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That this House takes note with approval of the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions of the UK Parliament (House of Commons Paper No. 1212 of Session 2005-06).
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 yesterdayI should tell the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that it agreed an identical resolution to approve itmy 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 usLord 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 Ministersome things never changeand 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 Committees report. The Government have published a response to the reportCommand Paper 6997the 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.
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 reportthe 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 Committees report on the current relationship between the two Houses. The Government accept the Committees 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
consensus. He extols the virtues of consensus and I agree. However, paragraph 61 of the report states:
Given the weight of evidence on this point, should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the House of Lords, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again.
Our answer to that question is that further reform should not alter the current role of the House of Lords as a revising chamber, and that the conventions governing its relationship with the Commons are fit for that purpose.
Mr. Straw: I shall deal with my right hon. Friends 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 Governments 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 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 Committees 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 determineas they did in March 1979when a Governments authority comes to an end. That democratic mandate is fundamental to the governance of the country and the primacy of the House.
Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend said that the Houses 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 Committees report, of wholly elected second Chambers in other countries that are clearly subordinate and have less powerin some cases, they are close to powerlessthan 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 ChamberI do not support the model that I am outliningis also wholly elected.
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 61not paragraph 63, as the summary statesreads:
Our conclusions apply only to present circumstances. If the Lords acquired an electoral mandate, then in our view their role as the revising chamber, and their relationship with the Commons, would inevitably be called into question, codified or not.
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 questionthey 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
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 elementof, according to the alternatives, between 12 and 35 per cent. Recommendation 2 on page 33 concluded:
The House of Commons, as the principal policy forum, should have the final say in respect of all major public policy issues, including those expressed in the form of...legislation. Equally, the second Chamber should have sufficient power, and the associated authority, to require the Government and the House of Commons to reconsider proposed legislation and to take account of any cogent objections to it.
The reformed second chamber should maintain the House of Lords convention that all Government business is considered within a reasonable time.
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 reportone of several on the subjecton 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 HouseI believe that that is an accurate recollection of what the Committee saidand I agree with that.
I do not for a second regard primacy as being like pregnancy, although it is an elegant metaphoreither you are or you are notbut it is evolving and it has, for sure, evolved very significantly. I have always acceptedI did so when I gave evidence to the Joint Committeethat 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
acceptand, more to the point, what people much more distinguished than me have not acceptedis 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.
The acceptance of the other places primacy has been the bedrock of all discussions on the reform of your Lordships House, and no party has deviated from that acceptance.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 575.]
the relationship between the two Houses may well change if the Lords becomes partly or wholly elected
within accepting the primacy of the House of Commons.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 620.]
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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