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4 Feb 2003 : Column 164—continued

Mr. Forth: What I have said is that I hope as many of my colleagues as possible will vote with me for 100 per cent. and 80 per cent., but my judgment is that 60 per cent. is a step too far. My colleagues will, of course, make up their own minds, and I do not doubt that the excellent work of the hon. Gentleman's Committee will be one of the elements they will weigh in the balance before deciding how to vote.

Mr. Foulkes: While making recommendations to his colleagues, does the right hon. Gentleman not find it astonishing that the Leader of the House and, now, the shadow Leader should make speeches without referring to an amendment signed by more than 100 Members and selected by Mr. Speaker? What is his attitude to the amendment? Will he oppose it?

Mr. Forth: I should have thought that, having said what I have said about the sadly diminished role of the

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House of Commons in the current circumstances and hence the vital necessity of a legitimised, invigorated, self-confident upper House, I could hardly in logic either vote for or urge others to vote for the amendment. I do not believe that unicameralism is the right way forward, given our present dispensation, our present parliamentary provision and our constitutional arrangements.

I am aware that unicameralism works in a limited number of other contexts—not least that of New Zealand, one of my favourite countries. I readily accept that in very different circumstances it can be made to work. I do not, however, think it appropriate for us in our circumstances, at this stage of our constitutional development, for the reasons that I have given.

Sir Patrick Cormack: May I ask my right hon. Friend a question similar to the one that I asked the Leader of the House? In arguing so passionately for elections, does he believe that the second Chamber should be a revising Chamber pure and simple, as the Joint Committee suggests, or does he believe that it should have power to revoke?

Mr. Forth: I think I prefer the revocation to the revising end of things, for the reason that I have given. I do not shrink from the idea of legitimacy flowing from elections; I find it entirely acceptable.

Let me pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson), and the thrust of what was said by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)—who I thought was extremely patronising about voters. I have absolute confidence that we can devise a system of elections to an upper House that would make it distinct from this House. There could, for instance, be many fewer Members. Our official policy favours 300, but I would be prepared to consider even fewer. There could be large electorates, which I had as a Member of the European Parliament. There could be long terms of office—eight, nine or 10 years—and perhaps a third of Members could be elected every two or three years to separate the electoral cycle from that of the lower House. There are many ways of achieving elections and legitimacy, while distinguishing the method of election from that of the House of Commons.

Taking up the point made by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool, I would add that we do not need proportional representation to do that. It would be perfectly possible—indeed, I would prefer it—to do what we did in the glorious early days of the European Parliament, when I was resoundingly elected by the wise people of Birmingham, North back in 1979 under the first-past-the-post system with four large electorates. That seemed to me to work perfectly well.

I believe that there are answers to these questions. They all come back, do they not, to the age-old concept of democracy, votes, people participating, and elections. Many have suggested, both in our last debate and in this one, that voters will not understand the system, that they are easily confused, that they will be bored by the whole thing and that they will not bother to turn out. What an attitude to take towards our voters! As the

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Leader of the House has said several times today, we are the product of those voters—of their judgment and their ability to turn out. It really will not do for us to say now, rather loftily, that all they can manage is to elect us and no one else.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): While he is talking about age-old concepts, will my right hon. Friend recognise that some of us are keen to ensure that those who would never consider standing for election but are very distinguished in their own fields, and contribute enormously to debates in the upper House, continue to have a role that could not exist in a 100 per cent. elected House and might not exist in a largely elected House?

I understand the preference of many Members, including my right hon. Friend, for an elected element, but does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us want to pay tribute to the huge contribution made by our hereditary peers over the years? Does he accept that some of us regret the lack of an opportunity to vote to retain the status quo?

Mr. Forth: I readily welcome my hon. Friend's comments. I agree with much of what he has said, not least his tribute to our hereditary colleagues in another place. I hesitate, however, to be carried away too much by the idea of very important, very distinguished people making a vital contribution. I mean no disrespect by this, but I think it fair to say that the contribution of many of those very distinguished people is at best sporadic. I want a vigorous upper House, vigorously holding the Government of the day to account and making its own distinctive contribution. A sporadic appearance by very important and distinguished people might not quite fit the bill.

/flag> I think we must now hear from as many Members as have an opportunity to speak. I will end by saying—here I join the Leader of the House—that I sincerely and devoutly hope that, after the Government have marched us up this constitutional hill, the House will not allow itself to slither down the other side.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now on.

1.39 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I beg to move amendment (b), in line 1, leave out from 'House' to end and add

The amendment is in the name of myself and more than 100 Members who seek to establish a unicameral legislature. We did not table it because we take issue with the report produced by the Joint Committee under the very able chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). I accept that the seven options that the Committee came up with are entirely consistent with the terms of reference given to it,

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but we believe that the House should have the option of a vote on abolition. I should say at the outset that I consider the amendment a serious option, although I accept that it may not command majority support when we vote later today. Of course, it is equally possible that it will attract at least as much support as some, or any, of the recommendations.

Those of us who have put our names to the amendment have not, as some have suggested, done so as a cynical spoiling tactic: we believe that there is a serious case for a unicameral legislature. However, I will spend a little time answering those who have criticised our motives. As I have said, one particular criticism is that we have set up our argument for cynical purposes. For such a charge to have any substance, we would have to have some other, undisclosed motive: in other words, we would have to be supporting abolition as a smokescreen for some wholly different purpose. Other than in one or two cases that I shall refer to in a moment, nobody who signed up for this option was asked to support anything other than the option of abolition; nor, in most cases, did they offer an opinion as to what their second preference, if any, might be. So for the most part, I have no idea why my hon. Friends and others supported either the early-day motion or the amendment, other than for the obvious reason that they agreed with the position set out.

I can, however, give some information about my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and me. His first preference is for abolition, but failing that, he favours a wholly elected second Chamber. Similarly, I favour abolition, but because of the problems posed by a rival Chamber, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to last week, and because of the inevitable inconsistencies of a hybrid Chamber, my second preference is for an appointed Chamber or for the interesting and novel suggestion of an indirectly elected second Chamber. I suspect that each of my hon. Friends who supports abolition has individual reasons for doing so and for adhering to whatever second preferences they may have.

The second criticism, which has been levelled against Labour colleagues in particular, is that there was a manifesto commitment for reform, not abolition. That is true, but as I understand it, we are in the early stages of a process, and I suspect that we are unlikely to implement any proposal this side of a general election. So who knows what any party's manifesto will contain at the next general election?

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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