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6 Mar 2007 : Column 1396

Mr. Straw: I do confirm that. My hon. Friend is right to say that it would give legitimacy to their position in the other place, and change the relationship between them and their “constituencies”. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, that is the whole point. Those who know the US system will be aware that the different relationship between Congressmen and their constituents is due not to the size of the constituency but to the intensity of elections. The fact that they have elections to the House of Representatives every two years means that Congressmen never stop electioneering and are more attached to their constituents than any of us are.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Straw: I need to make progress, as many other hon. Members want to get in.

It is the issue of legitimacy that was the second factor behind my change of mind. Society has changed dramatically in recent decades, and Parliament must keep up with those changes. I simply do not believe that in this less deferential, more assertive age the public will tolerate a wholly appointed chamber for much longer. The choice in my judgement is stark: it is change or wither away.

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

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con) Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way first to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and then to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: If the Leader of the House believes that appointed Members are illegitimate, why is he recommending that they should continue to represent half of the upper House?

Mr. Straw: I do not agree for a second that they are illegitimate, and I have never suggested that or used that word.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: Does the Leader of the House agree that the House of Lords has perfectly good powers at present? Its Members can revise and delay legislation, but the primacy of this House means that they cannot veto it. Earlier, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) quoted Lord Kingsland. Does not that quotation show that, even when dealing with very important questions of human liberty, Members of the House of Lords refrain from exercising their full power of veto because they are not elected and so cannot challenge the more legitimate lower House? Does not that quotation confirm in full the point that a reformed upper House would have more courage and confidence to use its powers?

Mr. Straw: It might, and I shall develop the point in a moment. Such a House might indeed be more assertive, and the House of Lords has already become more active since the changes of 1999. I have gone on record as saying that I do not mind that at all: I think it
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is a good thing, as long as it does not challenge the primacy of this House. We can protect that primacy by convention and by the use of law.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Straw: I am going to make some more progress.

Two parallel processes have been undertaken over the past year towards establishing a consensus on this issue. One has been the Joint Committee on Conventions under the Chairmanship of my noble Friend Lord Cunningham of Felling, and the other has been the cross-party group on Lords reform that I have chaired. Good progress has been made in both groups.

The Cunningham Committee reported last November. Its conclusions are an invaluable template, setting out very clearly its current understanding of the powers of this place that established its primacy, and the conventions that ensure that that primacy is delivered. The Committee’s conclusions were unanimous, and were subsequently endorsed by both the Houses without Division.

In shorthand, the primacy of this House depends on three key elements: first, the exclusive right of this House to determine who forms a Government; secondly, this House’s exclusive right to raise taxation and to allocate public spending; thirdly, the right of this House to the final—and pretty prompt—say over any legislation that is the subject of dispute between the two Houses.

The Cunningham Committee made it clear that its conclusions—not on those powers, which were a given, but on the conventions underpinning them—related to the Lords as it is currently constituted. However, the House will be reassured that all members of the cross-party group that I chaired were agreed on the fundamental principle of the primacy of the Commons, and that any reformed Lords should be a complement to this House, and not a rival to it. That echoes similar key conclusions of the royal commission, the Public Administration Select Committee, and the Breaking the Deadlock reports.

The cross-party working group met eight times between July 2006 and January this year. I hope very much that, if we reach clear conclusions tomorrow, it can be reconstituted.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I give way first to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), and then to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May).

Andrew George: Paragraph 4.11 of the White Paper states that

If the upper Chamber is primarily or significantly elected, how “early in its life” does the Leader of the House expect there to be pressure for a change in those conventions? Would not it be more appropriate to
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ensure that they are enshrined in law before he rushes headlong into the process of determining how the upper House should be composed?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman may be right about that. I said at paragraph 22 of the Government’s response to the Cunningham 2 report “Conventions of the UK Parliament”:

in other words, these conventions—

But these things are perfectly possible. The crucial thing is that no one is arguing about the current practice of the powers of the two Chambers. There may be a debate about whether the conventions which in part underpin those powers—they are also in part underpinned by the resolutions of this House and by the Parliament Acts—are sufficient. I am very happy that we should have that debate. Indeed, I hope that we can because I hope that we can reach a result tomorrow night for the first time in 98 years.

Mrs. May: In a recent interview in The House Magazine the right hon. Gentleman said that, assuming that there was a clear outcome in the votes tomorrow night, we would inevitably return to the issue of the powers of a reformed second Chamber. As far as I am aware, he has not made that so explicit before. Is it his intention after tomorrow night, if there is a clear outcome, to set up cross-party talks about the powers of the second Chamber?

Mr. Straw: That was a shorthand way of saying what we said in respect of the Cunningham 2 report—that we would need to deal with this issue. I am happy to say today—indeed, it was my very next sentence—that I hope that, if we reach clear conclusions tomorrow, the cross-party group can be reconstituted. I want to try to work by consensus here, as the right hon. Lady knows that we have been seeking to do, and we have been pretty successful over the past 10 months.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Is not the difficulty that our constitutional settlement is of course unwritten and my right hon. Friend supposes that the position at the end of the process that we are going through will be fixed? The lesson from devolution in the United Kingdom is that there is immediate pressure from the institution to change the constitutional arrangements again. If there is an elected element, that pressure will be immediate and constant, and we will be coming back every year to have this debate.

Mr. Straw: I agree with part of what my hon. Friend says. I do not agree with the implication that we have something to fear from a partly elected second Chamber. Other countries manage very well with having one House which has primacy and a partially or wholly elected second Chamber. I said in my evidence to the Cunningham Committee a few months ago that if we have a partly or wholly elected second Chamber—I do not support a wholly elected second Chamber—the appetite to challenge the power of this
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place will increase. We have to anticipate that when we are drawing up the framework in which a partly elected House should operate, but we have the ultimate say because of the Parliament Acts.

We are not in the position of some other first Chambers in other countries; we can decide. My view is that we ought to decide. It comes back to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for St. Ives. No one is arguing; everyone is agreed that the current powers of this place in relation to the powers of the Lords or any second Chamber should remain the same. The only issue is the means by which they are delivered, because in part they are delivered by conventions. If we believe that those conventions are likely to be too weak, we can supplement them by resolutions and underpin them by statute.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): As a member of the Joint Committee on Conventions, I think that it is important that the House be aware that the Joint Committee stated clearly that, if the composition of the Lords were changed, the Committee or another joint committee would have to review the conventions, because the conventions apply to the present House of Lords and the composition of the present House of Lords. It is quite wrong that this House should assume that that Committee, which sat at great length and considered the matter in great depth, had any other view than that the current conventions covered the current House of Lords.

Mr. Straw: I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but he will also recognise that at paragraph 61, which discusses how or whether the conventions could operate in a changed House, his Committee said that the matter was “outside the remit” of the Committee. The predecessor Cunningham Committee said that, even with elections, it envisaged

If we make a decision for a partly elected element, there will of course be cross-party talks, because all three main parties will have agreed on the direction in which we should move and, to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), we will be able to do a better job than was done on devolution, which happened much more rapidly, not in 98 years—or even in 98 months. As someone who took part, in opposition and then in government, in the discussions on devolution, I realise that speed was necessary because of the pent-up feeling for devolution, but if we had had more time, we could have done a better job.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): In view of my right hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), does he still stand by paragraph 21 of the Government’s response to the Joint Committee?

Mr. Straw: Yes.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I need to make progress, because I have already given way about a dozen times.

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There was agreement among all in the group in favour of a hybrid House, with a significant elected element, although the precise level was left to free votes. There was agreement within the cross-party group that a reformed House should consist of at least 20 per cent. non party-political Members, and that no political party should be able to hold a majority of the whole House or of the party political Members of it.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Straw: I will give way in a second. I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to ask me about the bishops— [ Interruption ]—or at least that is my guess. Whatever it is, I am happy to take his question, but perhaps he will let me catch my breath before I take the next intervention.

There was agreement, too, about the need to ensure that membership of the reformed House reflected the gender and racial diversity of the United Kingdom, and the range of religious opinion. All agreed that the special arrangements for membership of the House by a limited number of hereditary peers should come to an end. The group agreed that a long transition, with new Members phased in, would be essential to the success of any reform, and that Members should serve a lengthy, single term of office. Restricting the period of office to one term with no prospect of re-election was a key royal commission recommendation to ensure that elected Members of the second Chamber played a different role from that of MPs, and to prevent them from becoming rivals competing for popular support.

Pete Wishart: I am sorry to disappoint the right hon. Gentleman, but my question is not about bishops. I want to take him back a few sentences in his speech. In this round of House of Lords reform, is not the elephant in the room cash for peerages and the public’s great concern that the House of Commons can put people into the other legislature on ability to pay? What recommendations on party political appointments will the right hon. Gentleman make to ensure that the upper House is not full of cronies and funders?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman has a particular view on that matter, although I do not think the point was a particularly worthy one, but there is an issue— [ Interruption. ] There is an issue and I shall deal with it in a second.

There was also agreement on many other issues.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to make progress?

There was agreement on issues such as breaking the link between the peerage and a seat in Parliament, disqualification and resignation, and having a quarantine period to restrict former members of the upper Chamber standing as Members of Parliament.

To answer the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), a central recommendation to which all are agreed is that there should be a statutory Appointments Commission. The current commission, with Lord Stevenson of Coddenham and his colleagues, has done an excellent job; but its remit is
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limited. In our view, its independence should be guaranteed by statute, and it should have the duty to assess the merits as well as the probity of nominees who are members of political parties, as it does for those who are of no party allegiance.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I ask my question from a genuine desire to know the answer. As someone who would like to abolish the House of Lords—although I realise that the first motion may pass—I am concerned that if I vote for a wholly elected House I will tie myself to accepting a particular form of election. Can my right hon. Friend clarify that point, and confirm that whatever the arguments or discussions about the composition of the House, the form of election is still to be decided and will be fully discussed and debated in this place?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I can, and I will spell out in more detail for my hon. Friend where we are on the method of election.

Mr. Cash: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I want to make some progress, if I may.

The current House of Lords is justifiably commended for the distinction of some of its Members, but there is sometimes an implication that distinction and the holding of a party card are incompatible. That is palpably untrue. I favour a hybrid House partly because I want to see those without party affiliation continue to make an important contribution to the House of Lords, but also because I want to see in the other place some of those expert and experienced in their field who have a party affiliation but whose profession or career make it difficult for them to take part in the electoral process. I am satisfied that with a statutory appointments commission in place, that could be achieved without charges of cronyism.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Cash rose—

Mr. Straw: I am going to make some more progress.

An additional reason why my preference is for a 50 per cent. elected House is that it will ensure the widest diversity. With list systems, it is possible, for example, to require that half those elected are women, but it is virtually impossible to make similar provision for ethnic and other minority representation. In practice, for a long time, fair representation of minorities in the second Chamber could be achieved only by appointments.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Straw: I want to deal with the issue of election.

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