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We have been willing to compromise in the interests of reaching an agreement. I think that we agree that there should be a two-Chamber Parliament, that there should be a stronger House of Commons and a strong House of Lords, that we must legislate and scrutinise
better and that the primacy of the Commons will never be challenged by the Lords. That is where Governments stand and fall. We pay tribute to the fact that the House of Lords has done a good job up to now, but reform does not mean that it will do any less wellwe believe that it will do better.
I have some brief questions for the Leader of the House. Does the Leader of the House accept that the proposal to have three in 10 of the new Members of the House of Lords as party political nominees flies in the face of current public opinion, which is that we should reduce patronage and not increase it? Does he accept that the proposal to keep prime ministerial nominations absolutely flies in the face of recent views about the rights of Prime Ministers? It would be better if that patronage were removed, so that everybody goes through the same appointment process. Labours commitment to get rid of hereditary peers should be stuck to, because the existence of hereditary peers after we have had elections would be a clear anomaly. Finally, when we have electionsas we willeverybody should be entitled to express a preference anywhere in the United Kingdom for the candidate of their choice in the place of their choice. The list system is not a way to enhance democracy, but a way to reduce it.
Mr. Straw: I am grateful for the hon. Gentlemans comment about the cross-party talks. People outside this House might be forgiven for thinking that there were two sets of cross-party talks, but there was only one in which the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and her colleagues participated constructively and in which we were clear about where there is agreement and where there is disagreement. The Conservative party needs to make up its mind about whether it was serious at the last election in committing itself to a substantially elected second Chamber and reform of the Lords. It needs to embrace this process or something like it, if it wants to move forward. Otherwise the public will conclude that this is a charade, because the Conservative party is so divided that it does not have the bottle to move forward.
Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady says that 50:50 is not substantially elected. This is only my view, not necessarily that of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I want to be able to have a system whereby their views can be expressed and have some effect. What was profoundly unfair about the last system was that although it looked as though there was a greater level of support for an 80 per cent. or a 100 per cent. elected Chamber than for the alternatives, that bit the dust along with all the other proposals, including those which were the direct opposite. That was a result of the absurdity of using that system.
On the question of whether there is to be any appointed party element, we have all agreed that there should be a transition period, although there is a debate about how long it should be. There are likely to be some appointments of a party nature during that transition period, so we have to accept that there will be such appointments. The important thing is that they should take place in a manner that commands public confidence. That is why we have agreed with the Wakeham commission proposal
that the statutory appointments commission should determine issues of suitability as well as those of propriety. Of course the Prime Minister would have the right to make nominations, but without any guarantee that they would be accepted by the commission.
The hon. Gentlemans most important point concerned strengthening our democracy and strengthening Parliament. There are those who argue for no change on the grounds that any increase in activity or assertiveness by the other place is bound to diminish the activity, assertiveness and powers of this place. I do not buy that. The longer I am in government, the more I believe in a strong Parliament. We have strong government in this country and across the western world. Strong government is better government the more that Parliamentboth Chamberscan exercise proper scrutiny over what the Government are doing.
we will ... allow a free vote on the composition of the House,
it did not go on to say that we will impose a three-line Whip to force Labour Members to accept an option that they do not wish to accept. Will he give me a categorical assurance that when this matter comes before the House of Commons, Labour Members will not have to choose, by voting for the manifesto, to vote against the Whip?
we will ... allow a free vote on the composition of the House
but it was silent on the issue of procedure. Given the farcethe train wreckthat was produced on the last occasion, it is the duty of a Government commanding a majority in this House to ensure that a procedure by which it can come to a decision is achieved. That is the sole purpose of the alternative vote procedure. It is used inside the Labour party; I gather that it is even used inside the Conservative party for selecting candidates.
Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady is shaking her head; we can exchange billets-doux about that. Certainly, the exhaustive ballot is used. If the House wants an exhaustive ballot, we can have cross-party talks about that and achieve it, but it would take a very long time and produce almost an identical result to an alternative vote, because, for those who understand these systems, an alternative vote is simply a compressed version of an exhaustive ballot.
One of the documents that very much informed me was the report of the royal commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord Wakeham. My right hon. Friend, who played a distinguished part in that, will know that recommendation 69 proposed, to different degrees, a hybrid House.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con):
Speaking for the largest cross-party group in both Houses, which includes a sizeable number of Liberal Democrats from the upper House and Liberal Democrats from this House, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that what he proposes is a constitutional outrage? Will he think again about his answer to the
right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), and, given that we are to have a free vote on everything else, will he give all Labour Members a free vote on this monstrous proposal for a football coupon ballot?
Mr. Straw: I think that the hon. Gentleman is saying, in traditionally extravagant language, and as he said in the papers today, that he regards my proposal as a dangerous precedent. It may not have occurred to him, but this House is about changethat is what we are here for. [Interruption.] Well, not all the time, but what is the purpose of laws if not sometimes to change things? I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the Cambridge philosopher said about the principle of the dangerous precedent:
you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one.
Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
I note that none of those who have raised objections to the use of the alternative vote are raising objections as regards its meritsall they are saying is that they do not like it because it is something new and/or it could lead to the House making a decision. However, all three parties are committed to the House coming to a decision, and there will be not one but two opportunities, on the Divisions that will be put before the House, for the hon. Gentleman and his friends on both sides of the House to exercise their choice, through a straight yes/no ballot, on whether there should be any reform at all. He can vote yes or no, and if he wins, that is the end of the matter. If the vote were in favour of reform, then, yes, we would proceed to an alternative vote. At the top of the ballot, as is shown in the appendix to the White Paper, is the option of an all-appointed Chamber. I think that that is the hon. Gentlemans opinion. If he wins, that is what we will do; if he loses, that is called democracy.
The Leader of the House knows from previous exchanges that I oppose a fully elected House of Lords because I believe that at some stage it will inevitably flex its democratic muscles and challenge this House. However, that leads us into a quandary, because it is exactly what the Government have recognised but are not willing to say. They have therefore retreated into hybridity. Hybridity may be the start of a process but it is not sustainable in itself. Whatever the mix at the start20 per cent., 50 per cent. or 80 per cent.at some time, and then again, the elected majority in that House will be defeated by the votes of the non-elected, and inevitably the pressure will then be on to take the next step. Hybridity means a fully elected House of Lords, but not just yet.
I welcome the Leader of the Houses suggested change in the appointments system, but I find it utterly bizarre that he can put to the House as a fait accompli this strange new voting system. Voting is a decision for the House of Commons, and if one is going to introduce a precedent in decision makingthe election of the Speaker is not a suitable precedentthen it should be on a free vote of the House of Commons.
Mr. Straw: On the last point, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to reflect on what is proposed in the time between now and the main vote. This system is proposed because we had a train wreck last time. I do not think that my right hon. Friend was one of those who was trying to secure that, but there were certainly some who were trying to ensure that no decision whatsoever was made, and they got what they wanted. That is not what this House is for; nor did it enhance its reputation one iota. All that is proposed is a system with which all of us are familiar in other circumstances, whereby we are offered options and list them in order of preference. That is because we must not find ourselves in a situation whereby the best becomes the enemy of the good. We could have an eliminating ballot but that would take hours.
Is not it better for us to indicate our preference? We opt for our first preference and, if that does not command a majority, we go for our second preference and so on. After all, the old system sought to achieve that but it was profoundly unfairindeed, it was fixed so that people could not exercise a second or third preference properly because gamesmanship applied. The order in which the ballots were put determined the outcome of the result. That is unfair and all hon. Members should reflect on whether they wish to produce a farce like that again.
I understand my right hon. Friends concern. All those of us who have been in the House for a long time do not move away from established procedures except with care. However, I believe that, in this very specific and particular circumstance, we must adopt the system that I have outlined or something remarkably similar.
My right hon. Friend objects to a fully elected HouseI, too, am not in favour of that. However, he claimed that a hybrid House would automatically lead to a fully elected House over time. I do not accept that. Powers are central to the issue. Chapter 5, page 22 of the White Paper provides much information about international comparisons, which show that there is no necessary connection between the composition of a House and the powers that it exercises. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats cited the Canadian Senate this morning. The Canadian Senate is all-appointed but very powerful. Equally, there are all-elected Chambers that lack power. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said that we could legislate to cement the powers over, for example, money, supply and taxation at the same time as we changed composition.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con):
May I congratulate the Leader of the House on having the courage to take up the subject again and giving the House the opportunity of resolving the matter at last?
However, will he ensure that the Government do not pull the plug on the whole exercise again if a majority, on a free vote, votes for some detail of which the Prime Minister or the Government do not approve? Does he accept that we need to resolve the matter in this Parliament if possible? Does he also accept that, in any other European democracy, it would be regarded as absurd that a substantial number of legislators in the upper House of a Parliament were there through appointment by the Prime Minister, appointment by political parties, sale by political parties or anybody else, or appointment by an establishment quango secretly discussing who is suitable? Does he agree that the British are ready for more democracy in their political system?
Mr. Straw: The answer to the right hon. and learned Gentlemans question is yes. I am grateful for his support and his recognition that the exercise is tricky. Its purpose is to enable the House to reach a conclusion, after which the Government can legislate. I say to other Conservative Members that I would have thought that it was wise for them to recognise that the exercise is an important opportunity for the Conservative party, if it wishes to get into government, to get the matter out of the way.
Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): I think that my right hon. Friend has got the matter the wrong way round. We should examine the functions of the House of Lords and then determine its composition. He has produced a breakfast at which even my dog Max would balk.
Mr. Straw: We have had the debate about functions and composition. Some Labour Membersperhaps my hon. Friend is onebelieve that we should end up in a logical trap, whereby we cannot discuss composition until we have discussed powers and we cannot discuss powers until we have discussed composition. We are acting in the manner that our manifesto laid down.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I welcome and encourage the Leader of the Houses resistance to the siren voiceswhether old Conservative, old Labour or even old Liberal Democratthat say, Dont do anything because the House of Lords might acquire some greater moral authority. Is he aware that I meet fewif anypeople who are worried about the House of Lords becoming more powerful, but many who are worried that the Executive are already powerful and may become more so? They welcome a second Chamber that forces the House of Commons to think again about issues such as civil liberty and personal freedom.
Mr. Straw: I understand the right hon. Gentlemans point. I have said previously that although, when I was Home Secretary and sponsored a large amount of legislation, I was irritated by the other place rejecting my proposals, the result of that process was, on the whole, improved legislation.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab):
Will the Leader of the House explain why we have such an incredibly long run-in period to any improved version of the House of Lords? Why cannot we simply move to a fully democratically elected second Chamber, if that
is what we are to have, instead of the dogs breakfast of appointments, bishops and election on a party list system?
Mr. Straw: This is an opportunity to do what my hon. Friend suggests. I hope that he will support the process that enables us to reach a conclusion. He will then have the opportunity to vote for a House that is 100 per cent. elected. When legislation is introduced, he can push for a much quicker transition period.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I fully share the views of the Father of the House and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). The Leader of the House was unconstitutional when he said that the Government must order the procedures of the House. It is not up to the Government to do thatit is up to the House of Commons. I hope that he agrees that the abominable procedure for voting that he proposes should be put to the Procedure Committee or even the Modernisation Committee, which he chairs. It would better go to the Procedure Committee so that the matter can be properly considered. Is not he presenting a proposal to manipulate the House of Commons to achieve a Government objective?
Mr. Straw: Far from it. A manipulation of the defective system led to the train wreck last time. I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I note that none of the criticisms of the proposal has included a serious objection to its method.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise that the House must make a decision. Would not we fail in our duty as a House if we did not agree a procedure that ensured that we reached a decision? If we do not do that, will not we play into the hands of those who posture about being in favour of radical reform but secretly want no change?
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru have recently taken a close interest in the complexion of the House of Lords. Is the Leader of the House aware that the television game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire has a 50:50 option? With all the assembled talents of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties, how can the Leader of the House believe that he has reached consensus on such a concoction of nonsense? Will he answer a few simple questions about the hybrid House that he proposes? Why call it the House of Lords? Will the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 still apply to nominated Members? Why is there a guaranteed place for Church of England bishops as opposed to people of any other denomination or religion? At any point in the discussions, did anybody present the intellectually rigorous arguments for a fully elected House of Lords or, indeed, for its abolition?
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