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6.56 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): There is one commanding principle—certainly for me—about the making of laws: those who make the laws should be accountable to those who bear the laws. That theme ran through the Labour party, and has run through most democratic, common law societies.

The United States provides an instance of a second chamber that was elected with the thought that it might be less powerful than the House of Representatives. In the telling of that tale, we also learn that what we think we are doing might not be that which comes about. It is difficult to see the United States Senate as subordinate to the House of Representatives. It has taken on a duality of roles and an equality of purpose in the making of laws.

I rather hope that that will be one of the consequences of an elected second Chamber. I am not afraid of the Executive in the House of Commons being blocked by those who have the legitimacy of election in the Lords or the second Chamber. I believe in that tension.

During the 20th century, the high tide mark has been reached for party government. A leader of a party with a majority in the House of Commons has effectively been able to do almost anything, and we have harrumphed that. I have always been a Back Bencher—and for compelling reasons—because I am nervous of the great men on white horses who want to go to war, I am nervous of those with great schemes, and I want to ask the question, “Why?”

I believe in this society, and I believe it to be a great one. Over recent years, however—I have been here for 28 years—I have seen the rise of the Executive almost unstopped. I have watched the parties—good men and women, elected and accountable to whole constituencies, areas and regions—lay themselves down in front of an Executive and ensure by their vote that what may not be a representative opinion prevails. I have heard about the mantra of the manifesto, which is mostly read—only read—by those who write it, from end to end. That is one of the truths. I came long ago to the judgment that a mention in a 78-page manifesto should not make it the compelling document that drives public policy in this country.

I want to see the legitimacy of a second Chamber. However, the Leader of the House is perhaps ill-suited to steer us in the ways of elections, having saddled us with the most derided electoral system for elections to the European Parliament. I believe that there should be clarity when a representative is elected. The question “Who makes the law” and the question that follows it—“How do I get rid of them?”—along with all the other questions, melt into that great scheme of things.

The Americans, in a logical, sensible way—those English gentlemen, largely, who were in revolt against the Crown—set out to consider what should be a second Chamber.

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Mr. George Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Shepherd: I will not, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

What those gentlemen thought can be read in the federalist papers. It is well set out and well argued. One does not have to agree with it, but it is clear that what the Americans have had for 200 years is a second Chamber that is accountable. That is why I believe that excluding the ministerial team from our second Chamber so that no powers of patronage can reach it is an important development.

The Leader of the House has suggested that the House of Lords should have 540 Members. Ours is an extraordinary country, if we think about it. With 1,400 Members of Parliament, we should be drowning under elected people. Why not 150 Members? America seems to run a second Chamber with 100.

I am fearful of what might happen if we are not clear about what we want to achieve. I am quite clear about what I want: I want Governments to fight for their business. I want them sometimes to lose their business. That does no harm to the greater entity. We are now living in a world in which the House of Lords is held in higher esteem as it blocks measure after measure from the Government that touches on our liberties and freedoms, and I think it important for us to retain that check.

I know that this is only the beginning of a process, but I profoundly believe that the House of Lords should be 100 per cent. elected. It is true that, as was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), we shall lose some very distinguished expertise, but are we not capable, as a people, of governing ourselves? Those who feel passionate about the processes of public life will engage in them properly, through election, through pamphleteering, through the ways in which laws are changed. I seek, passionately, a real check on the power of the Executive in this Chamber, for given the nature of human beings and the nature of our own history, I too have reached the conclusion that men and women are driven by patronage and the desire for office.

The very function and purpose that sent us here to be representative has increasingly become something that we put to the back of our minds. The history and interests of Scotland, the north-east, the north-west, the midlands and the south-east are in many respects very different. We now have an appointed House of Lords that is essentially an SW1, W14, south-east House—a London House. How can we revitalise our nation? Where are the people who live in the midlands and come down to speak in the House of Lords? By and large, they are the political appointees who have retired from this House.

I want an upper House—another place—that is representative of our country, from Scotland and Northern Ireland and from Wales to the south-west. I want a House whose Members are chosen by their people. That is why I think that something along the lines of the first European electoral areas would be satisfactory, with two Members who are elected “a third and a third” over six years. It is nonsensical for someone to stand for election for 12, 14 or 15 years with no possibility of ever being re-elected. There is no accountability in that. I can tell any lie to an electorate to be voted in—

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Dr. Julian Lewis: Once.

Mr. Shepherd: But they cannot get back at me, because I can stand only once. No: accountability must mean a regular appearance before our peers, the electorate.

7.4 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who made a characteristically thought-provoking speech.

I want to speak about an issue that has arisen time and again today, the primacy of this Chamber. Let me put my cards on the table: I agree that this Chamber should have primacy, but I think it worth exploring what we mean by that. We should ask what is the primacy that we fear we shall lose if we have a predominantly elected second Chamber, what it allows us to do, and what the main function of this Chamber is.

A number of those who argue most passionately against an elected second Chamber are those who are often also most passionate about the “majoritarian” system here in the House of Commons. It is no secret that I am not a great fan of our current electoral system, but there is a logic that tells us that if we go along with it and our party wins under first past the post, the role of the majority party is to deliver the Government’s programme for that Parliament. Conversely, the role of the Opposition is to oppose and seek to thwart that programme.

As I have said, I am not a fan of the current electoral system, but I do not have a particular problem with that arrangement. As a Labour MP, I want my Government to succeed. However, it is not as simple as that, is it? We have another role in this Chamber, and Parliament as a whole has another role: the role of scrutiny, even scrutiny of a Government who are the same colour as us. There are examples of that working quite well—I agree with those who have said the Select Committee system works pretty well—but when it comes to key issues, especially legislative issues, Parliament’s scrutiny role can all too easily come into conflict with our role in delivering or, indeed, opposing a Government’s programme.

We saw an instance of that last week. It is no particular secret that the Offender Management Bill was somewhat controversial from the point of view of all parties. When Ministers and Whips tried to win around those of us who had one or two reservations, much of their effort consisted of trying to persuade us to exercise our scrutiny role in what they considered to be a better way—to persuade us, in other words, of the arguments in favour of the Bill.

I do not think I am revealing too many trade secrets if I add that sometimes other arguments are brought to bear. We may be told, “We have made certain concessions on this Bill, and the time has come to back off. Do you really want the Government whom you support to be defeated?”—defeated, that is, in this place. In such circumstances, the issue of loyalty—loyalty to what we believe in, loyalty to our party, loyalty to the overall cause—is tied, and the test becomes whether we follow the party line on a measure. We are told that our responsibility is to support the Government not just when we consider them to be doing the right thing, but when we do not.

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Those pressures apply in opposition as well. In many ways, opposition is the mirror image. I am sure that some Opposition Members thought there were some rather good things in the Offender Management Bill: indeed, I could quote Opposition spokespeople who said many of those things a few months ago. However, there was also a temptation, or a pressure, to take the opportunity to inflict some damage if there was a chance of doing so. That is the role of an Opposition.

All that is not entirely wrong. We are living in the real world, a world of 24-hour media. The ability of a Government to deliver their programme is important to their credibility, and the ability to inflict damage and, if possible, defeat a Government is important to an Opposition who wish to build up their own credibility; but we are kidding ourselves if we think that that does not compromise our ability to scrutinise. We can react to that in different ways, and the process often conspires to push us into the role of either loyalist or rebel: both are entirely possible, and in a sense quite easy, in this Chamber. However, I believe that if we are to do our job as parliamentarians we should not perform one or other of those roles, because we must be both part of the legislature—we are representatives of our parties—and we must scrutinise as well. Because of the pressures on us, we cannot do that properly and effectively on our own. Primacy means that the House of Commons must have the final say—I agree with that—but it also means that we must allow ourselves to be challenged, and not challenged only on those things that it is convenient or okay for us to be challenged on, but on those things that it is difficult for us to be challenged on.

Therefore, the debate about the role and composition of the second Chamber is not to do with the relationship of one House to the other House. In my view, it is about the relationship between Parliament and the legislature on the one hand and the Executive on the other. Some say that if we were to accept that there is a need for revision and a democratic second Chamber—one that claims democratic legitimacy—that would create a problem for us. I do not agree; I think that to hold that view is to cling to a comfort blanket, and that does not reflect the real world. I take the opposite view: if we believe that a second Chamber must have the important constitutional role of scrutiny and revision, it must have a democratic legitimacy, although a different one—it needs term limits and a different method of election and a system that minimises, and probably eliminates, the chances of any party having an overall majority. If we were to have all of that, that would give us the chance of having a Chamber with a different composition and, hopefully, greater independence.

I also think that there is a role for a minority of non-elected people, to retain some of the expertise that exists in the current House of Lords. In terms of an elected element, I say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that I can live with a list system, but I do not think that we will get the independence that is wished for if it is a closed list system—or, indeed, just a partly open list system. An open list system is the route that should be chosen—or something similar that achieves that end.

The presence of non-elected people can add to the strength and the role of the second Chamber. However, to those who say that we should retain the voices of such people in that Chamber—the voices of people
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who do not want to stand for election but who have something distinctive to contribute—and who say that the way to achieve that is by appointment and only by appointment, I say that if the second Chamber is to have the role proposed for it, it must be able to say something important to the people outside Parliament. In the last Parliament when Baroness Morris was a Member of this House, she gave a powerful speech in favour of a predominantly elected second Chamber. She said that it had to ring true with the people out there, and I agree. One of the things that will allow it to ring true is if it offers opportunities for anybody in this country who wants to have a role in the process of scrutiny, a role in the process of revision and a role in our democratic process, but who wants to have different roles from those entailed by standing for election to this House. Such people can put themselves forward to an appointments commission—and perhaps they can get appointed as a result of that. However, they should also have the right to stand for election and to say to the people in their region—or whatever the boundary is—that they want to perform those roles. If that were the case, that would be a part of what would make that second Chamber legitimate, and that would also add to its role of helping Members of this House to scrutinise legislation and to provide a check on the Executive. It would also be a stimulus to this House to do its job better and give greater clarity to the roles of Parliament and the Executive.

7.14 pm

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): May I make it clear at the outset of my speech that my preferred option is a 100 per cent. elected Chamber? I used to believe in the predominantly elected option, which I defined as about 80 per cent. or 70 per cent. elected, until I attended a public meeting, and having stated that I wanted that little headroom for the great and the good who would not stand for election, somebody in the audience asked me to name them, and I could not. I therefore decided that 100 per cent. was the proper proportion. However, like the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), I am fairly certain that that will not be the outcome, and I will therefore happily accept a lower percentage of elected Members than 100 per cent.

I am also on record as having said that I believe that Lords reform is a process and not an event. I believe that from the moment when elections are introduced, that will become an unstoppable process—I am in favour of that—and that we will eventually end up with an elected element of about 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. Therefore, I have a slightly different view from that of some of my colleagues, who might feel bound not to vote for a lower percentage. However, they are doing a very good job of trying to persuade me, and at the end of tomorrow night, having listened to the debate, I shall take my own counsel and decide what I should do.

I also wish to make a point at the outset about hybridity. A number of Members have said that a hybrid House would be bound to fail. In response to that, I just point out that for 50 years the House of Lords was a hybrid House in that its Members included those who got there by an accident of birth and those who got there by an accident of patronage, and they co-existed perfectly happily. I believe in the good will of
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the men and women who will find themselves in that House, and I believe that they will be able to co-exist.

It is important for those of us who believe in reform to state why we believe in that. Several Members have tonight used the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. It is seductive to think of the House of Lords as somewhere where diligent scrutiny work is done and wonderful debates are held and to believe that it is best left alone, but to think that is to make a very great mistake, because the House of Lords is fundamentally broken. It is the lack of legitimacy, which many Members have referred to, that makes it broken. For anybody who has sat in the other place and experienced hours and hours of work in Committee—with, I have to say, greater diligence than I have ever experienced in a Committee in this place—and on Third Reading and Report, it is sad to then see that work cavalierly tossed aside by a House that has rushed in to vote with no knowledge of what they have done, which is what happens. That 90 per cent. of such work goes to waste is not a particularly good recommendation.

Any second Chamber that is not composed predominantly, or wholly, of an elected element will not be considered legitimate by us, by the media or by the public. It must have such legitimacy, and that is why I reject the idea that there should be an appointed House.

John Bercow: Although many peers work exceptionally hard and regularly demonstrate immense expertise, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, on the whole, the most vociferous champions of an unreformed second Chamber are current Members of the unreformed second Chamber, and that on the principle that no one should be judged in his own cause we should not pay too much attention to that particular form of special pleading?

John Thurso: I agree. What happens is extraordinary; I have watched many people, including some members of my own party, go native very rapidly. There is a practical point in this—it is one of the reasons why I believe in introducing rolling elections. I would get rid of none of the appointed life peers. I would let them just quietly die off.

Let me turn briefly to the unicameral system, which several Members have mentioned. For a unicameral system to work it has to be able to take a decision that goes against the Government—the Executive—and to be able to take that decision without bringing that Government down. That might work in small countries, but I do not think that it can work in large countries. Even with proportional representation and modernisation, it would not be possible to arrive at a situation where that could be made to work. In parenthesis, I should say that in my judgment the experience of the Scottish Parliament highlights that, because what happens there is that the elections under PR result in a negotiation at the beginning and there is then created through partnership the same sort of elected dictatorship as we get in this place with the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Straw: Does the hon. Gentleman not also agree that having a unicameral Parliament is particularly dangerous in cases where the Government are drawn from the principal Chamber? The situation might be slightly different in a presidential system, where all the
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Ministers are outwith the Chamber, but it is very dangerous when they are drawn from it.

John Thurso: I completely agree with the Leader of the House.

I therefore come to the only option left: an elected Chamber. Several Members have said that we should look at function before form. It is a good architectural principle that function dictates form, but therein is a dead-end and a trap that must be avoided at all costs. This is the fourth or fifth major debate on House of Lords reform in which I have taken part in one or other of the Houses. I used to think that function should come first and form should follow, but I have come to understand that that is the way of no progress. Our start point, rather, should be to say, “We are broadly content with the work that the second Chamber does today, and we should therefore allow its function to evolve once we have given it its form.” In looking at that form, I suggest that we need to look at its strengths and weaknesses.

There are strengths in the other place. One is that no one party has overall control, which is important. The light whipping—one cannot whip someone whom one cannot get rid of—is also important and leads to independence. Peers have no constituencies and therefore have a regional or national view, and they can devote a lot of time to legislation. The most striking difference between our two Houses is that in the other place, all the work centres around the Chamber. Peers get paid only if they sit; if they are in the House but they do not sit, they do not get paid. Here, much of our work is constituency-based, outside the Chamber.

Mr. Hayes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Thurso: Very briefly; I think that I have no overtime left.

Mr. Hayes: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Let me be clear: he is saying that he wants Lords who spend their time in the Chamber, who do not have constituencies and who are not answerable to parties. How would they be democratically accountable to anybody?

John Thurso: If they are elected, they will be highly democratically accountable—a point that I will come to.

The other side of the coin is the weaknesses, one of which is legitimacy. The current House is unrepresentative. When the hereditaries were there, we had innumerable debates on salmon fishing, rather than on the common fisheries policy. The current composition is heavily weighted towards Oxbridge, former Members of this House and lawyers. Election would certainly help there. The other place is also heavily weighted towards older Members, if I might put it that way. A single long term of 12 years, with a composition renewable by one third every four years, would give a system that best mirrors the House’s current strengths. Such a system is most likely to deliver a House that will do the work that we require of it, and in a legitimate way that will enable it to stand up to this House to a certain extent.

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