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4 Feb 2003 : Column 188—continued

2.59 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I begin by expressing my delight at having this opportunity to debate and vote on Lords abolition. Like other hon. Members, I was disappointed when the Joint Committee did not include the option for abolition, so I am pleased that the good office of the Speaker has put that wrong right.

When I first asked the Leader of the House why the option of abolition was not included, we first heard about the Labour party manifesto commitment. I said to him that surely the matter was for all Members and should not be left to some flimsy Labour party manifesto commitment. I have had a look at the history of the Labour party's attitude to the House of Lords. Although it is a long time since abolition was at the core of new Labour's mainstream thinking, it was only 10 years ago that a constitutional committee co-chaired by one "Tony Blair, MP" reported that "proper democratic elections" should be introduced for the House of Lords. In the 2001 manifesto, we find Labour saying:

That is not what the Prime Minister is saying these days. He wants a fully appointed House of Lords—the antithesis of "representative and democratic". The Prime Minister's words are everywhere in the Labour party manifesto. Surely something is fundamentally wrong when a Labour Prime Minister cannot even be seen to support his own manifesto. I find that shocking and quite appalling.

The Leader of the House has not had a particularly good week either. There was a little rally for him yesterday when a number of junior Ministers said that they would support his preferred option, but I get the sense that that is beginning to ebb today. I have seen some of the activity around the Corridors, and the Whips nodding assiduously in agreement whenever there is any mention of appointment. I think that the Leader of the House is on for a bit of a gubbing this evening. Faced with such difficulties, perhaps the Leader of the House would consider joining us in the move for

4 Feb 2003 : Column 189

abolition. I suggest that that is one sure way that he can stick it to the Prime Minister and the best way to get rid of this thorny issue of House of Lords reform.

Mrs. Laing: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I will give way on one occasion.

Mrs. Laing: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's argument for abolition. Does he not acknowledge that the job of Parliament is to hold the Executive to account? Parliament needs to be strong in order to do that, and by its nature a unicameral system is less strong because it has only half the power of a bicameral system. Therefore, there is no logic to his argument.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. I shall come to that important point.

Like many hon. Members, we in the Scottish National party felt disfranchised over the exclusion of options and when we thought that we would have the opportunity to vote only for our second or third choice. Therefore, we are delighted to have the opportunity to vote on abolition. We know that 108 Members have signed early-day motion 529 calling for the abolition of the House of Lords. That might prove to be the most popular option available this evening. Is it not a disgrace that that might not have been available to us?

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: No. I said that I would give way only once, and I want to make progress.

I was disappointed in the debate a couple of weeks ago at the response made on unicameralism. It was suggested that only small and insignificant countries had unicameral legislatures. That is disrespectful to the number of legislatures throughout the world that operate such a system. How can we consider robust democracies such as New Zealand and Sweden to be small and insignificant? It is a disgrace that that claim was made.

If we look at the experience of legislatures worldwide, we find that bicameralism is in the minority. Only one comprehensive survey of national legislatures has been done, and that was by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which identified that, of a total of 178 state legislatures, some 127 were unicameral. So, unicameralism is in the majority.

We do not need to go round the world to find successful examples of successful unicameralism. We need only to cross the border into Scotland. The Scottish Parliament is unicameral and successful. Instead of a second Chamber, it has a powerful Committee structure and practises much more pre-legislative scrutiny. This place can only dream of the accessibility it affords to the public and representative bodies.

Abolition would be very popular with the public. Public opinion on that has not been tested because it was not one of the seven options, but the idea that the public regard the House of Lords with anything like affection

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is fallacy. The public do not have a clue about what the House of Lords does and are bemused by its activities. In fact, if the public were asked about their predominant view of the House of Lords, I would wager that a good majority would describe some belligerent old soul gently napping while a fellow octogenarian delivered an interminable speech. Being excluded from any democratic control over the new House of Lords would further alienate the public from this Chamber and politics in general. The public would not miss the House of Lords at all.

We understand that this debate is very much a process and that second and third choices will have to be made. I do not expect the amendment to be agreed, but we in the Scottish National party and those representing Plaid Cymru will vote for a fully elected Chamber, and beyond that for any combination that leads to a majority of elected Members. We remain deeply uneasy and suspicious about the issue of appointment. We remain concerned that the indefensible House of Lords will become the unjustifiable house of cronies.

We agree with the Leader of the House when he says that an appointed Chamber must have elections to have legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Indeed, opinion polls show that appointment is the least popular option, even when the question is put in the most favourable way, as it has been on several occasions. The public know what is going on; they just do not like the idea of political carve-ups in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors. When the public have no say in who inhabits our political institutions, it leads to immediate alienation. When they have no sense of ownership of our political institutions, they view them with justified suspicion.

I do not find the reasons for a fully appointed chamber in any way convincing. The excuse that the public would not be interested in voting for the House of Lords is the flimsiest one around. Voting is a right and it is up to the individual whether to exercise that right or not. Democracy is not abandoned just because people exercise their right to withhold their vote. What would happen if at the next general election less than 50 per cent.—say 40 per cent.—vote? Do we scrap democracy in this place and have an appointed House of Commons? That is a ridiculous argument, which I hope does not merit any further discussion.

The central question is what the Appointments Commission will look like and who will appoint the appointers. The Joint Committee is very unclear about that. Its report gives no suggestion on the type of person who should serve on the commission. In fact, it is very keen on prime ministerial patronage. Its report states:

In fact it goes on to suggest that only the Prime Minister has the right to have nominations concerned. If that is not prime ministerial patronage gone mad, what is? That would be an extension of Tony's cronies.

Appointment is plain wrong. In the hands of a centralising Government who treat this House with contempt, an appointed second Chamber would be the worst type of neutered poodle. Surely no House of Lords is preferable to a neutered appointed House.

We live in a time when the right to choose or dismiss our rulers is beginning to be seen as under threat. It is the standard refrain that the electorate are too bored and

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too cynical to vote. There is a world of difference, however, between voters choosing whether to exercise their franchise and the politically weak using the fact that people do not do so as a justification for curtailing such franchise. It would be better to have no upper Chamber than to have one that entrenches the political cronyism that has become such a trademark of this Government.

3.8 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): I welcome the fact that, if the amendment preferred by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) fails, he will vote for a 100 per cent. elected House. My preference is for a wholly democratically elected Chamber. I am persuaded by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he says that, should that fail, those of us who support it should vote for the 80 or 60 per cent. options. I would do so with considerable reluctance because the argument that some have advanced about the problems of hybridity—two tiers of Member—is a real one. Perhaps cynically, I would vote for the 80 or 60 per cent. options in the hope that, once we were over the 50 per cent. mark, it would be a matter of time—perhaps not the first time, but inexorably and inevitably—before we moved, probably in our lifetime, to a 100 per cent. elected second Chamber. With that proviso, I support the smaller options.

I agree with what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said about that those who support appointments. One or two hon. Members spoke in favour of that, but they made only a negative case. None of them said that they want to tell the electorate in their constituency, "I do not think that you ought to have the right to elect half of Parliament." I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall that, had they even glanced at the debate in the other place, they would have undergone an exercise in aversion therapy as regards appointments.

Even at this late stage, when we have been debating the matter both within and without the Chamber for some time, there is still confusion and doubt about the powers and responsibilities of the second Chamber, and the potential for clashes and deadlock with this Chamber. That is a misconception, as it is not at all difficult to devise a remit for the second Chamber that makes it complementary to this one rather than being in conflict with it. Both Houses have the parliamentary job of holding the Executive to account. We have been sent here to form a Government, if we are in a majority party, and to hold the Executive to account. To do so, we need two strong, confident and legitimate Chambers, both in their different ways holding the Executive to account.

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