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The fact of the matter is that at present the Executive increasingly control the House of Commons. We all know that after every Second Reading there is a programme motion. I have voted for most of the programme motionsafter all, I cannot vote against my Government all the time, so I give them a little concession here and there. The fact is that Committee
and Report stages in this House are tightly controlled. The House of Lords spends far more time considering legislation. How long do we debate a Bill on Report? The answer is a day, perhaps only for about six hours. At the end of that time, some amendments have not even been reached or debated, let alone voted on. They go to the House of Lords and, on occasions, Report can take as many as 11 days. That tells us an awful lot about what we need to do in the House of Commons.
Mr. Straw: I fully accept that it is the job of this place as well as the other place to hold the Executive to account. Indeed, in my view, the better that is done here, the better it is for good governance. However, my hon. Friend is parodying the work that this House does in examining Bills. If he looks at the most recent report of the Modernisation Committee on how we have agreed to strengthen this Houses role, he will find that it is simply untrue to say that the other place devotes significantly more time than this place to examination of Bills. Overall, this place devotes the more time.
Mr. Wareing: I must say that I have my doubts about that. I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, but I would want to see real evidence of what he says. When I am in the Tea Room, I look at the two monitors and see on the red one that the House of Lords is debating a Bill after five, six or seven days. When I know that that Bill was debated for only one day in this House, I think that it is a scandal.
Mr. Straw: But the difference is that Bills in the other place are examined on the Floor of the House, whereas here they are examined in Committee. I an sure that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that all Bills should be examined on the Floor of the House
Mr. Wareing: That is not the only example of the overweening power of the Executive to which I refer. It applies to private Members Bills. Last Friday, for example, we saw the disgraceful spectacle of a private Members Bill being talked out. Why? Eventually, after a closure motion was successful, the Off-Road Vehicles (Registration) Bill was given a Second Reading, but why did a Minister spend one hour and 14 minutes discussing a Bill that the Government had not moved against on Second Reading? That is astonishing and it demeans the power of ordinary Members of Parliament. It should not be allowed to happen. I believe that we need to look very carefully at the power of the Executiveany Executive or any Governmentover the House of Commons.
I used to lecture in politics before I assumed my mantle here. I used to express doubts about the separation of powers, as we see it, in the United States, for example. There are a lot of disadvantages. However, I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that we should look further into the separation of powers.
I notice that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) tabled an amendment, which I do not think will be called, that relates to Ministers serving in the House of Lords. He does not want that to happen. The hon. Member for
Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) mentioned the same subject and I, too, do not believe that Ministers should sit in the House of Lords.
I am going to be a bit revolutionary now: I do not think that Ministers should sit in the House of Commons either. I think that the Government should be accountable to the House of Commons, but I would prefer something like the French system, where the Government are accountable to the French National Assembly, but when a Member of Parliament becomes a Minister in the Government, he leaves the seat. I can tell anyone wondering what happens next exactly what does happen. In every election in France, the candidate stands and alongside that candidate is a suppliant or substitute who takes the place of any member who becomes a Minister. That would reduce the Executives power of patronage in this House, too [Interruption.] The Leader of the House has already had his chance and I did not interrupt him.
Simon Hughes: We should always look outside our own country and the hon. Gentleman is right in what he says. However, it seems to me that the fundamental weakness of the French system is that Ministers have no electors to whom they are directly accountable, so there is no one whom they have to see every week and deal with on a day-to-day basis. They therefore lose touch very quickly with what the electors are thinking. That is the weakness of the French system.
Mr. Wareing: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but the fact remains that Ministers are still accountable to the representatives in the assembly, who are, in fact, elected at the same time. A substitute is there, as I said, to take the place of someone becoming a Minister. He comes from the constituency to which that Minister belonged. We should reflect very carefully on the merits of that system. We hear new Labour claims that it wants to reform this, that and the other, so let us have a look at that particular reform. Let us have more power in this legislature. We should not be satisfied simply with looking into the House of Lords.
My nature tells me that I should go into the Lobby for a 100 per cent. elected House of Lords, but I am not too sure that that is what I am going to do tomorrow night. Quite frankly, I would rather have a second Chamber that is illegitimate so that in a few years time when we can get support for a unicameral legislature, it will be easiermuch easierto get rid of the second Chamber. I do not want something that is defensible. It is indefensibleeven without hereditary peers.
One of the best ways to become a member of the House of Lords is to toe the line in this House and certainly not to worry about consciencebe a sycophant and you will soon get there. Hear all, see all and say nowt, they say in Lancashire, which is one of the best prescriptions for getting into the House of Lords these days. Of course there are some distinguished people there. I am friendly with many members of the other Chamber. Nearly every tea time, I can be found in the Tea Room with three members of the House of Lords. I see that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is nodding; he has noticed. I get a lot of information from them about what is going on in the other Chamber.
We have got to be sure that we in the House of Commons really are the primary source of legislation and accountability of the Government. It is obvious to me that, at present, we are not. We have the Whips telling us what to do. Ten years ago, they were saying, Vote against every privatisation measureand I did. The problem is that I have been doing so ever since 1997. I am now told to vote for privatising this, privatising that. Even the noble Lady Thatcher would baulk at some of the things that I have been asked to vote for.
A concession may have been made about the timing and the type of elections. I am totally against the list system that is used for European elections. It is used by the central party machine. Anyone in the European Parliament who is slightly to the left of Genghis Khan was put near the bottom of the list. Labour MEPs who had served many years in the European Parliament lost their seat not because they were voted out, but because they were put at the bottom of the list. That is a scandal. The idea of having a list system gives me even more reason to oppose any change at this stage. I want to see a powerful unicameral legislature that can hold the Government to account and combat the patronage of the leaders of the Executiveany Executive, not just the present Government. That should be one of our missions when we go into the Division Lobby tomorrow night.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), who spoke, as always, with great candour and honesty. I cannot say that I agreed with everything he said, but, as I look around at the fairly empty Benches and count the number of Members on the Government Benches, I am bound to say that there is something rotten in the state of Parliament. It behoves us all to do something about that. In a way, it is putting the proverbial cart before the horse for us to be talking at inordinate length about the composition of the other place when this place is in need of such manifest reform. We need a Government who will have the courage to tackle the problems that face the House of Commons. Is it right that any constitutional Bill should pass without a two-thirds majority, for instance? We should be looking at things such as that in this place.
Tonight, however, we are debating the House of Lords and it seems to me that there are only twothree if one counts the unicameral positionhonest positions to take on the future of the House of Lords. One is that we move towards a written constitution, a redistribution of powers and two elected Houses. There is an impeccable logic in favour of that and I respect those who hold to that point of view. I disagree with them, but I respect them. I disagree with them not because of any fundamental error in their argumentbecause if I were starting with a new country and a blank sheet of paper, that system is probably what I would wish to devisebut because we are, in those famous and hackneyed words, where we are.
In this country, we have an elected Chamber that enjoys both primacy and supremacy, to quote two words that have been bandied around in the debate, and a second Chamber that has a greater accumulation of expertise, experience and wisdom than any other Chamber anywhere in the world. That Chamber is an accident of
history. It is not legitimate in the sense of being elected. But, because the Members of that House are not encumbered by constituency and other duties, it has the opportunity more critically to scrutinise and examine legislation thatthe hon. Gentleman is quite rightoften leaves this House in a less than tidy state. That is not a criticism of this Government, although the situation has got far worse under this Government with the automatic programme motion; it is a criticism of successive Governments over the past two or three decadesthe time that I have been in the House and longer.
We should accept tonight that we are being asked by the Leader of the House to pass a motion that would mean the abolition of the House of Lords as we know it and its replacement by a different sort of second Chamber. The Leader of the House is not advocating a wholly elected second Chamber. As I have said, supporting a wholly elected second Chamber is a position that I respect. I am not seeking to score cheap points, but it was noticeable that on neither side were the speeches of the Leader of the House or the shadow Leader of the House accepted with any degree of acclamation in what was at the time a fairly full House.
The Leader of the House advocates a hybrid House. That is the worst of all worlds. I accept as irrefutable the logic advanced in a short but persuasive speech by the Father of the House. The point was taken up by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). Arguing from different points of view, they both said that if we once had a substantial elected element, inexorably we would move towards a fully elected second Chamber. We would move towards it not in the way that I would accept as respectable, but in a way that would, like Topsy, grow.
We have to look at some of the points that have been made in todays debate. First, there is the point about the settled constitutional position and the report on the conventions. There is no settled constitutional position. If we move towards a substantially elected second Chamber, all the conventions will be up for grabs. Even the Parliament Act itself, which applies to the House of Lords, not to a differently constituted second Chamber, would be open to question. We would inevitably be building into our system a move towards constitutional gridlock, at a time when we have not properly sorted out our priorities in a way that enables us to hold the Executive truly and properly to account.
People talk about one party never having a majority in the second Chamber, but if we have a Chamber that is 50 per cent. elected, and we move on from there, how can we bind the electorate to ensure that they will not give a majority to a particular party? How can one, in any sense, argue that the electorate will inevitably return to Parliament a large number of independents? That proposition was advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). The electorate will elect whom they want to elect.
If we are going to have the elections on the day of the European elections, or the Scottish and Welsh elections, as has been suggested, they will probably come mid-way through a Parliament and could certainly upset the constitutional balance of Parliament. We are talking about something that we would not have planned for if we sat down and drew up a written constitution; it would be something that we drifted into, without proper thought for the sort of people who would sit in the
second Chamber. If we are going to try to devise a Chamber that has no more powers than exist at the moment, it could be asked whether that would attract that right calibre of man and woman. In that context, if the second Chamber used the powers that it currently has but, by self-imposed restraint and convention, does not use, that in itself would be a prescription for clash after clash with this Chamber.
I believe that the proposition advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead has a fundamentally flawed logic. I am incredulous that the Conservative partyperhaps, initially, for opportunistic reasons, because it understandably wanted to embarrass the Governmentshould have come up four years ago with this crackpot 80:20 idea. The idea is not based on any true parliamentary logic. I say to hon. Members on both sides of the House: let us reform the existing House of Lords and do away with the absurd anomaly of the ridiculous by-elections.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Cannot my hon. Friend see that we in this House should cherish democracy? If we are to do away with the patronage that has brought the House and the other place into disrepute over recent months, we have to do something. Electing 80 per cent. of Members and having 20 per cent. who were not party political would achieve that.
Sir Patrick Cormack: That is the sort of knee-jerk reaction that led to the abolition of the Greater London council, against which I voted, and then landed us with something far worse. We would be in danger of landing ourselves with something far worse here, I say to my hon. Friend, with whom I normally agree and whom I greatly respect and admire. We have to be extremely careful about what we are embarking on tonight.
Our party is advancing a proposition that is inimical to its true roots and traditions. However, there are Members in all partiesI have worked in close co-operation with Members of both this House and the other place over the past four yearswho believe in the basic stability of the British constitution and want an effective Parliament. They believe that many things can be done to improve this House and the relationship between the two Houses, but think, for the moment at least, that, in our second Chamber, we have a House of probityI do not accept the aspersions that have just been cast, because the possible antics of one or two do not invalidate the actions of the manya House that works, a House that is honourable and a House that carries out with due diligence duties that we are not always able to do. We must serve the interests of our constituents. I yield to no one as a democratI am fighting a certain democratic battle at the momentand I believe that we would have a much more balanced constitution if we were to improve what we have got, rather than sweeping it away and bringing in an ill-devised scheme in its place.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab):
I want to focus on a simple theme. To borrow the language of the late Robin Cook, democracy is not just a process, but a value. It is a value that needs nurturing, and that is ignored at our peril. I am shocked by the fact that the turnout in the 2001 election was the lowest since 1918 and that in the 2005 election, when the present
Government were elected, the lowest proportion of the electorate voted for the Government in any election ever. We have a duty to refresh, redesign and renew our democracy, rather than saying that the future of our country, our laws and the way in which our Government are held to account should be decided by people who think that they know bestfrankly, that is what a system of appointment tends to achieve.
When we consider public appointments, the extent to which certificates and management experience are valued over judgment, common sense, nous and an experience of using public services is quite striking. I am very concerned about many aspects of the situation. People have spoken a lot about the expertise of the other place, but one of the things that I value about hon. Members is the different life experience that those people who have fought elections bring to this job. From miners to personal injury lawyers, there is a wide range of experience. Many Members of this House are as expert in their fields as the much-vaunted experts in another place. The claim that we require appointment to achieve expertise is not well stated.
I am worried that the increasing use of Nolan-type appointment procedures for public bodies is diminishing the participation of citizens and political parties in the process. A person applying for a public appointment must admit to membership of a political party, just after admitting to any convictions. The number of people admitting to membership of a political party who have received a public appointment has been going down year on year because of that fact. Being a member of a political party is something of which we should feel proud. It was a long time before I joined a political party, because I was right 100 per cent. of the time, and the Labour party was right only most of the time, and that is the story of this debate. The Leader of the House is absolutely right that in debates on reform, we have consistently said that we wanted an answer that was 100 per cent. right; we want the perfect answer, and we have made the perfect the enemy of the good.
I am quite prepared to announce that I will vote for anything from 50 per cent. upwards. I think that 50 per cent. is utter nonsense, but I want the matter settled. I was shocked to hear the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, redefine predominantly in the way that he did. His argument was, Because I want to keep my ball perfect, Im not going to vote for an arrangement that will get a result. I beg him to speak to his colleagues and think again before the vote tomorrow, because we have to get a result this time.
I challenge the assumption, which has been a running theme of this debate, that elections would encourage the other place to challenge the House of Commons. Let us consider what has in the past led the other place to challenge this place. It has challenged the Commons when it disagrees with us. We should be completely clear about the occasions when the other House has voted against the Commons. It is obvious that when this House is run by Labour, the other place votes against us, and when the House of Commons is run by the Conservative party, it does not. The data are underpinned in every way by every piece of research that I could get from the Library.
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