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The good news is that since then the Joint Committee on Conventions, with representation from all three parties and independent Cross Benchers, has confirmed that we want no diminution [ Interruption. ] No, we would never argue differently, but the Joint Committee confirmed the position, and all partiesincluding the governing partyhold to that. We come to this debate having firmed up the position that we had four years ago. There is no suggestion that I have heard from any of the representatives of the three major parties, or anyone
else, that there should be a reduction in the powers of the second Chamber or of Parliament vis-Ã -vis the Executive.
Simon Hughes: No, predominantly clearly does not mean 100 per cent. It means more than 50 per cent., but not 100 per cent. I have argued that we have been consistent on this issue. The three words that we have usedsubstantially, predominantly and whollyhave meant that our position has always been to prefer 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. Colleagues will vote accordingly. We are voting according to our manifesto, and if colleagues in other parties do not, that is their problem. We are clear that we want to deliver a predominantly elected House of Lords, and we will do so.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke: The hon. Gentleman began with an impressive appeal to the reformers in the House. They were a majority in the previous Parliament, but lost because they all voted for one option and against all the others. He appealed to all those who believed in progressive politics to be more flexible and to vote for a wider range of options to make sure that a majority in favour of some composition of elected upper House was secured. However, he went on to say that the Liberal Democrats would not follow that excellent maxim, because they are bound by their manifesto. That means that they will continue their folly of voting only for 80 or 100 per cent. How reasonable is that?
Simon Hughes: We argued for a voting system that would have allowed the House to make a succession of preferential votes. It is not our fault that that system of voting is not available. The House must therefore make a choice. We have made what we want clear, and I hope that progressive colleagues vote for a substantially, or predominantly, elected House of Lords.
Chris Bryant: My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said that he will not vote only for 50 per cent.his preferred optionbut for 50, 60 and 80 per cent. Therefore, would not it be polite, and nice, of the hon. Gentleman to vote for 60 per cent. as well?
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman knows that we have set a slightly higher threshold than the 50 per cent. option preferred by the Leader of the House. Four years ago, we missed securing an 80 per cent. elected second Chamber by three votes, and we know that others have since moved in that direction. If people vote for what they really believe in, and do not play games, we will be able to deliver that proportion this time.
We support a bicameral Parliament, and want a predominantly elected House of Lords or second Chamber. We want the hereditaries to go but, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead indicated, her party and mine
want to make sure that we do not get the worst possible option in that regardthat is, abolishing the hereditaries tomorrow and replacing them with more people appointed by the patronage of the Prime Minister rather than with people who have been elected.
The Leader of the House has made a thoughtful and serious attempt to bring to the House proposals that represent the greatest degree of consensus. I compliment him on that, and am grateful. I pay tribute to him, and to Lord Falconer who preceded him and who shared the task with him. I also pay tribute to those in the Labour partyand the Leader of the House is onewho realise that they must move on from 2003.
It is good news that the Conservative party has also moved on in recent years, and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead and the new Conservative leader have both been influential in that respect. The progressive forces in the Conservative party have moved the party towards support for a predominantly elected second Chamber [ Interruption. ] Redoubts of the old positions remain, but that is why there is now the chance of achieving consensus among all three major parties. I hope that we can build on that consensus, and send a clear message to the other end of the building. If we are clear about what we want in terms of the primacy of the Commons, the Lords must understand that it is our view that must prevail.
The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) circulated a letter signed by 20 Labour MPs to all colleagues. It advocated keeping the status quo, more or less, and its first argument was basically, If it aint broke, dont fix it. I accept that the Lords does a good job, but it is mere invention to suggest that it would do a less good job if it were predominantly elected.
Simon Hughes: No, not yet. There is no reason at all why that should be the case. Indeed, democratic legitimacy will allow the House of Lords to do a better job andas the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) saidto do so with the authority of people who have been returned to Parliament by electors.
Of course, those who want a stronger Executive less accountable to the peoples representatives do not want that change. Of course, the people who do not want a two-Chamber Parliament do not want that change. But those of us who do want a two-Chamber Parliament that legislates better and holds the Government to account more will see a huge benefit in changing from having hereditary and appointed people running the second Chamber and in the majority to having elected people in the majority.
I take exactly the phrase that has been put into the debate by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe. The view on these Benches is that the second Chamber should revise, improve and delay, but not veto. That will remain its position when it is elected.
I have heard no argument from any quarter of this House or the other that the relationship between the Lords and the Commons should changethat the primacy of the Commons should be changed. We have a settled constitutional position. This Chamber is where Governments gain their vote of confidence, where Governments can be defeated and where Prime Ministers fall. This is where the Prime Minister and Ministers account to Parliament. There has not been any argument that that should change. We do not argue it; no other party argues it. So I hope that people understand that this is not about changing the primacy of this place. This place will remain the primary House of Parliament; the other House will be complementary and will help us to do our job better.
The last point was picked up in the previous debate. If the other place was elected by thirds, that would also weaken any potential challenge. No one could arrive there saying, We have a majority, we are elected by the people all over Britain, and we can challenge the Commons. They would come in as a partly returned group, and they would not have the same authority as we have after being elected on the same day from all over the country, on the basis of manifestos, with everyone knowing that from us the Government will be chosen.
Mr. Jenkin: The convention that this House effectively appoints the Prime Minister is only a convention; it is not set down in any statute. It evolved over time and it may evolve in another direction. If the House of Lords used its existing powers to their limit, it could bring this House to a standstill. How can the hon. Gentlemen give any assurance that if it has so-called increased legitimacy caused by the election of Members of the upper House, that is not what it will do?
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman makes two points. The first is that we do not have written down the fact that it is to this House that the Prime Minister has to come to gain a vote of confidence. In our view, we should. That is why some of us have argued for a written constitution for many years. We are moving in that direction by virtue of the fact that we had the Joint Committee on Conventions, which agreed certain things, including the fact that the Parliament Acts could be used, but only to enable the second House to delay things for a year and to act within certain limits. That is now written down. It was agreed. Everybodythe Conservative party, the Labour party, our party and the independentssigned up to that. It has been confirmed by this place. We took note, with approval, of that report just a few weeks ago.
Mr. George Howarth: The hon. Gentleman, like me, served on the Joint Committee that looked at the conventions of the UK Parliament. Does he still agree with paragraph 61 of the report, which said that
should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the House of Lords, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again.?
The answer is yes, of course, because we all signed up to the report. The right hon.
Gentleman also knows, because he was present throughout the sittings of the Committee, that paragraph 12 says:
We therefore strongly support the continuation of the existing conventions. When the views of the Houses on composition are made known, we will return to the detailed matter of how these important conventions should be maintained in a new constitutional settlement between the Houses.
Parliament is an evolving place; it has evolved in the past 10 years. The nature of the Lords has changed. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) made the point that Parliament would go on changing. However, there was not a single argument that this House should not be the primary Chamber; that this should not be where Governments are made and broken or that this should not be the place where Ministers come to give account on a day-to-day basis.
Simon Hughes: The question of primacy is settled. There was no argument about it in our Committee; not one voice suggested anything different. Electing some peoplebe it 50, 60 or 80 per cent.or all to the second Chamber, by thirds, for a single term, will make it an entirely different place from this one. In this place, we have to go back to the electorate for re-election and the Prime Minister and Ministers come here; it is entirely different. The right hon. Gentleman must not fear that an elected second Chamber would change that fundamental position.
The right hon. Gentleman argued for a unicameral Parliament, but all the things his colleague, the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge, and others argue for in their circular can be achieved under the Liberal Democrat proposals. They argue for primacy of the Commons. We agree. They argue for complementarity of the Lords and the Commons. We agree. They say that no party should have an overall majority. We agree. They want continuity of membership. We agree. They want a non-political element. We are happy to agreeup to 20 per cent. They want a more legitimate and more representative House of Lords. We agree, but it can be achieved only if we vote for a predominantly elected second Chamber.
I want to follow up some of the points made in the Governments proposals. There is some debate about the size of the Chamber. We say that, to reduce cost, it should have 450 Members; the Government say it should be bigger. We say that people should be elected for a term of 12 years, with a third being elected every four years.
There are different views about when the elections should be held. They should certainly not be held on the same day as the general election, which would be confusing and would challenge the authority of this place. The European election day would not be a good choice, either; it would be better to hold the election on the day when we elect the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assemblyas we shall be doing this yearand when local elections are held throughout England. People could vote for the second chamber, their national Parliament and their local government on the same day, but we can debate those points in due course.
We believe that in future life peers should be able to step down so that transition is easier, but that a Member of the upper House should not be able to resign their seat to stand as a Member of this place, using their membership of the Lords as a platform to build a career here; the careers and the jobs are different. We want good people who are willing to give up 12 or 15 years of their life to scrutinise legislation and hold the Executive to account but who will not serve a second term. That will give them more independence from the Whips than we have in this place. That is a good thing. They will have been electedas Independent, Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Nationalist Membersbut they will be freer from the pressures that we face here.
I endorse the strong point that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead made about patronage. The real weakness of the 50 per cent. option, and of the 60 per cent. optionwhere we share the view of the right hon. Ladyis that if we go down that road we shall fail to deal with one of the issues that is undermining the ethics and reputation of the body politic of our time. This debate is being held against the background of rolling news about cash for peerages. We do not know whether the allegations are true or whether anybody will be found guilty, but we do know that we must put an end to the idea that a person can have a title for life merely because they are a legislator and appointed as the nominee of the Prime Minister or another party leader. Although we said that we would be content for 20 per cent. of the Members of the upper House to be appointed, they must not get in on the say-so of party leaders or the Prime Minister of the day. Whoever they are, whatever their faithwhether they are bishops or leaders of other faithsthey must go through the independent Appointments Commission, which justifies their membership of the House of Lords.
Mr. Baron: Given that we all agree about the primacy of this Chamber, I find it difficult to understand why anybody would advocate elections for the other place. If the House of Lords had been elected during the past year, what Bill does the hon. Gentleman believe would have been changed because of that election?
That question was asked earlier [Interruption.] How do I know? The answer is that people will be free to choose what they do. The whole point is that the Liberal Democrats trust the voters and the people; we believe that democracy comes from individual citizens being allowed to choose. Let me tell the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) not only that he stood on a manifesto in respect of these issues but that this is the 21st century! We are a modern democracy, and in a modern democracy we cannot defend a Parliament in which people sit on the basis of birth or patronage. That is not acceptable. The hon. Gentleman cannot argue as an elected Member of this House that other people who are elected are less likely
than him to do a proper job of holding the Government of the day to account. That is simply not a credible, sustainable or intellectually coherent position.
John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is so passionate about the purity of his principles that I feel obliged to take him back to the subject of the amendment co-signed by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow)though notably not by him. The amendment says that the hereditary peers should be removed only when the elected members have taken their places. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he is arguing that the hereditaries should be removed when all the elected Members have been elected, or only when some of them have? I confess that I do not find either proposition very attractive, but the long-stop position is completely insupportable.
Simon Hughes: I understand the hon. Gentlemans position. The six names appended to the amendment are only a selection of elite supporters from the hon. Gentlemans party and mine. The Order Paper would not have been long enough to include all the supporters of the amendment. The more serious answer to the hon. Gentlemans question is that there was a debate about the issue in the other place, which was led by Lord Strathclyde. An understanding was reached that abolishing the hereditaries without at the same time effecting democratic renewal was not acceptable to the majority in the House of Lords, which comprises a coalition of independents, bishops and other party member peers.
We support the amendment as it provides a lock to ensure that Parliament does not find that, having voted for 50 per cent., 60 per cent. or 80 per cent. of elected members, it then votes for a provision that scraps the hereditaries, but results in even more patronage. To answer the question of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I am insistent and clear that the day that sees the first people elected to the second Chamber is the same day that the hereditaries leave. If they then want to stand for election, they can; and if they want to be nominated through the Appointments Commission to come and contribute as great and good people, they can apply. I am clear on that and I hope that it answers the hon. Gentlemans question.
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