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17 Jan 2007 : Column 808
Orders of the Day

Conventions of Parliament

1.42 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move,

Let me begin by commending to the House the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, which forms the subject of the resolution before us. The report is an impressive piece of work that has provided us with clarity on the key conventions that must govern the relationship between this House and the other place.

Before I talk about the report in more detail, I should like to pay tribute to all the members of the Committee from both Houses. Many of its members from this House are in their places today. The outcome of its inquiry and consideration far exceeded the expectations in this House when we debated the establishment of a Joint Committee on 10 May. That is a great tribute to all its members. The fact that the report is unanimous strengthens still more its conclusions about the current operation of the conventions.

I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend Lord Cunningham, who is a very old friend to me and to many of us, and who showed his customary felicity, as well as patience, in drawing together different strands of opinion and ensuring that there was a coherent and unanimous report. When the other place debated the report yesterday—I should tell the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that it agreed an identical resolution to approve it—my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor called it the “bible” on the existing conventions.

I also pay particular tribute to one member of the Committee who is no longer with us—Lord Carter, who is sorely missed in both Houses. He had a very distinguished career in the other place. I got to know him well when, as Home Secretary, I had the happy task of being the Secretary of State with by far and away the largest amount of legislation of any Government Minister—some things never change—and I had to persuade him of the wisdom of that legislation and the ease with which it would go through the House of Lords. He was ever co-operative, but also clear about his own opinions when my enthusiasm overtook my judgment. He is sorely missed in all parts of this House and at both ends of the building.

Today, the House is invited to approve the Joint Committee’s report. The Government have published a response to the report—Command Paper 6997—the remit of which, for reasons that I will explain, necessarily goes further than that of the Committee itself. However, the House is not being asked to approve that response, happy though I would be for that to be on the Order Paper as well. We are instead looking for cross-party agreement on the report of a cross-party Committee and on its description of the conventions as they stand.

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Yesterday in the other place, there was general endorsement of the Committee's conclusions, although the debate extended to include consideration of an issue raised in one paragraph of the report—the application of the conventions to a future House. I will come to that later. Although it is not the subject of the resolution, it will no doubt form a substantial part of the debate. We are looking for Parliament-wide approval of the Committee’s report on the current relationship between the two Houses. The Government accept the Committee’s descriptions of that relationship and its definition of the key conventions.

One of the fundamental requirements on the Joint Committee was to consider the conventions on the basis of the primacy of the House of Commons. Indeed, the primacy of the Commons is the fundamental principle guiding all current discussions on any future and further reform of the House of Lords, and it has not, to my knowledge, been questioned by any party during previous debates on reform.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): But that is the very point of concern. This is being treated as a matter that is just between the parties and not for wider discussion. This House has never had a proper debate on what we want; certainly, there has been no such debate within my own party. It is not good enough to say that this can be wrapped up between the parties.

Mr. Straw: With great respect, that is not the case. First, we are proceeding on an all-party basis. I am as partisan as the next person when necessary, but I happen to believe that on important issues of the constitution, if it is possible to proceed by consensus and cross-party agreement, so much the better, because those are the ground rules that constrain and help to determine the nature of the partisan debate.

Secondly, as I said, we had a debate about the establishment of the Joint Committee on 10 May, when I was only in my first week as Leader of the House, and I was told by those founts of wisdom, the Whips, that it would all go through on the nod. The debate then went for about four hours, not least with a good half an hour from the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who decided to open the debate when I was temporarily absent, for a couple of seconds, from my seat. He treated us to a lengthy disquisition, and very interesting it turned out to be. As often happens, the debate then took off and became a very good debate about the conventions on the relationship between this place and the other place. I am sure that the same will apply today. When we get to debate the specific proposals on the reform of the other place, much of it will be about whether moving towards, for example, an elected element, is compatible with primacy in the Commons. Much will be said by hon. Members of all parties about that.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his characteristic generosity in giving way. He rightly says that any progress on the issues must be made by
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consensus. He extols the virtues of consensus and I agree. However, paragraph 61 of the report states:

Let us compare that with the Government’s December response, which states:

Either we are wrong or my right hon. Friend is. I fear that, on this occasion, it is he who is wrong.

Mr. Straw: I shall deal with my right hon. Friend’s point in more detail shortly. Of course paragraph 61 is correct that, were the composition of the other Chamber to be revised, and the Lords acquired an electoral mandate, the relationship between the two would be called into question and have to be re-examined in due course. However, it is important not to parody the Government’s response. As my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor made clear, it is a response by the Government as whole. We concluded that the primacy of the Commons can and should be maintained, and that it could be maintained in a reformed House of the sort that I would support. It was not a cavalier judgment but was reached after careful consideration. It is fully consistent with the repeated judgments of substantial inquiries, including that of the royal commission on Lords reform.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give way on that matter?

Mr. Straw: Of course I shall, but let me make progress on primacy and then revert to the issue. That applies to other colleagues, too.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way? I wish to make a point on the subject that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) raised.

Mr. Straw: I should like to make some progress and then revert to the matter. Of course, I shall then give way to my right hon. Friend, who is a distinguished Member of this House and also a member of the royal commission.

One of the fundamental requirements of the Joint Committee was to consider conventions on the basis of primacy. Recognising the unambiguous primacy of the House of Commons and its importance to the relationship between the two Houses is paramount in any debate on the subject. The Government welcome the Committee’s clear statement of that fact.

Four pillars bear the weight of the primacy of this House. First, the elected Members of this House determine the party that is in government and also determine—as they did in March 1979—when a Government’s authority comes to an end. That democratic mandate is fundamental to the governance of the country and the primacy of the House.

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Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend said that the House’s powers derive from its Members determining the Government. Is not that the wrong way around? We determine the Government because we are the elected Members. Our determination is based on the elective principle, not the Parliament Act or finance legislation or the fact that the Government have to command a majority in the House. It all comes down to the core issue of election. If we change that, all the other elements in the equation change, too.

Mr. Straw: I understand the argument, which is quite strong, against any change in the other place to provide for an elected element. The fact that this House is wholly elected is a necessary part of the arrangement but, by itself, it is not a sufficient part of the relationship. There are plenty of examples, which are given in appendices to the royal commission report and mentioned briefly in our response to the Joint Committee’s report, of wholly elected second Chambers in other countries that are clearly subordinate and have less power—in some cases, they are close to powerless—than the House of Lords. It is perfectly possible to construct arrangements, depending, to put it bluntly, on what is acceptable and the constitution, whereby one Chamber is clearly supreme and has primacy, notwithstanding the fact that the other Chamber—I do not support the model that I am outlining—is also wholly elected.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Will the Leader of the House give way on that point?

Mr. Straw: Let me give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) first because I sense the way that the debate is going.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: My right hon. Friend has asked the House to “note with approval” the report. With a tiny caveat, I am happy to note the report with approval. However, paragraph 61—not paragraph 63, as the summary states—reads:

We are therefore being asked to approve the report on the basis of the continuation ad infinitum of the status quo. If not, we are wasting our time today.

Mr. Straw: We are not remotely doing that. My right hon. Friend says that matters will “be called into question”. Of course they will be called into question—they always have been. Those who take the view that any elected element in the other place poses an inherent danger will use that as part of their argument. I understand that. However, the Committee states that future arrangements are outside its remit and it is therefore not remotely the case that we are today closing down all debate on the future composition of the other place. I shall deal with plans for that later.

My right hon. Friend was a distinguished member of the royal commission and he will recall that it, under
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the chairmanship of Lord Wakeham, considered the relative powers of the two Chambers at great length, almost in anticipation of the examination question set by the Joint Committee on Conventions. The royal commission recommended an elected element—of, according to the alternatives, between 12 and 35 per cent. Recommendation 2 on page 33 concluded:

Recommendation 6 states:

Other support was given to what were understood then and now to be such conventions. I agree with the conclusions of my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the royal commission.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Is not the Leader of the House in danger of treating primacy rather like pregnancy? Either one is or one is not. Has not the meaning of primacy evolved in the past 300 years as this House has become more democratic? If the upper Chamber became wholly or partly elected, one could surely retain the primacy of this House, but it might be significantly less than is currently the case. Is not that the real issue?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) chaired the Public Administration Committee and presided over a report—one of several on the subject—on the future of the House of Lords. Towards the end of his report, he and his colleagues wrote that changing the nature of the other place is not a zero-sum game with this House—I believe that that is an accurate recollection of what the Committee said—and I agree with that.

I do not for a second regard primacy as being like pregnancy, although it is an elegant metaphor—either you are or you are not—but it is evolving and it has, for sure, evolved very significantly. I have always accepted—I did so when I gave evidence to the Joint Committee—that as the other place has increased its active membership, which has been a dramatic change over the past 30 years, and following the changes in 1999, it has become more assertive and more questioning. Let me say, as someone who has served at a senior level in the British Government for the last 10 years, that I do not mind that. I happen to believe that the questioning of Ministers is a way of improving Government decisions, as well as being an accepted part of our democracy, rather than an irritant. Of course, there have been mornings, particularly when I was in the Home Office, when I thought that it would be nice if the House of Commons were on holiday.

For sure, as I said, primacy is evolving. We can debate the issue at greater length when we discuss the White Paper, as it is obvious that there is an appetite for change and I am pleased about that. I have always accepted that the role would change. What I do not
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accept—and, more to the point, what people much more distinguished than me have not accepted—is that at the moment we introduce an elected element in the House of Lords, by virtue of that fact the primacy of the Commons and the ability of the Government to have the final say suddenly dissolves. That strikes me as unsustainable, unsubstantiated and devoid of evidence.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Does the Leader of the House agree that the sequence of events that we were engaged in was, first, trying to answer the question about the present disposition of powers between the two Chambers so that we could then debate the change in the composition of the House of Lords on the basis of an agreement, if we could reach it? The Committee did not say that there will definitely be a change, argued for or won; all it said was that the question of whether, if we change the composition, there should be a change in the relative powers is bound to come back. It was done completely logically, but there was no presumption across the Committee that just because we changed the composition of the other place, there would have to be a further change.

Mr. Straw: I accept that entirely. It is part of a sequence. The Joint Committee was established only because it was triggered by our manifesto commitment to further reform, and was supported to go further by the manifesto commitments of both Opposition parties.

My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor said yesterday:

I would also like to quote a good friend of mine—my noble Friend Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean—who takes a slightly different view from me on this matter. Although she believes quite strongly that

she also says that, in her view, that is a fact

I fancy that there is rather less to argue about there than sometimes appears here.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Straw: I want to make some progress.

I said that the first of the four pillars of primacy was the fact that the elected House determines who is in government, who is to leave it and who sustains the Government. The second pillar is the Parliament Acts. As the Joint Committee states in paragraph 18 of the report, the Parliament Acts have defined

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