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My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) alluded to what would probably happen if elected term peerages replaced life peerages. I think that that would be a sensible and desirable way to go forward, but I agree that there are some deep concerns about the appointment of Ministers specifically from outside the political sphere.
In many ways, what happened with Lord Carter, Lord Jones of Birmingham and others has rather discredited what was a very good initiative on the part of the Prime Minister of the time. I think that it is desirable to have certain ministerial talent coming into Parliament, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham was right to say that the difficulty with those two individuals and the others was that they were enamoured of Parliament and politics for only a matter of months. After that, they ended up with the life peerages that were bestowed on them, which cannot be taken away. That would be less undesirable if there were evidence that they wanted to play a part in matters political even in their post-ministerial lives, but there is little evidence of that.
The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) is in many ways a sensible interim development. Some trimming of the notion that a peerage is for life would be very desirable but, in the absence of the radical reform that I would prefer, I suspect that over the years and decades ahead we will move towards all peerages being term peerages and not life peerages. To an extent, that would get around some of the concerns about Ministers expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper).
The whole thing is a bit of mess, to put it mildly. This has been a worthwhile debate although, for the reasons set out just now and earlier this evening by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, it is likely to be academic, as it is unlikely that the amendment will end up on the statute book.
Mr. Hogg: Would my hon. Friend encourage our Front-Bench team to make it plain to Government Front Benchers in the wash-up session that we would support the concept of life peerages at the end of this Parliament, as part of a compromise Bill?
I hope that the Minister has some food for thought for his response to this brief debate but, assuming that the amendment is pressed to a vote, I shall join my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester in supporting it.
My regret is genuine, as the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has done the Committee a real service. My thanks go as well to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), whose name also appears on some of the proposals.
The amendments are serious, imaginative and constructive, and they deal with an issue of real importance in our national life. I am particularly sorry that we cannot support them, as I think that there is real consensus across the Committee-and I include myself in that-about the three main objectives and premises that I have discerned to be driving the proposals.
First, everyone who has spoken is, like me, in favour of comprehensive reform of the House of Lords on a democratic basis. I think that we can take it for granted that we all want a wholly elected House of Lords
Secondly, I see all the merits for term limits, for all the reasons that have been set out. I shall not rehearse them, but I would like to sign up to all the arguments put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee in favour of term limits.
Finally, I think that everyone can agree that the House of Lords is too large and is growing even larger, for all the reasons that have been advanced so cogently. That is regrettable, and the trend needs to be reversed. On all those grounds, I think that the Committee is in agreement.
However, the problem with the amendments is that they are based on a fundamental premise with which the Government must disagree. That premise is that the comprehensive reform of the House of Lords is not going to happen in the near future. I understand why people may say that, as the process has been going on for 100 years or more. I also understand that there is a certain cynicism or weariness about the matter, so I completely understand the motivation behind the amendments, but we have to look at the arguments a little more closely.
The hon. Member for Chichester advanced two main reasons why he thinks that reform of the House of Lords remains a distant prospect. The first was that the next Parliament, whoever forms the Government, will be wholly preoccupied with dealing with the current crisis in the economy. As a result, he said, radical constitutional change will simply not be an option.
I fundamentally disagree with that proposition. We can all accept that there are real pressing challenges in the economy that need to be dealt with, but it is manifestly not true that the House will be able to concentrate only on that one thing. It was not true at the height of the second world war: the nation faced one of the biggest challenges to its existence that it has ever faced, but wholesale programmes of economic and social reform were driven through. The foundations of the national health service were put in place, as were radical reforms of the educational system, and so on. Of course this House, and Parliament as a whole, can do more than one thing at a time.
Mr. Mark Field: The Minister will accept that the Butler Education Act of 1944 and the Beveridge reforms were based on consensus in the House of Commons that spread throughout the political sphere. The issues were debated at some length, it is true, but broadly speaking there was consensus. The difference now is that reform of the House of Lords would be a matter of great contention, with the result that the Government would have at least one eye off the ball when it came to the economic crisis.
Mr. Wills: If the hon. Gentleman looks at his history books, I think that he will find that there was not a consensus about the NHS-very far from it. The Conservative party did not support it at the time, but I shall not take that historical analysis any further.
The second argument put forward by the hon. Member for Chichester for his amendments was that there would be a constitutional crisis-I think that that was the term that he used-if reform were to be driven through in short order. I understand the argument, and accept that Members in the other place are very sceptical about the idea and reluctant to envisage the sort of radical reform that every hon. Member who has spoken here tonight wants. The consensus in the House of Commons on the matter is broad, with almost everyone supporting reform, but I put it to the hon. Gentleman that we would not see the sort of crisis that he predicts if every major political party's manifesto contained a commitment to drive through radical reform of the House of Lords in the next Parliament.
If the manifesto commitments were expressed in those terms, I think that the other place would recognise that the will of the people had spoken. Sadly, we have not heard quite such a definite pledge from the Conservative party here this evening, but there is still hope.
I do not think that full reform of the House of the Lords is, by any measure, inevitably a distant prospect. The House of Lords could be reformed, as long as the proper political will existed. The Government are willing to commit to that prospect, but the premise for the reform proposed in the amendment is misplaced. The amendment can have the merits advanced for it today only if a change to a wholly elected Chamber is not going to happen imminently.
Such a change would be phased in over time, as we discussed at great length previously, but signing up to these amendments would send the signal that we had given up all hope of radical reform of the House of Lords. I am simply not prepared to do that.
I want to offer some comfort to the hon. Member for Chichester, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and all those who have spoken in the debate today. The Government will publish draft clauses for that wholesale reform very shortly, within a matter of weeks. I hope that we can focus the debate on the content of those clauses, which we are publishing in draft because we genuinely want contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House on how best to achieve the wholesale reform that everyone has signed up to today.
Mrs. Laing: We have known for a very long time that this part of the Bill would be debated in the Chamber today, so why have the Government not already brought forward the draft Bill to which the Minister just referred? They could have put it before us this evening, so that we could have debated this matter knowing what they intend.
Mr. Wills: I think that the hon. Lady is being slightly disingenuous. The Government's broad intention has been clear for a very long time. We are talking about bringing forward specific clauses so that the details of our intentions can be scrutinised and discussed.
That is where I hope the energy of the House will be directed. The quality of today's debate shows that Members of the House have a considerable contribution to make in achieving that radical reform-not temporising or providing transitional measures. That is where I hope we can focus the debate.
I shall not dwell on them, but there are technical problems with the proposal and unanswered questions such as who would decide whether a person should be granted a term peerage or a life peerage, against what criteria the decision should be made and what would happen at the end of a fixed term, although we had a little discussion about reappointment. All those technical problems could be fixed if there were broad agreement that this is the right way forward because reform of the House of Lords is so distant. I do not agree with that.
Mr. Hogg: Does the Minister understand that what he is saying is slightly different in its general tone from the position adopted by the Secretary of State? The Minister is saying that if we agreed to the amendment, which is intrinsically good, we would send a signal that serious future reform was not intended, but during the previous debate the Secretary of State asked us to accept reforms that, adopting the Minister's argument, send exactly the same signal. Why were we asked to support clause 29 when we are being asked not to support the amendment?
Mr. Wills: I completely understand what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying, but he is an extremely distinguished lawyer and he knows that the devil is always in the detail. The whole point about clause 29 is that we have a system that is risible, to use the Secretary of State's term. We cannot expect the dignity of the House not to be impaired when we have a system that involves more candidates than electors. I do not want to revisit the previous debate, but that was clearly not envisaged. The two situations are categorically different, and we cannot simply apply the badge, "The best is the enemy of the good." That simply does not fly, although I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for allowing me to make that clear.
I think we all share the same objectives, broadly; it is a question of how we get there. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Chichester will consider withdrawing his amendment. I understand why he has made his proposals, but will he devote his considerable intellectual energies and creativity to getting the wholesale reform of the House of Lords that we all want to see when we introduce the draft measures on that very shortly?
Mr. Tyrie: I am grateful for the Minister's generous words at the end of his speech, but less grateful for the unfortunate fact that, uniquely among those who have spoken, he has decided to oppose the measure-indeed, to lead the Government's opposition to it.
I am fortified when I receive support from such a varied crew from around the House: the Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright); the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart); my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg); and my Front Benchers and so on. Their support-not to mention that of the whole of the Liberal party, which I think is also aboard-suggests to me that there might be something in the proposal.
The Minister put two arguments against the measure. First, he said that we should rush ahead with radical reform even though the economy is in crisis, adding that
that would be perfectly doable based on the historical precedent of radical reforms that took place during the second world war, although he did not mention the fact that we had a coalition Government in the Commons and Lords' support for them. He then alluded to controversies about the NHS as a further example, without realising that the NHS was created well after the war under the Attlee-led Labour Government. I feel that he needs to look at the history books, which he invited us to look at.
The Minister had another main objection. He seemed to say that now we have this solid proposal ready on the blocks, we should act on it and that nothing could be an obstacle to it-we could act within weeks. The Labour party has been in power for 13 years with huge majorities, so why on earth did it not find an earlier opportunity to push reform through? I find that quite astonishing.
Mr. Wills: First, I said that the foundations of the NHS were laid during the second world war. I think the hon. Gentleman will find that that is true. The fact that the NHS was delivered after the war is another matter. Secondly, and more importantly, he knows very well-he heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explain it this afternoon-that we have tried for the past 12 years to build a consensus for reform. We have made considerable progress in doing so, and I hope he will recognise that at least.
Mr. Tyrie: We have made some progress. Eventually, perhaps, we will be able to move further in that direction and measures might be introduced when the country is more prepared to allow its focus to be taken away from the issues that matter most to the vast majority of households. I am sure they will be focused on economic issues for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, I am surprised and disappointed that the Government have not realised that the measure would address the effect of the ratchet-the fact that the House of Lords is getting ever larger. It had been heard in Government circles that that problem was being increasingly discussed.
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