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7 Mar 2007 : Column 1564

Mr. Howarth: I am sorry, but I have given way twice. If the hon. Lady will forgive me I shall not do so again, as I am not qualified to extend my time if I give way to her.

I also support the idea of the bishops remaining because I think that they are essential to the preservation of the Christian faith as a central part of our national life. I also believe that former Members of this House have a role to play. Lord Rooker has been mentioned; he is doing splendid work in the other place. I would also single out my noble Friends Lord Howe, Lord Hurd and my great friend Lord Forsyth—and Lord Steel from the Liberals. They are all making a valuable contribution. If we do not have them in the House of Lords, we deny the public the right to have the benefit of their experience. I believe that that adds to our country, rather than removes from it.

I also believe that the hereditaries provide continuity to our country. When my noble Friend Lord Astor stood up in the debate about “the shot at dawns” he was able to inform the House about the discussions that he had had with his grandfather—the Earl Haig—about that matter. We throw out such continuity at our peril. Let me also say, in parentheses, that 70 per cent. of the hereditary Tory peers are aged between 40 and 60, and only 60 per cent. of Labour peers are aged between 40 and 60, so we in the Tory party have a vibrant young hereditary peerage.

The argument that the Prime Minister has stuffed the other place with cronies is entirely true. However, he can be held to account for that. [Interruption.] As has been said, he is paying the price for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon made exactly that point yesterday. Like my hon. Friend, I do not want an independent commission. As they ask in Walthamstow, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Such commissions mean that we hand over to somebody else. Let me recite what my hon. Friend said yesterday about Sir Hayden Phillips. He said

I rest my case.

I believe that change is unnecessary, and therefore I shall be supporting the status quo tonight. Those who argue for change have a duty to this House and to the country to set out what the powers of a changed House of Lords should be before imposing that on the people of our country.

3.16 pm

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), although I find myself in disagreement on almost every point that he has just made. However, I agree with him on one point: we should vote on this matter tonight as a matter of principle.

When this issue last came before this House, I voted against all the options because I felt that the proposals had been formulated in such a way that they were bound to end up in the way that they did. I wished to signal my disquiet, and I did so in the hope—indeed, the expectation—that the House would soon have another opportunity to consider the question in a way
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better designed to achieve progress. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on his brave efforts to do that.

I have no idea what the outcome of the votes tonight will be, but this time I shall vote not symbolically or tactically, but for what I believe to be the best option. The right to vote remains the most potent protection of the individual against the powerful. Democracy built on universal suffrage is the foundation of our nation. That principle, for which so many fought so hard and for so long, needs to be enshrined—not put aside.

Over the past two days we have heard several speeches, from Members whose personal democratic credentials are impeccable, against any form of election in the House of Lords. That argument rests on the premise that the democratic principle can be compromised because the second Chamber revises and scrutinises but remains subordinate to the House of Commons where the democratic principle remains paramount. However, the task of revising and scrutinising legislation is not negligible. It still represents the exercise of considerable power and it needs to be able to command consent from the citizens of this country. The primary qualification for anyone in either Chamber who seeks to legislate on behalf of the people of this country must be that they have been chosen by the people of this country to do so.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Wills: Usually, I would happily sit down to allow my hon. and learned Friend to illuminate the House, but I have little time and there are still other Members who wish to speak, so I shall continue if I may.

Some might argue that a principle can remain substantially intact even if it is embellished somewhat, but such embellishment must justify its existence. I am not convinced that it does so in this case. There are many distinguished Members of the House of Lords who make invaluable contributions, and tribute has been paid to them by Members of all parties in this House. However, we should not make a principle out of a particular. Distinction in one sphere of public life is not axiomatically a qualification to pronounce with authority, or contribute usefully, to debate on every issue that comes before a legislature. Experience and status do not always generate wisdom. They can also generate rigidity and self-righteousness. Of course all legislation and legislators benefit from guidance and advice from experts, but nothing has ever prevented members of either House from availing themselves of such advice as they need it. There is no need to compromise the precious principle of democracy in order to be able to do that.

We have heard time and again in the past two days that the main concern of those opposed to applying the democratic principle to the second Chamber is that a democratically elected second Chamber will threaten the primacy of this House and lead to legislative deadlock. I am not in favour of any threats to the primacy of this House or of legislative deadlock, but I see no reason why either of these unwelcome outcomes need follow the House of Lords becoming democratically elected.
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We should not confuse conflict and tension with gridlock. Conflict and tension are inevitable in any bicameral system. Indeed, one of the cardinal virtues of a bicameral system—and the reason why I support one—is precisely that the second Chamber can act to fetter the power of the first. The idea that conflict and tension do not occur under the current arrangements and that the House of Lords is a subservient creature of this Chamber is a curious one to anybody who has observed how the other place has deployed the power of the timetable and exploited every Government’s understandable reluctance to wield the Parliament Act too frequently in order to hinder, obstruct and defeat the passage of legislation. Indeed, several distinguished Members have highlighted the way in which the two Chambers have co-operated in seeking to fetter the Executive.

Nor would a hybrid second Chamber remove the possibility of conflict and tension; indeed, it would make such conflict just as likely—only slightly more complex. In practice, any majority of the elected Members of the second Chamber will feel that they have democratic legitimacy in challenging the House of Commons, and any form of hybrid solution is an unstable stew. So those who are concerned that a wholly elected House of Lords would produce legislative deadlock should, following their own logic, be opposed to any system that would allow the possibility of democratically elected Members securing a majority in the House of Lords.

Of course, democratically elected Members of the second Chamber may well feel they have greater legitimacy in challenging the Government, and that may generate more conflict and tension, which could become debilitating. However, the way to deal with that possibility is not to sacrifice the democratic principle, but to define with greater clarity the respective roles of the two Chambers. This is needed, and it is an essential companion to reform of the composition of the House of Lords. However, I am afraid that I disagree with all those who have argued that that should be the first instalment of House of Lords reform and that the Government are approaching the issue the wrong way round. “Clarify and reform the functions of the House of Lords first,” it is argued, “and then deal with the secondary issue of the composition of the second Chamber.” However, composition is not a secondary issue—it goes to the heart of the legitimacy of everything that the second Chamber does. Whatever improvements are made to its functions of scrutiny and revision, they will not command consent unless they are perceived to be legitimate.

There is a practical argument for starting with the composition of the second Chamber. In any complex and contentious negotiation, there is always a case for starting with the issue that is most likely to be agreed most readily. However excruciating this House has found the question of the House of Lords’ composition, discussion of its functions is likely to be at least as contentious and certainly more complex. If agreement can be reached on composition, that could create momentum towards the further reform of the functions of the House of Lords that I and many other Members believe is much needed.

Finally, I turn to the argument that an elected second Chamber will somehow turn into a home for supine party hacks, and that the gutsy independent appointees
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who scrutinise legislation without fear or favour will be lost. I add two notes of caution to that argument. First, I suspect that few current Ministers would argue that election on a party ticket guarantees acquiescence in the Chamber or support in the Lobby. As for appointment producing fearless and rigorous scrutiny and improving legislation—sometimes it does, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes, it simply produces futile whim and prejudice. What actually drives that argument is a belief, which I share, that the burgeoning power of the Executive over many years needs to be cut back, along with a belief that a House of Lords appointed in whole or part would somehow help that process. The solution to the problem lies not that way, but in a more comprehensive rebalancing of power between the Executive and the legislature. However, that is an issue for another day.

If reform of the composition of the House of Lords is completed, this issue is unlikely to be revisited this century. However, should this House fail again to resolve it—unwelcome as such a failure would be—it is highly likely for many reasons that it will revisit it again in the not too distant future. In these circumstances, I hope that Members will not vote tactically tonight in a wearily resigned determination to get something through. I hope that they will vote for what they believe is the right option for Parliament and for the country. Parliament and the country deserve better than options ranging from the unacceptable to the second best, and for that reason I shall vote against all those unpalatable options and for a wholly elected second Chamber.

Sir Patrick Cormack: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he clearly was not aware of the fact—perhaps you could confirm it—that for the first two interventions, Members get an extra minute.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): That is indeed correct, but sometimes, when there is time pressure, although Members are perhaps aware of that fact, they still choose not to accept an intervention.

3.25 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): In 1973, a long time ago, I was a schoolboy aged 16, studying A-level politics, history and economics. In history, I was enthused by reading about the Liberal Government of 1906 and their battles with the people’s Budget, the two general elections that followed and their success in getting that Budget through, along with the Parliament Act 1911, which undertook the first reform of the House of Lords. However, in studying A-level politics I was appalled to learn that 62 years after the 1911 Act, which was the first stage of reform, nothing else had happened and the Lords was completely unreformed.

In 2001, aged 44, I entered this place for the first time—90 years after the 1911 Act—and found that very little had changed. There had been one limited reform, in that most of the hereditaries had gone, to be replaced largely by appointed political peers. I listened in astonishment to arguments advanced in the 2003 debate, when the House unfortunately failed by just three votes to get an 80 per cent. elected Lords, and to some advanced in yesterday’s and today’s debate. Some people have questioned why we need a second
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Chamber at all—why not have a unicameral Parliament?—although many Members have rebutted that question.

The answer to that question is fairly clear. First, we want a second Chamber because it fulfils, as people have explained, an excellent scrutiny role in examining legislation emanating from this House. Secondly, the second Chamber provides time to reflect—an opportunity to pause to consider controversial or badly drafted legislation coming from this House. Although that check and scrutinising role will be strengthened by having an elected second Chamber, that does not mean that it will try to overturn everything emanating from the House of Commons.

By electing the second Chamber for a 15-year term, which was suggested in the White Paper and was originally the suggestion of a former Conservative Chief Whip, or by electing Members in rolling thirds, or by electing them on the basis of constituencies that do not reflect the small single-Member constituencies but larger regional areas, or by electing them with some form of proportional representation—hopefully not the disastrous closed list system—we could create a second Chamber that, in its composition and attitude, is quite different from this Chamber. We could ensure that it always acted within the conditions of the Parliament Act 1911 that limit any delay or check to a maximum of two parliamentary Sessions—as we saw with the Hunting Act 2004—and of course was unable to delay or affect at all any legislation to do with finance.

People have asked why the second Chamber should be elected. I find that incomprehensible, because we are a democracy in the 21st century. I am a citizen, not a subject. I want the people who pass the legislation that affects my life and the lives of my children and future grandchildren to be elected politicians, not appointees.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paul Holmes: No, I will not. There is not time, because a lot of people wish to speak. [Interruption.] I could give way only at the expense of other people.

This Parliament should not be a feudal hangover from 400, 600 or 800 years ago. As one or two hon. Members have said, all the arguments that we hear as to why the second Chamber should not be elected are the exact mirror image of everything that was said back in the 19th century, when at various stages reform of this place proceeded very slowly, like extracting teeth very painfully from unwilling people. In 1832, when a radical proposal to extend the franchise from 2 per cent. of rich landowning men to 5 per cent. of rich landowning men was put forward, people in this House fought it tooth and nail. It was first proposed in the 18th century, but it was some 40 years before the House even got to consider that proposal. The same arguments were advanced in 1867, when the franchise was extended further, although still not to all men, let alone to women, which did not come until the 20th century.

In 1874 we heard all these arguments when it was suggested that we should have a secret ballot. How outrageous that voters should be able to vote in secret! Much better that they could vote in public, so that their
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employer could exercise due influence by sacking them if they voted the wrong way; so that their landlord could exercise due influence by evicting them if they voted the wrong way; so that the mob in the street could exercise due influence by beating them up if they voted the wrong way when they stood on that public platform. Those were things that happened all the time in the 18th and 19th century. It is appalling that, in the 21st century, in 2007, people come up with all these arguments as to why we should not have democracy.

Then we heard the argument that we should not democratise the second Chamber because it is full of experts. A number of hon. Members have referred to this, and pointed out that if, for example, someone is appointed to the second Chamber because they are an expert on in vitro fertilisation and health issues in general, that does not make them an expert on the other 95 per cent. of discussion, debate and legislation that is considered in the House of Lords. If someone is there because they are an ex-vice-admiral, ex-air vice-marshal or defence expert, does that mean that they are qualified to talk on the health service and so on?

If we want expert advice, we employ expert advice. We bring expert witnesses before Select Committees. Both Government and Opposition use experts to draft legislation. We do not appoint experts to govern our lives. I know that that is something that is creeping into the democracy of this country. A lot of local government has had its power stripped away; it is being given now to the quangocracy. There is the Learning and Skills Council, which spends £9 billion of public money and is accountable to no one. If I ask a Minister about the Learning and Skills Council I am told, “Oh, you have to ask them; that is not our business any more,” but it is spending £9 billion of taxpayers’ money. There are the primary care trusts, and the regional development agencies. There are the Government regional officers who march with their jackboots into the housing department of Chesterfield borough council, wanting to know why we have not privatised the council housing, although the council tenants have voted overwhelmingly not to do so. If it was down to me and to my party, all that power would be devolved back to accountable, democratic bodies. And there is the idea that experts should run the whole of local government, and run the second Chamber—why not this Chamber?

One hon. Member even made a very eloquent case this afternoon, virtually saying that this Chamber was ineffective, and that the only effect he had ever managed to achieve was to get some appointed Members in the second Chamber to change legislation. It sounds to me like a superb case for abolishing elections to the House of Commons and appointing everyone who is here as well, which is simply ridiculous and outrageous.

I realise that reversing all this to reintroduce democracy into local government, let alone into the second Chamber, seems very radical, but in the rest of Europe and across the United States they seem to manage it somehow. The idea that in the UK we cannot cope with democracy and self-government and devolution of power is incomprehensible.

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My preference tonight is clear. I would prefer to see a 100 per cent. elected second Chamber, in keeping with the manifesto that I, among others, was elected on in 2001, which said clearly that we wanted a directly elected second Chamber—not partly, but directly elected, 100 per cent. Equally, our manifestos of 1997 and 2005 said that we wanted a predominantly elected second Chamber. So as a second-best option, I will go for the 80:20 split, but I would much prefer to see a fully elected second Chamber.

Fiona Mactaggart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paul Holmes: No, I will not give way because I have very little time and other people wish to speak.

If we do get the 80:20 split, which we missed by only three votes last time—there are more Liberal Democrat MPs than last time, and more hon. Members from the two other large parties have said that they have changed their mind, so there is a good chance of that—the 20 per cent. appointed should under no circumstances contain reserved batches for certain preferential interest groups. They should all be subject to the independent Appointments Commission. The idea that we should take a particular religious group and give them an automatic position in that legislature is outrageous. No one else in Europe has it. Some people say, “But it is traditional since the days of Henry VIII and the reformation.” Well, it was traditional to have an absolute monarch, and we got rid of that with the civil war and the glorious revolution. It was traditional to allow only 2 per cent. of the population to vote, but we got rid of that. I hope that tonight we can finish what the Liberal Government started in 1911.

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