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4 Feb 2003 : Column 204—continued

3.58 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): You at least, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were born a Lord and will die a Lord.

I am tempted to say that if we have been chewing over the problem of the future of the House of Lords for 100 years and have not come up with a solution, it may just possibly be because the problem has not presented itself as a particular problem. On the whole, political systems are able to respond to the need for things to be done, and we should be cautious about assuming that an imperative now exists that did not exist before. None the less, I think it sensible to act, and my inclination will be to vote for the "elected" options.

All of us who have been in Government have experience of the House of Lords. My experience is that when it is good it is very very good, and when it is bad it is awful. It is very very good when its members take advantage of a body of expertise and know what they are talking about; it is awful when they just pick up the press release from the lobby group. That may cause them to become insufficiently analytical and too sentimental in their treatment of serious political subjects. I have to say that fisheries comes to mind.

We should also beware the tyranny of the manifesto. At the last general election, I took the precaution of dissociating myself in some regards from my party's manifesto. What is important is to tell the electorate that there are things for which one stands as an individual. I do not believe in the sort of determinism whereby one acts exclusively within the framework of a manifesto. Indeed, as several hon. Members have mentioned, the Labour Government are doing or envisaging things that are miles away from any thoughts that they had at the time of their manifesto's writing.

I should say by way of a preliminary that we should beware of looking for what one Labour Member rather chillingly called the final solution; things shift constitutionally. We are witnessing major constitutional change within the United Kingdom, and eventually we

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may well wish to reflect those changes. If we go down the route of a much more genuinely federal state, for example, there could eventually be an argument for representing the nations and parts of the United Kingdom in a forum where the diffuse interests of government can be represented, as against the centralised instruments.

The issue is not one of the House of Commons against the House of Lords. It is a mistake to regard this as an inter-Chamber conflict—I am much more interested in the accountability of the Executive and their scrutiny by Parliament itself. If we are to have effective accountability and scrutiny, my own inclination is increasingly towards removing the Executive not merely from the House of Lords, but from Parliament altogether, thereby adopting a much more congressional system of government. I can see the argument for unicameralism. In many ways, a unicameral Chamber would be much more responsible—indeed, it would have to be so—than a Chamber for which a long-stop was present in case it made errors, but the case has yet to be made.

Nor do I think that the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords is incapable of being regulated in such a way as to maintain the supremacy of the House of Commons. A series of measures—including the Parliament Act, which would continue to have force—enables the maintenance of the supremacy of this place. We could, at a pinch, give the House of Commons exclusive competence over certain matters of constitutional importance, in order that we hold the brief entirely within our own hands. However, it is no bad thing if the House of Lords strains against the traces in the process of establishing the customs and practices that determine the practical functioning of our constitution. So I have no problem with a period in which everybody is feeling for where the new relationships lie in the new structures.

Of course, an elected Government must ultimately have their way on issues for which they have specifically sought a mandate, but they must argue for their way. Given that so many political programmes today are aspirational rather than specific, we should, as I said, be somewhat cautious before we elevate the manifesto to the status of biblical truth.

There are, of course, other ways of hobbling the Government. A classic one is simply to have a system of proportional representation, which normally denies Governments a majority made of one particular party. I do not favour that option, but it is certainly available. There is also the genuinely federal structure, and the separation of the Executive from the legislature. There is no single model that would enable us to achieve the supremacy of, or the accountability of, a particular Chamber. I know that colleagues from Wales and Scotland have been somewhat scarred by the notion of competing Parliaments, but devolution does not provide the analogy. Devolved Parliaments are primary legislatures in a limited range of activities, but they are primary legislatures none the less. Even though they may ultimately derive their powers from this place, in practice they are primary legislatures, and nobody is suggesting that the House of Lords should aspire to, or be granted, that status.

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I am also slightly suspicious of the use of the word "legitimacy". Legitimacy is divisible—there is no single concept of it. What does it mean in practice? It means that people accept that peers and others in positions of political authority are there by virtue of a particular merit, having gone through a particular process. I am afraid that there are only two ways of displaying merit in the modern, complex, technological state in which we long since abandoned the hope of identifying some form of renaissance man. One is the vulgar method of election, and the other is the Aristotelian method of nomination by elders. The latter is demonstrated in "The Magic Flute", in which a number of people preside over the highest sphere of wisdom, insight and purity, and occasionally invite others to join them. Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends would undoubtedly be candidates for that high office, but it may not be immediately relevant to our present debate. A revising Chamber does not necessarily need the same legitimacy as a primary legislative Chamber. We should not get hooked on some deterministic notion of what constitutes legitimacy.

My inclination is to go for an elected Chamber because that is the simplest outcome. On the whole, simplicity is a virtue in politics—not least because it enables me to understand. I am willing to contemplate a hybrid Chamber, but it would be helpful to know how big it might be. If we assume that an element of nomination is needed to ensure a certain degree of expertise, it would be useful to know whether that Chamber will have 120, 200 or 150 places to distribute that expertise around. I would have liked that question to be settled first because that would have assisted me with my percentages.

Tony Wright: The Public Administration Committee recommended a House of 350 Members and showed with great precision how, over a 10-year period, we could get from where we are now to where we would like to be.

Mr. Curry: As we have gone virtually 100 years without substantial change, I have some hesitation in assuming that in the space of the next decade or so, we shall make such rapid progress as the evolution indicated by the hon. Gentleman. The size of Chamber that he mentioned would be more congenial to me than 600—perhaps one even smaller.

As to the means of election, beware funny franchises. The idea of a non-renewable franchise is a monstrous affront. One would invite people to vote specifically to enable one to renounce any accountability that the electors may have vested in one. One would simply say, "Goodbye. I am not coming back."

On what basis people would vote, I do not know. My inclination would be seven years, which has a certain biblical ring. If there is no better precedent, no doubt that would be reasonably congenial. After all, we are talking about a political body—not some great academic institution that exists to preserve the country's culture. We are not talking about nominations to the Académie Française but about a second political chamber of the British Houses of Parliament. Let us not shun the idea of electing politicians to do a political job.

Of course there will be difficulties. The electorate will ask, "What is at stake?", and there is always a problem when there is nothing specific at stake, such as a change

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of Government. It is difficult to give a ringing speech such as, "I am standing on a mandate and asking you to give me the power to revise." From the point of view of a political stump, I would rather watch that than perform it, but we must get over such difficulties. There will be no point blaming the electorate if the process lacks sufficient interest.

I am concerned about the implications of nominations. I fear the nomination of the self-promoting and the highly profiled, and defining the expertise required. The individuals who identify the expertise and make the nominations may turn out to be the most powerful people in the land—the real senate. And I hope that we do not get stuck with an obsession with gender, ethnic balance, sexual preference, regional origins and all sorts of other criteria—so that we put a jigsaw puzzle into the House of Lords, then find that the bits do not fit.

The Government have modernised this House and reduced our ability to scrutinise. We depend on their Lordships to deliver the checks that we can no longer provide, but it is unsatisfactory if the primary legislature is merely a vehicle for Government. We need to think in terms of Parliament, not Chamber. We cannot have a combination—the danger we face—of the impotent and the illegitimate. We need to get on with the measured reform that we now have the prospect of achieving.

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