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19 July 2007 : Column 455

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not mind if I say that the implication of his statement is that comprehensive reform of the House of Lords is not an immediate prospect. I hope that he will not set his face against a more limited reform measure that would put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis, separate the honours system from service in the second Chamber, and give the House of Lords the ability to remove people who bring dishonour on it.

Mr. Straw: I have two quick answers. First, to get to where we want to go, we have to make clear progress, but in the absence of categorical manifesto commitments from the three parties, we would simply find ourselves bogged down in endless debate on the Floor of the House before the next election. I want to make clear progress, so that in the first Session of the next Parliament, we can introduce a final measure. Secondly, on a limited reform measure—that takes us back to Lord Steel’s proposal—let us see what the House of Lords says about it. One thing has to be clear: such a reform cannot be an alternative to the major reform to which the House is now committed.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Lord Chancellor knows that we welcome his statement, his continuing interest and commitment to the subject, and his willingness to change his position to accommodate the views of the majority in all parties. He knows that the Liberal Democrats have said yes to cross-party talks, to seeking maximum agreement between the parties, to making sure that the Commons is the primary Chamber, and to making sure that we get on with the process.

If the right hon. Gentleman is really committed—and if the new Prime Minister is really committed, as last week’s announcement suggested—to a major new constitutional settlement, in which there is a properly democratic bicameral Parliament, and in which the Executive return more powers to Parliament, would it not be logical to get on with the process, rather than slow it down? That way, the Government can be seen to deliver on a final transformation of the House of Lords into a proper democratic Chamber within 100 years of the original commitment. Otherwise, we will delay the decision for another Parliament, and goodness knows what the result will be, what the balance of Parliament will be, and who will be sitting in his position and taking an interest in the subject.

Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect again on the fact that if there is no White Paper until the turn of the year, realistically, it will mean legislation in 2008 or 2009 at the earliest? We read reports that there might be a general election before then, and that would obviously put the process in jeopardy. Does he agree absolutely that it would not be acceptable to replace the House of Lords, whether appointed or hereditary, with a second Chamber in which the parties, rather than the people, choose who represents them?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful for the Liberal Democrats’ categorical and full-hearted support; we have not heard from them any of the cavilling that we sometimes hear from Conservative Front Benchers. The issue is really one of haste and speed. If we are too hasty, the matter
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will fall, and I want it to reach fulfilment. I am clear that we can get there, but there are many big issues that we have yet to determine. If that is not done, we will simply end up having hours and hours of debate on the Floor of the House without reaching conclusions, including on the electoral systems. I should just say to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs—I am sorry that I did not answer this question earlier—that I am, of course, ready to look again at the whole issue of electoral systems.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): We have a convicted fraudster, Conrad Black, and a tax exile, Lord Laidlaw, in the House of Lords. Surely we should take early action to rid the House of Lords of people like that, rather than wait until a comprehensive Bill is introduced after the next election.

Mr. Straw: I agree with that, but the difficulty in introducing a limited measure is that reform that is not properly thought through can be added to it. If there are other ways of achieving my hon. Friend’s aim, so much the better.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does the Lord Chancellor agree that constitutional reform has not been one of his Government’s greatest triumphs? Will he concede, and take some comfort from the fact, that of those Conservative MPs who voted when votes were last held on the issue, a majority voted for one of the elected options, and a majority voted against a wholly appointed House? Will he give an undertaking that by the end of this Parliament, a draft Bill will be ready, which can be introduced in the next Parliament?

Mr. Straw: We have made rather more progress on reform of the Lords than any previous Administration, including those of which the right hon. Gentleman was an adornment. On the issue of a draft Bill, we are certainly aiming to produce draft clauses. Whether we can get to a full draft Bill depends on the extent to which we can agree an overall settlement in the cross-party talks, but I hope that we can reach such a settlement.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is hardly in a position to criticise the Leader of the Opposition for making House of Lords reform a third-term issue, given that, under our Government, it has become a fourth-term issue. Does he agree that the Bill that will come before the House of Lords tomorrow largely satisfies the commitments made in the Labour party’s manifesto for the last election, and will he confirm that the Government will support the Bill? Will he also confirm that although the House voted for a wholly elected second Chamber, it was not clear what form the elections would take, who would qualify to stand for election, or who the electorate would be?

Mr. Straw: I cannot confirm my hon. Friend’s statement. We said that there would be free votes on the issues, and there have been free votes; the House has spoken. I know that he disagrees with its decision, but the majorities in favour of 100 per cent. and 80 per cent. elected were overwhelming.

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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Would the Lord High Chancellor, as we must get used to calling him, accept that that majority in favour of 100 per cent. elected was largely engineered by the tactical voting of the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), who took his troops into the Aye Lobby although they were really not in favour of the proposal? Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept that in every Division, more Conservative Members voted against 80 per cent. elected and 20 per cent. appointed than for? Similarly, more voted against 100 per cent. elected than for. Does he accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who is newly appointed to the Front Bench, does not speak for the majority of the parliamentary Conservative party, and that the Lord Chancellor will have a real fight on his hands if he tries to destroy the current constitution, as he is seeking to do?

Mr. Straw: I am not seeking to destroy the constitution—of course not. I am seeking to make considerable progress on the issue on a consensual basis, and I am trying to nail down some very difficult details before we bring forward a Bill, because that is the only way that we will get a satisfactory and pretty permanent settlement. As for the votes, I always work on the basis that when hon. Members choose which Division Lobby to go through, they know the consequences, and those who voted in favour of 80 or 100 per cent. elected knew what the consequences would be.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): No one should have a job for life without accountability, and it is right that we should have a wholly or substantially elected House of Lords, but does my right hon. Friend agree that success will depend on what form the elections take? I do not want party managers dominating the election process, or closed lists. I would like organisations to have the chance, perhaps indirectly, to elect Members of the House of Lords, because it is important that we retain the expertise and experience in the House of Lords, as well as its independence.

Mr. Straw: First, I look forward to discussing my hon. Friend’s proposals in detail. Secondly, I am against closed lists for the elections. There is a debate to be held about the election systems used. Let me make it clear that I am not in favour of closed lists of the kind used in European elections for elections to the House of Lords.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I would be grateful if the Secretary of State stopped using the phrase “primacy of the House of Commons”. What he actually means is the primacy of the Executive. So long as the Government can retain control over their party, they can do as they please. We need Back-Bench Members of this House to reassert their independence, to recover the powers that the Executive have stolen from us, and to free ourselves from the tyranny of the Whips. That is what we need to do.

Mr. Straw: I do not remember the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that when he was a Minister.

Sir George Young: He was a Whip!

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Mr. Straw: I know—and a bad Whip, too. I say to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that when we have a strong Executive, as we do, our constitution can work only if there is a strong House of Commons and a strong Parliament. I support that, but if there is to be a Government, one House has to have primacy. The decision to accept the primacy of the House of Commons was not made by the Government. It was made by the House of Commons in a free vote when we set up the terms of reference of the Cunningham 2 Committee on 10 May last year.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I enjoyed the first part of the statement about trying to build consensus across the House, but having listened to the contributions of Opposition Members, I am not sure that we will achieve that in time for the 2009 manifesto. Although my right hon. Friend has so far resisted the call to bring forward some of the measures, will he consider bringing some of them forward—for example, the role of the bishops in the House of Lords? They could be removed, along with hereditary peers, as quickly as possible, as part of our disestablishment of the Church of England.

Mr. Straw: Oh goody. Then we would really have a consensus. It is preferable that we proceed as I suggest, otherwise we will end up with deadlock, which is where we have ended up before.

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): With a wholly elected second Chamber, how is the significant and valuable proportion of independent Members to be maintained?

Mr. Straw: By definition, that cannot be maintained as it is at present. That is why I voted for 80 per cent., as well as the perfectly formed but unsupportable 50 per cent.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I strongly welcome the statement from the Secretary of State for Justice. Will he stick immovably to the democratic principle that those who exercise political power in a democracy must be elected? Those who vote must be elected. That, of course, allows some elbow room for my right hon. Friend to ensure that those who do not vote in a second Chamber—those who therefore do not exercise political power—may find a place, whether they are existing or future Members of such a House.

Mr. Straw: The primary Chamber must be wholly elected. We will continue to have a debate about whether the second Chamber should be wholly or substantially elected.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Will the Secretary of State resist the siren calls for piecemeal reform, even though the individual ideas might be quite good? That threatens the programme itself. The important thing at this stage is to get on with the comprehensive reform as quickly as possible. In that regard, I add my voice to those who are disappointed that what he has announced today means that there is no possibility of an early election to the House of Lords. Does he envisage the possibility of an election to the House of Lords within the term of the next Parliament, not having to wait till the following general election?

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Mr. Straw: The more progress we can make on the all-party talks beforehand, and the more we can deal with the devil in the detail, the more likely it is that we could get the reform through in the first Session of a new Parliament, without running into overwhelming objections by the other place, which acknowledges the primacy of this Chamber. If that were the case, elections to the other Chamber could certainly take place during that Parliament.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I welcome the parts of the Lord Chancellor’s statement that move us further down the democratic path, as many hon. Members have sought during their time in this place. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he has comprehensively buried the doomed and somewhat arrogant contention that our democracy will be better served by a unicameral system, with no revising Chamber at all?

Mr. Straw: I have never supported that and the House buried it by an overwhelming vote. It was the very first vote, No. 65, on 7 March.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Given the recent decision of the Government to confirm the Church of England as the established Church, will the right hon. Gentleman assure me that there will always be enough bishops in the Church of England to work the system properly?

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Including women.

Robert Key: Of course that includes women bishops. Will the right hon. Gentleman also take the opportunity to examine the legislative relationship between the Church of England and Parliament, which is archaic and is effectively governed through the Ecclesiastical Committee with a precursor pre-legislative stage of legislation? Will he revise that system to bring it more into line with 21st century practice?

Mr. Straw: I declare an interest, as I am also a communicating member of the Church of England and believe in the established Church, but that view is not wholly shared in all parts of the House, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. On the second point, I personally want to see a significant representation of the Lords Spiritual in the second Chamber. We must be very careful before we discuss Church of England reform in the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman may recall—not from his own memory, but from the history books—that the 1874 Session of Parliament was dominated from one end to the other by discussions of Church of England reform. I do not want to go down as the Lord Chancellor with that legacy.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Both Houses have clearly expressed a view about what we should do about Lords reform, but the electorate has not yet expressed a view specifically. I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that in those votes 155 Labour Members voted for a unicameral Parliament. That may represent a much larger proportion of voters outside the Chamber, and they should be given the choice in a referendum as to whether they want a second Chamber in the future. I remind my right hon.
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Friend that a number of Parliaments have abolished their second Chamber, and many successful democracies have single Houses.

Mr. Straw: As we set out in the White Paper, there are very few countries of our size that have unicameral Chambers. I strongly believe that a unicameral Chamber would lead to more power going to the Executive and less power to elected people in this Chamber, as well as the other place.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Will the Secretary of State explain a little more clearly how, in a unitary rather than a federal state, there can be two competing sources of electoral authority?

Mr. Straw: Of course there can be. There are plenty of unitary states that have two Chambers, but if the hon. Gentleman takes a different view about an elected second Chamber, that is his opinion, but it is currently not shared by a majority of the House.

Chris Bryant: As one who supports a democratic second Chamber, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has retained responsibility for the subject, not least because I remember the days when he was in favour of a 0 per cent. elected element in the second Chamber. He was then in favour of 50 per cent. and now 80 per cent., so we have got him from 0 to 80 per cent. in just five years. There is an important principle by which the House of Lords has always abided until now. If there is a clear manifesto commitment by a governing party that it will implement, the Lords will not stand in the way. Is that not why it is extremely important that Labour’s manifesto, as the party that will win the next general election, is unambiguous on the matter?

Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for complimenting my ability to listen to arguments. I have shifted on the matter; I am perfectly willing to say that. On the second point, I agree that we need a clear manifesto commitment, then we can get the measure through.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): May I remind the Lord Chancellor that there are more than three political parties in the House. He gave an assurance to my right hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) that we would play a meaningful part in the cross-party discussions. I remind the hon. Gentleman also that it was the Scottish national party and Plaid Cymru that destroyed the credible case for appointment by pursuing cash for honours in the way that we did. Can he assure me that the cross-party talks will indeed be cross-party?

Mr. Straw: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. We are suggesting that the key cross-party group should be the three parties, but I promise him that there will be—we should have made previous arrangements—discussions with his party, Plaid Cymru and other smaller parties in the House. I am sorry about that. As for the other point, the debate about whether there should be an elected element is nothing whatever to do with that which he mentions.

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