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If your Lordships' House is to change—and I shall not touch on provisions that others have dealt with—clearly the powers will change. I shall raise one point that I do not believe has been discussed today. Your Lordships' House is actually the bastion of democracy; it is the ultimate safeguard, in the sense that under the Parliament Act, as your Lordships know, there is one element that the House of Commons cannot force on your Lordships' House. There cannot be an extension of the life of Parliament; in other words, an election cannot be got rid of without the consent of this House. That is safeguarded in the Parliament Act. If your Lordships' House is to turn into an elected House, with undoubtedly very close contacts through the party-political system with the House of Commons, that safeguard goes. Although it is just a small possibility, in theory it could then happen that in the other House it is said, “We do not want an election now—we have work to do, we need a few more years; there is a crisis”. There is no guarantee that this House, being an elected House, would not go along with it.

At the moment, the provision in the Parliament Act is the ultimate fall-back; it is the central part of our constitution, largely unwritten though it is. That ultimate safeguard will be weakened if this House becomes an elected House unless at the same time there is a full written constitution—and even such a constitution could always be amended if one had the political agreement of both Houses. The rock-solid unchangeable nature of this House in not having any personal interest in a forthcoming general election has been the guarantee that those elections will take place as they should.

I turn to what is really required of a democracy. Lord Hailsham said that we had an elected dictatorship. As has been said several times today, there is too much power in the Executive. There is nothing more depressing for a novice Member of an elected Parliament than to see Members trooping along the appropriate Corridor or Lobby without necessarily having absorbed or agreed with the arguments, simply because that is the party’s wish. That is something that I am sure your Lordships would not wish to see happen in this House. If a party system took hold strongly in this House, there would be no point in debate; it would be a question of counting numbers and the day would come when the click of a computer from half a mile away would be regarded as a vote instead of the need to sit and be persuaded by the force of your Lordships’ arguments on any particular question.

True democracy means that it is not for the House of Commons to cannibalise the other half of a dual legislature. We have a constitutional structure in which this House plays a legitimate part. Democracy means being free of party tyranny. I only wish that there was less party strength, in the sense of having to vote in the House of Commons, rather than bringing that same system into your Lordships' House. This House has existed by law for many hundreds of years. It does not primarily make law. It complements the Commons and revises legislation. There will be no motive to do that if this House becomes an elected House. Finally, if we are to make a change of this nature, or if this change is to be thrust upon us, would not true democracy demand that it go in a party manifesto so that the people can vote on it whenever the next general election comes about?

I urge your Lordships to vote to keep the existing House as it is or to have an all-appointed House appointed by a statutory commission, simply because your Lordships' House is that safeguard, as in the Parliament Act. If all else crumbles, that is the job of your Lordships' House.

9.36 pm

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, it should perhaps be no surprise that the detailed options from the White Paper—which is in many respects short on detail—put forward for debate and discussion include only the selection process, albeit that some inferences can be drawn from many of them. I agree with the excellent opening remarks of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor on the nature and wisdom on the current conventions on the relationship and operation of the two Houses. I interpret the lack of debate on the role and future responsibilities of your Lordships' House, and how they may change, as acquiescence in its present role, which it performs so admirably, in revising and scrutinising legislation. To do that job the House needs elements which it already has and for which it is so well respected: the ability to uphold liberties, independence, expertise and diversity. Trying to add democratic legitimacy to this list without undue effect on its unique abilities is a worthwhile objective, but one which is unachievable by aping a direct election process.

Democracy, and how to improve it to be relevant to the 21st century, is a problem for the House of Commons to address and a challenge for its own reform. We must not forget that the Commons also has a role to play in restoring public confidence. Scrutiny, detailed deliberation and correction and revision skills are rarely uncovered by elections. While the present inquiry regarding political donations for honours brings disrespect to the political process, I do not believe that there is a genuine desire among the public to partake in more elections. The political parties are already challenged by the public’s apathy. Indeed, I heard commentary this weekend that the date of the next general election may well be in June 2009 and that this election will coincide with the European and local government elections to encourage the electorate to take part. Will it not diminish this House if in future its elections are tacked on to the end of this?

My friends in the United States already point to election fatigue. The cost and funding of elections is another aspect. I am sure that the taxpayer is unwilling to fund parties, which is why we are where we are. The rising domination of parties over the political process is another element in the growing disenchantment of the public and taints the election process as regards ensuring continuing independence and expertise in your Lordships' House. Although I am in favour of a multi-channel process of selection for your Lordships' House, I find it difficult to see how direct elections would operate and leave intact without negative consequences the skills that the present House possesses in fulfilling its role.

If legitimacy is to improve through reducing all opportunities for patronage in an appointed House, I contend that this could only come through some element of indirect elections and creating a strong statutory Appointments Commission, trying to build diverse elements of independent channels from society’s diverse estates or communities into the process. The debate should concentrate on that to invigorate public participation, bring relevance to people’s lives, build partnerships, develop the relationship with the House of Commons and be innovative in developing our democracy. That points the best way to creating a stronger House of Lords.

Notwithstanding that your Lordships’ House is a revising one, your Lordships should now take up reform and steer forward this House’s future and, in doing so, challenge the Commons to address its own shortcomings. For example, hereditary elections should cease. That there should be no party in overall control could be enshrined in legislation. Professionalism being increased through improving the work of Select Committees and some form of retirement being introduced could also be worthwhile improvements. The convention that the House does not examine Finance Bills must be challenged, and the House should examine and undertake ways to explain and publicise its work for the better understanding of the public and, dare I say, MPs. Perhaps considering how the work of your Lordships’ House could be further improved and communicated could prove a sound constitutional basis for its role to be enhanced.

9.41 pm

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, it is not long since the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said that everything that could be said has been said—but I say, “Not by everybody”. I start from the premise that when I ceased to be the Chief Whip in 1997, the complexion of the House was 481 Conservatives taking the Whip, and 116 Labour Members. I am reminded of the spin and protests that have been made since, that that situation was almost a golden age in this House. At the end of the day, I intend to urge the House to vote for the solutions that came to us from another place.

I see the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde in his place, as always. He started by saying that the debate was of unusual length. I remind him that in 1999, when the major Bill of change took place, I spoke at position 183 in a list of 192 at 2.30 pm on the second day. We have been through this before, and I have no doubt that we will do so again.

We are a country with a Government which is going to war to bring about democracy in other countries. Yet we have tolerated a medieval system of governing this country for far too long. I simply point out that those here by virtue of their bloodline, the hereditaries, have had the opportunity to act as lawmaker in the gift of their family for centuries. We in this House make laws for millions of people, yet they have not had an opportunity of electing us to this place.

Where we are going is steadily changing. Reference has been made to the vote last week in the Commons being indicative; I accept that. We have the White Paper, the arguments and the Government’s reflections. I am quite certain that what has been said around the House tonight, to which I have listened with great interest, must be taken on board by the Government. There have been warning shots across the Government’s bow. When Jack Straw produces his Bill, whenever that might be, it will undoubtedly not make much progress unless it contains elements mentioned here this evening.

After the vote last week, and particularly after 1 May 1997, we are in a new ball game. I get the sense that many people opposite me—in general and in politics; certainly opposite me here tonight—have not yet fully grasped the fact of the major change that took place on that date. Their world fell apart. In this place, a Conservative Government could rely upon a benevolent reception to all the Bills they sent up. A Labour Government, however, could look forward to hostility. There are many here tonight, good friends of mine, who were here during that time, who will know that when the Government were defeated, it was rarely on a matter of policy. Often when they were defeated they were ambushed—like cowboys and Indians—in the full knowledge that whatever was achieved would be put right, from the Government’s point of view, when the Bill went back down the other end.

I have taken part in many rearguard actions in my political life, and I know that I am in the midst of masters of fighting rearguard actions on this and many other issues. They will continue to fight, as they are entitled to, and I respect them for it. They will argue that the elected element has no place in this House. I do not think that is so.

In 1942, when I was 17, I joined the Labour Party. One of the tenets of being a member then—one of the beliefs—was that we were going to abolish the House of Lords. I have here a facsimile of a poster, showing workmen bashing down the doors of the House of Lords. On it is written, “Labour Clears the Way”. That was for the election of 1910—nearly a hundred years ago. I am delighted to say that we are still here. The institution of the House of Lords, as part of our constitution, is still here. If anyone believes that on the Opposition Benches there is an urge for change, they should just reflect on how much change they sought to bring about between 1979 and 1997. Not a word—not a bit.

We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, for producing a document that is full of fascinating aspects, and I applaud him for it. He gives us the list of life peerages of the current House of Lords granted by Prime Ministers since the Life Peerage Act 1958, and chides Tony Blair for having made so many. I remind the House that from 1979 to 1997 Margaret Thatcher and John Major made 45 Labour life Peers. In the same period, they made 92 Conservative life Peers. One might have thought that they needed to make more because they were behind, but there were 481 against 116. Then the noble Lord says that:

I cannot think of a better reason, or of a better case. Even today, with the increase in Labour Peers and the standstill in other parties, we should bear in mind that, although Tony Blair has made more, he has not made as many as in the other parties. We are invited to do our job of revising, taking note and working together.

All my life, I have favoured the principle of election to this House. Whatever results from the legislation and the debates, that is the way we must go forward. Unless we go forward, we shall stand still or go backwards. It is a nonsense for this House to pride itself romantically on the good old days when it was a bulwark against the overweening power of government. Between 1979 and 1997 that was absent. I very much look forward to supporting any proposal to give this House an elected element.

Here endeth my case.

9.50 pm

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, in preparing for this debate I was reminded of the old adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. There is nothing wrong with the present composition of this House and I would prefer to leave it unchanged. Any debate about this system would lead to a frustrating inability to achieve any consensus on moving in one direction or the other.

In these new circumstances, we should reconsider the need for an elected chamber. The great strength of your Lordships’ House is that it contains not just a group of experienced retired Ministers and Members of Parliament but a whole raft of individuals with specialist knowledge and experience from the worlds of commerce, medicine, the services, the Civil Service, academia, the unions—the list is endless.

I was introduced to your Lordships’ House in 2006. During the first few weeks I listened and observed. I found that I was indeed in the company of men and women of wisdom who had acquired great expertise and valuable experience. It was a pleasure to listen to the debates and I was greatly impressed by the quality of speeches. If there is any element of election, my fear is that a number of existing Members are unlikely to stand and that would be a sad loss.

The enthusiasts for an elected chamber say, “We could retain an appointed element, whether 20 per cent or 50 per cent”. I can think of nothing more destructive of the present harmonious atmosphere in the Lords. Elected Members would be justifiably incensed if the votes of appointed Members happened to determine any issue before the House.

Members of the other place should ponder what would happen if Members of the House of Lords interfered in their constituency affairs on the grounds that they, too, had a mandate. That would be likely to cause irritation.

Some people say that the second Chamber should be elected. This is a knee-jerk reaction. Do they realise the expenditure involved? We should ask them whether they want another 500 elected politicians with their secretaries, offices, expenses and salaries and see whether there is the same knee-jerk reaction. In any case, where is the public enthusiasm for more elections? We have trouble persuading people to turn out in large numbers for the present elections.

I am also concerned about the possibility of domination by members of one party in both Houses if that party is popular with the British public. That may interfere with the role of your Lordships’ House, which is to keep a check on the Government.

The House of Lords plays a significant role in the work of Parliament. Its key functions are making laws, holding the Government to account and providing a forum of independent expertise. Our Chamber does not obstruct government legislation; we have the useful power to ask the Commons to think again. An elected Chamber would not be satisfied with that; in time, it would seek to flex its democratic muscle. Your Lordships’ House played a very valuable role when the Terrorism Bill and the Identity Cards Bill were debated, and it keeps a watchful eye on the Government.

Changes to the composition of the House of Lords must protect its crucial function in British democracy. We should concentrate on what would improve your Lordships’ House, not destroy it. First, we should create a statutory Appointments Commission to choose the independent Cross-Bench Peers and to approve those proposed by party leaders, thus avoiding any future cash-for-peerages scandal. Secondly, we should end the ludicrous by-elections for hereditary Peers and transform the existing 92 hereditary Peers into life Peers. The hereditary principle would thus be extinguished.

Those changes would ensure a far preferable House of Lords that complements the House of Commons in its composition and functions. We all agree that there needs to be primacy of the other place. Given that in today’s House of Lords we have something unique, which in practice works very effectively, why sacrifice it because it fails to satisfy a narrow and modish theory of legitimacy?

9.57 pm

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, the debate has examined all the possible ramifications of the proposed reforms of the House of Lords. I would like to go over the reforms that have already taken place, and in so doing underline their value and their contribution to a very different second Chamber.

The Government came to power with the promise of reforming this ancient institution to make it more legitimate, more representative and more effective. Since 1997, there have been a royal commission, two Joint Committee reports and four government White Papers on Lords reform. In 1999, three major changes occurred: all but 92 of the 759 hereditary Peers were expelled from the House, a nominations commission with a clear mandate began its work and, for the first time in history, life Peers became the majority element of the Lords’ composition. Those seemingly small changes have had a profound impact on this House.

Let me briefly run through the results of those earlier reforms. Here, I rely heavily on research carried out by Dr Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit at University College, London. The reduction in the size of the House, by means of expelling 655 hereditary Peers, immediately brought the House into something like political balance. Previously, the House was dominated by the Conservatives, with 301 hereditary Conservative Peers but only 19 hereditary Labour Peers, which necessarily threatened Labour legislation. While Tory Governments had been confident when in power about getting their legislation through, new Labour could not have the same confidence. The two main parties are now more or less equally matched, with the balance of power held by the Liberal Democrats and, to some extent, the independents.

The House has become more representative than was ever the case before, and possibly more representative even than the other place. Our general election system tends to inflate governing party majorities and conversely under-represent smaller parties in the House of Commons. Thus in the 1997 election, new Labour won 63 per cent of seats on 43 per cent of the vote, and in 2005 new Labour won a majority of seats on only 35 per cent of the vote. However, the figures for the Lords more fairly represent public opinion as indicated in general elections, with the independents or Cross-Benchers perhaps representing the 30 per cent of the electorate who do not vote at all. So the distribution of seats is far more proportionate in the Lords than it is in the other place.

One consequence of this new balance is that the relationships of power between the two Houses have shifted significantly. However, since the present House of Lords has no mandate to interfere with legislation, it has necessarily acted judiciously. Nevertheless, the second Chamber is more confident and far more prepared to challenge proposed government legislation. One measure of that, again put forward by Dr Meg Russell, is the number of government defeats, or challenges, as someone put it, on amendments. For example, in the parliamentary Session immediately before the 1999 reforms the Government suffered 39 defeats, whereas in the parliamentary Session of 2002-03 there were over 80 defeats. Those figures may well provoke any Government into reform, but at the same time they appear to demonstrate a degree of effectiveness that has not previously been experienced, a greater degree of democracy or legitimacy in the more balanced composition and more involvement in scrutiny than was previously the case.

The point can be made that reforms have altered the House of Lords fundamentally in the past eight years. There have been unintended consequences, many of which have perhaps not been widely acknowledged. Further reforms will also have unintended consequences. Do the Government not wish to examine with more care what those might be? Can it not be said that further efforts to “democratise” the House of Lords may not, and most probably will not, weaken it but have the opposite effect? Finally, do the Government want the House of Lords to have a mandate beyond scrutiny?

10.01 pm

Lord Whitty: My Lords, 10 years ago I was one of a small band of 45 Labour Peers, to whom my noble friend Lord Graham referred, created under a Conservative Government. In those 10 years, I have not only enjoyed being a Minister in this House—well, mostly—but come to respect the experience, the wisdom and the quality of the debates in this House, the reports that our Select Committees produce and our influence over legislation presented to us from the Commons. Often that legislation has not been fully thought through and has required a revising Chamber.

However, I have to say that I have not been impressed sufficiently to change my basic view: that anyone who makes laws to govern the people in some way has to have the consent of the people. There has been some lamentation in this debate that colleagues in another place, the public and the commentators do not fully understand what goes on in this House. That is undoubtedly true, but I gently have to say to the House that there is the reciprocal point of view: that some of the speeches today and some of the chatter around the bars since the decision last week show that we sometimes fail to see ourselves as others see us. The fact of the matter is that politicians in another place, media commentators, the general public and foreign commentators all find it difficult to see any justification for a fully appointed body exerting the legislative influence that we do.

In addition, I am afraid that many of them see us as the beneficiaries either of birth or of patronage—or, more recently, of buying our way into this House. It is not impossible that the same people on occasion applaud the way in which we stand up to the Government, but they do not see any legitimacy in the basis of that power and influence. As my noble friends Lord Plant and Lord Dubs said, they want to know that anyone involved in legislation has, one way or another, directly or indirectly, the consent of the people. It is an old principle: no legislation without representation.

There is another point that I hesitate to make, but I will gently say it. The impressive piece of work by the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, to which my noble friends Lady Quin and Lord Graham referred, sets out the interests and the backgrounds of people in this House. But I draw exactly the opposite conclusion to the one that the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, did: his work underlines what an elitist and metropolitan group we are.


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