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Other important principles remain about the size of constituencies and the nature of the electoral system. The Liberal Democrats are clear that they want a proportional or representative electoral system—not just for our party, but for all parties, independents and the rest. There is an argument for starting with the European constituency boundaries, as the Leader of the House proposes, but I have to say that we are open to discussing that matter further. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) who has worked with me on these issues over recent months is very clear that in his region, the south-west, there is, bluntly, no commonality of interest with Gloucestershire or Scilly—a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). My hon. Friends in the south-east will tell us that
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someone in Kent does not feel an immediate commonality of interest with someone in Berkshire.

We are up for discussing the possibility of smaller regions, but we do not want to end up with constituencies that are so small that we do not get representative outcomes, which the right hon. Member for Maidenhead proposed, or where the role of MPs is duplicated. If this place is to be challenged, the boundaries should be similar to those of this place, but we do not want that. We do not want a Cleveland or a Durham or a Southwark constituency. We believe that the constituencies have to be bigger than that. We also believe that the people elected to the other place should not be paid to do constituency case work or housing cases because they should be doing a different job. They should be doing a one-term job of holding the Executive to account and legislating. They are not meant to be second-tier members of the House of Commons representing individual voters and registering their concerns.

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman referred to my earlier remarks on this issue, so for further clarification, I should say that we believe that we have commonality of purpose in seeking to provide for an electoral area that is large enough not to challenge and compete with Members of this House while at the same time being small enough to be recognisable to the people who vote in the elections. The European parliamentary regions are not readily understood, so we suggested counties and cities because those geographical areas are understood by the electorate.

Simon Hughes: I absolutely understand the good faith of that and I am one of the great defenders of the counties and the cities, and of local identity. The only thing that the right hon. Lady has not yet conceded is that, under the system that she continues to advocate—the most antediluvian of voting systems: the first-past-the-post system—we would get the least representative outcome, in a much bigger area. We will have to discuss that. We may not get a perfect solution. But I share her view that a list system whereby the parties select the names and the voters cannot choose is the worst of all possible worlds. We believe that there ought to be either a system under which people choose the candidates as individuals or a system under which they choose the order of people on the list completely freely. That is our second-best option.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree—partly on the principle of having different roles for the two Houses and a different approach—that it is also important when considering the composition of the constituencies to bear it in mind that a new second Chamber should reflect the regions more, and be less population based? Being population based is more the role of this House, which has a direct link with its constituents.

Simon Hughes: I am sympathetic to that view. In the second Chamber, the people who come to Parliament could more logically come from Scotland and speak for Scotland, whether it is the highlands, the lowlands or the central belt. Or someone could speak for Wales, whether it is south, mid or north Wales, or for the west country, or for the north-east. That is an entirely reasonable proposition.


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There is lots of agreement among the three major parties. There is agreement about two Chambers and the primacy of the Commons, and about there being no challenge to MPs in their duties and responsibilities, and no weakening of Parliament. I hope that there is lots of consensus that there should be a stronger, more legitimate and more representative Parliament. I hope that we can agree that those are the principal issues that should lead people to vote in favour of radical change tomorrow. The other matters are secondary.

We will proceed in the same constructive spirit and I hope that, between us, we will get the best possible outcome. I hope that colleagues will be brave and will vote to end hereditary entitlement to be part of the legislature and to end party political patronage, which is tarnishing our British political system as we speak. I hope that colleagues will go back to what they say every time they go to face the voters, which is that they trust the British people. On these Benches, we do trust them, and we will vote accordingly.

5.47 pm

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): I will be, I hope, commendably brief. I want to address only one real issue. It is right to say that there is unanimity about the primacy of this House in the present context, but anyone who thinks that, if the proposed legislation goes through, that primacy will remain, is living in a dream world. The primacy derives absolutely—not just in part—from the fact that we are the elected Chamber, and because of that the other House observes conventions. It therefore follows—it seems a rather simple issue to me—that if we go down the path of producing what, if this takes place at all, will eventually turn into an entirely elected House of Lords, the concept of primacy will disappear. I think that the Government recognise that, and that that is why they have gone for this rather strange compromise position.

I have said this before, but I like repeating what I have said before: hybridity is not a solution. It is a holding position and a stalling of the inevitable. It is unsustainable in the long term. Just think of the realities of a political Chamber where the elected Members—whatever percentage there happen to be—time and again find that the unelected Members are swinging the majority away from them. What will happen in such a situation? The more emotive and high-profile the issue, the more likely it will be that the elected Members of the other place, backed by some Members of this House, will demand even more elected Members, and so the process will go on. Once we start down this road, we will eventually arrive at a fully elected House of Lords.

Andrew George: Paragraph 1.7 of the White Paper states that

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that, given the inevitable dynamics involved, if Parliament were ever under pressure to reconsider the proportion of elected Members of the second Chamber, that pressure would be to increase it, rather than reduce it?

Mr. Williams: It seems to me that this is quite simple. I have unconventional views about devolution, and I warned that it would be a slippery slope and that the
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legislation that we passed would not be the end of the story. I feel very much the same about this matter.

It is inevitable that whatever the proportion at which we start, the House of Lords will eventually become fully elected, which brings us to the constitutional conundrum that was raised earlier. Once the House of Lords is fully elected, what will happen when one party has a majority in this House and another party has a majority in the other House? As politicians, it is ludicrous for us to think that there will not be manifestos for such elections. An election will be a political event, rather than an election to a social club, so there will be manifestos; one House could thus be in political conflict with the other House.

Such a situation would raise the interesting question of which House, if both were elected, would reflect the view of the electorate. Who would judge which House was prime? One might say that that would be the House with the most recent mandate, but that would not be satisfactory. I suspect that when there is a fully elected House of Lords, there will be a challenge, initially on key issues, to this House.

The other House has muscle; it just does not use it. This is not a matter of giving it muscle, because all it has to do is to scrap the conventions and use the Parliament Act to gridlock the House of Commons. An Opposition party in the other House could oppose Bill after Bill to the extent allowed by the Parliament Act. If I had been a Member of the other House back in the Thatcher years, I would have done anything in my power to block some of that Government’s legislation, and it is unreasonable to think that other politicians will not try to do the same. If we go down such a route, we will, at some time—this will be a long time away, and I will be dead and buried when it happens—be stuck in constitutional deadlock. How would we deal with that? Have the Government given us any indication of their plans for coping with a situation in which the House of Lords adopted a policy of non-co-operation that would leave us absolutely stuck?

Some hon. Members might say that that is fanciful, but I draw their attention to paragraph 61 of the report that was agreed unanimously by the Joint Committee on Conventions, which states:

That is why I am making my brief speech. If we start down this path, as I am horribly afraid that we might, it will put us in peril. We do not need to strengthen the House of Lords—it does a good job as it is. If we start down this route, we cannot be sure where it will end. However, I do not think it will end without a degree of political chaos.

5.55 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): The basis of all my strong views on the subject is my belief that we need a stronger Parliament, vis- -vis the Government, than we have at the moment. We all realise that regardless of the party that is in power, the modern Executive and the modern state have a tendency to get ever more powerful and all embracing. Most of the public sense that our parliamentary institutions are no longer powerful enough to make the Executive as
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accountable as they should be. We need more transparency, more honesty and more democratic accountability, which is why I want a stronger upper House of Parliament. At the moment, we have a Commons that has lost its powers and an upper House that is something of an historical anachronism, which restrains it in exercising its powers.

There is nothing wrong with the present powers of the House of Lords and I would prefer to leave them unchanged. I think that we would find that any debate about those powers would lead to a frustrating inability to achieve any consensus on moving in one direction or the other. I would certainly resist any idea of weakening the existing powers of the upper House, so I am glad that the Government have so far been frustrated in their attempts to impose on the upper House the kind of timetabling of legislation that has done much to weaken the legislative process in this House, for example.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) does not object to those powers either. He said, as others have done, that those powers are quite right, but he expressed a fear that if the upper House were elected, its powers would, in some extraordinary way, get stronger. I fail to see that. At present, the Parliament Acts ensure that it has only a delaying power, rather than any kind of veto. As far as I am aware, the Parliament Acts secure that the Commons has the monopoly on Supply. It should be made absolutely clear that only the Commons decides matters of taxation and public expenditure, and that should not be changed.

If there are hon. Members who fear that there would be pressure to abandon some of the conventions, I would be content to address that through statute. If, when we have the Government’s Bill, someone were to table an amendment to provide that the upper House should not, in any circumstances, be able to pass a vote of censure on the Government, I would support it. There are all kinds of other conventions with which we are familiar, such as the convention that the upper House should in no circumstances refuse to give a Second Reading to a Bill that formed a major part of a manifesto on which a Government were elected. If anyone could produce a satisfactory legal definition of that doctrine, I would support it. However, I do not believe that the Lords, if it becomes more elected, will be able by pressure to move its powers in the way in which the right hon. Gentleman suggests. The next step that we need to get to in the constitution of the United Kingdom is to persuade their lordships to use more effectively the powers that they already have.

What could their lordships have done over the past two years? Although I do not want to go into the controversial things that bring about party divisions, some of the legislation that has been introduced on criminal justice, anti-terrorism and human rights has, in the opinion of many people, justified the Lords sticking to its guns and, if nothing else, trying to get the Government and this House to think again and again about where we are going. Although Members of the Lords felt strongly, they did not use all their powers to the full because they felt inhibited by the fact that we were elected and they were not and the feeling that that gave us more legitimacy.


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I align myself with all those who say that to get the upper House to behave more confidently and to use its powers, we have to give them more legitimacy, which means making sure that they are wholly or largely democratically elected. My preference, which I have expressed on all kinds of bodies over the past few years, including the first Cunningham Committee, is for 100 per cent. election; that is the logic of my position, and I shall vote for that tomorrow. I should add that I long ago accepted that the chances of such a measure being enacted in 2007 are absolutely nil.

Reformers of all parties formed a group, which we called Breaking the Deadlock, and we produced the excellent Second Chamber of Parliament Bill of 2005. The group included my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the late Robin Cook and the Liberal MP Paul Tyler, now Lord Tyler. We had to compromise, because no agreement could be reached on the details, even between such stout reformers. We came up with a proposal for a 70 per cent. elected Chamber. I hope that that makes the Liberals feel guilty about continuing to stick rigidly to their position. I hope that by tomorrow they will have decided that it might be worth considering at least the 60 per cent. proposal, so that we do not all defeat each other in our anxiety to ensure the perfect reform of the upper House.

Chris Bryant: I do not want the right hon. and learned Gentleman to get too pious on the subject of the Liberal Democrats, because although I wholeheartedly support his speaking on the subject, as I recall, he did not manage to vote last time.

Mr. Clarke: Alas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and I, both ardent reformers, found that we had other engagements that took us out of the country. The 80 per cent. option was defeated by three votes on the last occasion, so if my right hon. Friend and I been able to break our unbreakable engagements, and if we had been in the House and voted as we should have done, it would have been defeated by only one vote. I assure the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that I will be here tomorrow to do penance for my absence on the last occasion.

Let me address a key argument that inspires an extraordinary amount of resistance to what I regard as a fairly self-evidently necessary reform. We are in the 21st century, and if any new state proposed a new constitution, and suggested having an upper House that took the same form as ours, it would be regarded as utterly ridiculous. We are talking about legislators. We are all legislators, and we are servants of the people, by whom we are elected. No one should be a legislator because they inherited or bought the post. No one should become a legislator for life as a young man, and never have to account for their actions.

No one should be a legislator because they are a member of the great and the good, and a leading figure of the establishment, having been appointed by a committee composed of other distinguished members of the establishment. The argument against the 1832 reform of the House of Commons was that the wrong sort of people would be elected, and distinguished experts would no longer find a place. I am glad to say that the wrong sort of people have consistently been elected to the House ever since; that is called
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parliamentary democracy. We have legitimacy because of our debt to the people and because of what we said when we were elected. That enables us to exercise powers that we could not otherwise use.

Let me address the question of whether we are somehow weakening the Commons, or aiding the Government by giving them a more powerful House upstairs, while down here, an emasculated Commons is adversely affected by the competition in the Lords. I do not believe that that is the case. As the Leader of the House said, it is not a zero-sum game. The powers of the House of Commons are not dependent on, or made greater or less by, our “sharing” them in some way with the upper House. The issue of the powers of the Commons needs to be addressed, and reform of the House of Lords should not be regarded as the alternative to the necessary reform of this place, which should be made more effective in holding the Government to account in the modern world.

Clive Efford: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke: Yes, for the last time.

Clive Efford: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. On his last point, does he think that Members of the House of Commons would be in a better position to vote on the future of the House of Lords if there had been a detailed debate about future reform of the House of Commons and the role of Back Benchers in scrutinising legislation?

Mr. Clarke: I agree with that, and in subsequent debates on the subject, I hope that we make that point to the Leader of the House. When—or if, on this occasion—we get on with reform of the House of Lords, it will put pressure on the House of Commons to examine its own procedures. We should react to the fears expressed by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West and others by asking ourselves whether the Commons has not allowed itself to be emasculated in recent years. If we envy what we see as a restoration of the House of Lords powers imagined by the creators of the 1911 Act, it should reassure us to think that we will address the issue of our own powers.

A beneficial effect of reforming the House of Lords should be to greatly increase the pressure on us to not only talk about reform of the House of Commons, but get on with it. If anything happens to confirm the fears of the right hon. Members for Swansea, West, and for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and others, the answer is obvious: it will be in our own hands to consider how to strengthen the Commons against the Executive, in line, of course, with the fact that the Government have a duty to govern, and must have their business in the end. However, they should be scrutinised and made more accountable than they are under our current processes. That is, I hope, the most likely outcome of our proceedings.


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