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Business of the House

8.45 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a short business statement. Further to my business statement of last week, the House will wish to know that we may now consider any further Lords message that may be received either at the commencement or the conclusion of business on 1 April.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Is it not appropriate that it will be April fools' day when the Government will be using extra time to force through changes to the electoral system in the face of the opposition of the Electoral Commission and all parties in this Parliament? Even the Greens voted with us in the House of Lords.

Will the time for the Easter Adjournment debate on Thursday be protected? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that there will no other ministerial statements that day? Is he aware that a third of the Labour Lords failed to attend the vote today in the other place? Instead of continuing his vendetta with the other place, will he think again and remember the correct procedure in this country for changing electoral procedures? We should reach agreement among all the parties and not have these sorts of changes pushed through using a temporary Commons majority, which if the Government go on this way will not last another year.

Mr. Hain: May I remind the hon. Gentleman that April fools' day ends at midday, and that these matters will be discussed after midday? He should at least get his early interventions correct.

This was not done in the face of the advice of the Electoral Commission. All the pilot areas selected, which were all proposed by the Government, were recommended by the commission in either the first or second category. Surely the hon. Gentleman will understand that the intention is to hold all-postal referendums in October, just three to four months after these elections. It is a matter of getting the pilots going so that we have the postal voting in place so that it can continue in October.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be any other statements on Thursday. I cannot give him that assurance. Nor can I give him an assurance that we will go beyond 6 pm.

This is a simple business statement to deal with an unprecedented situation. According to the records that we have been able to discover, we have never been in a situation where the House of Lords has disagreed on so many occasions. We hope that after the narrow vote—only six votes prevented the Government's position from being carried in the other place—there will be a reasonable reconsideration. We are grateful for the support that has been received from Cross-Bench peers, who understand that this is a matter of democracy. It is in the interests of the majority of people to be able to vote. Postal votes encourage them to do so, and all good democrats should support that.

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Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that while the content of the Bill is of considerable importance, the issues are now entirely different? The House of Lords, instead of acting as a revising—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) is on his feet.

Mr. Kaufman: The House of Lords, instead of acting as a revising Chamber, is pitting its will against the House of Commons. That was precisely what the Liberal party decided to prevent in 1910 when its Budget was rejected by the House of Lords. That was why the Parliament Act 1911 was passed with a Liberal majority in this place.

Is it not also a fact that it is almost certain—[Interruption.] That lot will never win an election to get a majority in this place, so they are using the other place. It is almost certain—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Mr. Kaufman: It is almost certain that there has been no occasion since the Liberal party passed the Parliament Act that the House of Lords has pitted itself against the House of Commons so many times. Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that is it essential for the will of the House of Commons to prevail, but that at the next election we should ask the electorate to agree to a manifesto reducing—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Mr. Hain: My right hon. Friend made his point with his customary eloquence and elegance. May I clarify one of his comments? It is not necessarily the House of Lords, but the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords who are in an unholy alliance to deny more and more people the opportunity of voting in the pilot areas.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I do not intend to go back to 1910, despite the recollection of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I want to go back to 1969. In 1969 the then Labour Prime Minister, Mr. James Callaghan—[Hon. Members: "1979."]—tried to push through—this is a true precedent—[Hon. Members: "1979"]—1969—

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Mr. Callaghan was Home Secretary in 1969.

Mr. Tyler: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I stand corrected. The Home Secretary of the day, Mr. James Callaghan, attempted to gerrymander—attempted to overrule—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. This is a very narrow debate. I have been generous up to now on the motion. I ask hon. Members to restrict their comments to the subject matter of the debate, and likewise their responses.

Mr. Tyler: The terms of the business motion imply that the views of the Electoral Commission are to be

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disregarded. I am sure that the Leader of the House did not intend to mislead the House a few minutes ago. The chairman of the Electoral Commission—to whom the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have referred, so I am sure it must be in order, Madam Deputy Speaker—specifically said that the commission could not positively recommend the addition of a fourth area, the north-west region, to the pilot studies. That is specific—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. It is not appropriate to discuss the substance of what the House will discuss on Thursday. I ask hon. Members to restrict their comments to the business statement before the House.

Mr. Tyler: I understand precisely what you are saying, Madam Deputy Speaker. As the Leader of the House indicated, this is germane to the business motion before the House. We are being asked in very difficult circumstances to deal with an extremely important issue on which the advisers to both the Government and Parliament—the Electoral Commission—have indicated their view. The Leader of the House made great play of the fact that the other place is not elected. That is in his hands. His Government do not have the guts to change the composition of the other place. I hope that he will now announce when that House is to be elected.

Mr. Hain: I am not sure that it would be correct for me to respond to the last point in the context of the business statement. As the hon. Gentleman referred to the views of Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, I shall quote from a letter he sent to the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie). He writes:

The House of Commons has repeatedly made its decision clear, including only a few minutes ago. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) should accept the will of the House of Commons and not rely on an inflated Conservative majority in the House of Lords to defy the will of the House of Commons.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): Is it not disgraceful that the House of Lords continues to defy and overrule this elected House of Commons, which must be the supreme House in this place? Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his decision to withdraw the proposals to reform the Lords, which would set up more sensible arrangements, make it clear that the House of Commons has supremacy and state that the House of Lords does not have the right continually to defy the House of Commons?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend makes the important point that the issue is constitutionally unprecedented. The House of Lords cannot continue to defy the elected will of the House of Commons when the House of Commons has repeatedly voted in this way.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): The Leader of the House did not answer the most important part of the representations by my hon. Friend

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the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), which concerns the Easter Adjournment debate. I regularly attend those debates, and I hope to attend on Thursday to raise important constituency matters. The Leader of the House is the custodian of the rights of hon. Members and is there to see that we get fair play as Back Benchers. Will he make a commitment that those of us who want to raise matters of far more importance to my constituents than this ping-pong will have a suitable amount of time in which to hold that debate on Thursday?

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