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2.8 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I would have been more impressed by the contribution of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) if I had not just reread the debates on the Reform Act 1832. The arguments about the catastrophic consequences of introducing democracy in the House of Commons find a striking echo in the arguments about introducing a degree of democracy in the second Chamber.

We have been here many, many times before. I sometimes think that these debates on the House of Lords are the parliamentary equivalent of predictive texting. We need only hear a certain word and we know the speech that will follow. It must be easy for Hansard reporters, as they hear the words “legitimacy” or “gridlock” and off they go, knowing everything that will follow. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House can claim to have listened to us, because he is probably the only Member of the House who has come before us and said, “I’ve thought about the issue again, and gone back to first principles. I have read and thought my way through it, and I have submitted a proposition that is different from the one in which I used to believe, but I have been persuaded by the arguments.” That gives him a particular kind of authority.

We ought to be resolute and fixed about the purpose of any reform, but flexible about the means of achieving it. In a sense, that is a second order issue. In many respects, the compositional question is a second order issue. We ought to be resolute about the purpose of the second Chamber and the purpose of reform.

I can claim some slight affinity with my right hon. Friend—I have changed my mind several times on the compositional issue. Before I was a Member of the House, I wrote to The Guardian saying that the second Chamber should be composed on the basis of random selection. I remember that my letter was decorated with a cartoon which showed two readers of The Sun talking to each other at the public bar. One was saying to the other, “Cor blimey! Look, I’ve just been put into the Lords.”

I have believed in functional representation. I have even believed in this House being the electoral college that should choose Members of the second Chamber—not an entirely absurd suggestion, by the way, because it was recommended also by an official commission in 1919. So I have been round the circuit on the issue, but the fixed part of the argument has always been that the House of Lords—the second Chamber—can help us to strengthen our democracy, if we get the design of it right.

As it happens, the public can help us not at all on the matter. There was a splendid Populus poll for The Times about a year ago, which found that 75 per cent. of people believed that

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the kind of thing that we have heard many times. In the same poll, though, 72 per cent.—almost exactly the same proportion—believed that

The public are entirely unhelpful to us on these compositional questions, except that they seem to be saying that they want a House of Lords that will be effective. We are required to use our judgment to work out how to get an effective House of Lords, which I believe is what most people want. That means that we need to give attention to the design features. Some of those that we are not discussing are as important as those we are debating. Length of tenure, for example, is extremely important for some of these issues, and the compositional question is not the only one of significance. We want a second Chamber that is neither a rival to nor a replica of this House, but which genuinely complements it.

That is why I say that we should not give excessive attention to the question of election and appointment. There are other questions too. It is quite possible to conceive of a wholly elected House that would be utterly useless if it simply finished up as a clone of this House. We would have made the system worse, rather than better. Similarly, it is possible to conceive of an appointed House that was so lacking in legitimacy that it was quite useless as a complement to this House.

Legitimacy is a funny word. It is not like pregnancy. There can be more or less legitimacy. Since the reforms that we put in place in 1999, the House of Lords has become more legitimate. It is silly for people who argue for election to say that it has not. It has, which is why it is behaving in a rather more confident way than was the case before. Those who want a second Chamber that is not at all legitimate should have defended the hereditaries. That would have guaranteed a Chamber that was so illegitimate that it could be rolled over routinely by this place and caused us no difficulty at all. The fact that people did not, on the whole, attach themselves to that position indicates that they believed there was a need to move in a more legitimate direction.

My view is that we can be reasonably intelligent in the way we design the second Chamber. We need enough election to get enough democratic legitimacy, because there is a quaint idea in this country—this goes back to 1832—that those who are engaged in some way in making the laws of the land should have some connection to a democratic process. So there is the argument for enough election to secure enough legitimacy, but at the same time I have always believed that there was a case for enough appointment to get sufficient independence and expertise.

In that sense, we can have more than one good thing. If we design the second Chamber properly, we can get two good things. We can get a mixed House that gives us enough election to give us enough legitimacy, and we can get enough appointment to give us enough independence and expertise. In a curious way, because the powers of the House of Lords reflect a kind of
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hybridity—that is, they have an ability to delay, but not to decide—there is a certain kind of sense in matching that with a mixed membership, a hybrid membership that reflects the kind of House that it is.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Is it not a principle of democracy that people present themselves for re-election? Is that not undermined in my hon. Friend’s proposals if people serve only one term?

Dr. Wright: That is why I say that the design features such as office renewability matter. I hope that when we get the Bill, we shall give our attention to those aspects.

What matters fundamentally is the purpose of the House of Lords in our whole system, and that is what we should be fixed about. We have a system where Governments are peculiarly strong.

Mr. Straw: May I pick up the point raised a moment ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford)? There is an assumption in what is said that we are all immortal—all of us go on for ever being subject to re-election. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) notice that the fact that some Members are likely or due voluntarily to retire at the next election does not in any way reduce their activity rate or their ability to represent or speak up for those who elected them?

Dr. Wright: That is a sensible point, which I am glad my right hon. Friend has made.

We have often been described as having the strongest system of government in the western world. That is because we draw our Governments out of Parliament. Routinely, therefore, the Executive controls Parliament, and that gives a particular character to our system. Although we talk about scrutiny in a rather high-minded way, most of the real argument goes on inside governing parties in this country, because that is where the power lies and where votes are ultimately decided. That means that we have a scrutiny gap across the system as a whole.

Take the world of quangos. Much of the government of this country is done by unelected bodies—quangos. Who scrutinises those bodies? We do not, in any serious way. Sometimes we dip our toes in the water, but in no serious way do we do it. One of the jobs that a reformed House of Lords could do is the most detailed, robust scrutiny of unelected government.

There is no shortage of scrutinising jobs that an effective second Chamber ought to do, which we know we will not do because that is not in our bloodstream. Governments propose something, Oppositions oppose it and brokerage disposes it. That is how this place is and always will be. I do not hear those who are resisting reform of the second Chamber proposing alterations to our political system that would make this place different. That will not happen.

In thinking about the design of the second Chamber, we need to bear in mind the complementary relationship between ourselves and the second Chamber in relation to a Government and an Executive who are uniquely strong. We have not referred much to evidence in the debate, but some good evidence has been found by the constitution unit at University college, which has been analysing in detail
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exactly what the semi-reformed House of Lords has been doing since 1999. Its conclusion is interesting:

The final sentence is the crucial one:

That, for me, is the issue. Do we want to shift the power between the Executive and Parliament? If so, we will support these proposals.

2.20 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). It is worth reminding the House that during the last Parliament the Select Committee that he chairs produced a unanimous report outlining the way forward, with proposals not wholly dissimilar to those in the White Paper. If his eloquence can secure unanimity in his Select Committee, perhaps he can make similar progress in the House this afternoon.

Anyone watching this debate unfold over the past two days might ask themselves what on earth MPs are doing arguing about a subject that does not resonate outside, on which it is difficult to secure agreement, and which generates friction within the two parties. “Why not leave it all alone?”, I hear them say. To which good question there are two good answers. First, the last time the House voted on this, the option that secured the fewest votes was that of a wholly appointed House, and it is perverse of the House to stick with an option that it rejected. Secondly, less than two years ago, the three main parties went to the country on a proposition that they would reform the upper Chamber and replace it with a more democratic one. One of the themes in the debate over the past two days has been our unique relationship with the electorate, and it is sensible to seek to honour an obligation that the three main parties took on in the last election.

If, despite those manifestos, the House now wants an all-appointed Chamber, it should vote openly for that in the second vote tonight. If it rejects that, it should then alight on one or more of the elected options. We would be greatly assisted in that task if the Liberal Democrats reflected further on the meaning of the word “predominantly”, as in “predominantly elected”. They interpret it to mean 100 per cent. elected, which most of us would regard as exclusively elected, but to exclude 60 per cent., which most of us would regard as predominantly elected. I do not want to be discourteous to the Liberal Democrats, and I appreciate that anything over 20 per cent. is a percentage to which they are unaccustomed—

Mr. Heath: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: In a moment.

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However, if they want to reach their goal of 80 per cent., they will need a Bill, and they will not get that unless we alight on one of the options this evening. At this late stage, I hope that their spokesman will tell the House that, on reflection, they will vote for additional options over and above 80 per cent.

Mr. Heath: Let me simply repeat that 80 per cent. elected is our manifesto commitment. It is what we have argued for throughout this process and what the vast majority of my colleagues will vote for this evening. The difficulty lies not with how we vote but with how the right hon. Gentleman’s colleagues and those of the Leader of the House vote, in terms of whether they are prepared to support a properly reformed House.

Sir George Young: The trouble is that we all seem to know more about the Liberal Democrat manifesto than the hon. Gentleman does. The word that it uses is “predominantly”, and I hope that he will stick to that.

A word to those in my party who are, even at this late stage, still undecided as to how to vote: having seen the problems caused for this Administration now that the genie of Lords reform is out of the bottle, I would want the process to be completed before my party takes over in government. It has the capacity to divide and destabilise a party; that is bad enough in opposition, but far worse in government. The stated position of our leader, the next Prime Minister but one, is that it is time to move on. Even though there was some dissent, the party’s official view for the past three general elections has been to move in the direction of the White Paper. We have repeatedly said that when the Government do the right thing, they should be supported. I believe that they are, belatedly, doing the right thing, and that is why I propose to support them.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that when 80:20 was last voted on, more Conservative Members voted against it than for it? Does he also accept that we are on a genuinely free vote tonight?

Sir George Young: If my hon. Friend looks at the vote on the all-appointed option, he will see that more Conservative MPs voted against it than voted for it. One can interpret the votes in more than one way.

Mr. Tyrie: Does my right hon. Friend recall that there was an overall majority of 30 for some form of predominantly elected House? The votes for democracy were divided around various options—a problem that the Liberals do not seem to have grasped. Furthermore, last time four Conservative Members succeeded in voting for 60 per cent. and 100 per cent. They thought they were voting for 80 per cent. but got themselves into the wrong Lobby by mistake.

Sir George Young: I thank my hon. Friend. I hope that the House can exercise some collective ingenuity this evening and avoid the errors of four years ago.

When the Prime Minister contemplates his legacy, the chapter on constitutional reform will be incomplete. When he set out on this journey 10 years ago, he was warned not to do stage 1 without
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stage 2—in other words, that before he removed the hereditary peers, he should have a clear vision of what was to be put in their place. He was told that if he did not do that, the process would stall, as indeed it has. In their response to the Wakeham report, the Government said that they would

that is, the 2001 general election. Subsequently the Prime Minister made a further inexcusable mistake. He was elected in 2001 on a manifesto that he wrote, in which he committed himself to a “more representative and democratic” House of Lords. A week before the vote on that commitment, he announced that he had changed his mind and wanted a wholly appointed House. Whatever diminishing influence he may now have within his party, had he voted in line with his manifesto four years ago, I am sure that 80 per cent. vote would have been carried. Now he has changed his mind.

I want to make three brief points. In this debate, some people have taken a two-dimensional view of the relationship between the two Houses, whereby if one Chamber gains in authority, the other must lose it. However, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said, the dynamics are far more complex. For 90 per cent. of the time, we are not rivals to the upper House, but partners in holding the Government to account. The House of Lords adds weight and value to arguments that we have adduced in this House or arguments that we have not had time to deploy. I would argue that over the past 10 years, the House of Lords has gained in authority, and that it has done so not at the expense of this House, but at the expense of the Executive. I would further argue that, if its legitimacy were enhanced by the injection of some democracy, its authority would be further enhanced—again, not at our expense, but at the expense of the Executive. A stronger House of Lords is a threat not to the Commons but to the Executive. For that reason, we should welcome, not obstruct, a more effective second Chamber.

On composition, my view is that there is a role in the upper House for an appointed element—those who served in the armed forces, the generals, the surgeons, the lawyers, the mandarins, and the professors. I agree with everything that has been said about their contribution to the proceedings, and I would want them to remain—at a level of about 20 or 30 per cent. However, the party political peers, whatever the percentage, should be elected. Unlike the Cross Benchers, they are political animals; they are not political virgins. If we look at those who have been appointed since 2001, we find that 69 per cent. previously fought an election—either general or local, devolved or European. If we look at some of the party peers who have not fought an election—the Lord Chancellor, for example—we find that they would have liked to do so, but could not find a constituency to select them!

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