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19 July 2007 : Column 449

House of Lords Reform

12.38 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the way forward on reform of the House of Lords.

On 7 March 2007, after the free votes in both Houses, I said that I would make arrangements to reconvene the cross-party working group and that, after discussions with that group, I would return to the House to make a statement outlining the Government’s plans. Those free votes marked the fulfilment of the specific terms of one of our manifesto commitments on Lords reform. While the votes were an important milestone, we must not now lose the opportunity to make further and more fundamental reform happen.

In March, this House voted overwhelmingly—indeed, by a majority of 113—for a wholly elected House of Lords. It backed by a margin of 38 a substantially elected House based on an 80 per cent. elected and a 20 per cent. appointed element. It also voted by a majority of 280 to remove the remaining hereditary peers. As part of a comprehensive package of reforms, the Government are committed to removing the anomaly of the remaining hereditary peers, in line with the will of this House.

As this House will be aware, at the same time the other place voted for a wholly appointed House by a majority of 240. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement of 3 July that we should proceed in line with the wishes of this House, which all accept is the primary Chamber. That approach was underlined in the Green Paper on constitutional reform, “The Governance of Britain”, which I published on the same day. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are committed by their 2005 manifestos to a substantially elected House of Lords. [ Interruption. ] There was no commitment in the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos to a free vote.

Tomorrow in the other place Lord Steel’s private Member’s Bill on Lords reform will have its Second Reading. My noble Friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will expand on our response when he speaks in that debate; suffice it now to say that the Bill does not contain the comprehensive reform that is the clear will of this House.

The cross-party talks before the free votes were successful in building up a significant degree of consensus on a range of issues, as reflected in the White Paper on House of Lords reform, which I published in February. I believe that this is the best way of proceeding. I shall continue to lead the cross-party talks, and since the free votes, we have held two further meetings. Given that all three main parties are committed by their manifestos to further reform of the House of Lords, it is right that the group should consist of Front-Bench representatives of the parties, as well as representatives from the Cross Benchers and the Lords Spiritual, but of course we want the widest possible consensus, and I intend to make arrangements so that we can take proper account of the views of all parliamentarians, including non-party independent Members, and interest groups and the public.

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The White Paper adumbrated the view that the consensus was for a hybrid House involving a 50 per cent. elected and a 50 per cent. appointed element. However, since both Houses rejected that option—notwithstanding my advocacy of it, or perhaps because of my advocacy of it—we will have to proceed with remodelling our work based on an 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. elected House of Lords.

Although there is agreement on some of the areas outlined in the White Paper, there is still some way to go on some other issues. The group will discuss the outstanding elements of the reform package, including powers, electoral systems, financial packages, and the balance and size of the House, including diversity and gender issues. We will also need to discuss the transition towards a reformed House in detail, including the position of the existing life peers and the need for action to avoid gratuitously cutting Conservative party representation in the Lords when and if the remaining hereditary peers are removed.

Let me turn to the powers of a reformed House. The Government have always said that the balance of powers between the two Houses described by the excellent and recent Cunningham report should apply to a reformed House. Those powers are currently underpinned by some statutory provisions, standing orders and conventions. We undertook to look further at whether the current conventions were adequate to ensure the desired relationship with a reformed House, following the free votes.

Over the coming months, we will look at how best to deliver a substantially or wholly elected second Chamber, based on the principle that this House is the primary Chamber and that an elected House of Lords should complement the House of Commons and not be a rival to it. As part of that programme of work it is vital that the relative powers of a reformed House be made clear. We will therefore look at ways to enshrine in a constitutional settlement the current balance of powers and the different roles of the two Houses.

The Government are determined to proceed with this programme of reform with a view to its completion. In dealing with such a central element of the constitution, it is right that there be as much all-party agreement as possible. I accept that there may well not be total agreement, but the constitution does not belong to any one party and it should not be used as a partisan tool.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): It does not belong to you, either.

Mr. Straw: The immediate next steps are that I hope to be able to publish a further White Paper around the turn of the year setting out where we have got to in the cross-party talks—possibly accompanied by draft clauses that would form elements of the final reform Bill. Our intention through the work of the cross-party group is to formulate a comprehensive reform package that we would put to the electorate as a manifesto commitment at the next general election and which hopefully the other main parties would include in their manifestos. [ Interruption. ] There may of course be areas on which each party takes a different view—and we have heard some of them already. However, there is the potential to reach a degree of cross-party consensus that will lead to the completion of Lords reform. The free votes in the Commons in March gave us a clear
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direction of travel on an issue that has dogged the country for decades. We now have a chance finally to finish the job.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I thank the Lord Chancellor for his statement and for his courtesy in letting me have sight of it in advance. At the outset, may I pay tribute to his considerable efforts to move forwards on the issue of Lords reform and the way in which he is attempting to do so by consensus? It has not always been an easy journey for him and he has gracefully departed from his own preferred option of a hybrid half-elected, half-appointed Lords—or rather, that option departed from him. It is dead. In fact, it was never alive. In March, this House voted for a substantially elected second Chamber. I welcome the Lord High Chancellor to the ranks of those of us—the majority—who voted for the democratic option.

Following the votes in March, does the Lord Chancellor remember saying on the “Today” programme:

But how much momentum is there? Today he said that the Government are determined to complete Lords reform—but when? It seems that his new ambition is to secure a manifesto commitment for reform at the next election, but that election may not be held for another two or three years and the Labour party first had a manifesto commitment on the issue in 1992. Is not the real message in his statement that Lords reform is on ice until after the next election?

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Quite right.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Quite right.

Nick Herbert: There will be another White Paper and possibly draft clauses, but can the Lord Chancellor confirm that he has no plans to introduce legislation to deliver a substantially elected upper House in this Parliament?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: We hope so.

Sir Patrick Cormack: We hope so.

Nick Herbert: It is now eight years since Parliament embarked on stage 1 of reform. Does the Lord Chancellor—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. It would be very helpful if hon. Members waited for the initial statement and response to be completed before making their contributions.

Nick Herbert: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is now eight years since Parliament embarked on stage 1 of reform. Does the Lord Chancellor recall that when the Government agreed that 92 hereditary peers would remain in the House of Lords pending further reform, his predecessor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, told the Lords that the retention of those peers reflected

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As one of those Privy Councillors, will the Lord Chancellor confirm that he remains bound in honour, that the promise made then holds good, and that, although he repeats the Government’s commitment to remove the remaining hereditary peers, that will not happen unless and until stage 2 of the reforms is complete?

In 1924, Winston Churchill said:

Will the Lord Chancellor clarify the Government’s stance on the Bill introduced by Lord Steel, which will be debated in the other place tomorrow? The Bill would gradually remove hereditary peers, eventually leaving an all-appointed Lords. The Lord Chancellor merely said that “the Bill does not contain the comprehensive reform that is the clear will of this House,” but given that the Bill breaches Lord Irvine’s undertaking and is clearly incompatible with a predominantly elected Lords, surely the Government should oppose it. If they do not, what conclusion can we draw about their seriousness in taking reform forward?

The whole House will agree with the Lord Chancellor that the Commons must be the primary Chamber and that an elected Lords should complement the Commons and not be a rival to it, but after the Cunningham report on parliamentary conventions, the powers of the upper House are more closely defined than ever before. This House has the purse strings and the Parliament Acts, while the upper House has the power to delay. When the Lord Chancellor says that he wishes to look again at the adequacy of the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses, does he accept that maintaining the primacy of this House should not mean weakening the Lords? It should mean strengthening Parliament as a whole so that the Executive can be held properly to account.

I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s comment that the constitution does not belong to any one party and that it should not be used as a party tool. It is important that we move forward on the basis of consensus —[ Interruption. ] Does he understand the profound concern among Conservative Members about the existing White Paper’s proposals for electoral systems and constituencies? An electoral system that is based on closed lists and large, artificial, multi-member constituencies would keep power in the hands of party bosses. We cannot accept the removal of the independence and authority of the present Lords unless real democratic accountability is put in its place. Does the Lord Chancellor agree that we should aim for a strong revising second Chamber with democratic legitimacy, not a House of party placemen? [ Interruption. ]

We want to build a second Chamber with legitimacy, authority and the ability to play a full part in holding the Executive to account. We will work constructively with the Government in their search for consensus to that end. However, the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 said:

Does not the Lord Chancellor’s statement indicate that far from being able “finally to finish the job”, as he said, we remain, nearly a century later, in precisely the same position: intending reform, but still waiting?

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Mr. Straw: That was all very interesting. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on trying to have it both ways. One understands why he did so, given the extent of the division on the issue in his party. He did very well to get through his contribution, notwithstanding the noises directly behind him that punctuated his speech. I was reminded of the late Iain Macleod’s commentary that when one is speaking from the Front Bench, while one might have the opposition in front of one, one always has the enemy behind —[ Interruption. ] On this occasion, I look behind me and see nothing but friends. One or two still need re-education, but that is another matter.

I am glad that the Conservative party has been engaged in a process of Pauline conversion. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of why the preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act said that the process would take a long time. That was due to the opposition not of the Liberal or Labour parties, but of the Conservative party. It was wonderful that in 2005—at long last—the Conservative party included a commitment on the matter in its manifesto. The Liberals and the Labour party have been promising such change since 1910, although we have had some difficulty delivering it.

There will unquestionably be opposition from the other place, but I want us to get this through without a train wreck. We will do that if each party gives a clear manifesto commitment to going for a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber with the balance of power between the two Chambers as it is described now, although not necessarily in the conventions. I believe that that will be my party’s position and although this is a matter for the Liberal party, I am pretty certain that it will be its position. The question is whether that will be the Conservatives’ position. Is it true, as I am told, that the Leader of the Opposition went to a meeting of Conservative Back Benchers earlier this year—he might not have done this, but it has never been denied when I have put it privately to Conservative Members—and said, to calm a rebellion, that as far as the Conservatives were concerned, if they were elected to government, Lords reform would be a “third-term issue”?

Sir Patrick Cormack indicated assent.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman confirms that that was said. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), as a radical in the shadow Cabinet, needs to ensure that he moves the rather backward-leaning Leader of the Opposition towards his position.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether we would stick to what Lord Irvine of Lairg said in his statement on the compromise that led to the eccentric provision under which 92 hereditary peers were elected by their hereditary peers, with the process perpetuating itself through elections involving those peers. In the end, that is a matter for the House. Let me remind him that Division No. 71 in this Session took place on an amendment proposed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) to a motion that I moved. My motion stated:

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and the amendment would have added the words

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs was one of the 241 Members who voted for the amendment—I happened to vote against it.

After the amendment had been knocked out, there was a Division on the main Question:

full stop, without any qualification. The whole issue was whether the House supported Lord Irvine of Lairg’s position. Guess what, Mr. Deputy Speaker? The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten what happened, but surprisingly, I cannot find his name anywhere in the list of Members who voted No. However, one of the 391 Members who voted in the Aye Lobby was “Herbert, Nick”. It might be that someone else of that name managed to secrete themselves in the Lobby, but I think that it was the hon. Gentleman. He supported the decision that was agreed by a majority of 280, that the hereditary peers should be removed.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the adequacy of the conventions and the maintenance of the primacy of this House. I do not think that there is a huge division among the parties on that. My speeches on 6 March and 7 March made it clear that I accept the principle that the question of powers is not a zero-sum game. There is not a quantum of power in the building that can exist only at one end or the other. Throughout my period in the House, I have been committed to making Parliament more effective. I accept that that involves making it more effective at both ends of the building, but the hon. Gentleman must accept that the workings of the Government and Parliament would become impossible if one House did not have primacy. Perhaps he wants to go down the route of bicameral parliaments that just achieve deadlock, but he should consider the fact that some European countries cannot be governed because there is no clarity about which chamber has power.

We do not disagree with the description set out in Cunningham 2 of the balance of powers of the two Chambers. I hope that the totality of power of both Chambers together will grow. However, we take issue with whether the conventions are adequate, and Lord Wakeham supports us in that respect.

My last point—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Well, I always try to give full answers, especially when I am involved in a pedagogical process. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Parliament Act 1911. This has taken a long time, but I hope that he recognises that we have made considerable progress. If the Conservative party makes a commitment in its manifesto, we certainly can, in the first couple of years of the next Parliament, complete this job.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I say to the House that this is a statement, not a debate? If possible, may we have brief questions and, if the Secretary of State would not mind, brief answers?

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