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3.35 pm

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my Derbyshire colleague, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), although I reach different conclusions on this issue as on many others. Having said that, I am in accord with my next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and with my hon. Friends the Members for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) and for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson). One of the issues that they all mentioned was that this debate should first be about what we want the other Chamber to do. It should have a role in revision, scrutiny and holding the Government to account, and it has had a role in the pre-legislative scrutiny procedure that has been developed in recent years. However, the gaping hole in our procedures is post-legislative scrutiny, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, scrutiny of the quangos.

The reason we have to have the argument about the powers of the Lords first is that different people will be attracted to serve in the second Chamber—whatever the mechanism for getting there—depending on what we decide we want it to do. We all agree that the second Chamber must be subservient to this Chamber, but it follows that the structure must ensure that. I have to say to my very good friend the Leader of the House
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that simply saying, time after time, that the other Chamber will be subservient will not make it so; hence we have to have a structure that will do so.

I do not believe that a fully elected Chamber can be anything other than a rival to this Chamber. That will be how it sees itself, how the media see it and how the general public see it. Some people have said that it is possible to have two chambers that are both elected but are not rivals. They say, “Look at the United States, look at France.” But in both those cases, both chambers are subservient to the President and that is a completely different scenario.

Fiona Mactaggart: Does my hon. Friend recognise that there are some 37 Parliaments with two elected chambers, not all of which have a presidential system? All of them have a clear primacy for one chamber, where that is part of their system.

Tom Levitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention and I hope that what I have to say towards the end of my speech will give her some cheer. I am in favour of accountability, although I would not want the same universal franchise to be used.

Just as each one of us claims a mandate for being here because we were elected on a manifesto and because of the commitments that we made to our electorate, so would anyone elected to the other place. There is no way round that. The Minister, in her opening speech, prayed in aid the Salisbury-Addison convention, which is the basis of current subservience. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras pointed out, there is no way in which a differently elected Chamber would regard itself as being bound by that same convention. A Chamber with a different structure will demand, and reasonably expect, a different relationship with this Chamber. The Minister implied that a relationship defined by this Chamber alone would be acceptable, but I doubt that it would be acceptable even now to the present House of Lords.

Another issue is that of legitimacy within constituencies, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South. I do not want an elected Lord, voted in on the popular franchise from a regional or local list, wandering around my constituency with a contrary mandate in his pocket but no casework in his briefcase, in effect campaigning against me seven days a week and serving to undermine my democratically elected position and that of all the Members of the House of Commons. That sort of behaviour would further reduce Parliament to a bear pit in the eyes of the public, and I believe that such a constitutional rival would undermine me and hinder the discharge of my legitimate responsibilities to my constituents. That is why I want to reject a largely elected element in the House of Lords.

This is the second day of this debate, but so far no one has argued for a small elected element in the House of Lords, as that would not achieve the aims of any side in the argument. The result is that we have only two options, a hybrid second Chamber, or an appointed one. However, the hybrid option presents many problems.

Among others, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) argued eloquently yesterday that
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the hybrid option was in many ways the worst possible. A hybrid second Chamber would pose the same difficulties in respect of legitimacy and challenge as I described earlier, but they would not be confined to its relationship with the House of Commons. On the contrary, those problems would exist within the second Chamber itself, and could lead to recurring stalemates there.

For example, the Labour party in 1997 was committed to electoral reform. We asked Lord Jenkins to look at the options, and he produced a very good report that was ruined by its proposals for top-up Members—an arguably inferior category of Member. Exactly the same thing would happen in any hybrid House of Lords.

In a couple of interventions yesterday, I mentioned the suggestion that people should be elected to the House of Lords for a single, 15-year term. I noted then that we are made accountable by the fact that we are elected, but that we are held to account by the fact that we must put ourselves up for re-election. It is when we put ourselves up for re-election that we ask that we be judged by what we have achieved.

However, a period of 15 years in the second Chamber would allow plenty of time for people to forget what someone had done. In addition, the fact that it would not be possible for Members to be re-elected means that there could be no true accountability.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Is not there an added complication, in that there could be no by-election if a Member were to die towards the end of his term? Instead, he would be replaced by someone lower down the list.

Tom Levitt: I had not appreciated that nuance, but it certainly adds to my argument.

I believe that an elected Chamber at the other end of the Corridor would be bad for the Commons, and that a hybrid arrangement would be bad for the House of Lords. Therefore I can vote for only one of the options—an appointed Chamber. However, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was setting up an Aunt Sally when he described that arrangement: asking for a system of appointment is not the same as asking for a system of patronage, which would mean that a small group of people or an individual could appoint Members of the second Chamber.

We need to create a framework in which employers, unions, religious bodies, universities, councillors, public servants, young people’s organisations, the professions, the political parties, charities and the voluntary sector are allocated a number of seats. They would then be told to create their own systems for electing people in their virtual constituencies to the second Chamber. They would devise ways to hold those people accountable, decide how much time must pass before they must face re-election, and so on.

In tonight’s votes, I shall vote to retain the second Chamber. I shall also vote for the appointed option although, for the reasons that I have set out, that will not be a vote for the status quo. I shall vote against all the hybrid options, and for the removal of hereditary
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element, sooner rather than later. I should like to be able to vote for the removal of the bishops’ automatic right to sit in the House of Lords, but that amendment has not been selected.

I hope that we will be able to look at the interpretation of the word “appointment” to ensure that the second Chamber is genuinely accountable and diverse, with positive powers of scrutiny. We need to achieve for it a truly democratic system that neither challenges the primacy of the Commons nor sows the seeds of its own destruction in the Lords.

3.44 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Everybody has their favoured constitutional arrangement. We have just heard another one. No scheme is perfect, so all we need to decide is whether we can do better than the current House—not whether a perfect House can be created. For that we need answers to three questions—on functions, powers and composition—and we have already come close to answers to two of them.

We need an effective second Chamber, particularly because no doctrine of powers buttresses freedom in Britain. We have no body of higher law so we are uncomfortably dependent on the exercise of self-restraint by the Executive. More than most countries we need a constitutional long stop. That is especially the case under this Prime Minister, although the accretion of power to the Executive at the expense of the Commons has been taking place for a long time.

There are unicameralists in the House and their case needs answering. Some say that the answer is to beef up the Commons, which is theoretically plausible but unlikely to succeed, judging from the experience of the past 30 years. Nor is the current House of Lords capable of performing the constitutional role I would ask of it, and the evidence of the 100 years since the Parliament Act supports that view.

There is increasing agreement in this place about powers. The existing powers of the House of Lords would probably enable it to do a decent job, but the problem is that it does not have the self-confidence to exercise those powers. The Parliament Act has rarely been used, and in 100 years the power of delay for one year has hardly ever been called on, so if the House of Lords had the self-confidence to use its powers, that suggests that it has concluded that all but the half dozen pieces of legislation on which the Act has been exercised in a century were all right. Of course, we all agree that that is not the case. In retrospect, we all think that the House of Lords could have done a better job on the poll tax and on some of the Home Office legislation of the past few years.

We probably have agreement on the powers, but we do not have a mechanism for the House of Lords to use them effectively, and that all comes down to composition, which we are discussing today. It is indeed the only issue we are discussing today. We are not signing up to the White Paper; we shall be giving an indication of the composition we think the House of Lords should have.

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In the 21st century only a Chamber backed by the legitimacy of the ballot box can hope to perform a meaningful constitutional role. The principle that the electorate should decide upon whom to bestow authority to legislate over them seems to me quite unanswerable. However devised, an appointed House will always be perceived as an adjunct to the Executive or as the creation of establishment patronage. There is no evidence that an appointed House would feel more empowered than it does now to perform the functions we want it to perform. An independent Appointments Commission certainly could not do the job.

Where does my party sit on all this? I note that for the past five years the Conservative party has supported election. I note, too, that the current leader of the Conservative party has strongly supported a largely elected second Chamber, as has the leader in the Lords. However, when some of us put forward such arguments, we are sometimes treated as dangerous radicals, as if we were taking great risks with the constitution.

Sir Patrick Cormack: You are.

Mr. Tyrie: For most of the last 100 years the considered position of the Conservative party has been that there should be considerable further reform of the House of Lords. Churchill, Hailsham, Carrington, Alec Douglas-Home, Lord Blake and Lord Mackay all came out in favour of a largely elected second Chamber. That is quite a long list, over quite a long period of time. The Conservative party has been quite consistent, but has not implemented what it has consistently argued. It has been bicameralist, reformist and largely democratic. That is what I hope that we will vote for tonight.

The customary arguments against that view have been adduced. I will go through them briefly and just say a word about them. Most of them are bogus arguments, but some have some strength and need careful thought. First, there is the gridlock argument, which says that as soon as there is any election in the other place, there will be stalemate in British political life. But that is to ignore the Parliament Acts, which ensure that the delay can last for only one year. The matter was examined in considerable detail by Lord Mackay of Clashfern and he concluded that this was a “sterile debate” and dismissed it as an issue that should not be seriously considered.

Then there is the issue of the replication of the House of Commons and the idea that we will end up with two Houses that look identical. Different electoral systems, involving long and non-renewable terms, will create different Houses. Every other country that has a bicameral system has discovered that and it seems to work perfectly well in most of them. Some argue that the people whom we will get in the other place are the wrong people. As has been pointed out throughout the Chamber, that has been the argument against democratic reform for 150 to 200 years. That is what democracy is all about: we just have to accept the kind of people who will come forward. Incidentally, in criticising the kind of people the electorate put forward and claiming that the electorate have got it wrong, we are criticising ourselves.

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I have already alluded to the third argument against doing anything, which is that the primacy of the House of Commons would be undermined. We are the sole source of government. I see no practical way in which that could be challenged. Our elections provide, and will continue to provide, judgment day, when a Government can be thrown out. Some say that, even if the primacy will not be eroded, there will be a rivalry between the two Houses. I favour some competition between the two Houses. I want an element of friction to help to revive this place, which is dangerously weak in its ability to hold the Executive to account.

I have been passed a message to say that we are pressed for time to get all the speeches in, so I will not linger much longer, except to say that, as another speaker pointed out a moment ago, this issue is not going to go away if we do not get a clear answer tonight. We will be back here—I have already been here several times over the last 10 years—having the same debate all over again. Most people are agreed that our democracy is not in as healthy a state as we would like. It needs improving. Reform of the Commons and the Lords can play a part in that. The electorate clearly are not content with what they are getting. We must respond to that. All three major parties in the House of Commons say that they favour at least some election. Surely now is the time to send a clear signal and to vote for more than one of the democratic options tonight to secure some fundamental change to our constitutional arrangements.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Members will know that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on speeches, but if Members discipline themselves to a little below 10 minutes, I think that everybody who is trying to catch my eye will be successful.

3.53 pm

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): If we vote tonight for a second Chamber that is either 80 or 100 per cent. elected, we will be taking a long stride towards completing our democracy—a process that we have stuttered towards for hundreds of years. Heretofore, the people of this country have been denied any say in who sits and governs in half of our Parliament. That is completely against the spirit of what we have been trying to achieve democratically. We have had half a democracy and half a democratically elected Parliament. We have the chance tonight to end that and I hope that we do so.

As other hon. Members, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), have said, this is only part of a much wider democratic debate that we should be having. It is thus a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), with whom I find myself in permanent agreement on constitutional and political matters, on which he has always written and spoken good sense. The changes that we are considering do not represent all the political and democratic reform that this country needs, but they will form a significant part of it.

Yesterday’s debate focused on the composition of the second Chamber. Can we start calling it a second Chamber, by the way, and not the House of Lords? The
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White Paper says that we must get rid of the peerages, and we are considering the second Chamber of our Parliament. Given that the debate focused on composition, it inevitably gave rise to a consideration of primacy, or, more properly, the crucial question of whether reform would inhibit the power of the Government to govern. I make it clear that I will be voting for a composition of 100 per cent. or 80 per cent. elected Members. I am always amazed when people who have been elected as Members of the House through the democratic process have scruples or doubts about the usefulness of that process. I hope and expect that, unlike in 2003, the House will decide on 80 per cent., at least.

When the time comes, I hope that we will be decisive on other aspects of the White Paper. It is regrettable that we are talking about only composition today because there are other important matters in the thoughtful and wide-ranging White Paper. Given that the White Paper is so thoughtful, however, I am amazed—and rather depressed—by the timidity of proposing a transitional period for the new democracy of about half a century. The very youngest Member of the House, and even the child of the youngest Member, will be long since gone by the time that we reach the democratic position that I hope that we all want. I hope that we will be more decisive on the transitional period.

I also hope that we will not go for a closed-list system because that would undermine everything. That system would be a complete disaster, as has been proved by our experience of the European elections. As other hon. Members have said, such a system gives power to the political parties, but not to the people of this country.

I hope—this is crucial to any consideration of remit and powers—that we will be considering a much smaller second Chamber. It is nonsense that the House of Lords has 740 Members, most of whom do not take part in debates. It does not need that many Members. I suspect that most of the work up there is done by between 200 and 250 people. A House of 200 people—a senate, as it were—could do its job very well. Although this might be uncomfortable for hon. Members, this Chamber is too big as well. We could well do our work with 400 people.

The remit of the second Chamber is crucial. If we can get it right, it will resolve all the questions of primacy and competitiveness between the Houses. That is the wrong way in which to look at the two Houses. We are one Parliament. The job of Parliament, irrespective of the House, is to hold the Executive to account, to monitor what they do and to try to pass good legislation. The Houses are working together, but it has long been an appalling characteristic of both Houses that we do not talk to each other—politically, if not socially—and see ourselves as being in competition. We must rid ourselves of that stupid and limited attitude. We are both aiming for the same thing: to improve the quality of government and to hold the Government to account.

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