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Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend speaks to Kofi Annan this afternoon, will he emphasise that a concerted, committed push from a united international community would be enormously helpful in bringing the Naivasha peace process to a successful conclusion after a very long period of negotiation? The African Union, the surrounding African countries and African people living in Sudan and Chad desperately need the support of a united international community to enable them to deal with this crisis. Above all, will he emphasise the utter urgency of the situation? The United States Agency for International Development reports that 330,000 people are facing death within the next three months of the rainy season and it has highlighted the absolute test that that presents to the UN to face up to the problem and bring all its resources to bear on it, brooking no obstacle from the Sudan Government, factors of geography or whatever.

Hilary Benn: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's role as chairman of the all-party group. I know of his close interest in the Sudan and its people. It is a test that we cannot afford to fail. I can put it no more simply than that. There are two things that we have to do. One is to ensure that we do not fail; the second is to ensure that the momentum created by the Naivasha negotiations is continued.

The Sudanese Government have shown that they are able to reach agreement to end a long-running conflict that has hugely affected the country's people. We are trying to achieve both goals at the same time, but I made it clear in all my meetings with Ministers that the problem of Darfur must be dealt with now; otherwise, Sudan will not be able to enjoy the fruits of the Naivasha agreement.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): The Secretary of State is right to describe Darfur as the most serious emergency in the world today, but the picture that he paints—of conflict and humanitarian catastrophe—is all too familiar from contemporary experience in other African countries. The specific characteristics of each crisis are unique, but does the right hon. Gentleman think that common underlying reasons exist that are part of a wider pattern of instability in Africa as a whole? We hope that the measures that he has announced will prevent another Rwanda, but how can we prevent another Darfur in the future?

Hilary Benn: I do not think that the continent of Africa has characteristics that mean that it is, of necessity, more susceptible to such conflicts. After all, there have been conflicts throughout the history of our country and the continent of Europe. The question is, what do we do about the conflicts in Africa? How can
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they be effectively resolved? The essential elements are reasonably clear. International attention and pressure are important, and Governments in the region should take primary responsibility for the welfare of their people. Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who is no longer in her place, noted, the continent of Africa should develop its capacity to deal with these matters.

That is undoubtedly changing. One of the great things to come out of the AU is a strong determination to use the instruments of the peace and security protocol. I commend Said Djinnit, the AU's peace and security commissioner, for the energetic and visionary way that he is taking forward work that really opens up a new possibility for resolving the many long-running conflicts in the continent of Africa.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State share my concern that there is a danger that the violence in Darfur may be read across to Chad? It is reported that the Government there is already suffering from some instability because of a divergence of opinion about the amount of support to be offered to the Sudanese Government and the janjaweed. What is the right hon. Gentleman's sense of the likelihood of instability in Chad? Does he feel that humanitarian agencies and Governments are prepared for the potential consequences of that instability?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point, but my discussions in Sudan focused on the consequences of the conflict for that country. However, I can tell him that the UK Government have given £3 million in humanitarian assistance to Chad to assist with the very heavy burden that it now faces in dealing with an estimated 130,000 refugees, and that I am aware of the concerns about instability. Much has been said, and rightly so, about the people who have had to flee their homes, but the House should appreciate that the conflict affects other people too, such as those who find that their settled community now plays host to a large number of people from elsewhere. As we know, that creates tensions and difficulties that have to be managed as much as possible. We need to provide support to all those dealing with the consequences of the crisis.

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Points of Order

1.23 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there any way for us to get the Government to make a statement about the remarkable events in Belfast yesterday afternoon? I refer to the Prime Minister's action in sending his chief of staff to Stormont to conduct secret talks with leading members of the republican movement and of the Democratic Unionist party. Those talks were exploited last night by Sinn Fein in its attempt to snatch the Social Democratic and Labour party's Euro-seat. If such a statement were made, the Government might explain how they allowed themselves to be manipulated by Sinn Fein in that way. We might also be able to see the true picture of the positions of the parties involved so that, when the electorate go to vote tomorrow, they will know what they are voting for.

Mr. Speaker: These are not matters for the Chair. However, the Ministers concerned will have heard the right hon. Gentleman's comments, and no doubt they will wish to take some action on the matter.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A letter in the name of the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) has been delivered to a large number of my constituents. The letter's content is racially inflammatory and has caused serious offence to my Jewish constituents. Will you rule that such a practice is unacceptable and that no hon. Member should engage in it?

Mr. Speaker: I have not seen the letter, and so cannot comment on it. However, if the hon. Lady wishes to deliver the letter to my office, I shall look into the matter. I hope that that is helpful.
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House of Lords (Reform)

1.25 pm

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I beg to move,

On 4 February 2003, when the House voted on this matter, 245 hon. Members voted aye—among them me, the Prime Minister and 10 of his Cabinet colleagues. Since then, the Government have got into a terrible mess. Proposals for legislation appeared in the Queen's Speech, then the legislation was to be introduced the next day, and then it was abandoned, apparently because of some drafting error. Still later, a Bill was to be brought in some time in the middle of March, and then Lord Falconer told the "Today" programme that he did not intend to bother either House with the matter during this Parliament.

We have therefore gone full circle on this matter. However, in a spirit of cross-party co-operation, I thought that I would try to help the Government by introducing a Bill to enable the Prime Minister to have his way. My Bill uses exactly the same words as the motion voted on in February 2003. I employed this tactic a few months ago in respect of the European Union (Referendum) Bill, and that became Labour party policy about three weeks later. I hope that the same will happen this time. If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) opposes this Bill as he did my previous Bill, he is likely to upset the Prime Minister twice in one Session.

I also want to help the Prime Minister, as his Cabinet colleagues seem to be in the process of accelerating his move down the Corridor to the House of Lords. I am sure that he would want to make sure that that does not become an elected Chamber before he gets there.

There are two or three fundamental points to be made about what reform of the House of Lords should be put in place. I believe that an elected House of Lords would be wrong, as it would challenge this House's authority. An elected House of Lords would have democratic legitimacy and so would not feel constrained by the conventions under which it operates at present—that it does not oppose Government business that appeared in the Government's manifesto and that, in the final analysis, it does not prevent the Government from getting their business through. I believe that those conventions would lapse.

Moreover, I believe that an elected House of Lords would seek to overcome the constraints imposed by the Parliament Acts, and that it would eventually succeed in doing so. An election for the House of Lords might be fought on exactly that issue, and I believe that it would bring about a very fundamental change in our constitutional arrangements.

In addition, the democratic legitimacy of the House of Lords might on occasion be greater than that of the House of Commons. That could happen at the fag end of an unpopular Government, if that Government tried to introduce unpopular legislation. In such a case, the House of Lords might feel a greater legitimacy in opposing that legislation.

I am also concerned about the people who would seek election to the House of Lords. They could include people who cannot get elected to this House, or selected
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by a party management committee. The hurdle for getting into this place is not exactly of Olympic proportions, so what on earth sort of people would manage to get elected to the House of Lords?

If elections to the Lords were conducted according to the first-past-the-post system, there would be no point to them, as the House of Lords would then become simply a replica of this place, but with rather less able Members, on the whole. On the other hand, if a proportional representation system were used in the elections, we would get a bunch of party hacks.

One thing that we want in the House of Lords is independence. A party list is guaranteed to remove and exclude the mavericks and independents. There are a few such people in this House, who have somehow slipped through the system, and quite a number in the other place. However, there will be none if elections are by proportional representation of party lists.

Elected Members of the House of Lords will want salaries, staff and offices, and they will ask parliamentary questions and write letters to Ministers. My guess is that, as a result, the cost of running Parliament, and the amount of bureaucracy involved, will more than double.

The Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament that considered the issue set out five criteria, which were that the new format should have legitimacy, not be dominated by one party, be representative, be independent and possess expertise. However, those criteria are mutually incompatible. If the new format were not to be dominated by one party, it would have to be elected through proportional representation, which would mean no independence and little expertise. A first-past-the-post system would lead to one-party dominance at least some of the time.

We do not have much legitimacy or representativeness in the House of Lords, but we do have much expertise and independence. Those are the qualities that we lack here. Why should we try to replicate this place? Let us have a House of Lords that provides some of the factors that do not exist in this Chamber.

We cannot have a House that is partly elected and partly appointed. It must be one or the other, because we cannot have two classes of Members. My solution would be to give life peerages to all the remaining 90 or so hereditary peers. No more hereditary peerages would be created—or, at least, none that carried the right to attend the House of Lords—and we would continue with the present system of appointing life peers. That would be in the best tradition of British constitutional reform: it would be minimal and evolutionary.

Why have the Government got into such a mess on this and so many other constitutional issues? They have done so because they have embarked on programmes of fundamental change for superficial reasons and discovered the complexities too late. We saw that with the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor. The Prime Minister wanted to have the House of Lords presided over by someone in a suit, not a wig and silk stockings, and to get rid of Lord Irvine. The Prime Minister thought that if he abolished the office of Lord Chancellor, he would not have to get too tough with Derry and would be able to get rid of the wigs. Then he found that the office of Lord Chancellor is so deeply
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embedded in our constitutional arrangements that he could not abolish it, but the consequences were an afterthought.

It is as though the Government think that history began on 1 May 1997. Some Minister or apparatchik came up with the fatuous phrase about Britain being a young country. Britain is many things, but it is not a young country. However, the phrase betrayed the Government's thinking on so many issues. The foundations of our society have been built up over centuries of evolutionary change, and they include the supremacy of Parliament, the common law, the great universities, independent judges and the civil service. The value of those institutions is in their independence, but the Government have attacked them all in the name of modernisation.

One of the pillars of our society has been the existence of a second Chamber. Its powers were severely reduced in 1911 and there have been endless debates over the past nearly 100 years on what should replace it. However, the Government seem completely unaware of that debate. They lack an understanding of or feeling for history—how and why those institutions have evolved. Those who have no understanding of the past can have no vision of the future. They are condemned to live in the present, which is the most illusory tense of all. This Government live only in the present. They ask how their actions will play with the public, the media and the Labour party today or—if they are looking really long term—at the weekend. That leads to ill-thought-through initiatives and an obsession with headlines. The Government should remember that today's headlines wrap tomorrow's fish. Too many of this Government's fish stink.

The next Government, which I hope will be a Conservative Government, will not have to pick up where this Government leave off—as most do—but where they started, because they will have achieved practically nothing of lasting value in the constitutional arena. I used to wonder what this Government's epitaph would be, but I have concluded that they will not have one—just another day's headlines announcing their passing.

1.33 pm

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