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4 Feb 2003 : Column 207—continued

4.9 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I will not take up my full time because many colleagues wish to speak.

I feel ground down by this debate. We have discussed the matter exhaustively and I hope that we will reach a resolution, so that at long last something will happen rather than endless navel-gazing.

I have always been in favour of a small, directly elected second Chamber. To paraphrase the Prime Minister, "Let's go for it. We are at our best when we are bold." The Leader of the House has searched for a long time for the centre of gravity, and we can discern it emerging through the mists. Astonishingly, the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats came down in favour of 80 per cent. elected and 20 per cent. appointed. Despite what the Prime Minister has said, the Labour party has always had an overwhelming majority in favour of an elected second Chamber.

I am a member of the Select Committee on Public Administration, and I was prepared to sink my differences and try to find the centre of gravity. The Committee favoured a ratio of 60 per cent. elected and 40 per cent. appointed. That was not my preference, but I was prepared to sign up to it to get some change. That is what we must hold on to in this debate: we want there to be some movement and some change.

The Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform report proposed a second Chamber of 600 Members. That is completely grotesque. The Leader of the House told us earlier than only five upper Chambers in the world have more than 200 Members. We simply do not need a second Chamber of such elephantine proportions. It would be absurd.

Another thing that sticks in my throat is to hear in debate after debate about all the philosopher kings in the second Chamber. We are told so much about peers'

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wisdom that there seems nothing that they cannot do, but most are part-timers. The Public Administration Committee inquiry found that 25 per cent.—one quarter—of peers asked 87 per cent. of the questions and made 76 per cent. of speeches and interventions. Most simply do not turn up.

Mr. Foulkes: It is a bit like here.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I appreciate my right hon. Friend's support, but I hope there is no more heckling from him.

I shall end with the position of the Prime Minister. It has been comprehensively rejected by the Labour party. I have gone through the all the studies and reports, and all the findings from the commissions and policy forums that have been set up. Not one submission called for a wholly elected second Chamber—

Hon. Members : Appointed.

Mr. Prentice: I am sorry, I meant to say appointed. I was getting carried away. I need to chill out.

In 1994, just after the Prime Minister became leader of the Labour party, he said:

That is not true: between 1983 and 1992, the Labour party was going to abolish the Lords. However, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield went on to say that he wanted there to be in the Lords

That is where he was coming from. That thinking led us to the bizarre recommendations of the Wakeham Commission, religious representation and all that nonsense. That thinking led to the House of Lords appointments commission and the pantomime of the people's peers.

I do not want people's peers. I want a people's Parliament, and that means election not appointment. In that, I think that I speak for the Labour party more than the Prime Minister.

4.14 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said that the Prime Minister may have changed his mind, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that he has done so on issues other than this one. In 1983, the Prime Minister campaigned on coming out of the EU.

Pete Wishart: What about his membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am reminded that the Prime Minister was also a CND member. He has been on a steep learning curve. In my opinion, he has improved very much. He has now arrived at a very commonsensical solution.

I have sat through every debate on House of Lords reform both in this Parliament and in the last one. Furthermore, in the last Parliament, for three years, I had the honour to be a Front-Bench spokesman and

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frequently had to give way to interventions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) who constantly advocated a senatorial solution—

Lynne Jones: And a sartorial one?

Sir Patrick Cormack: And always a sartorial solution as well—of course.

As we come to the end of this phase of the debate, there are two logical ways forward. The first is to go for a fully elected House, which means several things. It will inevitably lead to the abolition of the House of Lords as it exists at present, and its replacement by a second Chamber that is differently constituted in every particular. If that second Chamber is to attract people of real calibre to stand as Members, it must have real power. That means a redistribution of powers between our two Chambers and, in effect, that for the first time we have a written constitution.

We must face up to the logic of that argument. Members of the second Chamber would have to be elected on the same day as the general election. They could be elected for eight-year terms, rather like Members of the US Senate who serve six-year terms. We would thus move towards fixed-term Parliaments. Those who advocate a fully elected second Chamber must face up to that logic. The Leader of the House did not do so, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst did precisely that when I asked him whether he was really advocating a revising or a revoking chamber. He replied honestly—I commend him for that—that he was really arguing for a revoking chamber, which would have the power to revoke things decided in this place.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) is not in the Chamber, although I have his full authority for what I am about to say. He has apologised to me for his rather dismissive reaction when I said that if we took the route advocated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, the Parliament Acts would almost certainly go. That is the opinion of many constitutionalists. What would certainly go would be the Salisbury convention. As hon. Members on both sides of the House know, the Salisbury convention is that the House of Lords, as currently constituted, always gives a Second Reading to every Bill that is referred to in the manifesto of the party in government. It is one of those things that help our delicately balanced constitution on its way.

Mr. Forth: As we have demonstrated that on this issue—as on others—the Government pay scant regard to their own manifesto, does my hon. Friend agree that we need not be worried by an elected upper House paying scant regard to a manifesto?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I shall not follow my right hon. Friend along that line, except to point out that Members in opposition always behave a little differently from when they are in government. I listened with a degree of amusement both to my right hon. Friend and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford

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and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who made a splendid speech. When they were Ministers and I opposed the poll tax—as I did, even for Scotland—I know what they said about me.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): They were right.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I think that I was right.

If Members want a powerful second Chamber, which has the power to revoke, they must face up to all the consequences that I have described and to many more besides. We should have a very different sort of Parliament. I believe in the primacy of this House—as does the Joint Committee. I am sure that almost every Member will agree that the proudest moment of our lives came when we were first elected to this place. To come here to represent a British constituency is the highest honour that anyone can have.

I believe in the primacy of election and in the primacy of this House, but I also believe that there is a case for having a Chamber constituted of people who have rendered signal service to the state in a whole range of fields and disciplines. That is what we have in the House of Lords at the moment. I do not believe that the system of appointment is perfect, and the Joint Committee will have to address that issue with great care and thought, and in detail. Nevertheless, I would rather have a fully appointed, nominated House than one that would inevitably challenge the primacy and supremacy of this House.

As I said in an intervention, I would much rather be a unicameralist, with such things as weighted majorities written into the constitution, than one who supported two elected Chambers. I cannot vote for the unicameral solution. I asked Mr. Speaker whether he could allow such a vote last, but he said that he could not—I fully understand why—so the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) will understand why I cannot vote for his amendment, although I am glad that it was selected. That way lies a certain logic; the way that I am arguing lies another sort of logic: a balance between the two Houses—one of the elected representatives of the people and the other to provide the counsel of elders and experts who can revise and scrutinise. Far from criticising the size of the Chamber and the fact that its Members are part-time—they are very cost-effective, too—we should realise that it is a very good thing that people go there and speak when they know what they are talking about, which is not always the case here.

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