Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

1.49 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Contrary to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), I think that the Government have done remarkably well on constitutional reform. We are embarked on a course that we need to spell out in more detail, and we must pace ourselves rather well over the coming years.

The quest or the plan for a supreme court is precisely right. Our judges are not failing in any way, but the system is seriously out of date and puts us at risk of being in breach of article 6 of the European convention on human rights. We have signed up for a clear distinction between the legislature and the judiciary. We have judges sitting in our second Chamber and we need to bring that to an end. I do not want to go much further down that road. The Select Committee whose remit is constitutional affairs, of which I am a member, is considering, for example, the issues of independent selection measures for judges, where the proposed supreme court should sit and the way in which it should be organised. The Committee will report in due course.

It is important to modernise the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature. As I have said, that is not because of any criticism of our judges, but because time has moved on and we need to move with it. In a sense, the criticism of the British system is not that we do not have a written constitution; in many ways I regard it as an advantage to have an unwritten constitution. However, we have not made enough changes in recent times. There have been changes, of course, and we are now embarked on the right track. I shall focus mostly on reform of the second Chamber. Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden was saying, I think that the House failed, not the Government, to produce a workable proposal for a second Chamber.

The Joint Committee of the two Houses sat for a long time to contemplate a number of options. In my judgment, the Committee was too large to come up with really good suggestions on which the House could have voted with more effect. I suppose my main appeal is that we should reconstitute that Committee early next

2 Dec 2003 : Column 395

year with fewer members who are drawn from both Houses, with a duty to continue to explore reform of the second Chamber.

I believe that there is a majority in this place and, I suspect, in the second Chamber who know that reform cannot stop. The reality is that we cannot leave the second Chamber as it is. There are, for example, some relatively minor issues such as the size of the second Chamber and whether there should be a retirement age, but the much bigger issue is how the Chamber should be constituted. Other issues that we are addressing elsewhere in the constitution indicate to me that the second Chamber should be a hybrid Chamber. I shall return to that.

David Davis: The hon. Gentleman rather reinforces my view that the constitution should be changed carefully and slowly in order to get the outcome right. It is difficult to reverse the process. The hon. Gentleman is right in the sense that the House did not provide a clear decision when the issue was debated previously. Would it not be better to start with decisions that were the most popular—maybe they did not get a majority vote—and principally were the most democratic?

Mr. Soley: I understand that approach and I have some sympathy for it. I believe that for the best part of 100 years the big bang approach has failed when it has come to solving the problem of the second Chamber. Time and again, attempts have been made by Labour, and in the early part of the previous century by the Liberal party, to reform the second Chamber. Those attempts never really worked. Big steps were taken when the Liberals appointed more peers to get legislation through. There was the introduction of life peers, and so on, but the reality is that any attempt to arrive at a total solution, which is then imposed on the second Chamber, is unlikely to get support in this Chamber or in the other Chamber. That is why we constantly run into trouble. In that sense, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is right in his intervention. We need to pace ourselves on progress and reform.

How do we do that? I do not think that there is any real chance of a fully elected second Chamber being voted through in the two Chambers in the near future. Nor do I think that there is any credibility in a system that is wholly appointed along the present lines. We must move forward differently. It seems that everybody is signed up to an independent appointment system. In terms of the responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, we are moving fairly rapidly towards a system of devolved regional government. We have it in London and we have it in Scotland and Wales in the form of devolved assemblies. It is to be hoped that there will be such an assembly in Northern Ireland in due course. It is a matter of time before the English have devolved government. Some English regions will go for it quicker than others, but I guess or estimate that the idea will catch on and that we will have devolved regional government.

Around the world, many second Chambers are not made up of wholly elected Members. Instead, they are in some way made up of local regions. In a sense, the prize for Britain is to create an elected part of our second Chamber that represents the regions. The beauty of having a hybrid Chamber—by that I mean part

2 Dec 2003 : Column 396

appointed and part elected—is that it is made clear that the second Chamber is junior to this Chamber. The problem of having a wholly elected Chamber when we do not have a written constitution is that power could move between the two Chambers without let or hindrance. In a way, that is what happened in the 19th century. At one moment we had the then Prime Minister in the second Chamber, and then he was back in this Chamber. If we do not want to go back down that road, we need to make it clear that the House of Lords is a second Chamber and not the first Chamber.

Kali Mountford: Perhaps my hon. Friend will clarify for me what he means when talking about his hybrid view for the future of the House of Lords, or the second Chamber. What exactly does he mean in taking that hybrid view? Is he talking about a directly elected part, or would he consider an indirect election for certain Members chosen from the regions, and perhaps for particular interest groups?

Mr. Soley: My hon. Friend helps me in my argument. If we agree to set up the Joint Committee of the two Houses again early in the new year, as I would wish, I would like it to consider the advantages of direct as opposed to indirect election in the second Chamber in representing the regions. I would not go down the road of interest groups—that would be full of problems. The key is to recognise that the Government have devolved a great deal of power. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a centralising Government of the sort that we have had before. If we continue down that road, which English regional government moves us along, we must bring the United Kingdom back together again in the second Chamber. That is the reason for having the regions—in the widest sense of the term, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also the regions of England—represented in the second Chamber in some way. In that way we would strengthen the constitution.

My plea to this Chamber and to the second Chamber is to allow thinking to develop within the Joint Committee, if it is set up again. It would be a Select Committee and would be able to take evidence on, for example, the virtues of direct versus indirect election. It could then make proposals a step at a time to the two Chambers. I believe that we would get through a reformed House of Lords over the next few years. We will not get a reformed House of Lords by trying to push through a wholly appointed Chamber. Nor will we get through a wholly elected Chamber. That is why I argue that we should allow ourselves to be paced by a Committee that reports regularly to the House and puts proposals to both Houses on which they can vote.

I do not believe, and have never believed, that we can leave the House of Lords as it is. It needs to change, and that is the way forward. If we take the judges out of the second Chamber, questions are raised about who else should be there. There are difficult questions, including those about religious representation in a society that is much more diverse in its religious views. I am talking about one of the core ways forward.

We should not divorce what we are doing on constitutional change from what we need to do on the Floor of the House and elsewhere with the modernisation of this place. If we compare the House now and in 1979, when I became an MP, we can see that

2 Dec 2003 : Column 397

it is radically different and, in many ways, much better. The Committee structures work better and Westminster Hall, to which I can claim to have given birth, if that is the appropriate phrase—[Laughter]. It is probably not, but never mind. However, the introduction of debates in Westminster Hall was a useful development that has proved its worth. There are other options that we ought to look at. For example, I have already suggested to the Leader of the House that we ought to look at whether, in Westminster Hall, it is possible to allow Members of the Commons to question Ministers who are Members of the Lords. That would give a clear signal that the House of Lords is a second Chamber, but it would also allow hon. Members to cross-examine Ministers from the other place.

We also need to look at ways of allowing MPs to cross-examine European Commissioners as part of a wider examination of our constitution. I am not suggesting that those Commissioners should be called over here—not because they would not attend, but because if they had to attend assemblies in every country there would be a problem. However, sessions could be held in which European Commissioners would be questioned in an open format by Members of Parliament—that would be another useful step forward. My plea generally is that we should recognise that the way in which we modernise our constitution will have dramatic consequences. Although it may not be the burning question of the moment and may not cut much ice on the streets of Shepherd's Bush, Acton or indeed any other constituency, it affects everyone in the country. The way in which our constitution works determines the quality of our democracy and Government. We should therefore replace the Joint Committee early in the new year, but we should also be careful not to take our eye off the ball when taking a genuine opportunity that we have not had for at least 100 years to make basic, major reforms to the constitution and the way in which the two Houses work.

Next Section

IndexHome Page