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10 May 2006 : Column 445

Mr. Straw: The question whether conventions are frozen relates to the question of the status of the Committee’s recommendations and conclusions. The House might take the view that it should simply receive the report and for the time being not decide to elevate the description of the conventions into a document that has any greater status than that. My hon. Friend has made the case for setting a baseline. All hon. Members understand that if the composition of the other place is to change to any significant degree—in particular, by moving towards an elected element—it is bound to affect the balance of power between the two Houses. It is therefore as well for everybody to understand that we cannot have a discussion about composition without also acknowledging the crucial inter-relationship of powers. We might as well have an agreement about where we are starting from and what the common understanding is before we move on.

There are practical reasons for doing that. For example, as I know from my time as Home Secretary, Labour Members complain that the House of Lords gives us a tougher time than the Conservatives when we are in government. Conservative Members might cast their minds back to the time when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was Home Secretary. It is fair to say that there were, at least qualitatively, quite a number of occasions when he was given a hard time too. Mature reflection by this Committee might be helpful.

I am very grateful to all hon. Members who will serve on the Committee for the work that they are about to undertake, with the leave of this House. Plenty of Committee reports are received and no particular view is taken of them; it depends on the quality of the work that has been put in. My view is that in this case the quality will be high.

Mr. Bone: The Leader of the House is making a logical case for postponing this until we know about the reform of the other place. Can he explain why we have to do it now?

Mr. Straw: What I was trying to do—I obviously failed comprehensively—was to make a logical case for dealing with this issue before we got on to composition. Let me try to explain the point again, because it should be one on which there is agreement across the Chamber.

Each party is committed to seeking some changes in the composition of the House. For us, it is to make it more representative; for the Conservatives, it is to see whether there is a consensus on an elected element. I apologise to the Liberal Democrats for not having memorised their manifesto commitment. I dare say that, as ever, it seeks to outbid the two parties that have any prospect of government—but ’twas ever thus. With all due deference to the drafters of the Conservative and Labour manifestos, they are always couched in rather general terms—they raise expectations, but do not do much more than that. One of the good things about our manifesto was that it took the view that we had to sit down and describe where we were before we moved on to the next stage, and see whether there was broad agreement about the nature of these conventions—particularly, as the motion makes clear, in relation to legislation.

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The crucial role of the Lords, as everybody knows, especially anybody who has ever been a Minister, is to revise Bills that come from this place. I personally think that in general their lordships do a very good job. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) will recall that after I had accepted a shedload of amendments on the Freedom of Information Bill, I commented that although that could sometimes be irritating, it was one of many Bills that had been improved by the process of revision in this place and in the other place. I say that in all seriousness. Anybody who has ever experienced drafting legislation in government knows that, because the pace is fast, no Minister can, in practice, go through every detail of it. It is therefore absurd for any Minister to suggest that measures are written on tablets of stone and that there should be no change to them.

We accept—and I have always regarded as valuable—the role of the other place. However, I believe that all parties agree that this House must have primacy, not only because of the doctrine of the manifesto, but because this is the elected Chamber and the means whereby the view of the people is expressed. Somehow, there must be a way of squaring the circle between the other place’s legitimate powers to revise legislation and ensuring that this House has primacy. That has been the purpose over the years of the development of conventions, especially in relation to legislation. Any change to the composition of the other place will inevitably change its appetite for its role in legislation and therefore, in practice, its sense of its power.

Our judgment is that it is a good idea to start by setting out the baseline. I hope that that answers—I have tried to do so—the point made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone).

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I am something of a spectator at this debate, because I came into the Chamber to present a petition. I hope that I might be able to do that before midnight. However, the Leader of House, being—like me and many others—a student of law, acknowledges that conventions evolve.

Surely the conventions between an elected House and a fundamentally unelected House will be different from those between an elected House and another largely elected House at the other end of the building. The exercise that the Leader of the House and the Committee are about to undertake is totally academic. It will be overturned as soon as we know the composition of the other place.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I am trying to make: if we are to move to a wholly or partially elected House its powers are bound to change to some extent, and we need to know where we are at the moment. To answer the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), of course there will be the debate that we promised in our manifesto on considering options for the future of the House of Lords. I hope that those debates focus seriously on the role that we want the House of Lords to play, and that we will then seek a consensus on a Chamber that is
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based on that role, not the other way round. If we are to do that, we might as well first ascertain whether we can agree about the role in relation to this Chamber. That is the purpose of the Committee. It would be bad, and would not serve our constituents’ interests, if during the subsequent debate we spent the whole time arguing about our different understanding of the current role. That could easily result from leaving things as they are and not having the Committee.

Simon Hughes: rose—

Mr. MacNeil: rose—

David Taylor: rose—

Mr. Straw: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), then to the other hon. Gentleman, and then to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor).

Simon Hughes: Let me try to summarise what appeared to us to be the sensible proposition—which, I believe, the Government support. There should be a three-stage process. First, both Houses should ascertain whether they can agree about the current conventions. Secondly, we should consider whether it is sensible to codify them, and if so, in what way. Thirdly, having done that, we can have a realistic debate about what changes should be made to the House of Lords. We all have our views on that, but at least we will approach it on the maximum common basis of knowledge and agreement.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman puts the point better than I, and I am grateful to him. He is right, and that is a good reason for his inclusion on the Committee.

Mr. MacNeil: May I expand on the point made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) by saying that we are dealing with components here—almost like the components of a car? We are tweaking about with the components despite the fact that we might be buying a new car in a year or two. Surely we should look at the bigger picture before concentrating on the smaller details. Na h-Eileanan an Iar is my constituency, by the way.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has already addressed that point, and so have I. I do not regard the issue of the powers of the House of Lords in relation to this place as a small detail.

David Taylor: The Leader of the House suggested a moment ago that there was intra-Chamber consensus on the Salisbury-Addison convention on manifesto commitments. He said—I paraphrase slightly—that any manifesto was a blend of a snapshot of the present landscape, a broad aspirational sweep, and legislative nuts and bolts. This is a quote from page 61 of our 2005 manifesto:

Into which of those three categories does that fall—

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I do not think that the Leader of the House needs to respond to that question. Although this debate is completely open-ended, I have to say that it is getting rather circular.

Mr. Straw: I will talk to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) about that question in the Tea Room, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Further to the point raised by the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) and for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), may I tell my right hon. Friend that the reason why I agreed to serve on this Committee was my sheer frustration at the way in which the House had dealt with the process the last time round? I chose to protest by voting for abolition last time, because I thought that it was absurd to have a discussion such as this before the House had had a reasoned debate on what the powers of the House of Lords are now and what we would like them to be. When we have discussed those issues, it will make sense to discuss the composition of the other place.

Mr. Straw: I agree with my hon. Friend.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Architects say that form should follow function, and that should apply equally when we are designing our Government. We need to get the functions right first. I sat on the last Joint Committee, and I was not particularly keen on the idea of sitting on another one on this matter. We failed with regard to the issues of function and of role, because we all too easily said, “Oh yes, we all agree about that.”

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend puts his point very elegantly. I hope that we shall learn from what happened in the last Parliament. If we do not address the issue of function first, by describing what the House of Lords is for, grave errors will be made when we come to consider the issue of form.

Mr. Andrew Turner rose—

Mr. Straw: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to make some progress?

I want to deal with three final points that might help to answer some of the questions that hon. Members have asked. With the leave of the House, I shall seek to respond at the end of the debate to any further issues that have been raised. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills asked about the political balance of the Committee. He expressed surprise that its formula for here was 7:3:1, which departs slightly from the traditional formula for Commons-only Committees of 6:3:2. The 7:3:1 formula has been adopted because this will be a Joint Committee. Overall, there will be 11 Labour Members out of a total of 22, so they will not even be in the majority. Of that number, seven Labour Members will be from this place and four from the House of Lords. For the Conservatives, there will be six altogether: three from this place and three from the other place. For the Liberals, there will be one from this place and two from the Lords. The balance will be made up by two Cross-Benchers.

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The second issue—it has not been raised so far but it might be, so let me put it on the record—is the time that has elapsed to establish the Committee. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) might be about to raise that. I know that everyone in the Chamber would have preferred the Committee to have been set up earlier, but I gather that that was not possible. We spent a lot of time consulting other parties and, within the confines of our manifesto commitment, the terms of reference that we debate tonight have been agreed with the other parties. The leaders of the other parties voted for those terms of reference and the motion in the debate in the other place on 25 April.

The final point—to anticipate an issue—is the timetable from now. The proposed date for the Joint Committee to report is 21 July, four days before we rise for the summer recess, which, including the Whitsun recess, is around 10 weeks away. That is a short, but not unreasonable, deadline. Some Members have drawn a comparison, as did Members of the other place, with the Joint Committee of 2002, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) served. That Committee was appointed in July 2002 and reported in December. However, the period in between included the summer recess—around two months—and the state opening of Parliament, which accounts for some of the additional time given. Furthermore, the remit of the 2002 Committee was far wider than that of the one that we are debating today.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I was indeed going to refer to the 21 July deadline in the motion. The Leader of the House says that that is 10 weeks away. As I understand it, however, the motion will be subject to a deferred Division, so technically, the Committee will not be set up until next week. Therefore, it will be set up only a week before the Whitsun recess, and is unlikely to meet until after that recess. That significantly reduces the time.

Mr. Straw: If the motion is agreed tonight, it is agreed. If it is objected to, however, the Division will be deferred. I hope very much, however, that the House will agree to accept it tonight. Deferred voting is a separate issue, but I understand, although I had absolutely zero to do with the idea of deferred voting one way or the other, that it is for the convenience of the House. If representations are made about changing that, I will certainly consider them. Although I accept that 10 weeks is not all that long, if the Committee comes to the view that it needs more time, we can return to the House to seek an extension—it will not be my intention to stand in the way of such a request from the Committee.

This has turned out to be a livelier and more interesting debate than I had anticipated, but it shows the appetite for this issue—

John Bercow: Insatiable.

Mr. Straw: I hope that it is not quite insatiable; otherwise there will never be any change. Meanwhile, for the reasons that I have explained, and that others have elaborated, I hope that the motion will enjoy unanimous support from the House, and I commend it.

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7.53 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to what, as the Leader of the House has said, has become a somewhat livelier and perhaps longer debate than many had expected, with contributions from a significant number of hon. Members.

Before I deal with the substance of the issue, may I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new position as Leader of the House? I also welcome his comments yesterday in response to Leader of the House’s questions about his understanding and recognition of his responsibility to this House, and about how he intends to serve in his position in the best interests of this House. All Members of the House will welcome that.

There is, of course, a precedent for a Foreign Secretary becoming a distinguished Leader of the House—the late Robin Cook.

Mr. Straw: And Geoffrey Howe.

Mrs. May: Yes, I was not in the House at that time. There is more than one precedent, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will follow in those steps and serve with distinction.

The motion arises from a pledge in the Labour party manifesto. We have already had quite a debate about manifestos and what the terms of manifestos mean. Last year’s Labour party manifesto stated that the Government would

hence the motion setting up the Joint Committee to consider the practicality of codifying the key conventions and setting out the particular conventions that the Committee is intended to consider.

The Leader of the House referred to the time that it has taken to set up the Committee. It has indeed taken nearly a year. I understand that discussions between the Government and other parties began last summer, and that terms of reference were agreed some time ago. In the meantime, the Lord Chancellor has spoken of establishing a Committee on House of Lords reform. An idea that was due to be presented to this House at a time when House of Lords reform was not being actively considered has now been presented precisely when such reform is being actively considered. That obviously gives rise to questions about why it is being presented at this stage, and about its interaction with the debates on House of Lords reform.

On the basis that it represented a fulfilment of a manifesto commitment by the Labour party and on the basis of discussions between the parties, we supported the motion in the other place. I intend to support this motion, but, as has been made clear by Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the Opposition in the other place, we do not accept any reduction in the powers of the House of Lords. It is on that basis that we have agreed to the establishment of the Committee. I therefore think it important to set out exactly what we understand it will do.

There has been some interaction between the Leader of the House and hon. Members, and indeed between hon. Members, on the Committee’s role and on what its role should be. It is important to note that the terms of
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reference do not even ask it to codify the conventions of the House of Lords: they ask it to consider the practicality of codifying the key conventions relating to the relationship between the two Houses, which is one step back from setting out the conventions in any form.

Chris Bryant: I have long held that codification is desirable, because it is difficult to establish the precise relationship between the two Houses other than on the basis of a gentlemen’s agreement signed in a club many decades ago. Some constitutional lawyers, however, believe that codification is impossible. What is the right hon. Lady’s personal view?

Mrs. May: My personal view is that it is doubtful whether it will be able to codify in a way that would retain the flexibility that I consider necessary. I shall deal with that point shortly, because I think that we should take it into account when examining the rather tricky role that the Committee will have to play.

The Committee is not being asked to decide whether certain conventions should be scrapped or amended, or indeed what the powers of the two Houses should be. The motion simply asks it to “consider the practicality” of codifying its role. It is, however, understandable that some Members have—in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)—smelled a rat, because the commitment in the Labour party manifesto on which the establishment of the Committee is based goes further. Having stated

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