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"was a temporary measure to last perhaps a couple of years. We are nearing the 10th anniversary of that temporary measure."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 27 February 2009; Vol. 708, c. 432.]
Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He may agree with me that whatever Lord Steel may say, the commitment that was given by Lord Irvine in clear and unequivocal terms-I shall quote only a small part of it-was that "the 10 per cent.", namely the remaining elected hereditaries,
"will go only when stage two has taken place. So it is a guarantee that it will take place."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 1999; Vol. 599, c. 207.]
The right hon. Gentleman may agree that that and Lord Steel's comments are on two completely different topics. The temporary arrangement may have lasted a long time, but why should Lord Irvine's guarantee not remain good, seeing that stage 2 has not yet occurred?
Mr. Straw: I hope that I can convince the hon. and learned Gentleman why. We are not proposing in the Bill to end the right of the existing, albeit elected, hereditaries to sit in the Chamber. What we are proposing is in respect of by-elections. Some might argue that, after 10 years, we are very close to the second stage. I do not particularly take that point, because I want to come on to whether, 10 years on, it is sensible or acceptable in a modern democracy to continue with an utterly risible arrangement for election of hereditary peers with tiny constituencies.
I will also deal with the issue of party balance. I want to make it clear that, as those from other parties who have served with me on the cross-party working groups on the House of Lords will confirm, it is no part of the Government's intention to use this provision to worst the Conservative party, which has the largest number of hereditary peers, or to shift the long-standing and explicit agreement that there should be a cross-party balance in the House of Lords.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): A moment ago the Secretary of State described the by-elections arrangement as absurd. Does he not have even a twinge of embarrassment that his Government are responsible for devising it and then ensuring that it secured a majority in the House?
Mr. Straw: I do not think that even Lord Irvine would claim authorship of the arrangement, which was part of a deal that was struck. He agreed it-I remember it coming to Cabinet. In the end, we confirmed it in order to get the Bill through, but if the hon. Gentleman's only point is whether that was Government policy, he often enough suggests that it is time to revise Government policy. My suggestion is that, given the practice that has followed with these by-elections, it certainly is. I shall explain that in a moment.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The Secretary of State has described the arrangement as utterly risible. Surely the whole point of creating, in his words, "an utterly risible arrangement" was that it would put pressure on future Governments to introduce fundamental reform. Once it is removed, there will be no pressure whatsoever. We will live with an appointed Chamber, perhaps for ever.
Mr. Straw: So that we understand what the Conservative party is seeking to defend, it is seeking to defend by-elections. There have been 10 in the past eight years, so we are not undertaking a huge reform. In any event, the other 90 hereditaries will remain until they pass away, and some of them are quite youthful, so it will take quite a long time before the grim reaper reduces the number or eliminates hereditaries altogether. Let us be clear about that.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. What has happened in the intervening 10 years? We set up a royal commission under the noble Lord Wakeham, which did great work but, itself, was relatively divided.
My late friend, the former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, Robin Cook, as Leader of the House in February 2003 organised a debate and a series of votes on the future composition of the House of Lords, and those who were Members at the time will recall that every single proposition was defeated.
When I went on the customary transition from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House, a well trodden path, I was given by Tony Blair-as the then Prime Minister generously said to me-not one but two hospital passes in addition to the normal responsibilities: one was party funding and the other was House of Lords reform. Anyway, we got the cross-party group going, and one Green Paper was published. That culminated in our debates of March 2007, when for the first time ever the Commons, on free votes, came to some very clear decisions. It rejected an all-appointed second Chamber; it rejected any mixed proportion of appointed and elected peers, up to but excluding 80 per cent.; and it voted in favour, first, of an 80 per cent.-elected Chamber and then, by a bigger majority, in favour of a 100 per cent.-elected Chamber, which has been accepted as the policy of this House.
I reconvened the working party, and we produced in July 2008 a further White Paper, which drew on a great deal of work, including that of the Wakeham commission, about how Members would be elected, the terms that they would serve and so on. Quite shortly, I intend to publish what will amount to the basic contents of a Bill fully to reform the House of Lords. Those contents are currently being drafted, so a huge amount of work is being done on the matter.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am very interested in what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. I understand that he has to tread carefully to preserve a consensus on constitutional reform, but I am surprised that he is willing to wait for the transitional arrangements to continue, effectively, until the last hereditary peer dies. Does that mean that the Government's policy is basically to shift responsibility for the transitional period from the Ministry of Justice to the grim reaper?
Mr. Straw: No. I understand why my words may have been interpreted in that way, but for the avoidance of doubt the hereditary peers would go when the new arrangements come in. Meanwhile, there is a glaring anomaly that we need to deal with.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Ending the membership of 90 per cent. of hereditary peers in the House of Lords is a remarkable achievement that no other radical Government have ever succeeded in doing, as we know, and the Government should accept the praise for what has been achieved. Leaving 10 per cent. of hereditary peers-92 in effect-in the House of Lords, sitting there only because they inherited their title, one of which goes back as I reminded the House two years ago, to the 13th century, however, is unfortunate and is clearly an anomaly. Many of us had hoped that the situation would not continue for so long.
I agree, and I thank my hon. Friend for his compliments, because he was a Member between 1966 and 1970, when Richard Crossman, the then Leader of the House, attempted a major reform of the House of Lords. That was scuppered by a cross-party alliance
between Enoch Powell, who was then a Conservative, and Michael Foot. That proposed reform was not very good; the one before us is much better.
We suggest that the arrangements for these by-elections, and their results, are even less satisfactory than accepting the continuance of the existing 90 hereditaries. That is because those 90 could claim, and have claimed-I do not necessarily endorse this-some legitimacy because they were sitting there before and they were elected at the time as part of the deal. Ten years on, we have a ridiculous arrangement. It is worth taking the House through the circumstances of the 10 by-elections that have taken place. Of the two that involved the whole House, the first had 423 electors and the other had 348 electors. Since then, in all the rest, the total number of electors has been fewer than 50. The Conservatives usually manage about 50 electors, but they also usually manage between 30 and 45 candidates, which is absurd enough. [ Interruption. ] I am glad that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) recognises how absurd this is, given a moment's examination.
When we come to the position of the Liberal Democrat party and the Labour party, it is utterly absurd that in the first election of a Labour peer following the death of Lord Milner there were 11 candidates, but-guess what?-only three electors. That makes Old Sarum appear to be a remarkably democratic arrangement. In the case of the Liberal Democrats in 2005, there were three candidates and only four electors. That is slightly better-30 per cent. better-than the Labour party could manage in terms of electors. However, is anyone seriously going to go out and argue on the stand publicly-
Mr. Straw: No, that was not the point of it-the point was that it was necessary to get this through with some degree of consensus, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who has now left his seat, has said; that is why people swallowed hard and accepted it. However, 10 years on, as the laughter from the Opposition Benches, including the Conservative Benches, acknowledges, this situation cannot continue.
Mr. Gummer: Does not this underline the fact that if we are to have reform, we should have wholesale reform, which is what we were presented with? I happen to be opposed to that, but that does not matter two hoots-what matters is that we take this matter seriously. It does not matter what the Justice Secretary says-everybody outside knows that this is a tiny bit of reform that is party politically driven and that he is trying to explain away. Why does he not have the honesty to come forward with a proper reform, so that we can vote on it properly?
I am sorry, but it is not party politically driven. I am astonished that the Conservatives are apparently working themselves up to oppose something that, judging by their facial expressions, no one believes in any sense to be the case. As a Conservative, the right
hon. Gentleman, of all people, should recognise that we do not necessarily have to do everything all at once. As regards constitutional reform, I have never argued that we should do everything all at once. This is a reform that we can undertake now. It is in the interests of the Conservatives to accept this-it is not remotely party political-and they will get themselves into a ridiculous position if they do not. Then we will have made small progress towards the ultimate goal of full reform, to which we and the Liberal Democrats are completely committed, not only in principle but as a priority. I very much hope to hear from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that he is committed to that, too.
Mr. Redwood: We have had 12 years of a Labour Government with a big majority, but there has been no phase 2, because it has been too difficult. When does the Secretary of State believe there could conceivably be a phase 2, and what political circumstances would bring it about?
Mr. Straw: My belief is that there will be a phase 2 if we are re-elected at the next election, and there ought to be a phase 2 if any other party is. All three parties are signed up to the detailed proposals that were encapsulated in the White Paper that I published in the summer of 2008. There is some detail to which they are not signed up, as is made clear in the White Paper, but the basic principle of an 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. elected Chamber is in place, as is the detail of how it can be achieved. The relevant clauses, which are quite complicated, will be published. By the time of the election, the matter will have been the subject of four years of active work by all parties, officials and lawyers.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Some of us take a slightly different view. The Secretary of State has said that it was absolutely absurd to have hereditary peers, but to some of us it is absolutely absurd to have appointed peers as legislators.
Mr. Straw: The difference is that life peers are at least appointed on their own merit. Since the hon. Gentleman mentions the matter, let me deal with the provenance of some of the people who have been "elected" as hereditary peers in by-elections. Take, for example, the Earl of Stair. His is a Scottish peerage created in 1703 for the lawyer and statesman John Dalrymple, who was Secretary of State for Scotland until he was forced to resign for his responsibility for the massacre of Glencoe. That was how he got in the House of Lords, and it is only because of what his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather did at the beginning of the 18th century that the current Earl could even stand as a candidate. Or take the original Earl of Glasgow, who was one of the commissioners who negotiated the treaty of Union. Everybody who negotiated the treaty benefited directly in some form or another, and in his case he was given a peerage.
Mr. Straw: That is not my objection in the least, and I am glad that they are Scotsmen. My objection is because life peers at least have to show some merit, whether or not they are party appointees. [Interruption.] Yes they do. They have to show more merit now, because of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
Mr. Grieve: The Secretary of State asked a moment ago, rhetorically, whether we really object to this measure. He noted that we have treated it with some humour, and indeed it is a humorous topic in many ways. However, why should we not hold the Government to their promise? He cannot get away from the fact that the promise that was made in 1999 was exactly that, and he is about to break it. What possible justification is there for doing that?
Mr. Straw: I am sorry, I do not accept that for a moment. We can argue about how long the transitional period should be, but no one anticipated 10 or 11 years ago that we would be in this position. The hon. and learned Gentleman, who believes in the sovereignty of Parliament, should be the last person to claim that one Parliament should be able to bind its successors.
Moreover, it must be true-the noble Lord Steel, who as far as I know believes in an appointed Chamber, has made the same point-that the principal arrangement in respect of which the original commitment was given concerned the 90 hereditary peers who were retained. The by-elections came later. Yes, we confirmed them, but the original deal was in respect of those 90 peers. Now we have the completely absurd, risible system of by-elections, which cannot continue.
Mr. Mark Field: The Lord Chancellor wishes to belittle the Earl of Stair and the Earl of Glasgow, but doubtless if they had been large-scale donors to the Labour party, they would have been welcomed as life peers for the remainder of their days.
The Conservatives would be quite happy to go along with clause 29, if the Lord Chancellor had been true to his word. We made it clear in a Division in the House almost three years ago that we wanted to see how phase 2 would pan out, with an 80 or 100 per cent. elected House. Had he introduced that at the same time as the clause, we would have had no objection whatever, but our objection is the only safeguard to ensure that there is going to be a proper phase 2. Without it, we could wait 100 years, as he and Asquith have pointed out, to get rid of the remaining hereditaries. The risk is that if we allow clause 29 to go through, within 30 or 40 years, there will be no further reform, and the Government will have got their way.
Mr. Straw: That is a kind of Trotskyist argument, if I may say so. The Trotskyists used to argue that running sores should be kept running to raise consciousness, and so hasten the revolution. My view is very different. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at clause 29. All he would see is a measure for the abolition of the by-elections. There have been only 10 since the system was established, but they have become absurd.
The first point raised by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was not worthy of him. I have criticised the system by which a Liberal Democrat and a Labour peer were elected. We do not like the arrangements. I do not know whether any of those people were donors to any party, but I am sure they are all worthy. However, it would be far better-this is my last point before I listen to the debate-
Mr. Straw: Of course I am going to give way-I always give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman-but I just want to finish my sentence. I have not got to my last point, which is an explanation of why the measure is not to worst the Conservative party.
I rise not only to support what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has said, but to add this gloss: we are talking about not only a promise, but part of a deal-the Justice Secretary has conceded that. Had that deal and promise not been made, the previous measure would not have got through. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman is not only breaking a promise, but abrogating a deal that gave him a positive benefit, namely the measure that he would otherwise not have had.
Mr. Straw: First, that might have been a reasonable point if we were proposing to abolish all 90 hereditaries without putting anything else in place, but we are not. Secondly, when the noble Lord Irvine had to accept the amendment to the original proposal, which came later-the original deal was struck in May, but the amendment was made in October-he said:
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