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5.31 pm

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, in this debate, which has gone on for a decade or so, certain factors have emerged as common ground. The noble Lord who has just spoken does not seem to acknowledge my next point, but everyone else has acknowledged that this House in its present form performs a vital role in the legislature, and does so almost impeccably. I refer to the praise heaped on this House in the very first government White Paper on this subject, which was produced by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, a long time ago and has often been endorsed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer.

As I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I wondered whether I was hearing a man who, in seeking to create what he called a proper, acceptable, effective legislative Chamber, wants to go down the road of destroying the one that we have already. It is like a man making the case to abolish the wheel in order to make the case for recreating it. We have got it and nobody really challenges that.

The second principle that has emerged across the Benches is that the future must be determined by consensus. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, underlined the fact that that means consensus not just between the parties but between the two Houses. That is crucial. I add that that consensus should be sure of giving at least as much weight to the opinion of this House as to that of the other. Indeed, I argue that the scales should be weighted in favour of the opinion of this House.

I do so for two reasons. The first is that the working party that considered this matter—composed, in all good faith, by Jack Straw—significantly under-represented the views of the majority of this House. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde and I have been engaged in a friendly duel about this for almost as long as I can remember. I hope that he will forgive me for asking whether it is not somewhat bizarre that the views of this House, which voted 90 per cent against an 80 per cent elected Chamber, have been reflected on that working party by someone who believes so passionately in an 80 per cent elected House, and has done so for years. It is a very curious concept of democratic leadership that the Leader should ignore entirely those whose views he is meant to represent. I say that with the utmost respect—and friendship—for the skill with which my noble friend has trodden this astonishing tightrope for so long.

The second reason why I think that this House should be given more weight in deliberations is that the other place simply does not understand how it works. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, acknowledged that, and certainly others who have spoken have done so. As someone who spent 25 years in that House and a year as Leader of it, I readily acknowledge that I came here scarcely ever, except when summoned by Black Rod once a year and for some occasional meetings. When I was Leader of the House of Commons, I treated my opposite number in this House with the utmost condescension. The House of Commons simply does not understand the way in which this House works and its judgment cannot be given much weight.

But there is one matter of great importance on which both Houses agree. I identify it by quoting from two distinguished Members of the other House. Andrew Tyrie states at page 62 of his book, Mr Blair’s Poodle:

Tony Wright states in an essay at page 867 of Parliamentary Affairs from 2004:

We have there two thoughtful Members of the Commons acknowledging what we all know—that Parliament needs to be strengthened against the Executive. The extraordinary thing is that they are barking up the wrong tree. It is their House, the elected House, that has so little influence on the decisions and activities of government. They do not recognise the extent to which—as others have pointed out—this House is now very different from that which existed some years ago. Mr Andrew Tyrie further stated at page 62 of his work:

Has he not noticed the changes that have taken place in the six years or so since the bulk of the hereditaries disappeared? I am glad that we have 92 still here and I hope that they will continue to stay here. Since that change took place, the major parties each have 30 per cent of the vote and the Cross Benches and the Liberals have 40 per cent between them. We have to win the argument. It is like addressing a jury, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, pointed out. We do win the argument. In those six years, the Government have been—I will not use the phrase “defeated”—effectively challenged almost 400 times and have accepted the advice of this House in about 40 per cent of those cases. We have had that impact on that legislation as part of the legislature. The non-elected membership of this House has had that effect. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that that was terrible as we were not elected and we had no legitimacy to achieve that. But we have been doing it very well. He wants to recreate this Chamber with a different structure but with no guarantee that, if we were replaced with elected people, it would achieve the same effect. During that time we have made enormously effective changes.

One asks in what way, if at all, the present state of play, or any aspect of our performance, will be improved by the introduction of up to 100 per cent elected Members, or any move in that direction. I have sought an answer to that question in every publication on this subject that I can find. I have, of course, searched in Jack Straw’s latest White Paper. Nothing there says that the arrival of elected Members will improve our performance. I have even looked, not for the first time, in the paper of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. Again, there is no argument that suggests that this House will be improved by the arrival of elected Members. Indeed, I have asked my noble friend to his face in public, as I have asked the right honourable Jack Straw to his face in public, to give any reason why we should believe that this House will be improved by the arrival of elected Members. But in each case the answer was silence and nothing else. That is the strength of the argument.

I conclude that the system that has developed over recent years deserves to be recognised, fortified and fully—if you want the word—legitimised by taking the steps that others have commended. I refer to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine—I welcome back the learned gentleman, whom I used to lead long ago when we were both at the Bar—and the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. Those steps would be placing the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis, lifelong membership for the surviving hereditaries and a reduction in numbers over time. The last thing that this House needs is to see itself filled, or half filled, with elected Members.

I end by quoting my right honourable friend David Cameron. When he announced at a press conference the appointment of his commission on constitutional affairs, chaired by Kenneth Clarke, he said:

Surely it is this House, particularly during the past 10 years, that has achieved more in that good cause than any other national institution. I profoundly hope that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and my right honourable friend David Cameron will reflect on that and will accept the wisdom of ensuring that their thoughts about the future of this institution will match those that obviously stand out as necessary.

5.40 pm

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I regret to find myself in disagreement with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, with whom I so often find myself in almost entire agreement, but we have to recognise that the game has changed. The votes in the House of Commons last week were decisive. We cannot go back to the debates of five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago. The question of party political appointments is now more and more difficult, and the question of cash for peerages has made party political nomination much more difficult. I suggest to noble Lords in all seriousness that there is very little point in dividing on a 20 per cent or on a 40 per cent elected House and perhaps not even on a 50 per cent or 60 per cent elected House. The realistic options for us now are an 80 per cent elected House or a fully elected House.

Secondly, this is part of the long-term process of constitutional reform. Jack Straw, on introducing the debate in the other place, said:

I add that a strengthened second Chamber strengthens Parliament. That shows Jack Straw to be a good democrat whose views have evolved as the debate has gone on. As he pointed out in the opening paragraph of the White Paper, the British Parliament has evolved since the Anglo-Saxon Witan—he clearly believes in the myth of Alfred and the Saxons—all the way towards the relatively open constitutional democracy that we now have. We are not yet very democratic; Britain now stands out among constitutional democracies for having fewer elected representatives per head of population than any other democracy in the developed world.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, said that no one can deny that Britain is a well functioning parliamentary democracy; I do deny that. We have rising distrust of our political institutions and a declining electoral turn-out. The popular image of Westminster is of a closed world. The deep distrust of the electoral process that I hear in this debate is an inadequate response to all of that. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, warned of a surfeit of elected politicians. Would we be better off with a surfeit of nominated lawyers or—even worse—nominated academics? I declare an interest.

The worst of the arguments was put forward by a number of Labour Members of the other place, quoting my noble friend Lord Steel, that competition with a single Member constituency MP from other elected people on his territory would somehow interfere with the democratic process of representation. Why can we not have a little more competition in democratic representation?

Thirdly, there is the argument that an elected House would not attract the right people. There is somehow an illusion that the majority of party nominees in this House are somehow non-political nominees; party members who are above politics. We are the experts, and they in the Commons are unqualified party hacks; except of course for those former MPs who have been miraculously transformed into experts by translation to the Lords.

When I first came to this House, I was struck by the fact that those who did most of the hard work of legislative examination were almost entirely former county councillors, district councillors and people whose expertise had come through the elected process, through learning about education, local housing, local environmental issues and who had come all the way through to nomination to this House through many hard-fought elections. Those who come up from the House of Commons have not always appreciated just how much we depend on our former councillors. I was flattered in one of the many articles about constitutional reform to be referred to as one of the experts in this House who would not have come here by election. I am proud that I have stood for election several times, as have many of my noble friends on these Benches, and I do not denigrate the process of election. An elected House would have a not dissimilar balance to that which we have now. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, claimed that no independent would ever get elected under whatever process that we had. I remind him that there is an independent—a doctor—in the other place, even under the first past the post system. It is highly likely that under our different electoral process some independents would come through. They might even be the sort of experts who are doctors and others.

Fourthly, there is the idea that a hybrid House would not work because different classes of Members could not work together. I simply fail to understand that. This House has been a hybrid House ever since the Anglo-Saxon Witan. It consisted of the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal; that is pretty hybrid. When I first came into the House, it was a hybrid House of hereditaries and lifers. I am told that on the Conservative Benches, the hereditaries would refer to their Life Peer colleagues as “the day boys”. We managed nevertheless as a hybrid House, and we could manage as a different sort of House again. A predominantly elected House would adjust in its turn.

I argue firmly that we should not delay further. We should proceed to complete reform. This is a process of Lords reform that started in 1911; let us make sure that we finish it before 2011. There are other issues of constitutional reform, including strengthening the power of the Commons against the Government. There is no reason for us to delay in strengthening the role of the second Chamber. I support the proposal of my noble friend Lord McNally that the Prime Minister should take the lead now and announce that there will be no more nominations to the House and no resignation honours list. On that basis, let us move towards a democratic framework for a reformed second Chamber now.

5.47 pm

Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, some time ago, when the other place debated our future, they had what the Leader of the Commons described as a train crash. They rejected everything on offer, and the track was littered with debris. This time, the train has been hijacked. It was supposed to go to a halfway station called Hybrid, but it went on to a stop called One Hundred Per Cent, which was not the Government’s intended destination.

They brought this on themselves by mistrusting the House of Commons. Mr Straw admitted as much when he decided against a proper debate on the White Paper. He said,

What an admission that was! The outcome was more pantomime than Parliament. It was certainly no way to treat a White Paper on a major constitutional issue. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for giving us greater credit. His Motion allows us to take note of the White Paper in the proper way. I should hate to see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, get off at the wrong stop on Mr Straw’s train.

The White Paper is a good start for our preventive action, because it demolishes the case for a wholly elected Chamber in a succession of hammer blows. The hammer blows apply with almost equal force, in my view, to the case for any elected element. Paragraph 7.6 of the White Paper warns that a fully elected House might,

Of course those elected would have the authority to challenge the Commons. Currently, there is no real doubt about the balance of authority between the two Houses. This House can ask the Commons to think again—we have done so on more than one occasion—but the Commons, quite rightly, has the last word. With the arrival of elected Peers, that process would be removed with only one result—a claim by the Lords to parity with the Commons, to the growing risk of gridlock between the two Houses. Where do we go from there? It is a hugely important question that needs an answer. Such a major change lies at the heart of our constitution, but Mr Straw in his White Paper remains silent on it. Why be so coy in coming forward with an answer? For both Houses of Parliament there is a need to know.

Paragraph 7.7 tells us that a fully elected House would make it “very difficult” for independent Cross-Benchers to sit here,

Of course they would. We know that party machines expect conformity. Candidates would be selected on the basis of deals that had nothing to do with the aims of the White Paper. Think of the mischief that that could cause with the bait—I emphasise the word—of a 15-year term here with no accountability. The forces of law and order have enough on their plate.

Currently, Cross-Benchers account for 27 per cent of our make-up, and one-party control tends to be avoided. In a hybrid House, that percentage will be reduced to 20 per cent. In a fully elected House, the Cross-Bencher would be wiped out, as of course would the Bishops. How would that increase the effectiveness of this House, an ambition Mr Straw patronisingly tells us that he is keen to achieve? Here yet again is the absence of any argument that suggests that the arrival of elected Peers would improve present structures. The only point advanced for change is that elections would make us more legitimate. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, eloquently pointed out, we look in vain for an argument that they would in any way improve the performance of this House. The very opposite would be the result.

The White Paper argues the need for greater diversity, but warns against losing what we have—and quite right, too. I caution those social engineers in Whitehall to look closer to home before they tamper with recognised success. This House needs no lessons in ethnic sensitivity, religious tolerance, and expertise over a wide range of interests and in public service. It is in this that our legitimacy lies. Of course there is room for further diversity in religion, culture and background, which would be welcomed and could be achieved through a statutory body charged with the responsibility for making appointments which reflect the diverse society of the United Kingdom.

The threat to democracy does not lie in this House. It lies in the poor turnouts at elections, the alienation of young people, the weakness of local government, and the raising of political funds by dubious means. It also lies in the lost powers of the House of Commons to fully scrutinise legislation and hold the Executive to account. We all know that Bills arrive here, great chunks of which have never been considered in Standing Committee in the other place because of the draconian use of a new procedure, politely called programming. In my view, both major parties carry responsibility for that loss of power.

I was relieved when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, stumbled a few weeks ago trying to explain the proposed electoral system and what the Government had in mind about it. It made me feel less ignorant, and I am grateful to him. Voting for a “partly open regional list” sounds like something dreamed up by policy nerds with partially open minds, raised in partially open spaces and favouring partially open societies. At this point, let me say that linking this House to European elections is unwelcome; we are an integral part of the British Parliament, not an adjunct to Strasbourg. I also have a view that is not shared by many and is not popular, but that I wish to express. It seems to me that the majority of the remaining hereditary Peers are working Members here. I would like to see them become life Peers and let the force of nature take its course.

I recognise the dedication and hard work that went into the consultations that Mr Straw and others have chaired over the years, but I regard the White Paper as a poor reward for their labours. It masquerades as a prospectus for progress and offers a programme for muddle and confusion. In truth, Ministers regard this House as too effective and too independent. Even the Prime Minister says that a hybrid House would not work; the Chancellor of the Exchequer says nothing. So they left it to Mr Straw to cobble together something about which the country cares not a jot, and has no idea of what the financial cost to it would be. I cannot think of a constitutional issue that has so little public resonance. In over 40 years, I fought 12 parliamentary elections and took a high profile in many others. Reform was never raised, and I think there are three reasons for that. First, the proper battleground for our political parties is the House of Commons, not the revising Chamber. Secondly, the supremacy of the Commons was settled in 1911 and should not be put at risk. Thirdly, the House of Lords is good at the job it does, and the country knows it.

What matters is that we reach the right decision here. This House is not a rubber stamp. This is a constitutional issue that lies within our competence. The future of our Parliament is at risk if we upset the balance between the two Houses that has served this country well. If, as I suspect, the Government want a last-minute trophy before the next election, I very much hope that the integrity of the House will not be sacrificed to give them one.

5.57 pm

Lord Cunningham of Felling: My Lords, I had the honour and privilege to be the chairman of the two most recent Joint Committees of Parliament looking at these issues. In spite of the kind remarks from both Front Benches on the second report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, I want to stress that I shall give a personal opinion this afternoon and do not in any way claim that the views that I express are the views of those committees.

As the debate moved on, the important word in the thinking of the Government—or at least many members of the Government—was “legitimacy”. I can accept arguments in favour of legitimacy; certainly, elections bring legitimacy. But one either has legitimacy or does not. Because the Government’s position has not been underpinned by any consistent principles over the period, they have slithered from one expedient to another. The lowest common denominator—a 50 per cent elected and 50 per cent appointed House—became the Government’s position. Where is the legitimacy in that? Half the House could claim legitimacy; the other half could not. That is the problem with all arguments about hybrid Houses. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said that we had always had a hybrid House, but we have not had one in which 50, 60 or 80 per cent of the Members were elected. That is a fundamental difference from everything that has gone before.

What of elections? The Government and others argue that we should make the most profound and historical changes to our Parliament, or at least to one of its Houses. I am not in favour of the status quo. In 40 years of fighting elections at all levels—local, national, student, whatever—I never stood to defend the status quo. What I cannot understand in this whole argument, and there is a great lacuna in the Government’ position here, is that the Government urge these profound changes, but quickly assert, as have some of my noble friends, that nothing will change and that the House will go on exactly as before. I do not see it. Where are these candidates, chosen by party lists or by any other means, who will say, “Yes, we are legitimate, we are elected, we have a mandate, but we have come here to accept everything exactly as it is”? What kind of candidates are they? Which party will they come from? I even heard someone say in the debate today that that they should be people with no political ambition. That makes it even worse. What an appeal to the voters of this country—to say, “We are going to accept the status quo, we have no political ambition of any kind at all, but please elect us to the second Chamber of Parliament”. It really is absurd.

The reality is—and I remind noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord McNally—that the report on the conventions made clear in paragraph 61, unanimously agreed, which was the great strength of this report, that those recommendations applied to the situation as it is now. We very carefully worded that paragraph to say that if things changed, the conventions would be bound to be called into question. I think that that was a reasonable, rational statement—not extreme in any way. It did not go beyond the evidence that we were given as a committee and that is surely the reality.


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