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6 Mar 2007 : Column 1414

Mrs. May: Indeed, I can— [Interruption.] The primacy of this House does not come simply from the fact that its Members are elected. Therefore, having elections to the second Chamber will not somehow give it equal legitimacy. The primacy of this Chamber comes from its powers to decide whom the Government should be and its powers over financial legislation. Neither the Government’s proposals nor mine contain any suggestion that those powers should be changed.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. May: I will do so one final time.

Dr. Lewis: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Accepting that this Chamber may have more power than the other Chamber, how would we cope with a situation in which the other Chamber had, for example, 80 per cent. elected Members who had less power than us but had been elected more recently and took a different view, or had been elected under a different system and took a different view? If this Chamber were divided, and that Chamber relatively united, would not that be a recipe for tension that can only weaken the democratic process? Why is it that more than 70 per cent. of people think that the other place is doing a good job, but a rather smaller proportion think that this place is doing a good job?

Mrs. May: I have no difficulty with the concept of tension within the democratic process, as it leads to better legislation and the right challenge to Government. However, my hon. Friend also referred to the possibility of a different electoral system for the upper House, which might somehow claim greater electoral legitimacy. I do not agree that proportional representation provides greater legitimacy, but I fear that a PR system in the upper House would lead some in this House to claim that it had greater legitimacy, and lead to pressure for PR in this Chamber, which I would reject.

To conclude, I want to refer to our penultimate vote tomorrow night, which, as Mr. Speaker has set out, will be on the amendment in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and other right hon. and hon. Members in relation to hereditary peers. Let me make it clear that we support the removal of the hereditary peers, but they must be replaced by elected Members. That, after all, is what the Government are honour-bound to deliver. As the former Lord Chancellor said when all but the 92 hereditaries were removed,

the 92 remaining hereditary peers—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. May: I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I have said that I will not take any more interventions.

The stage two to which the noble Lord Irvine referred was, of course, democratic reform. Therefore, we will vote tomorrow tonight on an amendment that
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would hold the Government to their promise, which, I remind the Leader of the House, was binding in honour. If we did not hold the Government to their promise, we would immediately find ourselves with a wholly appointed upper Chamber, the outcome previously favoured by the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister. Given the Chancellor’s remarkable record of silence on the issue, for all we know that is what he would like as well.

A cynic might suggest that with the hereditaries out of the way, the opportunity for democratic reform might not reappear because the Government would have what they want: a wholly appointed Chamber—appointed by the political parties—with no accountability, no independence and no democracy.

Do the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals pass the tests that I set out earlier? Would they produce an upper Chamber capable of challenging and revising Government policy, democratic and accountable, expert and independent? No, they would not. A substantially elected upper Chamber would be more independent of the party machines, would have more legitimacy when challenging Government policy, and would not deter Members with the expertise needed for the revision of legislation. We oppose the Government’s proposals because, far from strengthening Parliament, they would weaken it.

The Leader of the House often says that if the reforms are not accepted, we will not have another opportunity for a generation. That simply is not the case, but even it were, it would not be a reason for supporting bad reforms. I am not opposed to reform, but I am opposed to bad reform.

Almost a century ago, the Conservatives opposed reform of the other place because they defended the powers of the hereditary Chamber. They were called ditchers and diehards. We oppose these reforms not because we are ditchers and diehards but because we are democrats—and, as democrats, we cannot support proposals that continue the principle of patronage and the emasculation of Parliament.

5.6 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who made a very good job of trying to describe something that, in the end, does not work. I fear that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, to whom I extend the hand of sympathy, has attempted to square a constitutional circle and retain two Houses at the same time, one partly elected and one composed of appointees for various reasons such as independence, expertise, ecclesiastical position and place in the legal system. In my view, his conclusion that the best solution is hybridity is flawed. It pains me to say that, because I agree with him so often. The problem with hybridity is that it is neither one thing nor the other. That is not the way in which we should look to the future of the country’s constitution, or to Parliament’s future operation.

I signed an amendment—on which, apparently, we shall not have an opportunity to vote—supporting the principle of abolition of the House of Lords rather than its continuation in one form or another. I believe that there is a good symbolic argument for abolition, and, if we take the longer view, a good constitutional argument. I shall say more about that shortly; in the meantime, it is fair to say that the House of Commons
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is not in a fit state for us to abolish the House of Lords without making some reforms of the way in which we operate.

In the White Paper on House of Lords reform, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House listed seven principles on which a reformed Chamber should be based. I shall concentrate on two of them. The first is the primacy of the House of Commons, and the second is that the House of Lords needs to be more legitimate.

We have already had a fair amount of discussion of House of Commons primacy through interventions on the opening speeches, but I ask the House to imagine what it would be like if what my right hon. Friend proposes came to pass. We would have 270 elected peers, or whatever title we decided to give them. Presumably they would be elected on some kind of prospectus—dare I call it a manifesto? To an extent, both the right hon. Member for Maidenhead and my right hon. Friend dismissed the idea of a manifesto as an all-encompassing document. However, without a manifesto and without political parties, on what basis would we be asking people to decide who to vote for? What would be the programme that candidates stand for? What would they intend to do, if elected? We need manifestos, principles and policies so that people know exactly what would happen.

Let us suppose that, quite against the wishes of this House, the people who stand for election to the House of Lords decide to stand on a manifesto, and let us suppose that the House of Lords that is elected—for 15 years in the first instance—is elected on a different manifesto from that on which the majority of the House of Commons has been elected. What will that produce? Will it produce agreement between the two Houses? I think not. What it will produce is an invitation to stasis—an invitation to the two Houses to lock horns and never be able to agree on anything.

Chris Bryant: My right hon. Friend is creating something of an Aunt Sally, because the truth is that nobody is proposing that the entire second Chamber be elected in one fell swoop. There will be a rolling programme of elections every five years. That means that there will not be any one moment when the whole second Chamber is changed and its Members are replaced, so my right hon. Friend’s argument falls.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point and, to be fair to him, he is consistent: he has, I think, consistently taken the position that he would prefer a 100 per cent. elected upper Chamber. However, the point he makes is also to do with legitimacy, which I shall address shortly.

We could end up with one House elected on one manifesto and another House elected on another, and it is beyond me how anything could get done in those circumstances. That the right hon. Member for Maidenhead and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House think that that is in some way possible does not bode well for future agreement across the House.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My right hon. Friend seems to be missing the point that one House can have the final say. That is where primacy is derived from. Is he saying that a second Chamber should not have the right to question or revise? If he is saying that, it is suspect from a democratic point of view.

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Mr. Howarth: Clearly, the second Chamber must have the right to question and to revise. My second point, which has been the subject of both interventions on me, is to do with legitimacy.

Anybody who is elected to a legislature—no matter how they are elected, whether on a first-past-the-post basis, a regional list system or an alternative vote system—is bound to claim a level of legitimacy that the House of Lords does not currently have. If they did not claim that, they would not be self-respecting elected politicians. No matter what my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and anybody else might think, it is inevitable that they would claim some such legitimacy, and the definition of what constitutes revising legislation or questioning the Government could be stretched almost to infinity in those circumstances. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has, in all good faith and with his customary good humour, tried to do a good job of squaring the circle, but he has failed. The prospectus he offers the House is a flawed one.

For many centuries—my right hon. Friend talked about the past 98 years, but the period in question is much longer—the House of Lords has been a bastion of privilege. Over the centuries, it has been reviled by ordinary people for the role that it has played in making their lives more difficult by blocking and opposing reform. That there should be a symbolic break with that past is an argument whose time has come.

I accept that if we abolished the House of Lords tomorrow we would have real difficulties, because this House as it currently operates is not fit for purpose. However, there are many good ideas on how this House could be reformed. We need a breathing space in which it can be reformed, so that, at the end of that process, it operates as a unicameral Chamber. I urge all those who support and believe in that point of view to oppose the bicameral principle, which is the first option that we will vote on tomorrow night, and to vote in favour of removing the remaining hereditary peers. Failing that, there is no other reasonable option for those of us who believe in that point of view other than to support an appointed House. That is how I will vote, and I hope that others will join me in the Lobby for that purpose.

5.15 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) made a perfectly good theoretical case for a unicameral Parliament, which other countries have, but the Leader of the House made the much better point. Bluntly, in a very busy modern democracy consisting of four countries and much local government, one House of Parliament would not be able to do the job sufficiently. Secondly, the tradition and history of recent years is that we have not done the job well, and we have needed a second Chamber, not to overrule us, but to correct us and make us think again, and to ensure that legislating and holding the Executive to account were done better. It is my honest view that without a second Chamber, Parliament would be held in much lower esteem than even it is now.

This could be an historic week, and it will be if we do not make the mistake of February 2003—if we seize the moment and decide to complete the key reform that, as we have all been repeating, was set out nearly 100 years ago. We tried in 2003 and nearly succeeded,
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but did not. My first call is to colleagues in all parts of the House, from all parties and traditions, regardless of their views about electoral systems and the various other differences. If they are believers in progressive politics and they want a well represented, multiracial, multi-faith, pluralist Britain in which people can really express their preferences for parties or individuals, I ask them to give us the opportunity to achieve that by passing these reforms. That is the challenge, and I hope that we do not back away from it at the end of tomorrow’s debate for fear of something that certainly will not be worse, and which will in all probability make Parliament much better.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Was not the mistake of 2003 that a lot of people allowed the best to be the enemy of the good and ended up voting for only one democratic option? Is it not true that the Liberal Democrats are now considering not voting for a 50 per cent. and a 60 per cent. elected Chamber? If so, are they not going to take us straight back into the trap into which we fell in 2003?

Simon Hughes: Let me deal with that point head-on. Our party has had a consistent position on this issue in many of our manifestos, including the last one, the previous one and the one before that. Our position has been that if people read the manifesto, they could vote for us knowing that we would vote for a wholly, substantially or predominately—those are the only three words that were ever used—elected second Chamber. We have had discussions and reached an agreement, and we believe that the only way that we can reflect that in our votes is by voting for an 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. elected second Chamber—a wholly, substantially or predominantly elected second Chamber. Other options, such as a 50:50 Chamber, are clearly not a wholly, substantially or predominantly elected second Chamber. We are therefore going to live up to our manifesto promises; I just hope that the friends of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie)—who all stood on a manifesto that said that they would support a substantially elected House of Lords—will also honour the commitment that they made to their electorate.

Mr. Redwood: How many letters has the hon. Gentleman had from people saying, “Please vote to have a lot more elected politicians on big salaries”?

Simon Hughes: The answer is that this issue does not, of course, come ahead of health, education and housing. However, we do not necessarily need to have people on huge salaries; indeed, we already pay people in the House of Lords. Even the Leader of the House’s proposal would involve far fewer Members in the second Chamber than there are now. That is our proposal too. If the right hon. Gentleman believes, as the Leader of the House does and says, that we need a strong, democratic and legitimate Parliament to hold the Executive, of whatever colour, to account, this is the opportunity to achieve that.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman will accept that I was not elected on a manifesto that talked about 80:20, but does he also accept that a significant proportion of his colleagues in the other place— including Lord Steel of Aikwood, who has more parliamentary experience than most people here—are emphatically in favour of an all-appointed House?

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Simon Hughes: On all the evidence, there is a small number of my colleagues in the Lords and three of my colleagues in this House who did not last time support the wholly or substantially elected proposal. Yes, one of them is a former leader of the party, who has gone native and forgotten that he was once elected on that position over and over again. As has been said, we do not choose to listen to dinosaur tendencies, be they in the Conservative party, the Labour party or on our own Benches.

Mr. Straw: I wish to press the hon. Gentleman on the point that was raised by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). Let us put aside the 50 per cent. option. The memory of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) appears to be failing him about what is in his manifesto. It is entirely silent—according to the copy I have before me—on support for a wholly elected Chamber. Instead, it talks about a “predominantly” elected second Chamber. It would be entirely consistent with that for the hon. Gentleman to accept the advice of the hon. Member for Chichester not to make the best the enemy of the good, and to vote not only for the 80:20 option, but for the 60:40 one as well.

Simon Hughes: I have copies of the right hon. Gentleman’s manifesto, the Conservatives’ manifesto and ours for the past three general elections. The phrases used in ours are “directly elected”, “predominantly elected” and “substantially elected”. Our last manifesto talked of a “predominantly elected” second Chamber. We have had a consistent view about what that meant in practice and we have come to a collective decision that we will vote for that. When people see how the votes go tomorrow, they will see that the Liberal Democrats vote for the position on which they stood for election.

Andrew George: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for the outcome in 2003 was that we had put the cart before the horse? We were asked to consider the composition before we considered matters of convention—before we decided what the second Chamber was for. That should have been settled before we made the decision about its appropriate composition.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend knows that I think that he is wrong about that, because in 2003 we argued—as we do now—that there should be no diminution of the powers of the House of Lords. We argued for a strengthening of the powers of both Houses against the Executive—a point also made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). We have never dissented from that.

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