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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 20 June 2006

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

House of Lords Reform

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]

9.30 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The present constitution of the House of Lords is farcical. There are 721 Members, with an average age of 68. Virtually alone in modern Britain, they have a job for life. The vast majority are there by dint of modern patronage; 92 are there by dint of their birth—ancient patronage.

Seven hundred and twenty-one sounds a lot, of course, but let us not worry about that. It is more than any comparable second Chamber anywhere else in the world; but not many turn up. In fact, only 25 per cent. of the Members ask 87 per cent. of the questions, and the same one quarter make three quarters of the speeches. They are paid expenses to be there and, of course, expenses to get there—although the travel expenses are not much, as the majority come from London and the south-east. To be precise, 185 of the 323 Members of the House of Lords created since 1997 are from London and the south-east. By contrast, just three are from the east midlands and five are from the north-east.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend mentions the east midlands, and the situation that he describes does indeed suggest that the House of Lords is a symposium of the undead; but in our party’s time in government in the nine years since 1997, have we not made at least some progress? The job certainly needs to be completed, but it is not as if we have not tackled it.

Chris Bryant: Well, I wish I could commend what we have done in the past few years, but the honest truth is that we have continued the process of appointment and in addition to that have continued to appoint almost exclusively from London and the south-east of England. If we want the more representative second Chamber to which our manifesto commits us, we shall have to do better in future.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that 80p in every pound donated to the Labour party comes from people who have been ennobled or knighted?

Chris Bryant: My view is that patronage is a bad principle for parliamentary democracy. I should prefer an elected second Chamber.

I should say, of course, that there are some very fine people in the House of Lords; some of my best friends are peers. However, one peer was sent to jail for perjury and another for criminal damage—he set fire to his hotel room—and there is no means of removing them from the House.

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There are some good things about the Lords. No one party has a majority; that is an important principle. Business is transacted on a more consensual and less partisan basis, for the most part, and the quality of the debate is often excellent, although I have listened to quite a few House of Lords debates and it is not always so. Often the Lords improve Government legislation and in some areas they are better than the House of Commons at scrutinising legislation. There is an argument that the existence of the House of Lords means that we do not have to do our job properly.

Perhaps the most farcical thing about the constitution of the House of Lords at present is the system of by-elections when an elected hereditary peer dies. The Lords has to keep a list of eligible hereditaries. It is probably the only accurate electoral register in the land. When the late Cross Bencher, Baroness Strange, died last year and had to be replaced, 29 Cross-Bench hereditaries could stand for the post and 26 of them did so. After the use of the alternative vote—it is the only use of the alternative vote in the British constitution—and after five transfers of votes, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein defeated the Earl of Effingham, or David Peter Mowbray Algernon Howard, the seventh Earl of Effingham by the second creation, by 11 votes to eight. I am not sure whether that smacks more of “Blackadder” or Trollope.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important debate. He knows that I, like him, believe that there should be a largely elected element in the House of Lords. However, he has not discussed any of the negative aspects of that, and I hope that he will. An elected House of Lords would have its independence and standing weakened; it would challenge the supremacy of the Commons and would remove from public service some notable people who have achieved much for society. How does the hon. Gentleman deal with those three key points?

Chris Bryant: If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself for a while, I shall move on to precisely those points.

Against that background, it would be tempting to talk exclusively about the composition of the House of Lords—who should be sitting in it—and that has been a tendency in most debates about it. As I have said many times before, I support a House of Lords whose Members are democratically elected as far as is practicable, given the parliamentary politics of today, but it is more important at this stage to focus on the powers and functions of the House of Lords. After all, an important principle of architecture is that form should serve function, not the other way round. That should also be true in the architecture of government.

The difficulty in this debate is that the precise nature of the power of the Lords is rather nebulous. It is framed more by convention than by statute. Those conventions may have a lustrous patina that is honeyed by use, but the conundrum we must resolve before we can alter the composition of the Lords is how we can better clarify the conventions so that they will stand the test of time.

The powers of the House of Lords have waxed and waned, and waned some more, but in essence the Lords
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retain an absolute power to say no to legislation. That power is mitigated only by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 and by a series of conventions that are sometimes adhered to. The Parliament Acts are not minor constraints, of course. They determine that the Lords cannot touch a money Bill—the person who determines what is a money Bill is the Speaker of the House of Commons—and in certain complex circumstances they allow the Commons to insist on its legislation after the passage of a year. Importantly, they also restrict the power of the Commons to extend the length of a Parliament beyond five years.

The Parliament Acts seem straightforward but they are deeply problematic. For a start—this meets precisely the point raised by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink)—nowhere do they articulate that a Government can be formed only by virtue of their majority in the House of Commons and, for that matter, that they cannot be dismissed by dint of a vote in the House of Lords. Such important principles must underlie the primacy of the House of Commons.

Secondly, the power of the Lords, which mostly is a power to delay, increases exponentially during the year because of the danger of Bills falling at the end of the Session. On top of that, it grows exponentially during the passage of a Parliament. It is increasingly difficult to govern the country the further a Government is into a Parliament, and that is problematic for our constitution.

There were those who argued that one could not use the first Parliament Act to enforce the second one. In particular, that position was advocated by those who felt that the Hunting Act 2004 should not have been subjected to the Parliament Act in the way that it was because of reliance on the first Parliament Act to enforce the second one. The issue has been resolved in the courts, but it is still important to resolve it in a single Parliament Act rather than have this cumbersome reliance of one on the other.

The other point is that the process of using the Parliament Act is far from straightforward. It involves a lot of shenanigans and backstage skulduggery by the powers that be to resolve which amendments are possible and which are not. The Parliament Act explicitly allows changes to the original Bill’s text that are

but of course that could cover a multitude of sins. We need a Parliament Act that is much clearer about when it can be used to enforce the will of the House of Commons.

Incidentally, one minor element of the way that the Parliament Acts are exercised is the double insistence rule, which seems largely to have been made up by the Clerks of the House and negotiated between the Clerks of the Lords and the Commons. If one House insists on an amendment to which the other has agreed and the other insists on its disagreement but neither has offered alternatives, the Bill in its entirety is lost. However, alternatives may not be the right way to proceed. The constant process in ping-pong of looking for another way to put the same disagreement may be a wholly inappropriate way of moving forward. For all those reasons, I believe that we need a new Parliament Act to govern the relations between the two Houses.

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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I am following my hon. Friend’s argument carefully. Does he not show a touching faith in the ability of new legislation to strictly define the role of the Lords? Is not the lesson learned from devolution that when an institution is given new powers it immediately calls for further powers and for those powers to be amended?

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point on devolution, because were there to be a major difference of view between the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly and Westminster, it would be decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which is notoriously not a transparent or democratic process. That, too, needs to be reviewed. A new Parliament Act could allow a proper system of conciliation rather than the matter simply being sent off to an obscure Committee.

We have not yet had to face that difficulty because the two types of body have had similar administrations, but the matter should not be justiciable. I think there should be a conciliation process governing the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, just as there should be between the various devolved Assemblies and Parliaments and Westminster.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the interrelationship between the two Houses means that the Commons sometimes needs to consider how it works in order to ensure that the other place is able to operate effectively? What would he say about the practice that has grown up of packaging Lords amendments, which can mean that an important amendment is not properly considered because it is not the lead amendment?

Chris Bryant: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the double insistence rule has caused some complications over the last couple of years. The problem is that we do not have a transparent process for resolving disputes between the Commons and the Lords. The ping-pong process may be suitable for awhile, but I believe that after two or three disagreements between the two Houses some form of conciliation Committee is needed to resolve such issues properly, its members discussing the matter openly and transparently, rather than some kind of fix being organised between the Clerks of the two Houses.

The other constraint on the power of the Lords lies in the convention known by some as the Salisbury convention, and by others as the Salisbury-Addison convention. It is fair to say that the Conservatives usually call it the Salisbury convention, because it pushes a bit more in their direction, and Labour Members call it the Salisbury-Addison convention. As the House will know, it is normally articulated in the broadest possible terms as the 120-year-old principle that the House of Lords does not vote against measures included in the governing party’s manifesto.

One of the underlying principles of the convention is the belief that the unelected and therefore illegitimate House of Lords should not overturn the elected House, although I am sure that that is not quite how the third Marquess of Salisbury saw it. Indeed, he positively
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averred that it was important that the elected should, from time to time, be told quite where to go with their legislation. He rather patristically thought that the elected Commons did not necessarily represent the nation as well as the peers.

In truth, the convention has changed and its modern expression came into use thanks to Viscounts Addison and Cranbourne—from 1947, the latter was the fifth Marquess of Salisbury. That convention is far more circumspect. It says that the Lords should not reject Government Bills on Second Reading brought from the Commons for which the Government have a mandate from the nation. Like the Parliament Act, that seems clear, but I suggest that it is not. For a start, it applies only on Second Reading. It is possible to give a Bill a Second reading, to amend it so substantially that it is nothing like the original Bill and then insist on one’s disagreement. Because the convention does not refer to amendments, it is like a blunderbuss rather than a rapier.

As in any legislation, the devil is in the detail. The classic example was the Identity Cards Bill, which we debated on the Floor of the House. Some hon. Members maintained that they and the Lords were sticking more closely than the Government to the Government’s manifesto promise, but there is nobody to determine who is right or wrong about that, because there is no conciliation process; there is simply the ping-pong arrangement, which most people think is falling into disrepute.

Of course, the Liberal Democrats might assert that they were not involved in the original debates about the convention, which took place from 1945 to 1951, so they do not have to abide by it. I have heard several Liberal Democrat Members say that they do not hold to it any more in any case, because the Government are not properly the Government, having not been properly elected and not achieved a majority through a proportional system of representation.

David Taylor: Nonsense.

Chris Bryant: All of that is complete and utter nonsense, as my hon. Friend chunters from a sedentary position.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend refers to the convention and the mandate that we received from the electorate in respect of our manifesto. That marvellously vague red book, which we all received about 13 months ago—on the doorsteps of the Rhondda, as on those of North-West Leicestershire—contains phrases such as that we would make the delivery of health services more effective. That could include anything from a reversion to Bevanite principles to selling the whole damn lot off to a public-private partnership. In those circumstances, how can one be clear about what a manifesto commitment is?

Chris Bryant: Absolutely. That is one of the big difficulties, as it has been for a long time. It is not that manifestos have got less precise, but that they, by their very nature, seek a mandate to govern, and governing involves the unexpected as well as the expected. Consequently, the convention will have difficulties surviving.

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Most importantly, the strength of the convention, as it operates, is predicated on the illegitimacy of the Lords. The less illegitimate the Lords are, or become, the less the convention will hold sway. Surely, it must be folly to place illegitimacy at the heart of the constitution as a deliberate principle. That, again, is why we need a new Parliament Act to codify such conventions, and it should be based on a few simple principles.

The first principle is the primacy of the constituency-based Commons, especially when it comes to financial and fiscal matters and the creation of Governments. The second is the importance of Members of only one House having a local constituency focus and casework. The third is that the Government should be enabled to govern by having their business considered swiftly, and the appropriate period should be stipulated as no more than 60 working days.

The fourth principle is the supremacy, or sovereignty, of Parliament in its entirety—in other words, of the Commons and the Lords. That would require a conciliation Committee—I suggest 12 Members of the Commons and eight Members of the Lords—so that the relationship between the two is not justiciable in the courts. That was first advocated by the Wakeham commission, but the Government ignored its recommendation entirely. Subsequently, such a relationship was also advocated by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is in his place, Paul Tyler, who is now in the Lords, and Robin Cook.

Unfortunately, such powers have attracted little proper attention. The Joint Committee, on which I sat in the previous Parliament, was extremely profound on the matter. We said:

That was one our greatest moments—stating the blasted obvious. We then said:

That is putting the cart before the horse; we must do things the other way round and determine the powers first.

Mr. Heald: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Bryant: I am seeking to finish, and the hon. Gentleman will have his moment.

We are often proud of the fact that the British constitution has grown by accretion, but the ship of state has sailed through many waters and perhaps gained too many barnacles. The time is more than ripe for bringing the bark of state into dry dock and overhauling it. Appointment and patronage are not a proper way to govern this country. Gentlemen’s agreements dressed up as parliamentary conventions will not hold water.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. Several hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, of whom only one has given previous notice of a wish to speak. I shall try to include everybody, but I intend to take the winding-up speeches at about 10.30 am.

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