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5.45 pm

Mr. Straw: The difference is that I do not sit in this House because I am the 14th generation after the first Mr. Straw.

Mr. Hogg: You sit here because you were Barbara Castle's private secretary!

Mr. Straw: Yes, but that was different.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) suggested that I was rude about those who had been elected. I was not; I was mocking how they had become part of that constituency. If they have merit, it could be considered through the merit-based process of appointment to the House of Lords.

Mr. Leigh: The Secretary of State was mocking the process because there may be 30 candidates and only 40 electors. I might have got the figures slightly wrong, but I would have thought that that would mean that high-quality people would apply. It may produce a higher quality of elected candidate than if there were 60,000 electors and one elected person. I do not want to be accused of attacking parliamentary democracy, but we should not assume that the people elected under the current system are any less worth while than those appointed to the House of Lords by any other means. I suspect that such is the nature of the competition to get into the House of Lords through that elected route that the candidates with whom we emerge are of a very high standard.

I do not want to go too far down that road, because that argument suggests that I believe we should defend the constitution entirely in terms of logic. I do not. I defend it in terms of our traditions, our history and what works. Is the royal family entirely logical? Is the House of Lords in any sense entirely logical? Of course, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham is entirely right. The logical step forward is to have an elected Chamber, but we all know that if we had one, it would not result in better legislation, so why not leave good alone? This is the tyranny of the logical over the practical and of endless constitutional change over what works.

Let us think about this for a moment: is what we have got so very bad? There is a vast amount of expertise in the House of Lords, with people who are not politicians and who have worked all their lives in the professions and in business. They speak only when they have to speak and vote only when they really feel strongly. They do a good job.

This will be a controversial comment, and I know that I do not carry many people with me, except perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is a sound trooper in this respect. Is there any harm in making a slight bow to our past by having some hereditary peers? The Secretary of State mocks it, but
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these people are part of history and part of the fabric of what we are. They do not have a great deal of political power. There are only 92 of them, in a revising Chamber, and we know that they have no power to block any legislation that this House sets its heart on.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am indeed entirely with my hon. Friend. The House needs to bear in mind the fact that so long as the 92 are there, they uphold the hereditary principle and therefore support the monarchy. If they went, it would expose the monarchy as the only hereditary institution in the land. Does he believe that that would endanger the monarchy? I certainly do.

Mr. Leigh: That must be right. I defend the current arrangement as something that, whatever I say, will probably last many, many years. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) is absolutely right that this argument will go on for eternity, and long may it go on. By the way, some argue that the House did a great moral thing and voted for a 100 per cent. or 80 per cent. elected Chamber, but we know that that vote was a farce. Many colleagues deliberately voted for a 100 per cent. elected House of Lords because they knew that no Government would ever wear it.

Mr. Tyrie indicated dissent.

Mr. Leigh: My hon. Friend shakes his head, but I know for a fact that many people trooped through the Lobby to vote for the most extreme option precisely to ensure that it never happened. That happens on a lot of occasions in this House, so we should not imagine for a moment that either Front-Bench team or a majority of Members actually want there to be a 100 per cent. elected second Chamber. Do they really want that? Do they want this House battling with, and losing half its power to, an American-style senate? [ Interruption. ] There may be a few enthusiasts in the Chamber, but we all know it is not going to happen. It will not happen-thank God!-if there is a Conservative Government, and I doubt whether it will happen if there is a Labour Government. I like to think that in 30, 40 or 50 years' time, or perhaps on the hundredth anniversary of the 1999 Act, we will still be debating the matter.

Hugh Bayley: I am sure the hon. Gentleman is wholly and utterly opposed to this House adopting electoral arrangements that exclude British citizens who are black, and almost all women, from standing as a candidate. Yet by maintaining this curious, risible system-the words of the Lord Chancellor-for electing 90 of the Members of the other place, we are condoning and endorsing an electoral system that is discriminatory against people of ethnic minorities and women, because they are simply not eligible to be candidates. Surely to goodness that is a good reason to vote tonight to get away from such an absurd electoral system and the hereditary principle.

Mr. Leigh: We all know that the House of Lords has changed dramatically in the past 12 years in terms of bringing in minorities. There is absolutely no bar to any of that happening. The hon. Gentleman is exaggerating by suggesting that there is a vast hereditary peerage exercising great power, but we know that there are just 92 hereditary peers, and that they are a small part of a revising Chamber.

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At one level, I am saying only that that puts pressure on the Government to bring in real reform, if that is what people want. However, if that does not happen, I argue that the hereditary peers lend colour to the other place. Do we really want an entirely appointed Chamber and to go along with the Canadian model? The Canadian second Chamber is the least effective second Chamber in the western world. Hereditary peers, and the way in which they refresh themselves through by-elections, add something to the House of Lords. They might be younger and different types of people. We could have a House of Lords that is completely diverse in every respect by appointing everyone, but why get rid of a system that works and that creates pressure for progress? I am just a reactionary, and I do not want any progress at all, so I am very happy with the current arrangement.

Mr. Winnick: I am sorry I was called away earlier and so was absent from the Chamber, Mrs. Heal.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) has been characteristically blunt and expressed the point of view of a good number of Opposition Members. Let me say that the official position of the official Opposition is that they want a fully elected second Chamber, but they know, as everybody in this House knows, that had it not been for the Labour victory in 1997, there would have been no change in the composition of the House of Lords, which would have remained a largely hereditary second Chamber.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman would have liked that to be retained. He spoke about the hereditary principle, but word for word, he gave the reasons that were given in the years prior to 1997. The arguments for continuing with hereditary peers were put as strongly before 1997 as he put them today. As I said in an intervention, because of the Labour Government, 90 per cent. of the hereditaries went. It is true that there was a prior attempt at reform-I was here at the time-but that was in a very different Bill. Perfectly understandably, there was a cross-party alliance between Enoch Powell and Michael Foot. As far as I was concerned, they were right to do what they did, because that measure would not have resulted in the outcome that many Labour Members wished to see.

The by-elections are indefensible. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who used to represent Grantham, said that he was not in a position to go anywhere publicly and defend them, but if they are indefensible, why should they not be changed? I am in favour of the Government's proposals, because having an electorate of four or five is farcical. It reminds me of the situation before the Great Reform Act, when at least some constituencies had only 20 or so electors. Anything that is so indefensible and, frankly, farcical should not be retained.

I do not happen to belong to the group-there are some Labour Members in it-who say that the real solution is the abolition of the House of Lords. I do not take that view, because, as in most democracies, there is a strong case for having two Houses. One thing is certain: if we had only the House of Commons, all the blame would be attached to it. Any measure that was shown to be faulty would be blamed on the House of Commons, because we would have responsibility for everything. Having a revising Chamber is right and proper, but I do not want a change that results in
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increased powers for the House of Lords. Some say that the powers should be equal, but I certainly do not belong to that school of thought. I want the House of Commons to be dominant. I would strenuously oppose, as I hope the majority in the House would, any change that would give added powers to the House of Lords.

I am certainly in favour of a revising Chamber with no hereditary peers, but I must concede some of the arguments against a fully elected Chamber. Very recently, the House of Commons unfortunately passed, by nine votes-we know how those nine votes were gathered-for 42 days pre-charge detention. I have no hesitation in saying that it gave me a good deal of pleasure that that was rejected by the Lords. I was so pleased that I wrote a letter to The Times to congratulate the Lords. I doubt whether the measure would have been rejected if there had been a fully hereditary House. It might have been rejected, but if a Conservative Government had been pushing for it in a hereditary House, it would not.

I accept that a fully elected House of Lords could, to some extent, be a duplicate, whatever the election arrangements. Nothing is perfect, and I accept that there are weaknesses. At the end of the day, a fully elected House of Lords may not be as independent or different from the House of Commons as I would like. That is one of the drawbacks, but all in all, what cannot possibly be defended and justified is for 92 peers to sit in a 21st-century legitimate Parliament simply because their ancestors were given a peerage in the 13th, 15th, 17th or 18th centuries. Surely that is as indefensible as the by-elections that happen when a hereditary peer happens to die. That is why I hope, having done what no other Government have done by ending at least 90 per cent. of the hereditaries, we go further, and end the situation in which 92 hereditaries continue to sit, for the reasons that I have stated. That is indefensible. Any step that can be taken by a future Government to end that would certainly have my support.

Mr. Mark Field: I appreciate that the Lord Chancellor's memory may be failing him as to the events of 2002 and 2003-at least that is how it appears from the Chilcot inquiry-but we need to remind him of the reason for some of the 1999 safeguards that he is now seeking to remove. I entirely agree with the sentiments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in that regard.

Crucially, there is a bloc of 92 remaining hereditary peers, who are kept in place pending stage 2 of House of Lords reform, to which the current Administration have notionally been committed since 1997. I listened with great interest to the passionate speeches from the hon. Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), but one must ask why so little progress has been made, given that we have had a Labour Government for the past 13 years who have been committed throughout to a democratic House of Lords, and who have had a huge parliamentary majority during the first eight years and a very satisfactory one in the past five.

We had an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), which went into some of the detail of that history. It is perverse-given the radical reforms made in relation to Scottish and Welsh devolution, for example-that the Government have not moved more quickly on this issue, even as a second-term issue.

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6 pm

An integral part of the present system is the superficially anomalous by-election procedures that have been ridiculed in this debate. However, without such procedures-and we have seen some 12 deaths and 10 by-elections since the 1999 arrangements were put in place-we would see the dying off of all hereditaries and with them the safeguard to which I referred. The history of this issue is clear. As the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) pointed out, House of Lords reform often sees a short and intense burst of activity followed by many decades in which not much else happens. The worry is that Labour would have zero commitment to stage 2 reform if we did not have this safeguard in place.

This proposal is the worst sort of partisan gesture by the Government. Weeks before an election, they are dragging up the issue to try to draw a dividing line and portray my party as the party of privilege for the few and not the many.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am truly bewildered by what the hon. Gentleman has said. What incentive will there be for a Conservative Government to make reforms if this proposal is not passed today? He obviously hopes for a Conservative Government, but what would make a Cameron Government introduce comprehensive reform? We have invited his Front Benchers to comment, but there has been silence.

Mr. Field: The fact is that we have known for almost three years that the settled will of this House has been for a fully or 80 per cent. elected House of Lords. Why has there been a delay when the Government have had a working majority? That is the issue.

Mr. Straw: It is because it has been necessary to translate that decision-the first ever such decision-into legislative proposals and to try to achieve not just agreement across the Chamber but broad, cross-party support. On the issue of the construction of Parliament, I subscribe to the old-fashioned view that it is important that it should not be in the ownership of any one political party. We have worked hard to achieve that, and I am about to publish the major part of a Bill on the issue-I hope that it will have the hon. Gentleman's and his party's active support.

Mr. Field: Again, I have to say that that is far too little, far too late. I would understand that argument rather better if the Secretary of State had not introduced the clause at this juncture. We could have waited and incorporated the clause into any new Bill in the next Parliament, if his party were to win the election.

I have some sympathy-although I do not agree with-the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). In many ways, much of the constitution is not logical. As he rightly pointed out, having a hereditary royal family is not logical and, if we had started with a blank sheet of paper, we would not have had the House of Lords as it existed before 1997. However, we did not start with a blank sheet of paper: we started with many years of history. My hon. Friend's arguments were persuasive in the run-up to the debate in 1999, but I am afraid that the pass has been lost, and that is why we must now move to a fully elected second Chamber, if we are to have such a Chamber at all.

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I am slightly depressed because I fear that my party, if it gets into government, will press ahead and have a raft of new life peers almost immediately both on our side and across the political divide. I wish that we would treat the situation with more urgency and move rapidly towards an elected, democratic second Chamber. In reality, it will be the life peers on both sides who will be the main road block. I endorse the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) when he pointed out that the phenomenal economic difficulties that the incoming Conservative Government will face will mean that their political energy will be directed at correcting those rather than considering some of these grand constitutional issues. As I say, that depresses me, not least because I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) shares many of my views on this matter. However, such reform will not be an early priority as we do not want our programme to become log-jammed by constitutional difficulties that would be inevitable. Conservative life peers would be just as difficult as Labour life peers in trying to prevent the fundamental democratic reform that is close to all our hearts.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says, but does he intend to vote against clause stand part on the basis that he does not like the piecemeal approach, or will he vote in favour because it is a step in the direction in which he wishes to go?

Mr. Field: I shall vote with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield because the system is an important safeguard and I want to see clause 29 removed from the Bill.

Over the past 13 years, the House of Lords has been packed with 174 Labour peers and 66 Conservative peers-402 new members in total. The last thing that we need is yet another sizeable intake of often relatively low-grade members of the House of Lords. I may also be low grade in the House of Commons, but I am elected and in a democracy that matters. Those of us who are standing for re-election will do so some time in the next 15 weeks, and people will have a chance to vote for me or not. We run the risk of having ever more life peers with an unacceptable life-long tenure.

These issues are very difficult. All of us know that we are potentially getting ourselves logjammed into some major constitutional problems. As a slight aside, it is interesting to note, courtesy of The Sunday Times, that, in the expenses scandal in the other place, not one of the peers who has taken money for asking questions or for lobbying services-or through their second home allowances-is a hereditary peer. Every one of the 25 or so peers who has so far been accused is a life peer- [ Interruption. ] I am not sure that it is entirely a coincidence. It is wrong that we have packed the House of Lords as we have in the last dozen years. I fear that more is to come.

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