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26 Jan 2010 : Column 703

Mr. Grieve: I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. What he says has been apparent as the Bill has proceeded, which is regrettable because we agree with the Government that parts of the Bill are very desirable. However, the Government seem to spin out the Bill for longer and longer by introducing extra measures.

When the Secretary of State reflects on the matter, I would like to think that he will view Opposition Members wishing to protect him from dishonour as not a bad thing. For those reasons, we will seek to have the clause, which is a hallmark of the Government's utter bad faith on the matter, removed from the Bill.

Dr. Tony Wright: I have just two points to make. The references to Lord Irvine give me a certain nostalgic pleasure, as they remind me that the apotheosis of my parliamentary career was being the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Irvine during the period in question. I remember well much of what is being discussed. I have also spent more time than I care to remember deliberating on reform of the House of Lords. Until today, I had taken a vow that I would not deliberate further on the matter. I have come to the rather dismal conclusion, fortified by more than a century of history, that there will not be a big bang as far as House of Lords reform is concerned. At the very least, there will be a series of rather minor bangs, which will be entirely in the tradition of how we do things: we shall muddle along, we shall deal with problems as they arise, we shall do a bit of tidying up, and, in any foreseeable future, we shall probably not do a great deal more than that. We shall go on having such debates at great length, with great interest, into a very pleasant infinity.

That has always been the nature of House of Lords issues, and I am sure that it will be ever thus. It could have been different. I never quite understood why a reforming Government with a large majority treated the reform of the House of Lords differently from other major constitutional issues. We had a settled position on freedom of information, devolution and a range of constitutional reform issues. We used our majority in the House to implement such proposals. In the case of House of Lords reform, we did not. We sought to construct what was never there: a majority for a consensus position in the House. The late Robin Cook worked tirelessly to achieve that end and it collapsed around him. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor has spent more parts of his life than he probably cares to acknowledge trying to work towards some sort of solution. There will not be a solution in any near future. A great reforming moment may come again in a different political cycle but that moment in this cycle has gone.

5 pm

The answer to the question posed by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is to say that it was not intended to be like this, although what was intended was never very clear. There was to be a kind of amorphous stage 2 that was going to do things of a rather more significant kind to the House of Lords, but the mountain has turned out to be a mouse. There is nothing exceptional about that; that is often the way of these things. The truth is that the various provisions of the Bill are looking at a kind of stage 2. There will probably be a stage 3, a stage 4 and probably a lot of other stages along the way. That will not be because
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anyone intended that to be the case; as I said, the late Robin Cook tried heroically to forge a stage 2 of a rather major kind and to persuade the House to move in a big reforming direction. The House instead preferred to play games and the whole thing collapsed. There was a good intention to try to move the House towards a serious reform position but the House was not to be moved on a consensus basis in that way.

What we have is a stage 2 that deals with a number of immediate problems. It does a bit of tidying up of a necessary kind. It deals with the absurdity of elections of the hereditary peers. It deals with resignations and with removals. I wish it also dealt with putting the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis; that would be a sensible bit of tidying up. That is what stage 2 is; if it is seen in that way, it is a recognition of political reality, which indicates that we will go on having further stages beyond this.

Mr. Hogg: It is a most ingenious argument but is it not rather like the Government saying in respect of the Lisbon treaty and their undertaking to hold a referendum on it that it was not a treaty? The hon. Gentleman is saying that a bargain should be dishonoured because we now have stage 2. That is palpable nonsense.

Dr. Wright: I am grateful for that but I will resist the temptation to have the Lisbon treaty argument all over again.

Mr. Grieve: Is it not even more of a nonsense? The only element of the stage 2 that can be identified is the reneging on the previous promise. Apart from that, none of the list of subjects concerning the House of Lords that we will debate this afternoon is germane to the main issue of House of Lords reform at all. The only element of change is that stage 2 will now be the ditching of the solemn and binding promise that was made previously.

Dr. Wright: As I have tried to explain, as someone who was reasonably close to the issue, stage 2 had an amorphous quality; it had an intention and an ambition attached to it. There were attempts to fulfil that ambition. They failed. In the event of that failure, what does the House do? It tries to do the things it thinks it can do. That is why stage 2 has become the component parts of this Bill that are sensible and worthy of support.

My second point on the clause about the ending of the by-elections for hereditary peers is this: in some ways, this provision demonstrates a remarkable generosity of spirit. It invites the question why are we treating the second tranche-the remaining hereditary peers-differently from the first tranche? The first tranche was dealt with by a cull, because it was believed that it had to be removed from the House of Lords. The second tranche, having endured for a further 10 years, is to be removed not by a cull, but by a process of natural attrition. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told us how young the youngest remaining member of the hereditary peerage is, we know that it will go on for many decades.

I am perfectly prepared to accept this provision, because it is a way of making progress and getting some sort of support for a package of proposals. However, I think that it is generous, and it would have been open to the Government and to the House to say that the time
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has come to bring the hereditary peerage to a close. We have not said that; we have offered a very generous transitional arrangement. On that ground alone, it probably deserves support.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I fear that there might be something in what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) just said. I wish to start my contribution by citing the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911, which states:

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): They didn't mean it either.

David Howarth: That "immediately" was said in 1911. The hon. Gentleman says that they did not mean it. The Liberals did mean it then, although there might well have been an internal compromise within the parliamentary party not to attempt to go further and to put that promise into the Act.

Mr. Mark Field: The hon. Gentleman may recall that, given that this was Asquith's Government, the Cabinet at the time was very much against women having a vote. Thus, one wonders what the popular vote that they had in mind in 1911 might have entailed.

David Howarth: I suspect that the factions on women having the vote and on going further on House of Lords reform might well have been the same; the Cabinet was also split on that.

I listened to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the Secretary of State, and it appears that it might be another 100 years before that promise is fulfilled. I have heard the Secretary of State's statements and speeches on this issue for the past five years and it seems that we have got very little progress out of him towards the ultimate goal of the reconstitution of the second Chamber on a popular basis. A number of documents have been published, including two White Papers during my time in this place, yet apart from one vote on the Floor of the House, which had no binding consequences, no progress has been made towards reconstituting the House of Lords on a popular basis. When listening to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, I got the distinct impression that there will be no enthusiasm for introducing specific proposals to this House early on during the time of any Government he is a part of.

Mr. Straw: The Conservative party must speak for itself, although it is having great difficulty on this matter, but I must say, for the Government, that the hon. Gentleman parodies all the work that has been done, including by the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). We laboured long and hard in the cross-party group to reach a position, 96 years after the 1911 commitment, where at long last clear agreement was reached by the House. Such agreement had eluded us for all that period; we did not get it before the war, in the '60s or in 2003. We got that agreement, and we produced the details in the 2008 White Paper and then what amounts to the guts of a draft Bill-that is real progress.

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David Howarth: We were happy to take part in those discussions, but we were frustrated all the way through that one discussion had to lead to another discussion and then to another discussion. The Liberal Democrats have been clear about our policy since 1911, and the fact that everybody else seems to take such great time to come to the same conclusion and then not to implement it is a source of even greater frustration.

Mr. Hogg: I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that even among those of us who believe in a wholly or largely elected second Chamber-I am in that camp-there is a great division of opinion on how, and on what basis, its Members should be elected. On that second issue-the nature of the franchise and the nature of the election-there is considerable division of opinion, and it is that, as much as anything, that stands in the way of rapid progress.

David Howarth: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that there is that difference of opinion, but it seems to me that we have never got to that important part of the debate. However, we are not talking about that issue, but about the abolition of by-elections for the hereditary peers. I still come back to his Front Benchers' lack of enthusiasm for progress; the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) was right to ask about that.

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase mentioned the phrase "third-term issue", which has been bandied about, and which the Leader of the Opposition perhaps used. It is not clear whether he used the phrase, but it is clear that in Total Politics magazine last year, when asked about House of Lords reform, he said:

That is on the record.

Mr. Tyrie: The hon. Gentleman knows that I am one of the most committed supporters of a democratic second Chamber, but even I would balk at bringing in a measure for that purpose at this time, given the debt crisis and the deficit crisis. Everybody knows that taking through such a measure would result in some kind of constitutional upheaval, and possibly a crisis. The public would find it utterly incomprehensible if we engaged in a battle like that for a year or so, while distracting attention from the crucial tasks that most affect people's livelihoods.

David Howarth: The trouble with that argument is that it assumes that economic management is a matter of legislation; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, above all others, does not agree with that. Economic management is a matter of Government policy away from the legislative process. Constitutional reform is a separate matter that we can continue to work on, whether there is a crisis or not.

Mr. Wills: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at the height of the second world war, the foundations of the welfare state, including the national health service, were laid, but that that did not distract the Government from the life-and-death struggle that was going on? There is no reason why constitutional reform should be a distraction from dealing with questions of economic management.

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Secondly, it is clear from this debate what we must do if we are to achieve the necessary consensus on wholesale reform of the House of Lords-I think the hon. Gentleman agrees with us Labour Members that that reform is necessary. The Government have pledged that in the next term of a Labour Government, we will implement the draft clauses that we will publish, subject to any amendment as a result of discussion. Does he agree that the major obstacle to any consensus on wholesale, much-needed reform of the House of Lords is the attitude of the Conservative party?

The Chairman: Order. The debate is getting ever wider. It is a high-quality debate, because there are right hon. and hon. Members present who have a great deal of expertise, but I think that we have just reached the point where I need to remind the Committee that we are discussing a particular matter-that is, whether clause 29 should stand part-so I would encourage a little more concentration.

David Howarth: Thank you for that encouragement, Sir Alan. I will not go into any detail in my response to the Minister, except to say that he is right on his first point. On his second point, the Conservative party's attitude is not the only obstacle to reform. Under the present Government, there has been a very long period in which reform could have been taken further forward but was not. Part of the problem is the notion that there has to be absolute consensus. I do not think that one will ever reach that point. There comes a time when one has to take the bull by the horns and take reform forward.

I share some of the frustration that Conservative Members feel about the clause, and I share the frustration about the piecemeal reform. Perhaps the hon. Member for Cannock Chase is right that all that we can hope for is piecemeal reform, but we should be bolder than that-indeed, we should have been bolder than that before now. It is immensely frustrating for those of us who do not accept the hereditary principle that all that the clause proposes is the ending of the by-elections. We Liberal Democrats were never party to the various deals and arrangements between Lord Irvine and the Marquess of Salisbury. Those are the kind of deals in which, perhaps fortunately for us, we are never asked to take part. So we are seeing this from the outside.

5.15 pm

Although the Secretary of State is quite right that the process removed by clause 29 is risible, it seems to us that the hereditary principle is as risible and that there is no reason why there should be hereditary peers in our Parliament at all. The Government have promised action on this several times going back to the 2003 Queen's Speech and in five White Papers since then, but nothing has happened. I am as frustrated by that as any radical Member of this House going back to 1911, but that frustration should not mean that we vote against the clause. Inadequate as it is, it is still progress towards getting rid of an absurdity.

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman is claiming great purity for not being part of this shoddy deal. Of course, when the Liberals were last in government they were precisely part of a shoddy deal. One can be pure only when one is in opposition.

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David Howarth: I am not saying that all deals are shoddy, but this particular deal was one that excluded us and, as has been explained, was a method of getting a Bill through the House that did not go far enough from our point of view. We have been consistent in our policy about this for a long time and our exclusion from that deal follows from the fact that our policy has always been clear.

It comes back to whether this clause should be supported in itself. It is a very minor reform but, as the Secretary of State says, it gets rid of absurd elections. He mentioned the election when there were 11 candidates and three voters. The winning candidate won by 2:1-after extra time and a penalty shoot-out, no doubt. It sounds like something from "Blackadder". Lord Steel mentioned in the debate on his Bill in the other place that even Old Sarum had 11 voters and would have higher turnouts than these elections in the Lords.

The only argument that has been put forward for voting against the clause is that which the Secretary of State rightly calls the Trotskyist argument-the Tory-Trotskyist argument-that the situation is so awful and so silly that such action would encourage further reform. It is possible that that might work, but the only problem is that this has been the situation since 1998. It has not worked yet and shows no sign of working in the future. Even though it is quite right for Members of the Conservative party to berate the Government for reneging on a deal, if that is what it was, they should nevertheless not reject this clause.

Andrew Mackinlay: I take notice of your earlier injunction, Sir Alan, to focus on the clause, but, like most people here I am disappointed that in the 11 years for which we have had a Labour Government we have not moved faster on this and brought forward a democratically elected upper House. My dream was that I might one day be the first of the new and offer myself as a candidate for an elected upper House. I do not think that that will happen, but we do need to move this on. I welcome the measures that the Justice Secretary is introducing by bringing this Bill to the House and, at least on the margins, altering the present arrangements. I also look forward to draft proposals that will be enacted in the next Parliament if Labour is returned to office. I welcome that.

The principal Opposition spokesperson, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), may suggest from the Dispatch Box that because undertakings were given by Lord Irvine to Lord Cranborne, I am somehow committed to them, but I must say that that is not so. There may well have been agreements between so-called Privy Counsellors, but those of us who are nature's privy counsellors, to paraphrase Tony Hancock, think that such agreements have to be abrogated sometimes.

Mr. Grieve: I have considerable sympathy with that view. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is bound by anything, but the Secretary of State was a Privy Counsellor at the time and a party to the agreement. The hon. Gentleman may think that it is rather extraordinary to renege on an undertaking that had been expressed by Lord Irvine in such solemn form.

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