|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Why are we cursed with the principle that all the electoral regions must be the same? Under the American constitution, both Rhode Island and
California send two Senators to the US Congress. People in America understand who their Senators are.
However, let us assume that I lose that point as well. I shall try to persuade the House about my final point. It is very important: it is at the heart of the amendment that I tabled, and I think that the Leader of the House may agree with it.
I beg the House to ensure that the House of Lords is not filled with clones of the Members in this place. We in this House are creatures of the Executive. Most of us, whatever may be said in public, privately want to be one thing and one thing onlya Minister of the Crown.
Mr. Leigh: I urge the Leader of the House to drop the daft idea of the 15-year term. He should consider the amendments that would prevent people elected to the other place from being allowed to serve as Ministers. If we are to have an elected other place, that provision would make it much more like the US Senate. People would serve in the upper House who were interested not in becoming Ministers but in holding the Executive to account.
Those are the sort of people whom we need. My good friend the late Eric Forth was interested in going to an elected place for precisely that reason. In many conversations he told me that he had no more interest in being a Minister, but that he wanted to hold the Executive to account.
Do we really want to have a load of ambitious 30- or 40-somethings in the other place who want to become Ministers? That is the crucial question. Even if they are appointed for many years, that insidious ambition will creep into their souls. The option should be taken away from them. They should be told that their job is to advise and consent. If necessary, they could be given a role in approving the appointment of ambassadors, as happens in the US Senate, or in delaying legislation. They could have all the revising powers, but they must not be creatures of the Executive.
In the past 20 years, the Opposition have defeated the Government of the day only a handful of times. The other place works when it comes to holding the Executive to account. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we are going to have an elected Chamber, we must at least ask what it is for, and ensure that is genuinely independent.
One of the constitutional innovations of the new Labour Government was to allow ordinary people to
give evidence to royal commissions. I was the first so-called ordinary person to give evidence to the Wakeham commission on reform of the House of Lords in 1999. I am glad to say that arriving here has not changed my fundamental attitude to the way in which the upper House should be composed.
As other hon. Members have said, Britain is an unusual country. It is a multinational state built up over 500 years from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and, in the past 50 years, it has become a multi-ethnic country. At the moment, 5 per cent. of the population belongs to a non-white minority community, and the proportion is much higher among young people. Yet this diversity is hardly reflected in the House of Lords. Why is it that only one parliamentarian in five is a woman? Is it right that ethnic minorities are under-represented? Is it right that 26 places are reserved for Anglican bishops and that we retain 92 hereditaries? As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, the average age of a peer is rising 70.
Although we have no bishops and peers, the position in this Chamber is not much better. So, with institutions that look like this, is it any wonder that only 37 per cent. of young people voted in the last general election? These inadequacies in our reflectiveness of the general population represent a deeper probleman inability so far to make sense of our new British identity. To do this, we need not only laws relating to individual citizenship, rights and responsibilities; we need institutions that reflect our diversity.
Unless we happen to be a bishop or an hereditary peer, the only part of our identity that counts for political purposes in this country is the geographical constituency within which we live. The House of Commons represents us by providing representation for the community in which we liverural, urban, industrial or by the sea. But for most people, that is only part of their definition of themselves. Other aspects of our lives such as gender and race matter too. Arguably, economic and social changes mean that the geographical communities are becoming less significant over time.
I believe that House of Lords reform represents an opportunity to right some of these wrongs. We could establish a second Chamber that complements the Commons and the make-up of which suits its revising functions and focus on individual rights. I am therefore sympathetic to those who argue for option 1a reformed appointed Chamber which represents all regions, classes, faith communities, the voluntary sector, ethnic minorities, gender balance and, I would add, young people. However, I cannot agree that the Members should be appointed. It is a basic principle in a country that claims to be democratic that those who legislate should be elected by those for whom they legislate. That consideration overrides all others.
My preference, therefore, would be for elections by colleges and to allow people to choose for themselves which they belong to, in a similar way to the system in the United States, where people can register as a Republican or a Democrat. So if a large number of people wished to define themselves as women, they could vote in that college, whereas if they wanted to represent themselves as members of the Church of England, they could vote in that college.
So I was disappointed when I read the White Paper and saw in section 7 the brief dismissal of what have
been called indirect elections. I do not believe that they are as impractical as has been suggested. It is the system, roughly speaking, that is used for the Irish Senate. As far as I understand it, it is a system that we designed and that the Irish have used for 90 years. However, it is not on the agenda today. If nothing succeeds in getting through, I hope that we can look again at so-called indirect elections.
As that option is not on the table, therefore, I shall vote for a predominantly elected Chamberoptions 4, 5 and 6; 50 per cent. elected, 60 per cent. elected and 80 per cent. elected. I shall not vote for 100 per cent. elected because I am not confident that the system of elections or the political parties will be capable of producing the diversity that we need in our legislature. Appointments are needed to make up the deficits.
I also agree with the amendment that the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) tabled, which unfortunately we will not be voting on. It suggests that either none or all the major belief systems should be represented. For example, if we went down the route of electing 80 per cent. of the Members, the Anglican bishops would take a fifth of the share of appointments. I do not think that it is right, as some people have suggested, to say that no longer reserving 26 places for the Anglican bishops necessarily means the disestablishment of the Church of England. Most of the bishops to whom I have spoken admit that they do not have time to do justice to the role. It is objectionable to many of us, and even to many who belong to the Church of England, that the sexism in the Church is brought into the legislative process here for the whole nation.
It would be perfectly reasonable for us to require the Church of England to elect its representatives as well and for us to look more widely at the other faith communities having elections. Notwithstanding the fact that we are not going to vote on that, I hope that the Leader of the House will ask the faith communities to consider that now, so that we have some proper preparations and when we come to legislation the problem will have been addressed.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): In considering this debate and listening to the many speeches that we have heard today, I am still no further forward as to exactly what the House of Lords is expected to do, what functions it performs, whether it represents value for money and whether it is necessary at all. We live cheek by jowl with our be-ermined Friends, who exist a few hundred metres along the corridor. We refer to the House of Lords as the other place, but to me it is totally other-worldly. Look who inhabits that place. We have the landed gentry, the bishops, the odd ex-MP bumped off to make way for Cabinet Ministers and boundary reviews, but more than anything else we have those who are described as the great and the goodthe appointed peers. We appoint them as our betters and expect them to ensure that our legislation is improved.
It strikes me at times that all the people who inhabit that place are, first, incredibly wealthy. They are unrepresentative of our general community. I do not know how many multimillionaires there are in the communities of hon. Members here, but there is certainly a number of them down the road. At times it seems to me that the House of Lords exists to emphasise class
difference, to suggest a separateness. This belief that we should expect our betters to help us legislate suggests a throwback to a pre-democratic age, and it should have no place in a modern 21st-century legislature. For what it is worth, I believe that the House of Lords is an unnecessary, underworked, overpriced institution whose standing in the eyes of the public, contrary to what has been said here, has never been lower as a result of how the public have observed the House of Lords in the past year through the cash for peerages scandal.
Dr. Julian Lewis: How does the hon. Gentleman account for the poll showing that more than 70 per cent. of people think that the House of Lords does a good job, and how does he account for the fact that the people who seem to be taking the blame for cash for peerages are Members of this House, not least the Prime Minister?
Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that poll. The reason why the public responded to the question as they did is because of the comparison with this place. Never before has the House of Commons been so unpopular, given the daily kicking we receive from the media and the way that people are encouraged to think about us.
If we asked ordinary members of the public to give their predominant image of the House of Lords, they would describe two things. The first would be some belligerent old soul gently napping on those comfortable red Benches while listening to an interminable speech by a fellow octogenarian. A more sinister image would be of the House as a repository for one of the millionaire chums of one of the main parties in the cash for peerage and honours scandal. I am certain that the ordinary public do not view the House of Lords with any great affection; they do not even know what its functions are.
We can test that statement. Is it not curious that among all the electoral options before us no one has suggested a stand-alone election to the House of Lords? The election has to be combined with another election. Let us imagine the excitement on Lords election day. The hustings would be packed to the gunwales. There would be no holding back. Everybody would be rushing off to the ballot box to re-elect the Baroness Billington of Boxington, or whatever, to reward that noble peeress for the fine work she had done while gently napping on the red Benches.
The major context for this debate on reform of the House of Lords is the cash for honours scandal. Never before has the membership of the House of Lords been under such scrutiny from the public. More importantly, never before has the case for appointment by Prime Minister and by party been so undermined and so tarnished. In its opinion poll, the Hansard Society found that only 6 per cent. of the public favoured a fully appointed House. That shows the publics grave concerns about the potential abuse of appointment and about political parties stuffing the place full of their cronies and funders. The very suggestion that someone could sit in our legislature on the basis of having given a significant amount of money to a political party is as appalling as it is unacceptable. The defence we hear from No. 10 and others is that those people are in the House of Lords solely as party political appointees, which completely destroys any argument for political appointment.
In the course of the next few weeks, days or perhaps hours, the Metropolitan police will determine whether that system is illegal. They should be left to get on with their work, on which I support them. However, we should use the opportunity for reform to ensure that never again will there be a whiff of suspicion that people can enter our legislature solely due to their ability to pay. The Scottish National party will not support any party political appointment and we encourage other Members not to accept that practice.
What does the House of Lords cost? Do we get value for money? According to its annual report it cost a cool £106 million in 2005-06. At a time when we are holding back public sector pay, when nurses cannot even have an inflation-rate pay rise and our salaries and expenses are under such scrutiny, perhaps we should suggest that our friends in the press and the public have a look at what is going along at the other end of the building.
Does the House of Lords give value for money? I asked the House of Commons Library for a breakdown of the peers working day but it could not give me that information, so I put together my own study. I made a list of all the peers and selected all those who had taken the name of a place in Scotland as part of their titlewe all know how much peers like their titles. I found 36 such peers and checked them up on the excellent TheyWorkForYou.com website. In the past year, 24 of them had made fewer than five contributions. More staggering and more appallingly, 10 of them had made no contribution at all. There is something quite out of kilter with the view of an over-worked peer even in what I admit was an unscientific, unreliable study. None the less, I believe it is quite representative of what actually goes on down there.
There are obvious honourable exceptions. The Lords Forsyth, Foulkes, Campbell and Pearson have made more than 50 contributions each, but with the exception of those four peers the remainder of the 36 made fewer than 200 contributions over a year. To put that in perspective, TheyWorkForYou.com shows that my modest contributions to debates this year amount to 54, which is more than a quarter of the total contributions of those 36 peers. Apart from a few distinguished Members, those be-ermined bods do next to zilch.
Let us contrast that picture with the House of Lords annual report, where we find that on an average sitting day 400 peers turn up. Of course, as we have heard, they have to turn up to qualify for their allowances, but what happens between turning up and making a contribution? For goodness sake, simply asking for the window to be opened counts as a contribution. While Members consider that quandary, they should remember that their lordships expenses cost the taxpayer a whopping £15 million in 2005-06.
With more than 640 Members of Parliament surely we can find a new 21st-century solution to legislating. We need only look northwards to the Scottish Parliamentas has been mentioned alreadyto see that unicameralism can work. There are powerful Committees which indulge in all sorts of excellent pre-legislative scrutiny. Why cannot we have such powerful Committees in the House of Commons? We could combine Select and Standing Committees to make new powerful bodies that could take expert evidence and call expert witnesses. That is the 21st-century solution to the House of Lords quandary. It calls for scrapping the whole shooting match and starting the work ourselves.
I am disappointed that we shall not have the opportunity to vote on the bishopsI join the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on that. It is an absolute disgrace that in our multi-faith society we continue to favour one faith over all others. The fact that we are alone among western democracies in having religious representation in our legislature reinforces the view that the House of Lords is some sort of strange, eccentric, medieval throwback. We live in a multicultural, multi-faith society. Modern Britain is a society with great diversity of religions and non-religious beliefs, and continuing to privilege one denomination over others is preposterous and anti-democratic. If we are serious about modernising the House of Lords there can be no place for unelected bishops.
I will vote for abolition, because I think it is the right way forward in this new century, but if we are to have a House of Lords I will also support a fully elected House as I favour that over an all-appointed House. However, my colleagues and I will not support any option that gives control of places in the House of Lords to political parties. We have seen how badly wrong that system has gone over the past few years. There can be no place in our legislature for the party funders or the cronies. Cash for peerages should be a wake-up call about the danger of appointments. I hope that the House heeds that call.
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab): In a debate in this place on 1 February 1999, I made it perfectly clear that I was in favour of unicameral legislature. If Members are interested, they can read columns 646 to 650 of the Official Report of that date.
Things have moved on since then, however, and now I am considering how I should vote on the options. I have agonised over the question. I am a natural democrat so I want everything to be elected. However, I need to consider the question of the primacy of this Housea term that has been used umpteen times in todays debate. I have news for right hon. and hon. Members: primacy has moved on. No longer does the House of Lords threaten the primacy of the House of Commons; the threat is from the overweening power of the Executive. That is what we should be debating. Unless we deal with that, discussion of the second Chamber is almost irrelevant.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|