|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The new dynamic of the House of Lords may alter British politics in fundamental ways and prove difficult to reverse. Despite continuing dissatisfaction with the undemocratic basis of the chamber, this appears to suit the public. Survey evidence released by the Constitution Unit in December 2005 showed that two-thirds of the public believed the Lords was justified in voting down measures that were unpopular or on which Labour MPs had rebelled. These views were shared by a majority of Labour voters, and even of Labour MPs. Unless this changes, governments of either colour may find it hard to suppress the will of the House of Lords.
The strengthening of the second chamber has often been presented as a threat to the elected House of Commons. However, events this year showed it might instead lead to a strengthening of Parliament as a whole.
I put it to the Leader of the House that that is the crucial consideration. It would be profoundly a ill advised approach to the business of a Committee to look at the conventions in the spirit of asking whether we can somehow put the House of Lords back in its box again, because, in its funny, semi-reformed state, it has come out of its box feeling more confident and legitimatein a way that the public like. In fact, in many respects, they like it rather more than they like us.
It would be politically difficult and not sensible to proceed with an agenda to tame the House of Lords. We need to put the two Houses together on a common task. That is the job now. The worst outcome would be to produce a second Chamber that was, in any sense, a replica of the first. We want neither a replica, nor a rival of this Chamber, but a genuine complement to it in exercising the task of scrutiny, which we know to be deficient in this House.
Having said at the beginning that I was not going to give Members my favourite nostrums, I think that there would be some profit to the House in looking again at a report that a number of us produced on a cross-party basis last year. Those involved included the late Robin Cookthe immensely distinguished Leader of the House at the timeand the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). We produced a report called Reforming the Lords: Breaking the Deadlock. I am not necessarily recommending the conclusions and practical recommendations of that report, but I urge the House to look at the arguments that brought us to those conclusions. We argued that we needed a House that had enough legitimacy to be taken seriously, but enough independence to be justified in being taken seriouslya House that, as I said, is neither a rival, nor a replica of this House, but which joins it in the task of scrutiny. I hope that, in supporting the establishment of the Committee, we see things in that context and that there is not what I fear would be an ill conceived and ultimately ill fated attempt to neuter the second Chamber.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Any thoughts that this might be a brief or perfunctory debate have been adequately dispelled already. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), with whom I agree on many of these matters. I want to challenge the Leader of the House on two details of what he had to say. I think that he made an uncharacteristic slip of the tongue when he
introduced the motion in his name and that of his right hon. Friends. Of course, he has no right hon. Friends in this instance. He was introducing the motion as Leader of the Househis new role. He is speaking on behalf of not the Government, not the House. That is an important distinction and I know that he understands it.
Secondly, I want to chide the Right hon. Gentleman about the fact that he appears not to have been sufficiently assiduous in studying Liberal Democrat manifestos over recent years and was unable to quote from them. I know that he has had limited reading time in his new role, but I am sure that he will rectify that omission. If he is not able to do so, I refer him to the Parliament Act 1911 and its preamble. I do not think that we have largely changed our view about reform of the upper House. The tragedy is that it has taken so long for something to be done about it.
It is no secret that we were extremely reluctant to enter into the arrangements before us today on this particular Joint Committee. We were worried when the idea was first suggested by the Lord President of the Council because, at that time, it was proposed in isolation. There was no suggestion that we would make further progress on reform of the upper House, or that the Committee would form part of an integrated approach on the whole question of the relationship between the Houses. It was predicated on an assertion by the Prime Minister in an unguarded moment that he wished to clip the wings of the Lords. He was expressing irritation, which is frequently shared by Ministers and Government Back Benchers, that the House of Lords occasionally does not do exactly what the Government wish it to do when considering Bills.
I say hallelujah to the fact that the House of Lords does not do what the Government want it to do because even in its present illegitimate form, it has a substantial amount of not only expertise, but, more importantly, independence from the Executive. That enables it to take a view on matters put before it and to express a view that often hugely improves legislation. Over the past few years, I have dealt with countless Home Office and Department for Constitutional Affairs Bills on which the views of the Lords, as a revising Chamber, have been invaluable when we have tried to avoid the worst excesses of sloppy legislation that is not only internally discordant, but has a profound effect on the liberties of this countrys citizens. The view that formed the basis of the original proposal for the Committee, which was that there was somehow a need to reduce the power of the Lords because it was an inconvenience to the Government, is one that we wish to resist.
An even worse suggestion was that the Government at the time wished not only to reduce the powers of the Lords, but, simultaneously, to complete their initial process of reform by removing the remaining hereditaries. I hold no candle whatsoever for the retention of the hereditaries in the Lords. People should not be Members of the House of Lords by accident of birth. I am convinced that whether they are elected by their colleagues or not, they do not have a legitimate part in a modern legislature. However, the effect of what the Government appeared to be proposing would have been first to reduce the powers of the Lords and, secondly, to make it exactly the fully
appointed Chamber that this House had rejected conclusivelyso much for the primacy of the House of Commons.
Mr. MacNeil: The problem is not only the accident of birth, but the fortune of the wallet. For as long as that possibility remains, the legitimacy, and thus decency, of the House of Lords will always be up for question.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why the option of an appointed House would not improve the legitimacy of the Lords one whit. It is also why many of us are convincedthis is certainly my partys positionthat an elected, or predominantly elected, House must be the right way forward.
Having said that the present composition and certainly the composition envisaged, I think, by elements within the Government are illegitimate, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, the House of Lords, even in its unreformed state, has utility. That is why it is appreciated by the public. That is not because they believe that its composition is justified or is arrived at by an appropriate means. The public see it doing its job in holding the Executive to account in a way that sometimes this place is incapable of doing.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman seems to have a rather glowing understanding of what their Lordships do these days. Some of us would point to some of the legislation that the Government have brought forward, which has been extremely progressivefor example, on lesbian and gay rights. The Lords, in their reactionary nature, have not seen fit to allow that legislation to go forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that sometimes the democratic process can enlighten while sometimes, perhaps, it is subject to the overpowering influence of the Whips.
Mr. Heath: Were the Upper House to be accountable to an electorate, I think that it would take a different view. However, reaction is not something that is exclusive to the Upper House. There are powers of reaction within this House as well.
This was not a proposal in which we wanted to take part. We made it plain to the Government that they had to think again. We made it plain also that, despite our feeling that we would in no circumstances support the hereditary principle, we were not prepared to countenance yet again partial reform that did not arrive at a satisfactory conclusion for the House of Lords. If there is a responsibility for the delay in this matter, it is us. We take responsibility for and, indeed, pride in delaying this matter.
What changed everything was the scandal of cash for peerage. In a road to Damascus conversion the Prime Minister suddenly realised that it was time to re-enter the list in terms of House of Lords reform. The order went out to the Lord Chancellor that he was to create a Committee to that effect. Then we had the prospect of two Committees working on entirely different matters. We suspected that one would report very quickly and that the other would take a very long time to reach a conclusion.
Our proposition was simple. It was that the two Committees needed to be linked for exactly the reasons that have been adduced by several Members. We cannot divorce form and function in the House of Lords. We cannot separate out the way in which we arrive at a composition for the House of Lords and what its function within Parliament will be. Nor can we divorce either of those considerations from the way in which we do our business in this place. Reform of the House of Commons is just as important as reform of the House of Lords.
Mr. Andrew Turner: The hon. Gentleman is either being very naïve or generous to a man who irons only the front of his shirts. Does he agree that the intervention of the Lord Chancellor was intended to be not constructive but diversionary?
Mr. Heath: I am not sure that I understand the reference to ironing habits. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman undertakes that duty himself. However, I understand what he is saying about the Lord Chancellors Committee being something that was intended to take the heat off the Government at a time of great stress. It was our view that it would not reach a conclusion.
We have been arguing behind the scenes and in another place that we want to make substantive progress. We believe that the Committee can inform that process but should not pre-empt it. It certainly should not be seen as a way of introducing partial reform that is a substitute for the basic reform that we believe to be necessary. There are the conventions of the House, and I think that the Salisbury convention is on the back of history. It was a cosy arrangement between the Conservative and Labour partiesour party was not a party to it, nor were other partiesand it is does not have any relevance to politics in this country. The day that we have justiciable manifesto is the day that we finally reach the asylum. Judges should not assume responsibility to interpret manifestosif they did so, the proposal for compulsory ID cards would have been an instructive test case.
Mr. Cash: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many people do not think that the Salisbury convention is a convention at all? Indeed, we are indirectly debating the future form of the House of Lords, and if a significant proportion of its Members were elected, as he and I want, that would completely change the nature of the proposal. With an elected House of Lords, the Salisbury convention and the credibility of the manifesto would fall.
We made three points when we reluctantly agreed to serve on the Committee. First, there is a necessary linkage between its work and that of the Committee on the Lord Chancellors Department, as one informs the other. Secondly, the Joint Committee is non-deliberative. Naturally, it will reach conclusions, but they are not
binding on anyone, and they do not formulate anything that the House or, indeed, the Government are required to accept. It does not define the relationship between the Houses, as we do not know what their nature will be in future. Thirdly, we sought a fairer composition of the Committee, but we have failed to achieve that, given the affiliation of members from the Commons. I have complete confidence in my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)I am glad that he represents both parts of his constituencywho provides us with a substantial presence on the Committee. I am worried, however, that the Committee is not representative of the wider House, and that Government Members who were nominated to serve on it have a particular perspective on Lords reform.
Mr. Heath: I was arguing for a diversity of views in Committee. [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) wishes to continue our dialogue, I am happy to give way to him, but if he is satisfied with my response, perhaps he will be quiet and allow me to continue.
To return to the key point, if the Committee is successful, it will provide information for the House and the other place about codification. I worry about the word codification. What does it mean? Does it mean statute? I hope not. The matter should not be bound by statute. If it is bound by statute, I would argue for much wider statutesa proper written constitution in statute form, a proposition which I do not believe the Government are prepared to accept.
At the very least, however, I hope we arrive at a concordatthat is the present term of art between the two Houseswhich will be derived from the future form and functions of the two Houses. That comes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). Those who argue vigorously for the primacy of this House and also argue vigorously for a largely or wholly elected element at the other end of the Corridor are deluding themselves. The two are not entirely compatible. We can say that this House has reserved competences, which may include the formation of the Government from its number and as a result of its composition. We may argue that at the end of the day this House should win an argument between the two Houses, but we should understand that if we have an elected or predominantly elected second chamber, it will have a legitimacy that it does not currently have.
There is a huge spread of opinion in the House and at the other end of the Corridor about what should happen. That ranges from those who are out-and-out unicameralists, which, as has been said, is a perfectly respectable positionthere are legislatures that work on a unicameral basis, although I do not share that viewto those who would like to turn the clock back and return to an hereditary peerage, which I do not think is a way forward for a modern country. Between those two views, there is a wide range of others.
We need to establish where in this House, because this House has legitimacy, there is a centre of gravity for reform. We could have done that the last time we debated the matter, if it had not been for the interference of the usual channels on both sides of the Chamber. The House demonstrated a clear preference for a largely elected second chamber, which was deliberately obscured by process. When we are asked the question again, we must have a much clearer view about what functions are properly reserved to this House, what functions are properly carried out by another place, how the two interrelate and how we establish legitimacy for both Houses.
If we can do that by defining complementary roles that are not identical, we will strengthen Parliament in the way that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase suggested. It is not, as has been said, a zero-sum game. We can improve the way that this House and the other House work, in order better to serve the country. The one way in which we will not do that is by allowing the Executive to grab yet more power at the expense of the Legislature. We must oppose that and reverse it.
At the very highest level, there is much in the observation that if the United Kingdom has in any sense a constitution and that constitution is capable of restraining an elected dictatorship, the standing orders and the practice of the two Houses, shaped over the centuries by changing political pressures, and since 1884 described in Mays Treatise, are an important part of it.
Those elements of parliamentary procedure which have been codified in standing orders ormore rarelystatute law tend to be relatively modern and easy to track..
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|