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9.50 am

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Weir, and I shall confine my remarks to the briefest possible. Anyone who is interested in my views will find them dotted around editions of Hansard for the last 10 years. I commend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his choice of subject for the debate and it is a pleasure to see the Deputy Leader of the House in his place, because he and the Leader of the House are now in charge of this important policy area, whereas on the last occasion that we debated the subject it was the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We understand that the Prime Minister has mandated the Leader of the House to sort out party funding and House of Lords reform, and the Leader of the House will need all the diplomatic skills that he acquired as Foreign Secretary to discharge that obligation.

At the time of the vote in 2003, the current Leader of the House voted for a wholly appointed House, which I think was the least popular option on which the House voted. If he is to search for a consensus and find a way forward he will need to demonstrate some flexibility.

Mr. Heald: Is it not the case that the Leader of the House voted against all the proposals that involved an elected element?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is correct, although he has approached the matter with less delicacy than I. There is a need for movement on the part of the Leader of the House if he is to find the centre of gravity.

The debate is the second on the subject this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) inspired the earlier debate on 31 January and it is probably useful to have a six-monthly progress report, because there has been a worrying development, which I shall address shortly. If anybody had said, at the time of the original Bill which was considered by the 1997 Parliament, that the Labour party would win three general elections and that the Prime Minister would retire, without stage 2 of House of Lords reform being on the statute book, nobody would have believed it. We were all told that dividing reform into two easy sections would ensure that it would hit the statute book early, and that we needed to take two bites at the cherry. The cherry, however, remains visibly unconsumed.

I do not propose to repeat the case—eloquently made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—for a predominantly elected Chamber. It was set out in a publication and in a draft Bill, which I co-authored with Robin Cook, Lord Tyler—as he now is—and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. The Leader of the House need not take up any scarce drafting time for the next Session’s Bill—we have already done it for him.

The debate on composition often takes place in rather crude, two-dimensional terms: if one House wins, the other loses. There is an important constitutional battle going on, but it is not that one—it is between Parliament and the Executive. In that battle the two Houses are allies, not enemies, because the terms of trade have shifted dramatically in favour of the Executive and need to be redressed. Once we have
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settled the issue before us this morning, we need to develop more ways of working together and pooling resources. For instance, I see no reason why Lords Ministers should not reply to debates in Westminster Hall when they are the responsible departmental Minister.

David Taylor: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: I give way, but in view of the injunction from the Chairman it will be the last time.

David Taylor: The right hon. Gentleman referred to the need for arbitration between the Executive and Parliament. More specifically, however, that need applies between No. 10 and the Commons, or possibly even between No. 10 and the Labour Back Benches. Only three years ago—tantalisingly—we were just three votes short of a majority in favour of an 80 per cent. elected House of Lords. Is that not where we need arbitration?

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. The Labour party was elected in 2001 on a manifesto that committed it to a more democratic and accountable second Chamber. The Prime Minister must have had some hand in drafting the relevant section of the manifesto, but he voted for a wholly appointed Chamber, and I fail to understand how he and the Leader of the House could reconcile that action with the Prime Minister’s own manifesto. However, perhaps that is an issue better addressed by the Labour party than by Opposition Members.

There is a matter on which I part company with the hon. Member for Rhondda. In earlier debates on Lords reform, there was no controversy about the power of the House of Lords. The Wakeham report agreed that the powers should be left as they were, and so did the Government. A document supporting the White Paper, published in 2001 and optimistically entitled “The House of Lords: Completing the Reform”, stated in relation to paragraph 30 of the White Paper:

The only suggestion that the Government made about powers at that time was a relatively minor one about subordinate legislation.

It is worth reading what the Public Administration Committee said at the time about the key issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. Paragraph 69 of its report stated:

The Committee concluded:

That statement, with which I wholly agree, was flatly contradicted in the debate that took place on the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham on 31 January. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said:

That is a total U-turn.

I am deeply suspicious of what is now happening. There is a view that that is a way of postponing decisions and leaving a status quo that is convenient for the Government. They decide the size and the balance—the party balance, in particular—and they control the composition of a large number of Members. I think that if we reran the 2003 vote today, there would be a majority for a 70 or 80 per cent. elected Chamber, but we would then have to clear a second hurdle, which was not there last time—namely, the powers. If the Government are minded to curtail the powers of the second Chamber, which I believe they are, it could be another 10 years before we resolve the issue.

If we are to resolve the issue, we need to be firm about the destination but relatively flexible about the speed at which we reach it. We need a predominantly elected House of Lords with the powers uncurtailed, but we need to recognise that there are legitimate expectations on the part of those who were made life peers, we need continuity of expertise and we need to maintain the culture and collective wisdom. That is why the draft Bill had a long lead-in time covering three general elections.

When we last debated the issue, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs did not reach her peroration, so we never discovered what the Government were going to do. May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House that this time he begins at the end of his speech and works backwards? That way, we might achieve more enlightenment about where the Government are going than we did last time round.

9.58 am

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on raising this important issue and I agree with him that the first job in respect of reform of the House of Lords is to talk about its responsibilities and to decide what its responsibilities and functions should be. I broadly agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that it should be a revising, deliberative and scrutinising Chamber. However, I do not agree with his remark that it ought to be there to hold the Executive to account. I do not believe that that should be the job of the House of Lords at all. Holding the Executive to account is the job of the Opposition and Back Benchers in this House; it is not a job for the second Chamber.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Is not holding the Executive to account the job of Parliament as a whole—that is, both Houses?

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Mr. Clelland: It is at the moment, but we are talking about reforming the second Chamber; that is the reason for my remarks. In future, I do not think that the second Chamber ought to work in the way that it does.

If the second Chamber is to be a revising, deliberative and scrutinising Chamber—and even one that holds the Executive to account, if that is what hon. Members want—it needs to be made up of people who have wisdom, experience and expertise. We all know that elections do not necessarily result in a group of people with those qualities; I make an exception of the Members in this Room, of course. If we need people with such qualities, they have to be selected rather than elected. Certainly, people with such qualities could not be guaranteed through elections.

Once the hereditary peers are abolished, as I believe they ought to be—ironically, because of a quirk in the way that things developed, that is the only democratic element in the House of Lords at the moment, but there we are—responsibility for appointments will be left solely to the Prime Minister and the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which, I am afraid to say, have both been brought into disrepute by the cash-for-peerages row. That would not be sustainable, and there would have to be changes to the way that appointments were made.

I do not agree that elections are the answer to the problem; I insist on my argument that an elected second Chamber would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons, whatever Members tried to do to change the constitution of the second Chamber. Elected Members will, quite unjustifiably, want more power if they are elected to the second Chamber—more, perhaps, than hon. Members who are pushing for elections might care to give them. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda says that they would not have casework, but who is to prevent them from having it? If someone writes to a Member of the second Chamber who has been elected, that Member would have every right to take up that case on behalf of the elector. I do not see how we can ever legislate to stop them answering letters and taking up cases. Of course they would develop casework if they were elected.

Such Members might not have constituency responsibilities because of how they might be elected, but in a way that might be worse than their having constituency responsibilities, because they would have a brief to go anywhere they liked. They could go anywhere in hon. Members’ constituencies, dealing with anything that they wanted, visiting factories and schools, opening this and that, and taking up issues. There would be nothing to prevent them from doing that, and I do not see how we could legislate to do so.

My hon. Friends argue that if we had a referendum and asked the general public the simple question, “How should a new, reformed second Chamber be made up?” people would generally say that it should be elected; that is the knee-jerk reaction. But ask them a different question—ask them whether they want another 300 elected politicians, with their secretaries, offices, expenses and salaries—and see whether there is the same knee-jerk reaction. I doubt that there would be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda knows, we had that experience recently in north-east England, where we had a referendum on an elected regional assembly.

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Chris Bryant: But my hon. Friend really had to rig that question to make sure that he got the answer that he wanted.

Mr. Clelland: As my hon. Friend may be aware, those of us opposed to an elected second Chamber will make that same point if the issue ever comes before the people. We are talking about a fundamental change, and if we had to have a referendum on devolution, and on regional assemblies, we ought to have a referendum on making a wholesale change to the second Chamber. When we have that referendum, the very point that I just mentioned will be made in opposition to an elected second Chamber.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there is a possibility of bringing a small elected element into the second Chamber while reducing representation commensurately in the Commons?

Mr. Clelland: A hybrid House would be the worst of all worlds. Two classes of Member would certainly not work. Elected Members would quite rightly consider themselves to be superior and to have more authority than non-elected Members, and I cannot see how they could possibly work together in a Chamber. If we had a proportion of elected Members, we would eventually end up with a fully elected House.

The answer is to continue with an appointed Chamber, so that we can appoint people who have the experience, expertise and wisdom to ask Members of Parliament to think again on legislation, but the responsibility for making appointments ought to be much wider, including business, trade unions, religious organisations, local government and devolved institutions. If the appointments were made with that wider sort of franchise, for want of a better term, it would be more democratic and more accountable. That answers the question asked by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire: how the Prime Minister could say that he wanted a more democratic, more accountable House, but vote for a fully appointed House. We can certainly have a House that is appointed in a more democratic way than it is at present; any change in that direction would be more democratic than the present system. It would certainly be accountable if people were appointed. If the CBI, TUC or Local Government Association were to appoint people, those organisations would expect those people to be accountable to them, particularly if the appointments were made for a limited period, as I believe they ought to be.

We can have accountability and a more democratic system under an appointed House, and we would certainly have the kind of people who would be able to challenge the House of Commons on the legislation that it put though and who would have the authority to do so.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I know that the hon. Gentleman has had a long-standing and consistent position on this subject. Would it not be a fair summary of his argument to say that he is in favour of a little more democracy as long as there is not too much and there is no danger of it being described as fully formed?

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Mr. Clelland: I am fully in favour of democracy, of course. This is a democratic country and democratic democracy is the basis of our governance, but this country is not entirely run by democratic organisations. A swathe of people in all sorts of organisations are a part of our democracy and run our system of governance but are not directly elected. School governors, the police, doctors and so on do not have to be directly elected in order for us to have an efficient democracy. As long as the House of Commons has primacy and is the elected body, that is the basis of our democracy. All the rest flows from that.

John Bercow: Could I put it to the hon. Gentleman, although there is no great prospect of persuading him to change his mind, that there is one important difference between the second Chamber and the various institutions to which he has just referred? The difference is that the second Chamber is part of Parliament and has some legislative responsibility, and that does not apply to schools, hospitals or the other organisations that he has in mind.

Mr. Clelland: The hon. Gentleman brings me back to the point that I made earlier. The first thing is to get the powers right. I do not think that the second Chamber ought to have legislative responsibility. Once we get the powers right and it does not have legislative responsibility, his argument falls.

10.7 am

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the robust and common-sense remarks made by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland). I am glad to know that I will not be the sole reactionary participating in this debate. He suggested that people would give a dusty response to any idea that we should set up another body with another raft of elected politicians. I think that people would give an even dustier response if anyone suggested that the House of Commons, with its 650-plus Members of Parliament, was in fact too small and that we ought to do something to double the number of MPs elected in a single-chamber Parliament. If that is regarded as a foolish, if not barking mad, proposition, why should it be regarded as a sensible proposition to create that number of elected Members of Parliament if they happen to be divided between two Chambers?

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