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Since the passage of the House of Lords Bill in 1998-99, my party has been saying that we want full reform and would like to build a consensus towards it. It was wrong to embark on the process in the way that the Government did, bit by bit. At that time we made it clear that we are not keen to defend the hereditary system. However, we think it only right, given the important functions of the other place, that there should be full reform. Yet since then we have had a royal commission, two White Papers, a Joint Committee, on which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) served, free votes and the 2004 Bill, which collapsed. Here we are now with a system that has given the Prime Minister the patronage I described.

I always thought that Robin Cook put it rather well when he said that we had moved during the time of the Labour Government from the 15th century principle of heredity to the 18th century principle of patronage. I wonder whether that is what the Labour Government really want as their legacy in this context.

Interestingly, when he stood for the leadership of the Labour party the Prime Minister said that he supported an elected second Chamber.

John Bercow: But that was then.

Mr. Heald: But that was then, and here we are now.

John Bercow: And that was the Prime Minister.

Mr. Heald: It was the Prime Minister. It does not yet look as though we are to see the more democratic and representative House that he hoped for in his manifestos.

We are about to enter into discussions with the Leader of the House, and we look forward to that. He, of course, voted in 2003 against any elected element, but we hope that his new attachment to a hybrid House is a serious commitment. We are certainly happy to discuss it in detail.

The proposal that we have supported for some years is that there should be a substantially elected second Chamber. By and large, the Conservative party voted for 80/20, and I did so, too, before voting for 100 per cent. However, if our starting point is that we have to create a second Chamber that will last—a sustainable solution—it is hard, in a democratic country, not to go for the democratic solution. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) suggested that we could ask each profession, trade or interest group to suggest a representative, and I understand his point, but I worry that that has a flavour of the old pals act about it and that it is not a truly democratic solution. Surely, in a democracy, the only real solution is for the electors to vote on the issue.

Mr. Clelland: I hope that the hon. Gentleman was listening carefully to the contribution from the Liberal Benches, which mentioned the form of election that might be adopted for the second Chamber. The suggestion, which seems to be widely accepted by those who want an elected second Chamber, is that there should be some sort of PR system—no doubt, some sort of list system. Does that not call to mind the old pals act?

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Mr. Heald: Well, that is the criticism. Although my party is obviously willing to talk about this issue, we have said in the past that one could get the flavour of a larger area, such as a county, while still retaining first past the post. One would not have a directly similar constituency, and North-East Hertfordshire would still be represented in the House of Commons, but Hertfordshire could be represented as a county by a group of Members in the second Chamber. We would have a flavour of representation on a larger scale than we normally have in the Commons. That would give some interesting insights into issues such as what the policy for a county or city should be, and there would be a different approach, which would fit very well into our constitution. However, my party is prepared to talk about what the method of election should be and how large the constituencies should be.

In terms of the powers, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) was right to note that the battle between Parliament and the Executive is very important at the moment, particularly because, for quite a time now, we have had a strong Government who have had large majorities and who have wanted to accrete power. The ruthless way in which the power of appointment has been used in the other place undoubtedly shows the sort of Government that we have had. In those circumstances, it is Parliament’s duty to stand up to the Government and to question, scrutinise and really do its job more effectively.

When we consider a suggestion such as the 60-day rule mentioned by the hon. Member for Rhondda, we must bear in mind the use that the Executive side might make of it. At the moment, most Bills go through the other place in less than 60 days, and that is certainly true of the large Bills, unless the Government decide to think again and introduce substantial new provisions, which happens from time to time. It is the small Bills, however, that would tip over the 60-day period. The other place would say, “We’ve got to get the big legislation through. This small Bill is not as urgent. We’ll get through it in the Session, but we’re not going to do it in 60 days.” If the Government were ruthless, they could pack in quite a lot of small measures, which, under the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, would have to be dealt with in 60 days. That would reduce the time for debate on more substantial measures.

The logical consequence of such an arrangement is that the Government would end up guillotining—“programming”—consideration in the other place to meet the 60-day limit. That would be a bad idea, because the important thing about the other place is that it can go through Bills line by line—as we know, a lot of them are not well drafted. Although the detail is often not that contentious, the other place does important work getting Bills right and ensuring that they are legally sound and do not offend some interest group that we have not spotted. It would be a mistake to introduce a strict time limit, which the Government could abuse.

Chris Bryant: Whatever we do in the next two years must be good for the Government and the Opposition, whichever party is which. That is an important principle. The hon. Gentleman’s point about timing might be good were it not for the fact that under the
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Parliament Acts the House of Commons has to give a Bill to the House of Lords only one month before the end of the Parliamentary Session; so the present time limit is only one month.

Mr. Heald: The Parliament Acts are designed to deal with a situation in which there is deadlock between the Houses. My point is that in the ordinary course of business, not the extreme example, the Government would be able to change the practices of the other place, in effect introducing programming. That would be a bad situation for those in the other place, because their job is to take the necessary time to ensure that Bills are scrutinised in detail. It is the job of a revising Chamber to take the time and to cause the sort of delay to which the hon. Gentleman is objecting. If its Members do not have the powers to revise, to delay and to make this place think again, it will be turned into a talking shop; something to which nobody would want to be elected. If it is going to be an elected second Chamber—and I hope that it is—I do not want to see its powers diminished.

Finally, it is worth repeating a point that was made by Lord McNally, who said that the Government have lost no legislation, and no manifesto commitment has been deferred by the House of Lords. Therefore, he still does not understand why, other than for the convenience of the Government machine, there need to be changes in the powers. I agree with him. It is not necessary to over-complicate reform of the other place. It must be possible to consider the conventions; to try to clarify them; to agree on how to elect a substantial part of the second Chamber; to agree on the transition—

John Thurso: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the advantages of leaving the current peers in place until they are gathered, and introducing a third in three successive elections four years apart, is the strong possibility that such a process would maintain the conventions, character and attitude of the Lords, which are so important?

Mr. Heald: Yes. It is important to achieve the strengths of the current Chamber in the new arrangements. Those strengths are independence, which the longer terms—the exact length of which I should like to discuss—would embed, and the spirit of being a revising and non-confrontational Chamber. A proper transitional arrangement would make it possible to pass on the good traditions while legitimising the second Chamber so that it had the confidence to do its job properly.

I made a long speech in January on this matter, and that is available in Hansard. We have had a useful discussion today, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rhondda for having securing the debate. In the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East wisely secured in January, we concentrated more on the process and the composition, so it has been very useful to concentrate on the powers today. Finally, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire was right to be suspicious about the way in which the discussions are moving. I should like to make it clear to the Deputy Leader of the House that we are going to be very vigilant. We want a genuine process, not an excuse.

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10.44 am

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on having secured the debate. I know that he has long taken a detailed interest in Lords reform. I also welcome the contributions that have been made by the 11 colleagues who have taken part. Indeed, I think that they almost represent the spectrum of views voiced in the 2005 debate, which make the task of reforming the House of Lords seem like a candidate for the 13th labour of Hercules, unfortunately. None the less, we shall try to make progress and secure reform by consensus of the House of Lords, because the subject is of great importance to us and rightly of significant interest across the House.

How our Parliament works is a matter, of course, for both Houses to consider together. The issue was debated five months ago, when the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) secured a debate, to which the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), replied. I am happy to respond to the request from the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) to give an update on where the Government stand, because a number of things have happened in the intervening period.

As has been pointed out, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been asked to take the lead responsibility for developing the Government’s proposals to take forward Lords reform. That is recognition of the importance that the Government attach to the views of this House on the future of our Parliament. We have always made it clear that the future of the House of Lords cannot be considered in isolation. The Joint Committee on Conventions has been set up and has begun its work. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, along with colleagues from other parties, gave evidence to the Committee last week. Representatives of the Conservative party, I understand, are giving evidence right now. My right hon. Friend is also holding an informal meeting this week with representatives of other parties, the Cross-Bench peers in the Lords and the bishops. That follows the initiative started by the Lord Chancellor.

The Government have always made it clear that they would prefer to proceed with Lords reform by consensus. There are many different views on the optimum outcome, so it is likely that we will have to ask people to compromise on some of the details if we are to get an agreed way forward in this House and the other House. That cannot be at the expense of compromising our fundamental principle, namely the primacy of this House. One of the frustrating things about the difficulty in delivering Lords reform is that there is a large degree of agreement about the fundamentals, yet we cannot find a clear way forward.

I know that some hon. Members think that we should abolish the House of Lords altogether and that this House should be able to perform the job of scrutinising the Government perfectly well. That is not the Government’s view, which is that the UK continues to need a bicameral Parliament. I believe that there is significant agreement about what we want the second Chamber to do and, more importantly, what we do not want it to do. We must not undermine the supremacy of this House nor the representative functions of hon.
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Members. We want a clear line of accountability from Parliament to the people and from the Government to this House. That is where the Government’s authority comes from, and they must have authority and legitimacy or else they cannot do their job.

We need an effective second Chamber for additional review, scrutiny and deliberation. The House of Lords, as a revising Chamber, is a key part of the parliamentary process. We need a Chamber that provides a distinctive contribution rather than simply duplicating this House, but we also need a Chamber with the authority to make a legitimate contribution.

There is already a broad consensus around the propositions. The trouble is that the consensus breaks down when we try to translate it into policy on composition. Do distinctiveness and difference imply appointment? Does legitimacy imply election? Does election inevitably imply a threat to this Chamber? Those are difficult issues. Today we have had a flavour of the arguments for and against, and that is perhaps why it has taken almost a century to reach the point that we are at now.

Questions have been asked as to whether the codification is premature. We believe that it is essential to have a clear idea of the ground rules for the relationship between the two present Houses before we embark on significant reforms, because otherwise there will be no benchmark against which to judge their significance. Some aspects of the present situation are highly likely to remain true whatever the composition of the Lords—most notably the fact that no party and no Government will in future be able to command a majority in the House of Lords. That factor alone is a powerful argument for codifying the convention now.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire referred to the votes in 2003. The Leader of the House of Commons has said that his “own sense” was that a mixture of an elected and an appointed Chamber—with elections taking place differently from the Commons, for longer terms and with a longer transition—is probably the option on which consensus is likely. As he also said, we have promised a free vote. So he was suggesting where a solution on the issue might, in his judgment, be found; he was not saying that the proposal was one that the Government would force through. We are committed to a free vote, and that means that the other parties have a say in developing policy too, which is why they are being so heavily engaged. My right hon. Friend takes the view that he would be failing in his duties if he did not relentlessly search for consensus. If none exists, it is hard to see how Lords reform could happen for another Government.

The powers of the Lords were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and by others, as were the proposals for a time limit on consideration of Bills by the Lords. My clear view is that the principle that the Lords should consider business in a reasonable time is important—it was one of the foundation stones of the Salisbury-Addison agreement. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said, there is no immediate proposal by the Government to legislate on the 60-day issue. The outcome that we want to secure is that the Lords should conduct its role of scrutinising
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legislation effectively, but should not take that to a point where it delays so much as to be, in effect, vetoing legislation.

John Thurso: I have a question which is slightly pedantic but which goes to the heart of the matter. Are the Government proposing that the powers that exist today simply be codified and put in some form of legislation, or is the Minister suggesting that those powers be changed? If he is suggesting only that what exists be put on a more statutory basis, I think that many of us would not be quite so concerned. On the other hand, if he is talking about changes then there is concern.

Nigel Griffiths: The Joint Committee of the Commons and Lords is looking at that at the moment and taking evidence, and there are no handcuffs on that Committee. As well as being an all-party Committee it contains Members of both Houses, and it is probably taken for granted that the starting point consists of the present procedures and conventions, but its members will have their views on how much, if at all, those procedures and conventions need to be updated and properly codified. That is what the Committee is doing, and I hope that, as it has done to date, it will continue to reach consensus as it moves through the programme.

The proposal to reduce the powers of the Lords comes, I believe, from a consensus in this place as we contemplate perhaps making the Lords more legitimate. At the moment we are not considering reducing its powers—that is something that would have to flow from debate, and there may be areas where there is consensus that its powers should be strengthened. We have no fixed view on it—we want a consensus from Members on how to proceed so that it is open for the Lords to reject Bills and to propose amendments, and so that the Parliament Acts are invoked only if necessary. The period of delay, for instance, would remain unchanged under the Parliament Acts.

The scrutiny of legislation was touched on by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). It is important to note that this House spends a great deal of time scrutinising legislation—in fact, considerably more than the other place. During the 2002-03 Session, there were more than 1,100 hours of scrutiny of Bills in Committee as opposed to some 812 in the other place. We should not undervalue the work that we do here.

John Bercow: I apologise for the fact that I do not have 100 per cent. recall of the voting record of the Deputy Leader of the House. I recognise that peccadillo and shall endeavour to address it. Can he refresh my memory by telling me how he voted in February 2003 and give some indication beyond the important profession of support for motherhood and apple pie that he has so far articulated as to where his own preference lies?

Nigel Griffiths: I can confirm that I voted aye in every Division. I am in a good position to appreciate the consensus that I believe can be reached on the issue.

Chris Bryant: To correct my hon. Friend, he did not vote aye in every Division but in every Division in favour of the democratic option.

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Nigel Griffiths: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not have Hansard in front of me, but there were a large number of votes and my record stands there.

John Bercow: Splendid.

Nigel Griffiths: I am grateful for that support. Of course, I am not sure whether the strong views that the hon. Gentleman articulated will emerge as the consensus. He strongly supports the 70 per cent. elected, 30 per cent. appointed option, slashing the number of Members of the House of Lords to something more like the Italian model of 300 or 350, and a longer term of 12 to 14 years. I do not know whether that will come about, but one thing I do know is that no one will articulate the argument more forcefully than he if the House has a chance to vote on the issue and if that option emerges as one of the possible consensus views.

I hope that this debate has reassured hon. Members of all parties that the Government are open-minded on the issue, and that we are at one with the House in seeking to achieve reform of the House of Lords by consensus and as quickly as possible. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who are taking part in the Joint Committee. It is doing the initial preparatory work within its sphere very well. Like other hon. Members, I look forward to its report and to future entertaining and lively debates such as this one.

Mr. Heald: Will the hon. Gentleman agree that it is necessary to consider how the Commons responds to the Lords to ensure that we in this House are doing everything that we can to make what they do effective?

Nigel Griffiths: Yes. I noticed that the model that the hon. Gentleman advocates appears to be more like the French model, in which local councillors get together in their regions and cantons and nominate people for the Senate. He suggested that counties might perform the same function.

Mr. Heald: First past the post.

Nigel Griffiths: The electoral system might be different, but it is interesting to look at models in other countries as I and all hon. Members have. As far as I can see, there is no directly comparable model, and all of them have evolved over time. I hope that we do not have to wait as long for the next stage of House of Lords reform as we had to wait for the last one, less than a decade ago.

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