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There was no agreement in the cross-party group about the method of election. The Conservatives favoured large, first-past-the-post constituencies on the old European election model and the Liberal Democrats favoured
multi-member single transferable vote constituencies. The Government said that we favoured
a partially open regional list system.
Mr. Straw: I ask my hon. Friend to hear me out. The same issue applies when it comes to whether the public had a choice over how he was selected to stand for the Labour party or how Tory or Liberal Democrat Members were selected.
Mr. Wareing: I thank my right hon. Friend. I want to explain what occurs to me when he refers to the appointment of experts. One expert could be an Army general, but what does he know about the health service or the education system? Are these appointed experts going to be confined to giving their opinion only on subjects about which they are expert and are they going to be allowed to vote only on those subjects?
Mr. Straw: I will give way to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), as long as he does not ask me about the European Union. What my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby said is an argument for an all-elected Chamber, which is not an argument that I favour, because I want a mixed Chamber.
Mr. Cash: In the White Paper, the first-past-the-post system is dismissed on the grounds that the arguments in favour of it are relevant only to the Chamber in Parliament that delivers the Government of the day. What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by that? Surely he recognises that the element of appointment by the party leadership, which is inherent in the partly open list system that he proposes, would automatically give an enormous amount of power to those who run the parties in question.
Mr. Straw: I certainly do not accept that. Let me spell out that our proposal is not for the current system in use for the European parliamentary elections. In that closed list system, in practice, voters have to vote for all members of a party's list if they vote for one. Under the partly or semi-open list system, that is not the case. Voters may, if they wish, vote for a list or they may allocate their vote to a specific individual candidate. The result is that voters can influence which candidates are elected as well as which party. In other words, they can break the list.
To those people, such as the hon. Gentleman, who claim that this system is no better than appointment by party leaders, I say that there is a world of difference. There is as much voter discretion under this system as under the first-past-the-post system, where in each constituency it is the party that selects the candidate, not the voter. The semi-open list system is our current preference, but if the House can come to a conclusion on composition, I am certainly ready and willing to consider alternatives to it.
The votes tomorrow night are on the resolutions on the Order Paperno more and no less. The White Paper is there to inform the debate and to provide the context for it. But there is no resolution to seek endorsement of the White Paper, and, in any event, we ultimately will give effect to the wishes of the House by legislation, not by a White Paper.
There are two limbs to the case of those who argue against a significant elected element of a reformed Lords. One, which I have already referred to, relates to fears that such a reformed Chamber would challenge the primacy of this place. It need not and it will not. The second is to argue that the current appointed Chamber does such a good job that it would be difficult or impossible to improve it. Let me now deal with that second issue.
I applaud the work of the Lords in revising legislation, in holding the Government to account and in acting as a forum for distinguished peers, who are expert and experienced in their fields. But that said, I do not believe that the Lords as currently constituted has reached such a state of grace, either in terms of its activity or its membership, that it requires no change. Self-evidently my view is also the view of both main Opposition parties. One of the distinctive and commendable features of this countrys constitutional arrangements is that they normally produce strong Governments. But strong government requires a strong Parliament.
Over the past 30 years, this House and the other place have notably and noticeably improved the way in which the Government are held to account. But there is much more that this House can do to improve its effectiveness without paralysing good governance, and the same is true of the other place. This is not a zero-sum game. There is no fixed quantum of activity of this Parliament such that if the Lords does something, by virtue of that fact that is going to undermine the Commons or to suck power from it. With government as complex as it is today, and the issues of public concern as great, there is quite enough for both Houses to do without one becoming a rival to the other.
Over the decades since the crisis between the Lords and the Commons 98 years ago, my party has called for a reformed Lords. We did so again at the last election when we said we wanted a reformed upper chamber that had to be
effective, legitimate and more representative without challenging the primacy of the Commons.
For the first time that I can recall, both the main Opposition parties are now in a similar position, agreeing the need for a reformed second Chamber and agreeing much, if not all, of the means to achieve that. We can make huge progress tomorrow and move to implement not just one manifesto commitment, but three. Doing so will require all who wish to see progress not to make the best the enemy of the good, and to raise their sights to believe that after a century of argument we have it in our hands to deliver a second Chamber that is more effective, more legitimate and, above all, more representative.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): The other place has a long history and a proud record of providing a check on the powers of Government and no Government can be immune to its challenges. For example, in the relatively short lifetime of this Government, the House of Lords has protected ancient liberties, such as the right to trial by jury, and that is how it should be. A second Chamber should have the confidence and the ability to make Governments think again. But the other place does need to change. The political parties power of patronage, and with it the risk of abuse, must be removed. If we are to strengthen Parliament as a whole, the other place needs greater democratic legitimacy if it is successfully to challenge Government policy.
When we reform the other place, we must keep what works well, but we must stay mindful that it can still be improved. As we debate this issue, I suggest that hon. Members would do well to remember Edmund Burkes standard of a statesman:
A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together.
Reform to the other place would change how its members are chosen and would set out its role and its powers. It would have consequences that would last beyond our generation. Indeed, it would affect legislation not yet conceived, to address issues that have not yet emerged. It would change the nature of the relationship between the Government and Parliament.
Mr. Jenkin: May I put to my right hon. Friend the point that I wished to make to the Leader of the House? By any standards, this represents a major constitutional change. It is certainly much more significant than deciding, for example, whether to have an elected mayor in Colchester. On that basis, should not there be a referendum on the outcome of the Houses deliberations?
Mrs. May: As my hon. Friend makes that point, I cannot help but think about what happens in Canada, where the predilection for having constant referendums is such that they are now known as neverendums. I do not agree with my hon. Friend; it would not be appropriate for this to be the subject of a referendum.
There are those who argue that strengthening the upper House by increasing its democratic legitimacy would threaten the primacy of this House. I do not accept that argument and I ask hon. Members not to be seduced by it. As the Leader of the House made it clear, one thing on which all who participated in the cross-party talks were agreed was that the primacy of the Commons should remain as the basis of our democracy. However, the primacy of this place comes
from its powers, not merely the process by which its membership is chosen. The fear of challenge is a sign of weakness, not strength. We should not fear reform of the Lords. We should welcome it as a means of strengthening Parliament and our democracy.
Mrs. May: If my hon. Friend has a predilection for referendums, I am sure that he will be able to find several other issues that should be put to them. However, I do not agree that this issue should be subject to a referendum. The matter should be debated, considered and decided by the House.
Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): May I take the right hon. Lady back to the point that she made about the convention of the House of Lords, and thus its role and powers, vis-Ã -vis this House? My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House seems to make the understandable assumption that there is an understanding among the main parties on maintaining the convention. However, I hear in the right hon. Ladys wordsI certainly heard this in the words of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and I have heard it over and over again from Liberal Democrats during the 20 years in which I have been in the Housethat the convention that this House is supreme and cannot eventually be overturned by the House of Lords is actually not accepted. Will she confirm that she believes that the Conservative party supports the conventions that apply at present and that would be presumed to apply to a second Chamber that was elected in part or whole?
Mrs. May: I am happy to confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that I was not suggesting what he has inferred from my comments in any way. As far as we are concerned, the primacy of the Commons is the basis of our democracy and that situation should remain. That was the opinion of all three parties involved in the cross-party talks.
I congratulate the Leader of the House on his work in bringing forward the proposals. They are, after all, the fruit of the years of work by the Government that started back in 1997. At the 1997 general election, the Labour party promised
to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.
We are committed to completing House of Lords reform.
Indeed, the White Paper before the most recent one was called The House of Lords: Completing the Reform. As we debate the Leader of the Houses proposals, we must judge them by the Labour partys standards and decide whether they would make the other place democratic and representative.
Although those considerations are a good starting point for judging the Leader of the Houses work, I would add further tests for the proposals. Reform should create an upper Chamber that is capable of challenging and revising Government policy, that is
democratic and accountable, and that is expert and independent. That was the spirit in which we entered the cross-party talks because, as the Leader of the House said, all three parties are committed to reforming the other place. The open spirit in which the Leader of the House began the process was welcome. As he said, we need consensus to complete reform.
Mrs. May: I will, in just a moment [ Interruption. ] I was wondering how long it would be. We want to help the Leader of the House to achieve consensus, but if he is to do so, he must listen to our concerns.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. On the one hand, she says that she wants a more effective and powerful second Chamber, but on the other, she wants to enshrine the primacy of this Chamber. Is that not an incompatible wish?
Mrs. May: No, it is not, and I would say to hon. Members that when we discuss and consider primacy, it is important that we separate the issue of the primacy of the Commons, and the legitimacy of the Lords challenging the Commons, from the issue of the legitimacy of the Lords challenging the Government. I want a stronger Parliament that gives the Lords greater power to challenge the Government. The issue is not the balance of primacy in the Commons and the Lords.
Mr. Frank Field: Suppose that the right hon. Lady had her way and the House agreed to change the composition of the Lords in the way that she wishes. Which of the measures taken in the past year does she think that the Lords would have changed against our wishes, and which of those changes does she think would be totally compatible with our being the sovereign body?
Mrs. May: I want the House of Lords to achieve greater democratic legitimacy, and I do not intend to go over measures taken in the past year and decide in which cases the Lords, in a different form, might have voted differently. I repeat that we need to strengthen Parliament to ensure that it is better able to hold the Government to account, and to ensure that there are the right checks and balances on the primacy of the Government.
Mr. Field: Is it not one of the cardinal principles of our constitution that the Government are responsible to the electorate? They can only be responsible to the electorate through a party system. We have a system in which Members on both sides of the House are elected on different programmes, but if we churned that programme up, and then the House of Lords churned it up, at the end of the Parliament, the Government would have every right to say, Well, thats the sort of constitution we have. There is no way that we can hold a Government to account via the electorate if we are prepared to allow party election pledges to be overturned, either here or in the other place.
Mrs. May: First, as is pointed out to me by colleagues, Governments bring forward many things that are not in their manifestos, and the electorate cannot refer to them when they vote for a particular party. Indeed, we would not expect everything that Governments brought before the House to be put in a manifesto. Few enough people read manifestos as it is, without them making reference to every single thing that the Government want to introduce.
Mr. Redwood: Does my right hon. Friend share any of my distaste for the idea of regional lists, using European boundaries, being used to elect people to a House that is meant to be independent and to exercise independent judgment? How can we believe that the party hacks going through that system will be amenable to taking on an independent role, and how can we avoid cash for elections?
Mrs. May: I am happy to say to my right hon. Friend that I will come to the issue of the list system for elections, about which I have real concerns, and to which, in fact, I object. I was interested to hear the Leader of the Houses comments today, because it was the Leader of the House who forced us to adopt the closed list system for the European parliamentary elections.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Does the right hon. Lady agree that the mandate ideathe idea that electors read party manifestos, and that is how we get hereis entirely fictional, and that the essence of the supremacy and primacy of this place is its power to make and break Governments? Nobody is challenging primacy in that sense.
Mrs. May: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentlemans last point. I also agree that the idea that a lot of voters read manifestos is purely fictional, although of course in the case of some parties, their manifestos are pure fiction.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): If the right hon. Ladys proposal is accepted and there are direct elections and manifestos, would we retain the Parliament Acts, as there could be a conflict?
Mr. Kenneth Clarke: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no one is proposing any reform that would allow legislation to reach the statute book unless the Commons has voted for it? The House of Lords can challenge it and send it back to us, but unless the House of Commons approves it it cannot become law. All that the House of Lords can do if we defy it is delay legislation for the period set out in the Parliament Acts. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) suggested that the Lords could change the law on a whim which, as far as I am aware, no one has proposed at all.
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