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4 Feb 2003 : Column 195—continued

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Tyrie: I will give way one more time.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am extremely grateful. If the House of Lords as it exists is abolished, which it would be on my hon. Friend's scheme, the Parliament Act would go, because it relates to the House of Lords as it exists.

Mr. Tyrie: That is an absurd constitutional and semantic non sequitur and therefore not worth replying to in depth. I will buy my hon. Friend a cup of tea. I am sorry to have made such a seemingly dismissive remark, but shortness of time prevents me from pointing out the legal nonsense embodied in his comment.

I shall address one concern that is taken more seriously: the possibility that the House of Lords could end up challenging the supremacy of this place. I favour a largely elected second Chamber, and again I agree with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, who said that it would inevitably mean that that Chamber had less legitimacy and could challenge us far less. I fall back once more on the Parliament Act. It seems inconceivable that we could lose a battle while the Parliament Act is in force, and it will not be removed.

The heart of our supremacy derives from the fact that this House is the source of the Executive, and that will not change either. I also support the proposal to remove Ministers from the House of Lords to emphasise the extent to which the other Chamber is a scrutiny Chamber.

There are other arguments against election. One is that there would be a loss of independent expertise. As I mentioned, I favour a minority appointed element that could perform that role. The Prime Minister's objection to that, which is the hybridity argument, is almost certainly an attempt to conceal another view entirely. He does not want a House of Lords that can interfere with what he is doing in the Executive. He wants Executive supremacy and any House of Lords that has moral authority generated from the ballot box will prejudice that supremacy.

That is why the Prime Minister has suddenly come out with the hybridity argument: we can have 100 per cent. elected or none elected. Of course, he does not want 100 per cent. elected. He knows that we will have none elected if Members follow his advice. He controls this place, as everybody knows on both sides of the House, and he wants to make sure that, one way or another, he can neuter the second Chamber. The way in which the Prime Minister intervened in the debate demonstrates the extent to which we need some protection from exactly that kind of presidential power from No. 10.

One more key issue needs to be addressed. Can the existing House, perhaps with the addition of an effective appointments commission, do the job of a second Chamber? Notwithstanding all the arguments that I have presented in favour of democracy, could we devise an appointed Chamber that could do the job? I very

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much doubt it, for reasons that have already been given. The precedent of the people's peers operation does not augur well. People would soon have the perception, even if it were untrue, that what we had put in place was a self-perpetuating oligarchy of the great and the good.

Nor does the record of the existing House of Lords suggest that it could perform the role. The debate that has just taken place in the other place shows the lack of constitutional imagination on the part of its Members. As has been pointed out, it was an argument that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It was a collective, ermine-clad Dr. Pangloss speaking. It was, in fact, a parody of Dr. Pangloss. A crucial job for the second Chamber is to think imaginatively and creatively about the constitution. It is a great shame that the House of Lords failed that ultimate test, thereby demonstrating that it cannot do its job.

I am by instinct a Conservative, and it is a fact that most second Chambers are conservative too. One way or another, around the world, they play a more conservative role than the lower House. I beg all Conservatives to think about the role that they want the second Chamber to play, beyond mere reaction to any constitutional proposals from this place. Conservatives believe in the value of organic institutions—institutions that can change and evolve over time. The time has come for the Lords to evolve and change. That process of evolution should have begun a long time ago—nearly 100 years ago—when those who put through the Parliament Act made it clear that they favoured the introduction of greater democracy. They thought that it would come within a few years, but the first world war intervened.

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley was right. What we have tonight is a vote of principle. The credibility of this institution is at stake. We have an opportunity to send a clear message to a wider electorate that this House is aware of the public's concerns about the state of democracy—that they are wary of presidential government and think that a second Chamber, democratically elected, could play a role in dealing with that. They want a higher quality of parliamentary democracy than they get now.

A largely elected second Chamber would not provide all the answers to our constitutional concerns, but it would point in the right direction. We must take this opportunity tonight, as an institution, to tell a wider public that we have been listening to them.

3.30 pm

Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West): As the debate has worn on, we have heard few new arguments. The arguments are becoming increasingly familiar, and I will try not to go over ground that has already been covered. Like everyone else, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and his Committee on the work that they have undertaken, but I agree strongly with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that they were given a dodgy brief. It is hardly surprising if what they have managed to produce reflects the imperfection of what they were given to work on.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) on his tenacity and ingenuity in ensuring that the House has

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the opportunity to vote on the question of abolition in principle. I will be completely staggered if we are successful in the amendment, but it will at least have served the purpose of airing the arguments. We can then put the issue to one side as we attempt to unravel the Gordian knot of what remains after the votes here and in the other place.

Lords reform is not the most important issue that the House has to address. As others have said, it is certainly not the most important issue in the constituencies. I should be surprised if this were a matter of great and heated debate in any constituency in the country. It certainly is not in "The Golden Lion" in Sydenham. I went through my case load yesterday to see how many letters I had received on House of Lords reform, and they numbered three. All the letters had been received since the publication of the White Paper in 2001. For those who have speculated on what we may have said to our respective electorates, I replied to all three that I am a unicameralist and I believe that reform of, and confidence in, this Chamber are far more important than trying to fix problems elsewhere in the building.

For simplicity's sake, I refer the House to the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) a fortnight ago, because it put the case forcefully, succinctly and, more than anything, briefly, for our having the confidence to move to a unicameralist system and take on the challenges that would then lie before us.

Of all the arguments that would persuade me to vote one way or the other, the exhortations of the Opposition would count the least. For years, those born-again reformers told us that if we tampered with the other place at all, the temple would be rent asunder and reduced to ashes around us. They told us that the Lords was a magnificent institution and that although we would not invent it, it worked. Now they are saying that it does not work, with all the zeal of the convert. Listening to the Opposition reminds me of the story of the mature couple who were spending a few days at a seaside hotel. On the second evening, one said to the other, "The food here is absolutely inedible." The other replied, "Yes, and such small portions." That is the position of the Conservative party on House of Lords reform.

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) spoke a fortnight ago, with his usual eloquence. He said:

Reading between the lines, that sounds more like a plea to protect the House from Ministers like him. He was a senior member of the Conservative Government and held some of the highest offices in the land over those 18 years. He is a forceful, courageous and persuasive person. How could somebody now so fired by that zeal have managed to keep a lid on it for all those years? That is an act of restraint that is an example to us all. Nor is the right hon. and learned Gentleman the only Opposition Member of whom that question could be asked. I exonerate the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick

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Cormack)—the latter has not yet spoken, but he has made several interventions—who have stuck more closely to the traditions of the Conservative party.

The Conservatives appear to wish to try to achieve by procedural means that which they cannot achieve by electoral means. Because the British people have twice, by large majorities, shown that they do not trust the Conservative party, it does not want to trust the British people. Instead, it wants to put in place structures that it can then try to exploit.

In 1845, Benjamin Disraeli, probably in this very Chamber—[Hon. Members: "Not this Chamber."] I refer not to this physical place, but to the Commons. I apologise; I was not speaking geographically. At that time, Benjamin Disraeli described the then Conservative Government as an organised hypocrisy. Some 160 years on, he could reflect on the fact that the Conservative Opposition are a disorganised hypocrisy, and they need not expect us to be taken in by it.

There are many examples of democratic systems and models throughout the world, whether they are unicameral, bicameral—even tricameral, for all I know—or presidential, executive or parliamentary. I do not know whether any one is better than another or whether somebody can say that they live in a better democracy because they have a bicameral system as opposed to a unicameral one, or because they have a President as opposed to a Prime Minister and a parliamentary system. I was taken with one of the interventions made from the Opposition Benches, which told us that a bicameral system had twice the power of a unicameral one. In that case, why do we not have a tricameral or even quadricameral system? It could go on and on. That is a ludicrous proposition.

An organisation and institution is as strong as the structures that it has in place. The challenge of unicameralism is to take that on and to have confidence in our ability to hold the Executive to account and take on some of the changes that we have engineered in recent years. Numerous changes have been made in respect of pre-legislative scrutiny and draft Bills. We could even incorporate the interrogatory role of the Select Committees into the legislative process, if we wanted to do so. There are 659 of us, for goodness sake, so we should be able to achieve that degree of change if we believe in it.

The worst option and the one that has taken the heaviest battering today is hybridity. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) does not like the name, but that is what the option is. I wrote in my notes that it was the worst of all worlds, but I noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) said the same thing earlier. I do not know where she got it from. As to other hybrid solutions, or alleged solutions, not only are some of them half-baked, but others are completely unbaked.

Just under 30 years ago, when I was first elected to the London borough council of Lewisham, I remember that we had people called aldermen. I am sure that plenty of hon. Members will remember them. They were abolished—[Interruption.] Indeed, as somebody says, they were appointed. All the councillors were elected, and in the first council meeting after the election, they used to appoint aldermen, who had all the powers of a councillor with none of the responsibilities. They had no

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electorate or constituents and nothing to equalise their position with that of councillors. Four years later, they were removed and their role was abolished. That was done by general and universal consent, because we could not have two types of councillors. We can only have one type and all the theories about hybridity cannot overcome that problem.

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