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4 Feb 2003 : Column 158—continued

Mr. Cook: I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend has carried the House with him. Let me unpack some of the different elements of his point. First, I am not arguing against indirect elections. Indeed, in several debates on reform I have strongly advocated indirect election as part of a mandate for a new democratic second Chamber.

Mr. Mandelson: What about the electoral system?

Mr. Cook: My right hon. Friend made a point about indirect election. He cannot pick and choose the bits of an intervention to which I respond.

Some form of devolved body covers one third of the British island. There is a strong case for representation of the devolved bodies in the second Chamber through indirect elections. That would count as the elected element. Hon. Members must therefore be clear that if that is part of the solution for securing a democratic reformed second Chamber, they must vote for an elected, not an appointed, option.

My right hon. Friend asked about the election of the directly elected element. It has been common ground in the many different reports on reform—the White Paper, the reports of the Wakeham commission and the Public Administration Committee—that the method of election for the second Chamber should not be the same as that for the first. That ensures that there is no rivalry between them and that their mandate and legitimacy are different.

I understand that my right hon. Friend is a robust advocate of the first-past-the-post system. If he is so committed to it, he should show more confidence in it and its ability to survive competition with alternative forms of election in Britain.

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Mr. Mandelson: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook: I shall not deny my right hon. Friend an opportunity to express confidence in the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Mandelson: My right hon. Friend is wrong. I have never been a robust advocate of the first-past-the-post system. I have flirted with electoral reform, which is not quite the same as proportional representation. However, let me press him further. Are we not expecting a great deal of the electorate if they have to elect Members to two different Chambers of one Parliament, Members of the European Parliament and Members of devolved Administrations through different electoral systems? That is untenable. There will be overwhelming public pressure to converge on one electoral system, and it will prove difficult for my right hon. Friend to resist the argument that it should be proportional. That is the inevitable logic of the course of action that he is urging on the House.

Mr. Cook: I apprehend from my right hon. Friend's comments that he is not prepared to defend the first-past-the-post system. I therefore suggest to Labour Members to whom he may have hoped to appeal that they should not be seduced by his case, since he is not prepared to defend the basis of their election.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook: Let me respond to the other point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) made. [Hon. Members: "Give way."] I must be allowed to respond to one intervention before taking another. That is the way in which we proceed.

I have never been attracted to the argument that our electors are not capable of coping with the complexity of the electoral system or with multiple elections. Other countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy have different methods of election to forms of devolved Government; all have elections for a central, national Government and the European Parliament, and many have elections for a second Chamber. We should show confidence in the wisdom and intelligence of the people who sent us here and their ability to handle the idea that they are entitled to democracy in more than one Chamber of this place.

Mr. Kaufman: As the only hon. Member who served on the royal commission, let me make it clear that the proposition that my right hon. Friend attributed to its report was not contained in it.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his rebuke, which I take to heart. However, I said that the royal commission did not recommend that there should be elections for the second Chamber on the same basis as for the first Chamber. I believe that my recollection is correct.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak) rose—

Mr. Kaufman rose—

Mr. Cook: I must give way to my right hon. Friend, since we appear to be in dispute.

Mr. Kaufman: If my right hon. Friend refers to the relevant section of the royal commission's report—I had

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a large hand in drafting that section—it makes no such recommendation. That was deliberate. Lord Hurd and others agreed on that. There was a recommendation before and after the section, but none on the subject to which my right hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Cook: Who am I to argue with such an august authority? However, I believe that I am correct in recalling that the royal commission proposed the election by regions of a modest number of people on the same basis as elections for the European Parliament. It is difficult to envisage how so few people could be elected for such a large region on the basis of first-past-the-post constituencies.

Mr. Levitt: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook: No, I should like to try to share some of my thoughts with hon. Members.

I fully share the determination of many hon. Members that the House of Commons should remain the pre-eminent Chamber. I have been a Member of it for three decades and I have enjoyed no period more than the past two years, when I have had the immense privilege of being Leader of the House. I have no intention of conniving at any outcome in which the House of Commons does not retain its commanding role. The Chamber must remain the ring in which the clashes of opinion in the nation are fought out. Ability to command the confidence of a majority of Members of Parliament must remain the test for every Government.

There are many ways in which to keep an elected second Chamber in a subordinate place. We could give the conventions that limit the powers of the other place legal force in a reform Act. We could ensure that the size as well as the powers of the second Chamber are limited. The Joint Committee proposes a second Chamber of 600. That is too big—I believe that there is consensus on that. The second Chamber should not be the same size as the Commons. It should be much smaller and therefore weaker in its claims to represent the nation.

Taming a second Chamber is not a new challenge. Countries all around the globe have cracked it. I do not believe that any hon. Member would seriously argue that Britain does not have the constitutional wit to achieve an outcome secured by France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany and 40 other countries that have an elected second Chamber that remains subordinate.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): My right hon. Friend has not yet referred to the amendment that the Speaker in his wisdom selected and which my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) tabled. It is supported by more than 100 hon. Members. I gather from the tenor of my right hon. Friend's remarks that he does not intend to support our amendment in favour of unicameralism. Does he intend to vote against it, or abstain?

Mr. Cook: I have to say to my right hon. Friend that I am not persuaded of the case for the amendment. I shall therefore be unable to support it and will naturally cast my vote in opposition to it. Since he raises the issue of the amendment, may I say to him that I sympathise with

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the second part of it, which calls for further reform of our own legislative procedures? I have always felt that the least impressive case for a second Chamber is that we are so poor at passing legislation that we need someone else to revise our mistakes. But, however perfect we made our procedures, and however perfect this Chamber became, there would always be the case for a second opinion. No other European country of any size has only one chamber. All have two, on the basis that it increases the prospects for scrutiny of government in the modern era.

I understand the growing impatience of my right hon. Friend and a number of others over the length of time that this argument is taking. The longer that we continue to argue over the reform of the second Chamber, the greater will be the risk that more and more people will ask, "Why are we bothering with reform? Why do we not proceed to abolition?" That is why it is in the interest of the other place, as well of this Chamber, that we reach a clear decision this evening on the way forward to reform of the second Chamber.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook: I will give way on this occasion, but this must be the last time, because I am very anxious that other hon. Members should have the opportunity to speak.

Mr. Soley: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. As a member of the Joint Committee, I, along with others, will presumably be asked to put together the various views expressed in this Chamber. My right hon. Friend will already be aware of the wide diversity of views, even on individual issues such as total election or large-part election. I suggest to him that, if we want to continue with the reform—which is the point that he was making—the way to do so is to recognise that the second Chamber must be a hybrid chamber, that the Joint Committee must have the flexibility to be able to come back with recommendations, and that we are involved in a process of reform and not in some final solution to be decided today.

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