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Options for Reform of Composition: No.6—

Options for Reform of Composition: No.7—

Hereditary Places—

Amendment (c) thereto: in line 2, at end add

Mr. Straw: It is 98 years sincere a wholly hereditary House of Lords plunged the nation into one of its worst ever constitutional crises as it vetoed the right of a democratically elected Government to set a Budget. It took two general elections in a single year and the Parliament Act 1911 to resolve the crisis.

In 1999 the House of Lords underwent the most significant reform since the 1911 Act, with the removal of the vast majority of hereditary peers and the establishment of a second Chamber in which no single party should command an overall majority. Those changes have produced a more independent and active House of Lords. It has been a major advance, but as a reform it is far from complete.

Those who believe that the United Kingdom should have a unicameral Parliament will have the opportunity to express that view in the votes tomorrow night. It is not a view that I support. Strong government must be balanced by a strong Parliament, and that means, among many other things, an effective, revising second Chamber, subordinate to but complementary to the House of Commons.

Almost all countries the size of ours or larger have bicameral Parliaments, because of the weight and
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complexity of the business before them. This House already sits for longer and for more days than most comparable legislatures. If it were serious about doing the work of two Houses combined, it would mean—besides many other things—much shorter recesses, no light Thursdays and many fewer constituency Fridays. I suggest to Members on both sides of the House that that is a sure-fire recipe for detaching Members of Parliament from their voters.

My preference, and that of the main Opposition parties, is for a reformed House of Lords containing a substantial proportion of elected Members alongside appointed Members with special expertise and experience. I believe that by such means we can create a more representative, effective and legitimate second Chamber without challenging the primacy of this House.

Despite the 1999 reforms and other changes to the House of Lords since 1911, such as the introduction of women Members and life peers, this House has so far found it impossible to reach a substantive conclusion on the most appropriate membership and framework for a reformed second Chamber. There are those who say, even now, that what we need to do is pause and reflect “maturely” on the next step. I rather think that 98 years is long enough for such reflection.

We have not been short of debate over the past 98 years, just results. All-party talks in the late 1940s fell away. All-party talks in the late 1960s were thwarted first by a Lords decision to block sanctions against what was then Southern Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe, and following that by an extraordinary alliance—a kind of Faustian pact—between the late Enoch Powell and Michael Foot. More recently, after a royal commission with a distinguished membership had presented a thorough and wide-ranging report in 2000, and after a White Paper in 2001 and a comprehensive inquiry by the Public Administration Committee and a Joint Committee of the Commons and Lords in 2002, the House in early February 2003 managed to vote down every possibility for reform, from doing nothing to having an all-elected House and every alternative in between. It was not a good day for the reputation of this House or of Parliament.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how, under his proposals, a serving Prime Minister could be completely detached from the selection procedure in his party for peers, and might it not cause tensions if there were disagreement on the general attitude?

Mr. Straw: I shall shortly come on to our proposals for composition and the role of the statutory appointments commission, as well as the method of election.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): On legitimacy, did my right hon. Friend read the remarks made by Lord Kingsland on 7 November 2006? In his concluding comments in a debate on the Police and Justice Bill, which had ping-ponged a couple of times between the Lords and Commons, he said:

Is that not the nub of the problem? An elected House or a part-elected House would be used to undermine the legitimacy of this House.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is correct that that is a key part of the central argument. If he will allow me, I shall develop my point and in doing so I hope to give him an answer that will provide some satisfaction.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Given that the Government’s model still leaves enormous powers of patronage with party managers, would not the second Chamber better represent society if an independent commission were instructed to fill the Lords with representatives of organisations that best reflect society—in other words, if we were to create a second Chamber of the country’s talents in which individuals could represent such organisations?

Mr. Straw: I do not for a second accept the first part of what the hon. Gentleman says. There are many possible formulae, including the model of the Irish Senate, which he has, in effect, just described. I do not accept that that is the best way forward.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Returning to the remarks of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), what would be the point of a revising Chamber that could carry out only those revisions that this House wanted it to carry out?

Mr. Straw: It is right to ask that, and in my judgment it is perfectly possible to put in place safeguards to protect the primacy of this House while changing the Lords’ composition. This point is central to the issue under discussion, and I will develop it shortly.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Straw: If Members will forgive me, I shall give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and then make some progress.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has already moved on to the composition of the House. Should we not be spending more time on what the functions of the other Chamber should be, and then consider whether the current composition matches what we want from those functions—and if it does not then consider what changes we require?

Mr. Straw: I have moved on to the composition of the House because I took interventions. The composition and the functions run together, and some Members of this House and the other place take the view that if the other place is simply a revising Chamber it follows as clearly as night follows day that it must be an appointed Chamber. That view is not shared across the world in almost any other country, and it is not a view that I accept. I shall now make progress.

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked me to take on the issue of Lords reform 10 months ago, he encouraged me to— [Interruption.] No, the phrase was “hospital pass” and not “legacy”, actually. My
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right hon. Friend encouraged me to search for a consensus with the other parties and to make proposals. This two-day debate and tomorrow’s votes are the culmination of the first stage of that process.

Four years ago, when the House last debated this issue, I voted for an all-appointed House and against the alternatives. I did so for several reasons, one of which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I feared the impact of introducing an elected element into the other place. I had concerns that that could impinge on the primacy of this House, and that it could create a new breed of politician, rivalling the role of Members of this House both here and in their constituencies. I am well aware, of course, that some Members still have these concerns.

However, I have to tell the House that, having thought deeply about this subject, I am now convinced that my fears of 2003 were misplaced, and that there is a very solid case for a part-elected, part-appointed House.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr. Straw: No, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me.

Tomorrow night, I shall vote for a 50 per cent. elected, 50 per cent. appointed hybrid House—my personal first preference, and where I think consensus might lie— and then for a 60 per cent. and 80 per cent. elected House, as well. I shall vote against the other alternatives.

As I have just mentioned, the principal reason I previously supported a wholly appointed House was that I considered that the introduction of any elected element into the Lords could, by virtue of that fact, inevitably challenge the primacy of this House, which is fundamental to our democracy. However, as I read the royal commission report, the associated research evidence and much other material, I was presented with facts about other countries’ experience that simply did not support my view of an automatic link between an elected element in the Lords and an erosion of the primacy of this place. The evidence shows instead that a country can have a powerful elected second Chamber—the United States, for example—or a weak elected second Chamber, four examples being Japan, Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic. A nation may have an appointed second Chamber with relatively limited powers, or an appointed second Chamber with relatively substantial powers. There are, in truth, no iron rules linking composition and power, except the rule that allows self-confident democracies to set their own rules—their constitutions—and to change them when they judge it right to do so.

Having considered the evidence, I was struck by two other things. First, after extensive deliberation the royal commission, the Public Administration Committee and the unofficial but authoritative Breaking the Deadlock group each came down in favour of a hybrid House of part-elected, part-appointed membership—albeit of different proportions. Each of these all-party committees had thought long and hard about how a hybrid second Chamber could be established in such a way as to avoid competition with this House. They made recommendations to that end, which have greatly informed the conclusions of the Government and of the cross-party group.

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Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): If we had a hybrid House—the worst of all possible options—would my right hon. Friend care to speculate which group of Members would have the greater legitimacy: the elected or the appointed?

Mr. Straw: I will deal with that point. I know that my hon. Friend has read the royal commission report and the other two reports, so he will recognise that a great deal of effort and work was put into ensuring that, by the means of election and by the fact that such individuals would sit for a single term, without the prospect of re-election for a long term, their relationship with those who had elected them and with their peers—literally—would be a different one. The truth is that there are partly appointed, partly elected Chambers elsewhere in the world, and the evidence suggests that whether or not they work satisfactorily depends on the other ground rules that are established alongside them. In the end, it will be for this House, because it does have primacy, to decide those ground rules. I do not think that we have anything to fear in that regard.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) and then make further progress.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He has looked at the evidence from around the world and spoke of the United States as a having a strong second House. The relationship between a Member of Congress and their constituents is inevitably influenced by the fact that they are elected from a constituency of more than 500,000 electors. We have a very much closer and more precious relationship with our constituents, in my opinion. Could we not look closer to home and learn from the experience of Scotland? Having extra Members of Parliament in Scotland has created a degree of uncertainty and confusion that a lot of Labour Members certainly would not welcome here.

Mr. Straw: I agree that we should learn from that experience and we have done so, because there are no proposals in those three reports or in the White Paper that have any parallel with the overlaying representation in the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, with people elected through different methods to representation in the same Assembly.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con) rose—

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give way on that point?

Mr. Straw: I wish to make some progress, but I will give way to the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen shortly, if time allows. I have given way eight times already.

When the Government brought forth their previous White Paper on Lords reform in 2001, they proposed a limited elected element of just 20 per cent. But, as the latest White Paper delicately puts it, that 2001 proposal

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In fact, 89 per cent. of the more than 900 respondents to the 2001 White Paper wanted a House that was 50 per cent. or more elected. That level of public rejection of the principle of an all-appointed or mainly appointed House in favour of a significantly or wholly elected House is a consistent feature of recent tests of public opinion. A thorough opinion survey last month for the Hansard Society, which itself has no axe to grind on this issue, showed that just 6 per cent. favoured an all-appointed House, and 82 per cent. a wholly or partly elected House.

In the end, on this issue as on any other, this House has to make its own decisions, and answer for them. But I think there is one reason above all why the instinct of the public is so clearly against a wholly appointed second Chamber, and that is because they doubt the legitimacy of a key institution of a democratic Parliament if they are denied any say through the ballot box over who should sit in that second Chamber.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The Leader of the House knows full well that that Hansard Society survey also showed that more than 50 per cent. of the respondents had very little idea of what the House of Lords did. That is an important point. What would his reaction be if, in a keenly contested vote in the other place, the day was carried by the non-elected?

Mr. Straw: My view is that we can establish the rules about the nature of the operation of the other place. Every other Parliament with a second chamber has done that, and all parties are agreed—as Wakeham recommended—that regardless of any change in composition, the primacy of this House should be maintained. I shall come on to that point. I also point out that it is dangerous to suggest that we should dismiss the public’s view on the grounds of ignorance. That was the view that was taken by our predecessors in opposing any extension of the franchise in 1832. Leaving that aside, the hon. Gentleman quoted the Hansard poll at me, but it also shows that of those who have a grasp of the issues—the poll’s words, not mine—many more people support the proposal that the Government make today.

Mr. Curry: If this House votes for a House of Lords that is substantially elected and that takes the form of legislation, at some stage the British electorate will be invited to vote for a third of a proportion of the House of Lords. What does the Leader of the House think will be at stake in those elections to motivate the electorate to turn out and vote?

Mr. Straw: What I think will be at stake in those elections is representation of part of the second legislative Chamber. Everybody in this House agrees that the other place performs a very important function, regardless of its composition, and I think that those elections will generate considerable interest.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that under any of the models that include elected members for the House of Lords, he is talking about a single election for a 15-year period? While that would give the legitimacy of being elected, how on earth would it ensure the accountability of those members?

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