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4 Feb 2003 : Column 199—continued

Mr. Bryant: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Jim Dowd: No; although I would get extra time for giving way, it would probably come out of somebody else's speech, so if my hon. Friend does not mind, I shall continue.

The aldermen system went back to the middle ages. It predated representative democracy of any sort and it took centuries to abolish it, so I am surprised that we are being dragged back to it 25 years later. I understand the argument about hybridity as a staging post to other things, but while I usually subscribe to the theory that every wedge has a thin end, I do not believe that everything is wedge-shaped.

The challenge is for this House and each and every Member of it to restore its reputation and the interests of the public in our democratic system by not being timid but being bold, adopting the truly radical option and reforming Parliament itself. That is a task that we should undertake immediately, enthusiastically and imaginatively.

Mr. Tyler: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there any way in which we can be informed of the outcomes of the Divisions that are taking place in the Lords? One has already taken place, and I understand that, contrary to expectations, 335 Members voted for a fully appointed House and 110 voted against, which shows that a much higher than expected percentage are against a fully appointed House. Is there any way in which we can get important information from the other end of the building?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I think the hon. Gentleman has already imparted some important information to the House. It is not a matter for the Chair.

3.40 pm

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): Hon. Members have made many interesting contributions to the debate. There were one or two canters around the clichés, but the vast majority were extremely thoughtful. I was particularly taken with the remarks of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), who talked about the effects on the public. Those of us who are professional politicians and constitutional anoraks would do well to take account of that sometimes. I occasionally give speeches in which I mention reform of the House of Lords, and the question that often arises at the end is, "Why bother? What's the point? Why not concentrate on health, pensions, crime or the other important matters that affect people?" Ultimately, however, until we are able to get our Parliament right, we will be unable to deal effectively with the issues that affect our citizens.

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The current system has two central flaws. First, our Parliament is flawed by the illegitimacy of the way in which the other place works. Secondly, people are frustrated by the political process, and find it difficult to understand why we in Parliament cannot arrive at a consensus on much of the detail that is before us. It is therefore vital that reform goes through and is not left for another century.

The amendment tabled in the name of the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) refers to unicameralism. There is certainly an argument for that system, and I would not dismiss unicameral Parliaments simply because they have only one Chamber. However, in this country, in this democracy, at this point, it would be virtually impossible to get rid of the other place and to create a unicameral system. If we took that route, it is likely that we would lose what little is good of the other place—there is a need for a revising Chamber—and would be unable to replicate it here. Although I have given the hon. Gentleman's suggestion considerable thought and think that the argument has merit, I shall move on to the other options that are before us.

Before 1995, when I entered Parliament on the death of my father, I was, in principle, broadly in favour of reform, but with a strong streak of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Many people took that view. Within a very short time of entering the other place, I decided that it needed to be reformed, that it needed to be reformed quickly, and that it needed to have a strong element of election. That was simply because I had realised that it does not work—that it does not fulfil the purpose for which it was designed, namely to offer a decent check and balance and to allow us to revise legislation properly. Too often, a perfectly sensible amendment—not an amendment concerning the principle of a Bill or a wrecking amendment—is knocked back in the ping-pong process simply because a majority of Members in this House have insufficient time properly to consider what the other place has asked them to consider.

I therefore rapidly came to the conclusion that the best option was for a wholly elected second Chamber, which would be my first preference in a vote. I recognise, however, that the option of 80 per cent. elected with 20 per cent. appointed has some attractions. There is an argument that says that the great and the good cannot stand up to the electoral process, poor dears, but ought to be brought into the other place, and I recognise that that has some validity.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): The hon. Gentleman implies that if a majority in this place knocks back a wholly reasonable amendment, an elected other place could countermand the wishes of the Commons. Is that his position?

John Thurso: Not exactly. I shall deal with that point later. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do so in the appropriate part of my remarks.

I do not subscribe to the argument for the great and the good. The idea that 20 per cent. of the second Chamber can be found among those who are worthy of passing judgment on our laws but are not up to the process of election does not wash. However, I will vote for the option of electing 80 per cent. and appointing 20 per cent. because I understand the arguments for it.

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I shall also vote for electing 60 per cent. and appointing 40 per cent. because if at least the majority are elected, the process will work sufficiently well and be so inexorable that my objective will eventually be achieved, probably in three or four generations.

I shall vote against all the other options. The worst of all worlds is surely a fully appointed House. That is simply the status quo. We are right to get rid of the hereditaries—the rest of them should go—but frankly, the current House of Lords is fully appointed except for the few hereditaries, who will be removed.

Mr. Love rose—

Mr. Levitt rose—

John Thurso: Let me make some progress. I am keeping an eye on the time. The present House of Lords is broadly appointed. It is interesting to consider the two lines of defence for that. We heard one on the "Today" programme this morning from the Home Secretary, who said that we should stop mucking about with an elected House of Lords, which would get in the Government's way, and concentrate on the archaic procedures of the upper House.

Lord Norton of Louth presented the other argument in the previous debate in the other place. He argued that the House of Commons had full democratic power simply because of the manifesto, which gave it authority over everything that the other place could do. That gentleman has never sought election and I doubt whether he will ever do so.

There are therefore two strands of defence for a fully appointed House. They are represented by those who want to push through their business and those who want to stay in the club for life.

Mr. Tyler: My hon. Friend speaks with great authority. Does he acknowledge that Lord Norton's argument that the manifesto must carry the day puts Labour Members in difficulty today?

John Thurso: My hon. Friend makes a good point, with which I concur.

I support a fully or mostly elected House because people outside must see the second Chamber as legitimate. Having sat in the other place, I know that no method other than election can achieve that.

I do not believe that election threatens the primacy of the House of Commons. First, we must discuss and define its primacy or supremacy. The manifesto is about principles and this House will therefore always have its way on principles, but the other place must have the right to deal with detail. It is important to maintain the conventions between the two Houses, especially the convention that provides that peers, Lords, senators or whatever they become should not get involved in constituency business. That is vital. They must stick to a regional interest. The convention of not voting down manifesto business must also be maintained.

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The conventions may have to be strengthened in legislation later, but if they can be maintained, the primacy of the House of Commons will not be in doubt.

Jim Dowd: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Thurso: I only have a minute left.

The Leader of the House compared Lords reform to "Waiting for Godot". Like him, I fear that we will end up with no change and that the status quo will be perpetuated. It is time to consider another Beckett play—"Endgame".

3.49 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): Instinctively, I am a unicameralist, and it is right that we are considering that option today. Indeed, I was one of those who signed the early-day motion expressing regret that that was not among the original options. Having considered the matter, however, I part company with others who are instinctively unicameralist on the issue of whether embarking on that route at this stage in our development would maintain the pace of reform, and whether it would achieve what the unicameralists wish it to achieve.

The unicameralist argument often states that the key issue is not the relationship between one House and the other but the relationship between Parliament as a whole—the legislature—and the Executive. That is the argument that took me down the unicameralist route, and it is one that we all have to address. It is also true that our political system is highly centralised in character. In many ways, it is increasingly presidential. The political environment that is created in an era of mass communication and instant media leads politics in that direction. This is underpinned and given greater impetus by the changes that are taking place in the global nature of economic and social relations. So to win office at a general election, the message of any political party has to be honed and distilled and, to get that message across, it is important that everyone remain on message.

Meanwhile, the media will constantly try to get below the radar of that message, to create what is perceived to be the best news and the best story, which is—surprise, surprise—a good row. If the good row is between people on the same side, it is better news than one between people on different sides. The impact of that on politics can be very destructive, because the political parties go further into defensive mode, which recreates the problem over and over again. This carries on after the election when a party is in government. Indeed, if members of a party are committed to radical change, the need to keep their eye on the ball and not be deflected from their purpose becomes even stronger. If they try to depart from that purpose at any point, people will have a go at them for that as well. Let us just consider the response that we have seen today to the issue of having a free vote on this matter.

It is not surprising, therefore, that politics becomes centralised or presidential. Nor is it surprising that the Opposition develop a tendency to score points rather than to scrutinise. That is part of the same process. In regard to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris) said, those are

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good reasons for the disconnection from politics that exists outside this place. We need to address that issue. If we are to do that, we need to achieve a greater separation between the role of the legislature and the role of the Executive. We could do that by implementing a unicameral solution, but the consequence of that for this place would be far greater than hon. Members might wish. It would almost certainly involve a change in the size of the House of Commons and a change in its voting systems. I would be comfortable with that, but I am not sure that many other Members would. It might also mean, if we were going to do it properly, that we had to elect the Executive separately. There is something to be said for that model, but it is not realistically on the agenda, either today or for some years to come.

If we are going to stick with a system in which the Executive are chosen from the main House of Parliament, that House will always have a dual role. It will always have a principal duty—perhaps rightly—to help the Executive, the Government of the day, to achieve their programme. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is why, in practical terms, we need a second Chamber. That argument leads those who, like me, are instinctively unicameralist to say that if we accept the need for a second Chamber, it must have legitimacy. That legitimacy can be achieved only if all, or at least a majority, of its Members are elected.

We should not be worried about the perceived threat to the primacy of this place. This is the House of Commons. It is the place from which the Government are drawn and, when push comes to shove, the Government will and should have the right to get their manifesto programme through. But surely that does not mean that they cannot be scrutinised properly. It surely does not mean that on occasion the legislature could not exercise some independence from the Executive.

If we are worried about that, we can of course specify limits. We can codify the system, much better than we do at present. But if we are ultimately saying that a second Chamber should in no circumstances have the right to challenge or to question, what are we really saying about the role of the legislature vis-à-vis the Executive? That is today's key question, and that is why I am not troubled by the principle of election.

Different forms of election can be adopted. Many speakers have mentioned the different models that might be used. It is also true that people with less traditional roots should be able to sit in the second Chamber, perhaps through indirect election or perhaps by other means. I certainly think that representation of the regions and the nations of Great Britain should be possible. I also believe that if we are to retain the second Chamber's role as a legislature but also a revising Chamber within a legislature, the suggestion made by several Members on both sides of the House that it should be separate from Government, and that members of Government should therefore not sit in it, has great merit.

As has been said by those who have advanced the unicameralist argument, if we believe in democracy we should have confidence in ourselves. That does not just mean confidence in this place, or in ourselves here and now; it means having confidence in Parliament as a whole, and allowing Parliament to fashion the institutions necessary for that to be achieved.

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The purpose of all this is not some dry constitutional one. It is not merely to establish the right precise mathematical relationship between the different Houses. The key issue is democracy, and the people who are most important to democracy are those of whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley spoke. Those people are not here; they are not even in the other place. They are the people outside who are losing confidence in the political process. That loss of confidence is not just a threat to us because fewer people turn out to vote in elections; it is a threat to democracy itself. Those of us who worry about the rise of racism and the far right in this country should ask whether there is not a connection between the lack of credibility of the conventional, mainstream political process and the fact that people are turning to those alternatives.

This is a key debate, not a dry constitutional debate. We should strengthen Parliament. We should vote for a second Chamber that is either wholly or substantially elected, and we should seek to change the way in which all too many people outside feel about Parliament as a whole. It is not that they agree with the Commons or with the Lords; they are saying, "A plague on both your Houses". It is time we changed that.

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