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7 Mar 2007 : Column 1540

Mr. Heath: I am sorry, but I am not going to take any more interventions because the debate is time limited. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would want me to conclude soon.

We have a clear manifesto commitment to a predominantly elected House, which I interpret as one in which at least 80 per cent. of Members are elected.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Look in the dictionary.

Mr. Heath: I do not need to look in the dictionary to understand the word “predominantly”. It does not mean half and half.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The word “predominantly” does not mean half and half, but will the hon. Gentleman explain how, according to the Liberal Democrat lexicon, it means wholly elected, but not 60 per cent. elected?

Mr. Heath: If the right hon. Gentleman believes that appointing four out of every 10 peers by a political process will result in a predominantly elected House, I fundamentally disagree with him. In a debate in which we are being asked to express our preference, I will not vote for an option that would result in a House that would be unsupportable and unsustainable.

Mr. Straw rose—

Mr. Heath: This is taking time.

Mr. Straw: It is a shame, that.

I think that the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that he is trying to be true to his manifesto. However, the manifesto said nothing about a wholly elected second Chamber, so I assume that that was not supported by the Liberal Democrats. Why are the Liberal Democrats thus saying that they will vote for a wholly elected second Chamber, which is palpably not consistent with their manifesto, yet that they will not vote for a 60 per cent. elected second Chamber, which, it is highly arguable, would be consistent with what their manifesto said?

Mr. Heath: Perhaps it is difficult for the right hon. Gentleman to conceive of the idea that my hon. Friends might have looked at the manifesto and the proposals before us and decided that 60:40 would not be something that they would wish to support. Those who want that option as an expedient because they think that it might scrape its way through the House are basing their position on the wholly optimistic view that that option would inevitably result in a higher proportion of elected Members. I take the totally pessimistic view that if such an option were passed by the House, some in Government circles would be happy to grab that proposal and say that it was the end of the story. We would thus end up with a House that was almost 50 per cent. composed of Tony’s cronies, and I will not vote for that.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we were to go for 80:20, we could squeeze out the patronage? Surely that is important in the current climate.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I only hope that he can carry a majority of his hon.
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Friends with him. I have the quaint idea that manifestos should mean something to Back Benchers; even they should feel a sense of shame when they do not support the view expressed in them.

Three parties are committed to the democratic reform of the House of Lords. We will find out later whether that translates into a majority in the House. I worry about the siren voices who say that they want democratic reform of the House of Lords, yet want the new Members of the House of Lords to look as much as possible like Members of the House of Commons, with constituencies near to the size of those of hon. Members, and want those Members to be elected by the same system used for elections to the House of Commons. We should resist those siren voices because we know that that would be unacceptable to the House.

The House should take a clear view. It would be a great shame if we were unable to do so. If we are unable to reach a clear conclusion, it will be because of the voting system that will be used. It is instructive that the people who were vociferously against the preferential voting system proposed by the Leader of the House are exactly the same people who are expressing the view that they want no change—over their dead bodies will they see change in the House of Lords. I regret that. They took a potentially dishonest view. However, even within the constraints of a very poor voting system, the House can take a view, and that view should be for reform.

1.48 pm

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): If the Commons votes for electing some or all Members of the House of Lords, we are likely to be heading for a constitutional shambles with two sets of elected representatives in perpetual conflict. I want Lords reform—I go further: I want a lot more parliamentary reform—but we will not get that if we vote for such an option. We would be changing the membership of the Lords without clarifying and codifying its functions. As a result, when the Prime Minister moves out of Downing street to concentrate on his memoirs and lectures, his successor would be left with a parliamentary mess on top of all the other problems of government.

A House of Lords that was wholly, or even partly, elected would change the whole basis of our parliamentary system. At present, the House of Commons always gets its way, providing it can tolerate delay. However, most of the constraints on the Lords are voluntary conventions that peers have had to accept because they have no democratic legitimacy. People elected to the House of Lords would have democratic legitimacy. Indeed, if the new Lords are elected by any system other than first past the post, supporters of proportional representation will tell us that the House of Lords has more legitimacy than the House of Commons. The dynamics of the Lords, and of the relationship between the Houses, will change. No self-respecting elected peer will be bound by conventions arrived at before they took their seats. That is why I believe that what is proposed is likely to lead at worst to a major constitutional crisis, and at best to debilitating and protracted friction between the
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two Houses, which will add further delay to the workings of Government. Instead of bringing about much-needed improvements to Parliament’s process of legislation and scrutiny of the Executive, it would make matters worse.

Before we decide how the House of Lords should be made up, we need to decide what job we want it to do, and what limits there will be to its powers. Until that is decided, we cannot sensibly say how its Members should be chosen. It would be like being asked to pick a team before we knew whether it would play rugby league, with its orderly play the ball rules, or rugby union, with its disorderly rucks and mauls—or, for that matter, before we knew which of any pair of virtually irreconcilable games was being played. If we want to retain the ultimate supremacy of the Commons over the Lords, we will have to thrash out each Chamber’s powers and responsibilities and enshrine them in statute law; conventions will not do.

The usual arguments put forward for the House of Lords refer to its three distinct functions. The first function is to act as a revising Chamber that amends parliamentary Bills, yet the vast majority of the amendments agreed to in the Lords are proposed by the Government. It is really more of a Tipp-Ex Chamber, correcting things that the Government got wrong or forgot in the Commons. The House of Lords makes up for the Government’s failure to produce well thought out and well drafted Bills, and for the inadequacy of Commons procedures for scrutinising Bills. The next argument is that the House of Lords is there, in sporting parlance, to mark the Commons—for example, to prevent a Government from using their Commons majority to ride roughshod over basic human rights. However, as Winston Churchill pointed out as long ago as 1910, there can be no democratic justification for giving hereditary peers the right to thwart the will of the elected House of Commons. The same principle must apply to appointed peers.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Frank Dobson: No, I shall not. I want to get on, and other people want to speak. I understand that my hon. Friend spoke yesterday.

The converse of the proposition that non-elected peers have no right to interfere with the Commons is the proposition that elected peers would claim that right. The remaining argument is that some peers bring to debates an expertise that is not generally available in the Commons. There is some truth in that. For example, no Commons Members have expertise and distinction to compare with that of, say, a former president of the Royal College of Physicians or a fellow of the Royal Society. Such expertise would clearly be eliminated from a wholly elected House of Lords, and much diminished in a partly elected one.

Before we decide on the membership of the Lords, we need to sort out its powers and duties, but a much bigger job is needed if we are to turn back the rising tide of public dissatisfaction with our democratic institutions—with Parliament in general, and with the House of Commons in particular. We must strengthen Parliament’s relationship with the Government. We need to augment and strengthen the law making powers and procedures of the House of Commons. We
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frequently produce faulty laws that cannot possibly be understood by the lay people who are expected to implement them. Just as importantly, many Acts of Parliament do not, in practice, have the effects intended by the Government of the day, and messing about with the membership of the Lords will not change that.

Very few people have ever complained to me about what the House of Lords is doing wrong. They complain about the failure of the House of Commons to do its job properly. We are failing to take on the real issues of how we improve our own procedures, and how we could do a better job for the people of the country. We are diverting our efforts into messing about with the House of Lords. Ultimately, the House of Lords will need to be changed, but we need to sort out what we are doing first. We must do that, as a proper response to growing concerns about the effectiveness of our system of government. We are at the heart of that system, which needs sorting out, as our current set-up is not satisfactory. The people of the country deserve better, especially at a time when all the main parties say that they are open to fresh ideas. The public want our country to be better governed, and they are right. Making any of the changes that are proposed today will have precious little impact on that, and it will not be a worthwhile exercise.

1.55 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I begin my short contribution with a confession: as a legislator—but not, I hope, as a parliamentarian—I have been an abysmal failure since I entered Parliament in 1997. [Hon. Members: “No!”] I appreciate the noises of protest, but it is true. Not one piece of legislation has been changed as a result of my presence in this House for nearly 10 years. I suspect that that would have been the case, even if I had been fortunate enough to sit on the Government Benches—as a Back Bencher, at any rate—but perhaps that is not the case.

It was not always thus. Back in the 1980s, I had the privilege of acting as specialist adviser to a small group of peers, one of whom was Baroness Cox. Sadly, the other four are no longer with us.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is a jinx.

Dr. Lewis: I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman finds that amusing. I think that when distinguished Members of the other House pass away, we ought to show some respect. The other four with whom I worked were the late Lord Beloff, the late Lord Kimberley, the late Lord Orr-Ewing and, in the latter part of the late 1980s, the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford. As I say, it was an immense privilege to know and work with those gentlemen and that lady, who were of various parties. I worked with them to consider legislation that was being considered in the Commons in a party political way, but that could benefit from amendment on a cross-party basis in the other House.

As a result of that work, the Trade Union Act 1984 was amended after a revolt in the House of Lords. The Lords introduced registers for properly secure postal ballots for trade union elections. Postal ballots for trade union elections were made law in the Employment Act 1988. The Education Act 1986 was amended, against the wishes of the Government, to prevent political indoctrination in the classroom. The
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revolt in the House of Lords was so strong, and the arguments so compelling, that when the Bill came back before the House of Commons, the House of Commons and the Government listened and the law was changed. Similarly, in the Local Government Act 1988, measures were introduced to prevent indoctrination and propaganda about the rates. Those measures still hold good today, and they have been good enough to be carried forward in subsequent legislation. In the Broadcasting Act 1990, detailed provisions were included to ensure impartiality on television. Although the provisions are not always observed, they at least set a benchmark and set out what should happen when controversial, politically contentious issues are aired in the mass media.

As a result of the Lords’ ability to combine expertise and cross-party commitment to a cause when considering a Bill, it was possible to amend legislation. I have to ask myself whether that job of revision, improvement and refinement would be in any way improved if we had a wholly or partly elected upper House. I answer my own question with a resounding no. Yesterday, I experienced another failure. Despite trying on 11 separate occasions to persuade the Leader of the House to give way to me, I was not successful. That is rare, as he is usually extremely courteous.

Mr. Straw rose—

Dr. Lewis: I am about to be courteous to him.

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask his question now that the positions are reversed, as it were, he is welcome to do so. May I point out that I accepted 24 interventions, so my speech, which was scheduled to last less than 20 minutes, ended up as a 40-minute speech?

Dr. Lewis: I am delighted that the Leader of the House has responded as I calculated that he would, and I shall proceed to ask him what I was trying to ask him yesterday. On reflection, does he wish to give me a slightly different answer from the one that he gave to the question that I asked in the meeting of peers and Members of Parliament that he kindly attended on 30 January? I asked how precisely would the function of the House of Lords be improved as a result of the incorporation of an elected element. As I recall, he said that in the 21st century, it was no longer legitimate to have a purely appointed House. If I missed something, I will happily give way so that he can clarify that response.

Mr. Straw: As I spelt out yesterday—I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was listening—a fundamental argument in favour of change is the issue of legitimacy. People can make up their minds, but I do not think that it is acceptable, this time, to have a wholly appointed Chamber. That is my opinion. I believe, too—I spelt it out yesterday—that as the second Chamber becomes more legitimate so its scrutiny of Government will increase. I do not fear that, because it is perfectly possible to accommodate it without challenging the primacy of the Commons and its ability to sustain a Government.

Dr. Lewis: That is a classic case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) said in his excellent speech yesterday, of a solution looking
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for a problem. There is a determination in different parts of the House, including among Ministers, to introduce an elected House of Lords because they think that is right. I am indebted to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—we should all be grateful to him—for stating that the issue is not utility but legitimacy. There is a visceral or emotional rejection of the notion that the upper House should be appointed, as we have not heard a rational explanation of how an elected Chamber would perform the function of the upper House any better. Indeed, if it is elected under any conceivable electoral system discussed in the long hours of debate yesterday and today, we can be sure that independence and cross-party co-operation will vanish in a puff of smoke. We will end up with a situation that no one in their right mind would vote for if they were asked whether they thought that the House of Commons had too few—not too many—professional politicians, and if they were asked whether it should be doubled in size.

We are being asked to double the community of elected politicians, and put them in two Chambers, rather than one. We are expected to believe that the second Chamber, having secured the same legitimacy as the Commons Chamber—everyone is anxious to give it that legitimacy—will be content to be regarded as the subordinate Chamber. That shows breathtaking naivety, but I do not think that everyone who has enunciated that proposition believes it. I recall a conversation with a profound Front-Bench thinker in my party.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): That limits it.

Dr. Lewis: Indeed. I suggested that that proposition was in danger of creating deadlock between the two Houses, and it would undermine our ability to function if we ever came to power. He gave a purist, nihilist response: “Julian, you must realise that if you oppose interference by Government that would be a very good result.”

John Bercow: It was Eric Forth.

Dr. Lewis: No, it was not. In fact, it was someone who has taken part in this debate.

It took a great deal of effort for me to enter the House, and I did not do so to sit around playing a deadlocked game of chess or draughts. I wanted to try to improve things as best I could for my constituents and, perhaps in a small way, for the country. We have been told that the upper House does not include experts in everything. The logic of that argument is that because it does not have experts in everything it should not have experts in anything. As a shadow Defence Minister, I believe that we get far more out of a second Chamber in which the Chief of the Defence Staff, who served under the Prime Minister during his first four years in office, now serves. He has been released from his shackles or harness to serve in the House of Lords, and he can say what he thinks the Government are doing right, and what they are doing wrong. To replace Lord Guthrie with a list-elected party political hack is absolutely absurd. If they are to carry the argument, people who want an elected second
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Chamber must do better. They must show how elected Members will improve the role of the second Chamber to revise and improve legislation. The role of the Commons Chamber is to introduce legislation, and that complementary role will be served in future, as it has been in the past, only by an appointed second House of Parliament.

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