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10 May 2006 : Column 439

Mr. Shepherd: I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will give us his views on what that means.

My intention in speaking to this seemingly innocuous motion is to put down markers. The matter is profoundly important.

Simon Hughes: I want to clarify an implication of what the hon. Gentleman generously said about my colleagues and me. We did not sign up to the division of members of the Committee because we wanted to argue in support of it. We were told that the Committee’s composition would have to follow the balance of numbers in the House, which is why it will consist of seven Government Members, three Conservative Members, one Liberal Democrat Member and no others. We certainly retain, as he would, our unhappiness about the balance and representation. I understand that the same procedure is applied in the Lords, although the numbers are different because the balance is different.

Mr. Shepherd: I am slightly surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s response inasmuch as the House is the master. Amendments could have been tabled to address the composition of the Committee, but they have not been tabled. I came late to the motion—that is, yesterday. I would have tabled amendments on the names, but one has to ask people whether they are prepared to serve on Committees. The list of Committee members is ill-balanced and wrongly constructed. It can only have been carved up by Front Benchers, which must mean that the Liberal Democrats were complicit in the arrangement.

Simon Hughes: I can say, because I was consulted, that we did not agree to the division, but protested about it. I think that the motion was tabled yesterday, so the hon. Gentleman is right that amendments could have been tabled to it to open up the question of the composition. However, we certainly never voluntarily and happily assented to the division of numbers.

Mr. Shepherd: But, with great respect, the Committee could be meaningful only with the Liberal Democrats’ participation. If they had said that they could not participate on the Committee because of the paucity of representation from elements in the House, the Government would have rethought the list.

Mr. MacNeil: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that both Liberal Democrat and Conservative Front Benchers have given the Committee legitimacy by participating?

Mr. Shepherd: Much of the business of the House often goes through in a spirit of comity and, in fact, ignorance. The truth is that it is dependent on hon. Members to examine propositions that come before us. I have often made the point that we are all party men in one sense or another, but there are some matters, namely about the House itself, on which we have to stand up and say what we believe is appropriate or right. The motion is a typical example of the way in which business has been done in the modern age. It would previously have been a hotly-contested matter. It bemuses me—I say this just as an observation—that the House of Lords would ever have agreed to such an
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arrangement, but it has, so we must accept that it wants such a Committee. It is thus incumbent on us to participate, but we should question vigorously why the House of Lords should enter into such an arrangement when it does not know what its future composition will be, or whether people such as myself will be satisfied that it is a legitimate check and balance on our constitutional arrangements.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I have read the proposed list of members of the Committee. It is august indeed, so no aspersion is cast on any individual who is proposed as a member. However, may I put to it to my hon. Friend that it would be helpful to know whether our right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was asked to join the Committee? If so, did he decline, and if not, why not?

Mr. Shepherd: My hon. Friend should be aware that I am entirely ignorant of the answer to that question. Perhaps my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench will lay in front of us the reasoning for these matters.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend consider it wrong for a Parliament, at any one snapshot in time, to change conventions that have built up over many years?

Mr. Shepherd: I talk in that spirit. The Leader of the House is the individual who will lay bare to us the scheme behind the motion. I took in great faith that which was said by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). Although I am dubious and suspicious, I feel that this is merely a looking-at what the conventions are, and will not of itself cast anything in concrete.

Simon Hughes: I am happy to share with the House later, place in the Library and share with the hon. Gentleman correspondence that I have had with the Lord Chancellor on the status and the relationship of this Committee to other Government considerations. It is clear from a letter that I received from the Lord Chancellor that there was the intention to provide information and to advise both Houses. It is separate from the discussion about the future of the other place, but it was to be interrelated so that one could inform the other.

Mr. Shepherd: That is what worries me. The Lord Chancellor has sent a shiver down my spine.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I have been named as a potential member of the Committee. My understanding is, on this occasion, the same as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). We are seeking to examine the conventions, but there is the issue of whether a consensus can emerge on what would be appropriate in any alteration to the conventions. It is not unreasonable that a Committee should proceed in such a way. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a reasonable man. I hope that he will understand that there is before us an attempt by reasonable people to ascertain whether we can find a way forward that will find consensus across both sides of the House.

Mr. Shepherd: I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman. I cast no aspersions on the names that have been listed.
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It is the process by which the names arrived on the Order Paper that worries me.

It is said that reasonable men can find a consensus. I have fear at the very thought that reasonable men—remember who we are dealing with—will inform us on how the House of Lords is shaped. I am not sure whether there is an interrelationship after what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey has said. If that is the way we are proceeding, I am alarmed. The constitutional settlement of what the House of Lords should be would normally enable that place to determine its own standing orders and its relationship with this place. That is what we understood as politics—reasonable men negotiating from a position of strength, not a neutered Second Chamber.

Mr. Howarth: That is not my understanding. The composition of the other place is wholly without the terms of reference of the Joint Committee. Within the terms of reference is discussion about the arrangements between the two Houses in terms of legislation and what is acceptable and what is not. The hon. Gentleman is raising fears that are groundless.

Mr. Shepherd: This is cart and horses. How can we rationally examine conventions on behalf of a body, or inform the composition of a body, that may take upon itself a view that is entirely different from a House that has not yet been reformed?

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will we have an opportunity to discuss these matters after the Leader of the House has had his bite of the cherry?

Mr. Speaker: The Leader of the House is not winding up the debate—he is just starting.

7.19 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): It is a great pleasure to speak to the motion, which I tabled with my right hon. and hon. Friends. It fulfils the commitment given by the Government in our manifesto last year to conduct


The focus of our debate is on the Joint Committee’s terms of reference and its membership from the Commons, rather than the wider question of House of Lords reform, including the future composition of the upper House. However, to answer the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), our debate takes place in the context of the commitment by all three principal parties and some of the minority parties to look at the composition and the powers of the House of Lords. It was our judgment before the election—and it remains our judgment—that as the issue of the composition and thus the powers of the Lords were to be the subject of live debate in this Parliament it was essential that we establish a baseline by reaching a common understanding of the existing balance of powers between the Lords and the Commons.

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I am talking not about the way in which the Lords manages itself—that is a matter for their lordships and no one else—but about the extent to which the House of Lords seeks to check and balance the powers of the Commons. Both Houses have a legitimate interest in the matter and, ultimately, it is for the elected Chamber to make decisions. If there had not been any debate about that, if there had not been any argument in the country and if political parties had not sought to put the issue on the national agenda there would be no need for the Joint Committee. However, those issues arise periodically—they were live issues in the last Parliament—so there is cross-party determination to try to seek a consensus on the composition of the Lords. We therefore need prior agreement on powers, and we need a common understanding of the existing powers.

I thank the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for the great compliment that he paid me when he spoke about the role of the Leader of the House. He dismissed the doctrine of the manifesto—he is entitled to his opinion—but he certainly wasted his time reading his party manifesto, because as soon as the ink was dry and the election was over, its author, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), announced that he did not agree with a word of it. That appeared to be his manifesto in his party’s leadership campaign.

John Bercow: It was an extremely shrewd and sensible one.

Mr. Straw: The manifesto drafted by the Leader of the Opposition should be torn up, but the hon. Gentleman’s admission exposes the lack of judgment on the part of its author, behind whose banner he intends to stand.

Mr. Cash rose—

Mr. Straw: I shall give way in a moment.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills may disagree with the doctrine of the manifesto, but it is the basis of our politics. He asked how the Committee will operate. The four conventions listed in the motion and other arrangements are already the subject of explanation in “Erskine May” and other authoritative textbooks.

Up to now, however, there has not been a description of those conventions by Members of this House and the other place, or an attempt to secure that. The Committee that we establish may conclude that the conventions are impossible to describe in the words of the English language, but that would be astonishing. It is possible to describe the conventions and for the Committee to go on to make recommendations about the manner in which they might be codified. It is for the Committee to make recommendations, and for the House and the other place to dispose of the matter.

The manner in which the conventions could be codified ranges from a codification in the body of the Committee’s report, to a code that has been negotiated by both Houses and which we endorse in resolutions, through to its inclusion in Standing Orders or its enshrinement in law. That is a subsequent matter.

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Mr. MacNeil: I have high hopes of the Leader of the House, who strikes me as a man of integrity, from first impressions. Given the current scandals—a police investigation and two parliamentary inquiries—surely the most live issue, as the right hon. Gentleman said, is the convention on appointments? Before we do anything with the House of Lords, we must make sure that the system of appointments is beyond reproach. That is what the Committee should examine. We must ensure that transparent—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The matter has nothing to do with appointments. It is about the conventions of both Houses. I call the Leader of the House.

Mr. Straw: I give way to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).

Mr. Cash: I am grateful to the Leader of the House. Can he tell us, first, what he understands by the expression “convention” in the present context? Secondly, how does he justify the assertion in the message and the resolution that these are “the key conventions” or, indeed, conventions at all?

Mr. Straw: As I learned when I was studying at A-level what was then quaintly described as British constitution and is now described as politics, our constitution is not unwritten, but it is not in a body of higher law that has supremacy over ordinary law of Parliament. In addition, some of the basic tenets of our constitution, such as the fact that it is Parliament rather than any other institution that has the power, are not prescribed in legislation at all, but they are written down. They are written down in “Erskine May”, as I say, and in many other authoritative textbooks and guidance, and everybody accepts them. They are perfectly capable of description.

We do not often discuss whether Parliament, rather than, say, the Crown, should be the final authority because there is consensus on that. Ever since government in this country moved from being representative but undemocratic to representative and gradually democratic, there has been a tension between the Lords and the Commons. The balance of power has shifted, and each time it has done so new conventions have had to be developed to ensure the smooth passage of legislation.

Again, those conventions are perfectly capable of being written down. They have to be understood, and the only way they can be understood is in words, rather than in emotions and sentiments. That is the purpose of the Committee. These are not the only conventions that govern the relationship between the Commons and the Lords. Most people are aware of the origins of the Salisbury-Addison convention, which raises the issue of the manifesto.

The length of manifestos can be charted from the occasion in the late 1940s when that convention was agreed. Earlier ones, as the hon. Gentleman will see if he looks in the Library’s collection of manifestos, were very short, including Labour party manifestos. The conventions arise from that, and the Committee can consider them. The motion states “in particular”, but it is by no means an exclusive list.

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John Bercow: It will be to the right hon. Gentleman’s enduring credit if, as I confidently expect, he, as a great House of Commons man, proves to be the House’s representative in the Government, rather than merely the Government’s representative in the House. However, he has already worried me: will he confirm that he does not envisage the Joint Committee as the first stage in a two-stage process to achieve the ultimate reform that is in the minds of right hon. and hon. Members? In other words, will he confirm that agreement in Committee on the conventions is not a necessary prerequisite—a sine qua non—of progress thereafter?

Mr. Straw: No one has suggested that unless the Committee reaches an agreement about the conventions, there will be no further opportunity for discussion on reform of the House of Lords. The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with our proposals, and we have said that we will introduce a series of options and that there will be a free vote, in the light of which the House will judge whether it wants legislation to be introduced. The hon. Gentleman thinks that he smells a rat, but there is no rat to smell.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I welcome the Leader of the House to his new post and look forward to many happy Thursday mornings with him. May I take him back to his statement about how the conventions might be codified, which may have involved a slip of the tongue? He said that one option would be to put the conventions into statute, but my memory is that when the Lord Chancellor was asked in the Constitutional Affairs Committee how he could guarantee that such conventions would not then become the subject of judicial review, his answer was that they would not be in statute and that they would be in some other form.

Mr. Straw: That will be a matter for the Committee. In my opinion, it would be a grave error to put any description of the convention into legislation, because that would embroil the higher courts in the powers of this House in relation to the other place, and it would also be unnecessary. I was asked to state how the conventions currently described in the textbooks could be described more formally, and I offered a range of alternatives. However, the matter is not for me—I shall not serve in Committee—but for the Members of both Houses who will serve in Committee.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I join in the universal welcome for my right hon. Friend’s coming home and am sure that he will be a considerable Leader of the House. Conventions, by their nature, are things that change. At this moment, the relationship between this House and the House of Lords is changing, and it will change even further and faster when we have the promised second stage of House of Lords reform. I put it to my right hon. Friend that there is a practical difficulty in trying to freeze the definition of conventions at a moment in time, when they will necessarily be changed by what we do on a wider front.

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