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to seek a cross-party consensus for a substantially elected House of Lords
In the cross-party talks, a significant degree of consensus has been found on several, but not all, the important issues. Where the Government have not agreed with the Opposition or the Liberal Democrats, they have done their best in the White Paper accurately to reflect the areas of disagreement.
All members of the group were of one mind on the fundamental primacy of the Commons and on the fact that the House of Lords should be a complement to this place, not a rival to it. There was agreement that a reformed House should be partly appointed, partly electeda hybridconsisting of at least 20 per cent. of non party political members, and that it was essential that no political party should have a majority of the whole House of Lords. It was agreed that membership of the reformed House should reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom and its people and the range of religious opinion in the country. It was also agreed that the special arrangements for membership of the upper House of a limited number of hereditary peers should come to an end.
The group decided that introducing reform over a long transitional period would be essential. But with opinion divided in all three parties, and each party committed to a free vote, we did not come to a view on the proportion of elected and appointed members, or on the precise method and timing of any elections, although all parties agreed that any elected element should be by a form of direct election.
It is palpable that Lords reform has been unfinished business for at least 100 years. This is not a criticism of the work of the Members of the other place, many of whom give the nation great service and the benefit of their expertise and experience, but it is our judgmentshared by the other parties, as their manifestos showthat the status quo is no longer an option. However, we all accept that moving forward is difficult. Great passion is aroused on this issue in both Houses and all parties.
Given that, the White Paper is self-evidently and unapologetically a compromise, both in terms of destination and of transition. I believe that the choice that we have is either to make progress on a scale and to a time scale of the kind indicated in the White Paper, or to see the whole exercise aborted altogether, in which case there would be no further progress on this matter for a generation.
Time and again, fundamental reform of the House of Lords has failed because, for some, the best has become the enemy of the good. Deadlock this time round would be easy to achieve. The prize of progress means moving forward gradually and by consensus. The basis for consensus on a hybrid House already exists. All recent inquiries into the future of the Lordsincluding the royal commission, chaired by the noble Lord Wakeham, the Public Administration Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), and the cross-party Breaking the Deadlock grouphave come to this conclusion.
The Government have used the White Paper to illustrate how a hybrid House might work, using a model in which 50 per cent. of the House is elected, and 50 per cent. is appointed: 30 per cent. from the political parties and 20 per cent. from those with no party political affiliation. In my view, this model would provide the most effective balance between election and appointment in a reformed House. However, there are myriad other views, and the free voteincluding by Ministerswill enable those views properly to be expressed.
The White Paper proposes that the size of the House should be reduced to 540 Members. Elections would be held at the same time as elections to the European Parliament, and would use the same constituencies, but a different electoral system: that of the partially open list. One third would be elected at each election. The Church of England Bishops would continue to be represented.
Should Parliament opt for a system in which appointments to the second Chamber continue, all appointments would be made by a new statutory appointments commission, assessing both suitability and propriety. The commission would be independent and report directly to Parliament. The right of the Prime Minister of the day to make appointments would end.
The proposals in the White Paper would also break the link between the peerage and seats in Parliament. Members, including current Members of the House of Lords, would be able to resign their seats. Disqualification provisions for any Member of the Lords convicted of an offence would be brought into line with those in the Commons. All Members would be able to vote in general elections. The position of peers currently sitting in the
House has been an important consideration, and we propose that no existing life peer should be forced to leave.
Let me now turn to the procedure that the Government propose for the free vote in this House. The whole House will recall that when the free votes took place four years ago, there were eight options before it: five of themranging from abolition through 100 per cent. appointed to 100 per cent. electedwere put to Divisions. Every single option was voted down.
Our system of voting in this House is well tried, and works to give a clear-cut decision on any straight yes/no choice. It is plainly essential that we use this system when it comes to determining the content of law. But the system is no goodit does not workfor indicating preferences. In mathematical terms, a binary system is not designed to elicit preferences and cannot do this job properly. Instead, the Government propose a system specifically designed to enable those voting in this House to come to a decision on the issue. Members will be invited to rank preferences in numerical order [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. Members must allow the Leader of the House to make his statement. Of course, I will allow hon. Members to ask questions, and they can disagree with the Leader of the House then, if they so wish.
Mr. Straw: The successful preference will be the one that gains at least half of all votes, after the successive elimination of the least successful choices. The Government propose three substantive votes, the first two of which will be held in the normal way. The first will be on whether there should be a second Chamber at all, and if the House decides that there should be a second Chamber, the second will be on whether there should be any further reform. If, and only if, there is an affirmative answer in both of those votes, the House will move to an alternative vote on preferences.
The detailed arrangements for the alternative vote ballot would come under your direction, Mr Speaker. It is for the other place to decide what procedure it adopts. Although the alternative vote procedure is an unusual method of voting, a broadly similar approach has already been agreed by this House and the other place for choosing the Speaker of each House. I am aware that, as will no doubt be reflected in the questions, the doctrine of the dangerous precedent says that nothing should ever be done for the first time, but every one of the traditions that we cherish in this House was once an innovation. To allow the House proper time to consider the procedure, a resolution to give it effect will be put to the House a week before the substantive debate on composition. It is intended that the debate on composition, in which there will be free votes, will last for two days.
I believe that, following the cross-party talks and the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, the White Paper represents the best opportunity to make progress that we have had for many decades. As our manifesto says, there are many reasons why we should move ahead with reform of the House of Lordsto increase its effectiveness, to make it more representative
of the United Kingdom and to increase its legitimacybut there is a wider issue, too. Through the process, we seek to strengthen Parliament by enhancing the way in which the Lords complement the work of the primary Chamber, and by doing that, our democracy as a whole will be better served. I commend the White Paper to the House.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I begin by thanking the Leader of the House for giving me significant advance sight of his statement? Opposition Members approached discussions in the cross-party working group constructively, looking for consensus. We have always made it clear that we would support reforms that create an upper Chamber that is capable of challenging and revising legislation, that is democratic and accountable, and that is expert and independent. I note that in his list of reasons for reform, the Leader of the House did not mention democracy and independence.
The upper House has been a thorn in the Governments side, in protecting ancient liberties such as the right to trial by jury. It is crucial that any change leaves it even more capable of acting as a check on the power of the Executive. Opposition Members want reform that strengthens Parliament, but the proposal does not do that. It puts political parties even more in control of the upper House, which risks losing the independence that has seen it defeat this Government 415 times. The right hon. Gentleman entered cross-party discussions looking for consensus. He has not achieved that, but will he confirm that, not for the first time, there is not even consensus in the Cabinet, and does he not agree that that loss of collective responsibility is a reflection of the Prime Ministers lost authority?
a hybrid between the two is wrong and will not work. [ Official Report, 29 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 877.]
The Government propose that the political parties nominate 30 per cent. of the upper House, and that 50 per cent. be elected using a list system. Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that a list system would encourage expert and independent candidates? With 80 per cent. of the House effectively appointed by the political parties, will the reforms not leave the House of Lords less independent and more under the control of political parties than it is today? Does not party patronage simply mean party control?
The Leader of the House said that the reforms would need a long transitional periodlong, indeed. On these proposals, reform will not be complete until 2050quite an admission, given that the last White Paper was called Completing the Reform.
Talking of long transitions, since 1997, on 21 separate Divisions on Lords reform, the Chancellor has never voted. Will the Leader of the House reassure us that the Chancellors coronation will not be yet another block to reforming the other place?
It is not just the reforms themselves that raise important constitutional questions, but the process of voting on them. The right hon. Gentleman recommends preferential
voting. Why has he not referred this unprecedented proposal to the Procedure Committee or the Modernisation Committee? In his statement he said that a broadly similar approach had nevertheless been agreed for choosing the Speakers of both Houses. It has not. In the House the next Speaker will be elected by exhaustive ballots.
Introducing a preferential voting system will create a dangerous precedent. Are Ministers willing to accept preferential votes on matters like tax rates or the replacement of Trident? Will Members individual preferential votes be published? If, after the ballot, the House passes an option without a majority of first preferences, should there not be a confirmatory vote, otherwise how could the Government claim that the proposals reflected the will of the House? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in such circumstances, the Government would not be justified in resorting to the Parliament Act?
Mr. Speaker: Order. I tell Mr. Bryant that he should be quiet. I asked Opposition Members to be quiet when the Leader of the House was speaking, and that courtesy should go to the shadow Leader of the House as well.
Mrs. May: This proposal does not strengthen Parliament. We want a House of Lords elected by the many. The House as proposed would be selected by the few. Far from making the Lords more independent, the proposal puts it in the gift of political parties. Far from strengthening Parliament, it risks losing the present benefits of the Lords. Far from removing cronyism, it perpetuates it. It is a lowest common denominator solution that will satisfy no one.
Mr. Straw: I can sum up the right hon. Ladys comments by saying that she wants consensus and she wants reform, but not yet. She has no conceivable proposals for securing that reform. I said in my statement that the issue was difficult and complex, and that if the House wants reform, it will require compromise and it will take time. I am not suggesting that the proposals made in the White Paper are the last word on the mattercertainly not. It will be the subject of a free vote by all parties.
My suggestionit is just my suggestion, and because the Cabinet has a free vote as well, it is not endorsed by the Cabinet and I never suggested that it wasfor 50 per cent. is my suggestion, and I am happy to argue it through. However, if we have a preferential vote so that the House can come to a decision, and not end up with a train wreck as we did last time, it may well come to a different decision. On the basis of that different decision, we can introduce legislation which, I hope, can be the subject of the kind of constructive cross-party talks in which the right hon. Lady has happily engaged, although there was little reflection of that in the course of her comments.
The right hon. Lady said that I did not mention democracy, but I did. One of the difficulties about the Lords at the moment is that, although it does a reasonable job, it is difficult for it to claim any kind of democratic mandate.
Mr. Straw: It cannot claim any democratic mandate at all. We must take account of where the public are on the issue. An opinion poll published yesterday by the Hansard Society with a very large sample suggested that just 6 per cent. of the public support a wholly appointed Chamber and that more than 90 per cent. support an elected or partially elected Chamber. Even allowing for the normal margins of error, that poll suggests that the public are in one place, while some Members of this House and the other place are somewhere else.
I do not accept for a second that the consequences of the suggestions that we make in our paper for a partially open list system will lead to what the right hon. Lady described as cronyism. One of the reasons why I happen to support a partially elected, partially appointed
Mr. Straw: I am not suggesting a closed list system; we have listened and moved on. I can see the objections to a closed list system, which is why we have not suggested it. The shadow Chief Whip should at least accept that concession with good grace.
I believe that more than 20 per cent. of Members should be appointed and that some of those appointments should be party political appointments, because all parties contain people of great expertise who are not part of the party machines, but who, subject to consideration as to both suitability and propriety, could make a good contribution in the other place.
There will be a full debate on the voting proposal. [ Interruption. ] This is a Government proposal, because the Government are responsible for ensuring good order in this House. The simple fact is that because the House was invited to say yes or no on seven choices last time, the House ended up looking very stupid and the matter ended in a train wreck. [ Interruption. ] I realise that views are held with great passion on both sides of the House, which is fine. Those who oppose any change will have the opportunity to vote for no change. [ Interruption. ] However, they are not entitled to vote for an electoral system that will wreck the possibility of reaching a decision. [Interruption.]
Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady said that we have agreed to change the system for electing the Speaker, and I am glad that she accepts that. She also said that we will have a series of exhaustive ballots, which means that she does not understand our proposal. By the way, if the House wants exhaustive ballots where over timeit will probably take three or four hourswe reduce the number of preferences from seven or eight to two before having a final vote, it is fine by me, but hon. Members must be willing to sit in their places for three or four hours while the process is conducted. By endorsing the new system for electing the Speaker, the right hon. Lady has accepted that the old system, by which hon. Members were invited to say yes or no to a number of choices, was highly defective.
Finally, the right hon. Lady asked me to rule out the use of the Parliament Act. The issue of the Parliament Act does not arise in respect of these debates, because we are talking about the House indicating where the centre of gravity lies on reform of the Lords. Once we know that, we will be able to do something that I thought that she was in favour of, which is to implement not only our manifesto and the Liberal Democrats manifesto, but her manifesto.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will succeed with these proposals, but I know that he deserves to. He has listened to the arguments; he has altered his position; and he has sought to produce a package that is designed to maximise agreement. It is now up to the House to decide whether we respond to that package. I particularly welcome the proposal that we finally separate out service in the second Chamber from the receipt of honours. If we had done that a long time ago, we would not be experiencing some of our present difficulties.
Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the consultations that I have had with him and for the important report, which influenced me, by the Select Committee that he chaired. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House who say that they are committed to reform reflect on that report, which was published a couple of years ago.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Unlike the rather grudging response from the Conservative party, which is trying to pretend to be modernised and new, Liberal Democrat Members, as I hope that the Government know, welcome this serious attempt to complete a process of reform that began nearly 100 years agonobody can say that the completion of the task is not seriously overdue. We welcome the constructive and serious talks and the way in which the Leader of the House has sought to engage all those with an interest at all stages in proceedings.
Simon Hughes: That is the way in which we will vote. Perhaps there are one or two unreconstructed colleagues, and I anticipate that their views will be reflected in contributions by Members from other parties later today.
In a modern democracy in the 21st century, both Houses of Parliament must have elected people. The only position that we think is justifiable is that both Houses must have predominantly elected peopleMembers should all be elected in this House, and at least 80 per cent. of Members should be elected in the second Chamber.
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