Previous Section Index Home Page

To suggest that the process will be completed by 2011 is probably pushing it; however, getting the legislation in by 2011 would be a good target. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the form of elections. He and his party have their view about the timing of the elections; it happens that the Conservatives and the Government have a different one. One of the great things about the cross-party group was that we had to apply our brains to the discussion. Like the Conservative party, I came to the
14 July 2008 : Column 28
view that it would be best for good governance and the effective role of both Houses if the elections for each House coincided.

The hon. Gentleman asked about hereditaries. They, as well as life peers, have always known that their time would end. That is true for all of us; we know that our time will end at some stage and the big, existential question is about when. Everybody at the other end of the corridor has certainly been aware that reform has been in the air; it has been since at least 1911, and for many years it has been in the manifestos of the hon. Gentleman’s party, my party and, more recently, the Conservative party. That said, there is a human issue about managing the transition.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point that was wholly incorrect, if he does not mind my saying so. He said that the Church of England was not originally part of the establishment. I do not know what Henry VIII had in mind when he broke away from the Church of Rome and created the Church of England. Furthermore, what is still in mind when I go to the palace to administer the new bishops’ oaths of homage, about their allegiance and loyalty to the Crown? I am also a communicating Anglican, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I take a different view—I think that the established Church plays an important part in the life of our nation. That is not a party point of view.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that this is not a zero sum game as between the other place and this House. It is in the interests of democracy and of good government that both Houses should continue to be strengthened.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): May I thank my right hon. Friend for his courtesy in sending me an advance copy of the White Paper and for his kind words about my work on the royal commission? Having read the White Paper, I congratulate him on producing a masterpiece of imprecision, vacillation and obfuscation that cannot possibly lead to meaningful legislation—a consequence entirely to be desired.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend is a very old friend. When he starts his remarks with a compliment I always know that there is something coming that will be less than complimentary, and I was not disappointed on this occasion. He played an important role in the Wakeham royal commission. He obviously disagrees with the White Paper, but he is wrong to call it imprecise or obfuscatory. It is neither; it merely comes to a conclusion that is rather different from his conclusions.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In echoing the wise and perceptive comments of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), may I ask the Lord High Chancellor to acknowledge that when the votes took place in this House last year a significant majority of Conservative Members voted against 80:20 and a larger number voted against 100 per cent? On his side of the House, there was a significant majority against 80:20—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Not true.

Sir Patrick Cormack: There was a majority against 80:20, and the vote for 100 per cent. was caused by a tactical switch by a number of Members, led by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), who is nodding
14 July 2008 : Column 29
vigorously. That is no basis on which a cosy coterie of cross-party leading Front Benchers can saddle the rest of the House of Commons with the most ridiculous dog’s breakfast that I have seen in many a long year.

Mr. Straw: Those of us who take seriously the way we vote have to be bound by the consequences of our votes. We cannot have a situation whereby Members vote in one Lobby and then say that they actually meant to vote in the other Lobby; indeed, that would be the road to complete disaster. Moreover, I do not remember the hon. Gentleman ever saying, when he was forced through the Lobby in support of his Government, that he had not really meant to vote for, say, the poll tax or another objectionable piece of legislation. When the votes took place, there was quite a substantial majority for 80:20 and a very significant majority for 100 per cent. All the other alternatives were defeated.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am relieved to hear from the Secretary of State that brain power was applied in producing this document. What is the thinking behind electing somebody to an upper House for a 12 to 15-year term with no right of re-election? How could they possibly be held to account by the constituency for which they have been elected for such a long period?

Secondly, why on earth can we not do this in this Parliament—

Mr. Speaker: Order. One supplementary is enough.

Mr. Straw: I refer my hon. Friend to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), because this idea originally came from the royal commission of which he was not just an adornment but a very important element. I think that it has merit in terms of what we are seeking to do. It was also in the February 2007 White Paper and generally received approbation in the two-day debate in March 2007. If we are seeking a Chamber that is complementary, we must have a system of election that does not get in the way of Members of this House. That is a serious anxiety. We therefore propose single terms, although these Members would not be as responsible to their electorates as is any Member of this House. At the same time, it is important, in our view, that there should be recall mechanisms of some kind to ensure, for example, that as well as attendance requirements, the natural check on Members’ assiduity and behaviour, which takes place very quickly at each subsequent election, would not arise under this system.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Before we start writing our election addresses on this White Paper I hope that the House will have a debate on it. This is an extraordinary process. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said, it is only a coterie of Front Benchers who have come to these generalised conclusions, which is all that they are. There has been no Speaker’s Conference on this major constitutional change. We desperately need to be able to discuss this matter appropriately before any of us come to write our election addresses—in my case, I will include a rejection of the proposals in the form that they take.

Mr. Straw: I set out the basis for the talks in my statement on 19 July last year, and there was general approval for them. On 7 March, following the clear
14 July 2008 : Column 30
votes in this House in favour of 80 per cent. and 100 per cent. and against all other alternatives, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked me what the next steps would be, and we said that there would be a cross-party group. A cross-party group was formed with representatives of each of the parties. Of course, on this issue, as on many others, there are disagreements within parties, but that does not alter the legitimacy of our mandate, or of those who served on the cross-party group.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on resisting the name “senate”. Frankly, once they are called senators, they will be completely out of control. An important question is highlighted—apart from “Why are we wasting time on this nonsense, anyway?” Once a second Chamber has an elected mandate, what can stop it from claiming equal responsibility to this House?

Mr. Straw: I do not happen to think that reforming our second Chamber is a waste of time. What my right hon. Friend says is exactly the sort of argument that has led to delay and procrastination on this issue. Reform would greatly strengthen our democracy, and I am not in any doubt about that. What was my right hon. Friend’s second question?

Mr. Spellar: It was the question of an elected Chamber not claiming equal powers.

Mr. Straw: This is an important question, which we debated at great length last March. If my right hon. Friend looks at chapter 5 of the White Paper on Lords reform that we published last year—I will send him a copy—he will find a detailed analysis of other countries’ experience of appointed and elected second chambers and the powers that flow from that. There is no direct relationship between the nature of election or appointment and the powers. There are appointed chambers that are powerful and elected ones that are not. It is the nature of the relationship that is crucial, not whether they are elected or appointed.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): As an opponent of an elected second Chamber, as is everyone else who has spoken on this statement, may I say that I wholly support the Secretary of State’s policy of what appears to be endless consultation on the issue? The process looks likely to reach 100 years, and perhaps it could then be given a decent funeral.

I return to the point about accountability made by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). The Secretary of State seemed to say that the fact that a person did not have to be re-elected made the process more accountable. It seems to me that if someone were elected for 15 years, they would have to pay no attention to their constituents—they would not even have to answer their letters, let alone represent their views in any way. If people are to be elected for 15 years on a party list by proportional representation, is the system not very like the one we have at the moment where life peers are mainly appointed by political parties? Why do we not just stick with that?

Mr. Straw: I invite the hon. Gentleman to look carefully at our argument on non-renewable terms and at the views of the royal commission, in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton
14 July 2008 : Column 31
(Mr. Kaufman) played an important part, because it made the original recommendation. In a modern society, we must accept that there is an issue about the other place’s lack of legitimacy. It is unusual for the second Chamber of such a large and important country as the United Kingdom to be wholly appointed. Over the years, we have tried to increase the legitimacy of the other place, but it is still appointed. I believe, although my position has moved, that we greatly benefit from its being elected in a way that does not compete but complements the work of this Chamber.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I commend my right hon. Friend’s thoroughness and progress on this issue but express disappointment that this important question of Lords reform is still in the slow lane? This House voted by an overwhelming majority for a 100 per cent. elected Chamber and by a smaller but none the less clear majority for an 80 per cent. elected Chamber. There is no justification for not introducing a Bill in the next Session, and one of the advantages of doing so would be that it would test Conservative support for Lords reform. I should like that to be put to the test and for us to finish this unfinished business as part of the radical proposals for constitutional reform that I am proud our Labour Government have introduced.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s support and, in a sense, I welcome his impatience. As a former Leader of the House, he will be aware of the issues about what is included in the legislative programme. In practical terms, given the huge amount of detail that must still be resolved, it will be difficult to include legislative proposals in the next Session. Given all the fits and starts on Lords reform—including under my party between 1966 and 1968—the measure of cross-party consensus represents significant progress, and we must rapidly build on it.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Church of England bishops may not be men-only in future, but they will be England-only for eternity, so will Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have additional representation to compensate for the fact that they do not have established religion? To echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), given that reform of the House of Lords has been in every Labour manifesto since 1997 and has been Labour policy for the best part of a century, why is the Justice Secretary subcontracting it to the incoming Conservative Administration?

Mr. Straw: We are not subcontracting it to anybody. We have made considerable progress on Lords reform: the composition of the other place and its activity rate have been transformed in the past 11 or 12 years, although it remains appointed.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue about the representation of other faith communities, within both the Christian Church and other world religions. I accept his point that if there were an appointed element—it is one of the arguments in favour of an appointed element—the faith communities would be represented, albeit it in a different way. Without an appointed element, there is no provision for any appointments of bishops or of representatives of other faith communities.

14 July 2008 : Column 32

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): The Minister says that he would welcome views on the system of voting and elections to the Lords being held on the same day as general elections. The election that was held in Scotland on the same day using two different systems was a complete shambles that disfranchised many of my constituents as well as those of colleagues. In the circumstances, surely the only system should be first past the post.

Mr. Straw: There is experience of the electorate finding voting straightforward, including in the elections for the London Assembly. I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and it might be a further argument in favour of first past the post.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): In last year’s vote, was not the status quo the least-favoured option among Conservative Members, with the majority of us voting for at least one of the elected options? On the transition, would not resistance from the other place be reduced if life peers were allowed to serve for life, and, with an average age of 68, is this not a matter on which we can afford to be generous?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support. He is absolutely right to say that there was a clear majority of 23 in the Conservative party against a fully appointed Chamber, with the proposal being comprehensively defeated across the Chamber by 196 to 375. Each of the parties must discuss his second point with its peers and, indeed, must do so across the parties. I have yet to reach a final conclusion, but we include in the White Paper and elsewhere various actuarial predictions about how long their lordships would take before life ceased to mean life.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I broadly support the proposals, but I wonder what the White Paper says about the dual mandate. Is my friend proposing that the senators, or whatever they are called, will not be able to serve as Members of the Scottish Parliament, Assembly Members or perhaps even as local authority councillors?

Mr. Straw: I think—from recollection—that the White Paper is silent on the dual mandate. I have never seen a problem with people serving on local authorities, but there would be an issue about serving on other bodies.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I join in thanking the Justice Secretary for the courteous way in which he ran the working group. However, may I ask him to look again at the arrangements for the elections? He has put forward any number of reasons today why the first-past-the-post system is the preferred way forward. When it comes to the constituencies, surely we should have an end to the regions. Regional assemblies have been grossly unpopular—it has not been possible to pursue them—and regions are not popular in the European elections, either. However, people understand what a county, a town or a city is. If we are to have any confidence in the system, surely people should have a sense of identity with the constituencies in which they are voting. Will the Secretary of State join me in standing strong for the great ancient counties and great cities of England and Britain?

14 July 2008 : Column 33

Mr. Straw: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument. However, it could be said that, as the House of Lords does not deliver a Government or sustain a Government, one of the arguments normally made against proportional representation, which I hold with a passion so far as this place is concerned, is less significant in respect of the other place. That must be weighed in the balance. We need to look at the experience of the various proportional systems that have been used, particularly over the past 11 years. However, let me draw to the House’s attention the fact that we are not proposing in the White Paper to go for a closed list system.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): These proposals represent major constitutional change. If proposals for elected mayors, regional assemblies and devolved government require referendums, should the people not be asked whether they want to abolish the House of Lords and create 200, 300 or 400 more paid politicians?

Mr. Straw: It has never been the view of any party that such a complex issue ought to be put to a referendum, but we are clear that it should be included in election manifestos.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Even the Government accept in the White Paper that there is no place for bishops in a 100 per cent. elected House, so in their view there is no fundamental constitutional principle in having bishops. Therefore, if the Government want bishops in an 80 per cent. elected House, why not rely on the appointments system rather than reserving a place for 16 or 26 male, mainly conservative people who have separate representation from anyone else?

Mr. Straw: I have been a strong supporter of women bishops in the Church of England and I look forward to their future representation in the other place. The issue comes down to the position of the established Church. I understand and respect the hon. Gentleman’s view, which is different from mine. One of the things that we need to recognise, at a time of concern about whether there is a lack of faith generally, is the important role that the Lords Spiritual, as bishops of the Church of England, play in representing not only the Church of England but the wider faith communities. It is interesting that almost all representatives of other faith communities, including other world religions, applaud the role of the Lords Spiritual in the other place.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I congratulate the Justice Secretary on the progress that he has made in bringing forward proposals that give effect to the views that the House expressed. I would urge him strongly to commit to as open an electoral system as possible, so that through electoral reform it might be possible to involve in our revising Chamber representatives who stand on platforms other than those of our existing political parties. Having a more open system is absolutely appropriate for a revising Chamber whose job is not to sustain a manifesto or sustain the Government, but to scrutinise the work of that Government and revise legislation.

Next Section Index Home Page