one point on which we are all agreed—indeed, I apprehend that even the second Chamber is agreed on this—is that the House of Commons should retain its pre-eminence. I shall turn later to how we can secure that, although I would welcome it if those in the House of Lords who said in their speeches that the

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Commons should remain pre-eminent had not sometimes indicated in the tone of those speeches that they thought themselves superior.

I was making the point that the attitude to democratic elections is powerfully entrenched in public opinion. When we consulted on the White Paper on the House of Lords a year ago, 89 per cent. of those who responded favoured a majority-elected House. A year later, the latest opinion poll shows that 83 per cent. support a majority-elected House. The public have not wavered in their support for a democratic solution and nor should we.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): How is it intended to gauge opinion in this House if there is to be no separate vote to enable those of us who wish to support an indirectly elected Chamber to do so? If we simply vote for an elected Chamber, it will not be possible to distinguish those who are voting for direct elections from those who are voting for indirect elections. Does the Leader of the House agree that that is a major flaw in today's procedure?

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