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I turn to primacy, about which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) made some points. We have to be clear what primacy actually means. The White Paper gives three criteria, the first two of which I can happily agree with. First, this House is directly elected at a general election and therefore
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forms the Government—I would add in parenthesis that it also supplies the Ministers—and secondly, we are in charge of the money. However, I question, at the very least, the third reason given. It is ridiculous to expect a reformed legislative House to have its views rejected as often and in as off-handed a manner as we have been wont to do. Although this House may rightfully expect to prevail on major manifesto commitments, we must expect to give way more often; otherwise, what on earth is the point of reform? So I say, primacy, yes, but supremacy, no. We want a strong Parliament, which requires a strong House of Lords.

I return to the practical point of how we get from an endless debate on how to reform, to achieving that reform. There are many things that I have not attempted to address this evening, such as the size of the constituencies and the manner in which we would hold such elections; they can wait for what the Leader of the House described as the sunny uplands—if we ever get there. The practical point is that Members of the other place have a genuine self-interest in this regard. If we tell them that they are all safe and we provide for them to resign, quite a lot of them will; they will retire gracefully. If we feed in one third over a 12-year period, we will end up with a slightly smaller House—certainly a lot smaller than the one that I was in. That might be pork-belly politics, but it is a small price to pay for achieving our goals.

It is unthinkable that our great democracy should continue to live in a time warp of heredity and patronage. It is time to reform. It is time to put our trust in the people, and it is time, frankly, for a stronger Parliament.

7.26 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I am more than delighted to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). He is the living embodiment of what can happen when somebody goes native when changing from one Chamber to the other—of what a good thing it can be to be subjected to the process of election.

I start with a point that the hon. Gentleman made well. If we want a strong Parliament, we cannot have a partly illegitimate Parliament. We can have a strong Parliament that is able to do a proper job by its Government—incidentally, I believe that good government can happen only when Parliament does a good job by it—only if we make sure that it is not hampered, hobbled and crippled by part of its very constitution.

There are significant problems with the way in which the House of Lords is currently constituted. It is extraordinary that some Members have argued today that part of our Parliament should be deliberately illegitimate. It is extraordinary that we are happy to see so unrepresentative a second Chamber as we presently have. I merely note the fact that the average age of Members of the second Chamber is 68. In the 19th century, this House had to introduce legislation to protect children from being sent to work at the age of 10 or 12. We should be protecting the ancient, the elderly and the decrepit, who should not be forced still to work at the age of 85 and 93. We should be enabling them to retire or to resign. It is extraordinary that people appointed to the second Chamber have their jobs for life. Of course, that means that somebody
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convicted of perjury, for instance, cannot be sacked and removed from the second Chamber. For that matter, peers cannot retire. One Liberal Democrat peer has tried to retire—sort of; he is just not attending any more—but officially and technically, he is still a Member of the second House.

One Member pointed out earlier that the second Chamber now represents London almost exclusively. Of the 323 new peers appointed since 1997, 147 come from London and 38 come from elsewhere in the south-east of England; only three come from the north-east, and only five from the east midlands. It is wholly unrepresentative because appointment very rarely leads to anything other than an unrepresentative selection of people.

John Thurso: I have a technical point for the hon. Gentleman. Peers may take leave of absence, which means that they cannot get fees and cannot vote, but there is no way out other than in a box or through the House of Lords Act 1999.

Chris Bryant: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me.

The most extraordinary point—I find it odd that it has not been mentioned today so far—is the process of by-elections for hereditary peers. We already have a hybrid Chamber, with people who are elected to it, some who are there by appointment and the bishops, who are halfway between election and appointment, because each diocese has a process to determine support for them to be put in their posts.

There are only 91 hereditary peers at present, and a by-election is being held. Forty-seven people could stand—they also form the electorate—and 43 of them are standing. All of those people are busily going around trying to persuade others to vote for them—and sometimes trying to persuade themselves to vote for themselves. It is hoped that some people will get more than their own vote. In any event, it is an extraordinary process. The last time we had a by-election for a hereditary peer, the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein—who is in favour of elections for the second Chamber—defeated an earl after a fifth redistribution of the votes. It is the only election in the British electoral system that uses the alternative vote.

All of that brings the system into disrepute, and that is because it is based on three fundamentally flawed principles. The first is heredity. None of us—the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) may enlighten us later about whether he is an exception—believes that heredity is a principle that should be embodied in our constitution. Few of us would now choose a plumber because his father was also a plumber. It is bizarre that we should choose to believe that someone should be a legislator because his father was a legislator.

Nor is appointment a suitable system. Many people have referred to expertise. Indeed, they have gloried in the expertise of the second Chamber. However, my experience of the Communications Act 2003 and the debates in both Houses was that although the debate in the House of Lords was informed by seven or eight former director-generals of the BBC or people who had run various broadcasting organisations, all their expertise referred to the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. They were still talking about cathode ray tubes and whether the black and white television licence was too expensive, when we were trying to talk about embedded
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phonograms and other issues of today. The process of appointment, especially for life, will inevitably mean that the second Chamber will always be reactionary and out-of-date in its expertise.

Another problem with appointment—and it affects all parties, not only the Labour party—is that it is like the proverbial tar baby. It is remarkably difficult to devise a system of appointment that does not collapse into cronyism or dodgy deals. That is why it would be almost impossible for any political party represented in this Chamber to suggest people for appointment to the second Chamber. Probably even Mother Teresa would not be able to be appointed to the second Chamber now, such is the level of distrust in the nation with the process of appointment.

It has not been mentioned much, but every time the public are asked how the second Chamber should be composed, they say it should be by election—

Mr. Straw: Wholly or partly.

Chris Bryant: The Leader of the House corrects me. That is not to say that a single person has ever approached me in Treorchy market and said, “Listen, Chris. The most important thing you have to deal with is the House of Lords.” Nobody does that, but when people are asked, they say that they prefer election. I know that some hon. Members have pooh-poohed that suggestion and said that it is because the public do not know better, but I think that we should trust the people more than that.

The third principle by which people get to sit in the second Chamber is through the reserved seats for the bishops. I am glad that we are not voting on that tomorrow. I would personally prefer to remove the bishops, because I do not think that theocracy is a very good way to run a country, but I am glad that we are not having that vote tomorrow. Instead, we will divide on a set of clear proposals.

There are two better principles for determining who sits in the second Chamber. First, many hon. Members have referred to the primacy of the Commons, and I also believe in that. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said that it should be primacy, but not supremacy. I believe that it should be primacy, but not exclusivity. It is vital—and we should enshrine it in statute, not just some gentleman’s agreement as at present—that the Government of this country should be formed only by virtue of its majority in this Chamber and, for that matter, that the Prime Minister, and several other members of the Cabinet, can only be elected Members of this Chamber. That is not our constitutional settlement and that is something that we should change. It is important that when we do have elections, we do not have the whole second Chamber elected in one go, because that runs the danger of having the two Chambers at loggerheads because they have different mandates, both clearly established by election. That is why it is important that we have a rolling system of elections to the second Chamber.

Many people focus primarily on the revising job and the confrontation that the second Chamber might have with the Government. However, it is often the Government who use the second Chamber to introduce amendments
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that they have had more time to think about. That is a very important role and one of the reasons why we need a second Chamber. Another is the process of scrutiny in a different environment, away from the rigours of the constituency focus that we have in this House, and that can be done better in a second Chamber.

The other principle, which should be our primary principle, is democracy. I was partly brought up in Spain under Franco, and many people from other countries, if they were to listen to British people talk about democracy today, would be bewildered and saddened. They would ask why we are so jaded about democracy. What is wrong that we are able to insist on democracy in Iran, Iraq or elsewhere in the world, but are not prepared to stand by it in this country? Have we been voting for too long? Do we take it for granted?

Reform of the House of Lords is part of a steady progress from the end of the absolute monarchy under the Stuarts to the abolition of the rotten boroughs, the introduction of extended and then universal male suffrage, the secret ballot and, finally, votes for women. This will be seen as the next stage in an important process of change in Britain.

7.37 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), even though I do not agree with everything—or indeed anything—that he says. He sometimes gets carried away by the exuberance of his rhetoric. To suggest that in the well informed debate on the renewal of the BBC licence the other place was talking about black and white sets and cathode ray tubes is absurd. Everybody recognises that their debates are often—in fact, usually—much better than our own.

As politicians we are naturally obsessed with composition, but before we worry too much about that we should ask what we are trying to achieve. What is the House of Lords for? What does it do badly? What could it do better?

In the 1968 debate on the issue, Michael Foot quoted the Duke of Wellington who said that

He also suggested that that sentiment should be incorporated in legislation reforming the House of Lords. Whatever our obsessions are, the public are generally apathetic about it. The truth is that the House of Lords does its job well, it is worthy and much of it is dull. If the House of Lords were in an office block down the road with a spartan canteen attached, I sometimes wonder whether Members of Parliament would sell their souls to join it or rich men would spend oodles of their own money to get into it. It does a good job, much of it boring, but it is not a fundamental issue that is dividing the British public.

Indeed, every survey shows that the British public are vague about what the House of Lords does. In the 1968 debate, Enoch Powell was asked what the House of Lords was for. He replied:

There is a lot in that. I think that the House of Lords exists to correct Governments, not to change them. It does that correcting job well.

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I know that high Tory principles are no longer popular, but we believe that if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. What is wrong with the House of Lords? Is it extravagant or wasteful? What is its cost per Member, compared with the House of Commons—or, dare I ask, the European Parliament? Is it bad at its job of amending legislation? Does it lack independence? Is there a lack of quality in its Members? Are its debates second rate? Is it a creature of the Executive?

The answer to all those questions is no. The House of Lords does its fairly dull job well. Perhaps, before we start reforming the other place—before we look at the mote in its eye—we should think of the beam in our own. Forty years ago, Tom Galbraith, that left-wing firebrand, quoted Hilaire Belloc’s lines:

He reminded the House of Commons that we should

Forty years later, there is still a lot of truth in that.

Mr. Cash: I agree with my hon. Friend about reform in the House of Commons, but does he accept that there is something incongruous about the fact that those who are appointed to the other place are able to collect allowances without taking part in Divisions?

Mr. Leigh: No doubt there are rogues and scoundrels, lazy people and good ones in the House of Lords, but a couple of hundred Members there charge the electorate very little for doing a damn good job. We should leave them alone.

This Chamber is the most supine lower House in the western world, the one most under the thumb of the Executive. Our Select Committees are among the weakest in the world, and are nothing like the Congressional Committees. We have minimal control—

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Leigh: Of course I give way to my fellow member of the Public Accounts Committee.

Helen Goodman: Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the excellent PAC, which he chairs so admirably, is weak?

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Lady can say that, but of course I cannot. I was about to say that this House has minimal control over the estimates, even though that was the function for which it was originally created hundreds of years ago.

So what is wrong with the House of Lords as it is? We are told that it is not democratic and that only elections confer respectability. Apparently, the public are all in favour of an elected upper House. At least, that is what all the focus groups say, but focus-group policies always ensure that liberal orthodoxy wins in this House. That is why I am always on the losing side in every free vote that we have.

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Be that as it may, I spent some minutes talking to some of my constituents earlier today and they asked some sensible questions. Is there any appetite for elections to the House of Lords? Does it do a good job already? What would the turnout be in elections for a third, or half, of half a Parliament, which could delay legislation for one year?

What on earth would be the interest among the public for elections that would be much the same as those for Members of the European Parliament? I wonder whether any hon. Members in the Chamber—apart from those with London constituencies—can name a London MEP?

David Howarth: I can.

Mr. Leigh: Well, it would have to be an anorak from the Liberal party. No sane person takes any interest in what MEPs do. The partly open, partly closed system being proposed will ensure that 100 people from the east midlands will go to a cinema in Nottingham to select a few people—who cannot get into this House—to be Members of the House of Lords. That is what the reality will be.

No one in this debate has answered the point made 40 years ago by Reggie Maudling, that

At present, the House of Lords is a revising Chamber. Its Members make their points sensibly and well and then, after hours of debate, they back down and accede to the elected Chamber. The system works pretty well.

No one has given a convincing explanation of what will happen when elected people in the other place say that they have greater democratic legitimacy and refuse to back down. Will the Government invoke the Parliament Act every year, on just about every Bill? What would that do for democracy?

I accept that I might lose that argument, and that people really might want elections to the House of Lords. For the moment, let us assume that elections will make this place more vigorous. I do not understand the argument that to ensure that we become more vigorous we must reform the other place, but the elections that are held should be based on the system that people understand. We should have senators for Lincolnshire, or London, or Derbyshire: we do not need them to be elected to represent enormous regions that no one understands.

Moreover, it is absurd that people should be allowed to serve for 15 years. Where did that idea come from? Even President de Gaulle, who wanted to be a republican king, did not want to serve for 15 years without an election.

Mr. Straw: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the idea came from a former Conservative Chief Whip.

Mr. Leigh: That may not be a recommendation. It is still a daft idea. No one can accept it.

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