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The Bill raises some interesting questions about elected representation and constituencies in the House of Commons. Because we have a formal recommendation before us from the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the whole area should be the subject of an independent review, I do not want to leave any hostages to fortune in predicting a response, except to say that we are very interested in what the committee has said. If any changes are to be made to the legislation in this fundamental area of the constitution, they are better made in the light of a formal review process than through a Private Member’s Bill without the benefit of a wider analysis and contribution. That is not to suggest that this is not an important part of that debate.

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I come back to an earlier point, because the Minister is about to conclude. One point that she made in respect of one part of the Bill has a significant bearing on the other. On constituency disparity, she cited the case of the Isle of Wight, which has a sense of community and a Member who represents more than 100,000 constituents. That has a bearing on the question whether it is manageable for one Member to deal with that number of constituents.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right, but if you tried to even up the size of that constituency you would chop bits of it off and presumably relate it to Southampton, or wherever. The noble Lord is right—that is exactly the kind of conversation that needs to happen. Perhaps there is something about the nature of an island that makes it easier for people to talk to their MP, because it is such a clear community. I do not know—we would have to talk with the MP himself. Those are issues that need to be looked at carefully.

When I knew that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was going to reply for the Liberal Democrats, I knew what his speech was going to be. I have thoroughly enjoyed debating this whole question with him and others. He makes a fair and valid point—that if we change the system of representation we change the way in which we look at constituencies and, possibly, the number of constituencies. That would be one way in which to approach this matter, but it is not our way. We are happy with the system as it stands. We have talked many times about what one wishes to achieve by electing a Government and the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, said that you get certainty. That may not be where the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, wishes to be—but there it is. I completely accept that that is another fundamental debate to be had, if one is looking at the whole question of constituencies, their size and representation.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Baker. This has been an important and valuable contribution to the debate. We are considering carefully the recommendations for a full review in this area. There are issues that go beyond this debate about concern at the length of time in which the reviews will take place—the eight to 12 years—and so on, which the Boundary Commissions have said that they would like to consider. I hope that it will be in that light that we take this forward.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I thank all the Peers who took part in this debate. I am encouraged by it. I am aware that you cannot bring in a major constitutional change by a Private Member’s Bill, but at least one has got the debate going. I am grateful for the rather sympathetic reply that the Minister has just given. When I introduced my Bill on English votes for English laws, the noble and Learned Lord the Lord Chancellor got up and raved for about half an hour about how all human liberty would be at risk if my Bill went through. The Minister is not a raver—in fact, she was rather encouraging in what she said.

I thank my noble friend Lord Norton for his contribution. He is one of the great constitutional experts in the House, and when on these Benches we raise constitutional matters we know perfectly well that if we make mistakes—and none of us is perfect—they will be carefully and gently corrected by my noble friend. I am glad for the general support that he gave my Bill. I know that he wants to be more ambitious and have a much smaller House of Commons.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, also supported the general concept of a smaller House of Commons and raised the question, which I found quite interesting, of how flexible the size of a constituency should be on the grounds that the population changes all the time. That reminded me of a speech in the Commons by Michael Foot, faced with a Boundary Commission that was going to mess up Ebbw Vale, which had virtually become a corrupt rotten borough because it was so small. Michael Foot came out with the very traditional, almost Conservative, view that these were old traditions, communities and customs and that people were living there all together who must not be disrupted. It was a defence of Old Sarum, basically. I still fundamentally believe that one vote should have the same value everywhere in the country and that there should be a standard electoral quota across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I was encouraged, too, by what my honourable friend said from the Front Bench—

Noble Lords: The noble Lord!

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, yes, but he is also my friend. The door of policy is not closed, as I understand it, and the Conservative Party under Kenneth Clarke’s committee is prepared to do this.

It is clear from this debate that the issue has now been raised. It is a very important issue. Not only the Boundary Commission review but, I suspect, a much wider review will be needed. When the size of the House of Commons has been discussed in the past, there has always been a Speaker’s Conference—that was the way of doing it in 1917 and 1944. There must be some consensus between all the parties for the major steps of this sort. I should like to see a commitment from all the parties to a major review. Simply a review of the Boundary Commission in its present nature will not be sufficient, because we are raising very profound issues of great significance.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House of Lords (Amendment) Bill [HL]

12.07 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

It may well be true that one cannot introduce major constitutional changes by means of a Private Member’s Bill, but I hope that it is not the case with the very small change that I propose in this Bill. In its 1997 manifesto, the Labour Party undertook to end the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords, and in the Queen’s Speech of 1998 the Bill to give effect to that proposal, introducing new arrangements for the appointment of life Peers—which need not concern us today—was announced. Although Parliament had agreed 88 years earlier that the House of Lords should be constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, and although the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties were agreed that the time had arrived to implement those words from the preamble to the 1911 Act, the Government lost their nerve and accepted a compromise put together by a small group of Cross-Benchers.

The late Lord Weatherill told me in a conversation that I had with him on 15 February 1999 that the compromise was the work of the usual channels, but we were not consulted. The then leader of the Liberal Democrats, the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, was told about it after the matter had been settled, as my noble friend Lord Rodgers records in his autobiography, and we abstained when it came to the vote on what my noble friend called,

Lord Weatherill added, when I asked him whether the proposal was open to discussion, that any attempt to “unpick” an agreement of this kind would “make it fall apart”. He said it had been agreed, though it was not in the note on the amendment, that there could be some Labour and Liberal Democrat creations to redress the unfairness inherent in the arithmetic—which was not carried through as far as the Liberal Democrats were was concerned. He added that, since the scheme had been worked out, there had been a large increase in the number of Cross-Benchers because many Peers who had previously taken no Whip at all had signed up, no doubt hoping to be included inter oves, but it had been decided not to increase the allocation of Cross-Benchers from the original number.

At about that time, I wrote to the then Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, setting out an alternative to the Weatherill amendment. In her reply, without attempting to defend it in substance, she said that it would be,

and that was the basis on which it was agreed. If it had been made clear at the time that the 92 hereditaries would remain for at least the next nine years and that during that period there would be two nearest-runner-up successions, followed by eight by-elections to maintain the number at its original level, there might have been far greater difficulty in reaching agreement across the House. The purpose of this very modest Bill is to enable your Lordships to revisit the decision to freeze the number in accordance with that private deal that was made between the former Lord Chancellor and the former Leader of the Opposition.

Apart from the Tories’ lingering attachment to the hereditary principle, which can still be detected occasionally, an argument for the retention of the 92 was that it provided an incentive to get on with stage 2. In that, it was manifestly ineffective, and the 92 themselves have not sought to block the road to reform, as this debate shows. Judging from the experience of the past eight years, to say nothing of the previous 88 years, it may not be too easy to reach agreement across the parties and between the two Houses about the final composition of a revised second Chamber. The last time I spoke on House of Lords reform was just over 38 years ago, in another place, and I well remember the frustration on all sides of a Committee stage that lasted 21 days on the Floor of the other place before Mr Wilson’s legislation was finally abandoned. It would be rash to bank on the early implementation of a Commons vote in favour of an all-elected House, considering that a substantial minority down the Corridor were still opposed to that solution. Inevitably, a great deal of parliamentary time would still be consumed in both Houses by any attempt at more comprehensive legislation.

It may be objected that the Long Title of the Bill would also open up wider debate, and I acknowledge that the only way in which it will get through is if your Lordships will refrain from using it as a lever to prise open other issues on which there might be extended argument. If amendments are tabled, I am sorry to say that it would have to be dropped. I am hoping that if your Lordships agree to this Second Reading, you might also send a message to our colleagues that we hope that there will be no need for a Committee stage, and if any noble Lord does table amendments he will do so in the full knowledge that an amendment would scupper the Bill.

Presumably over the next two years Mr Gordon Brown will prefer to concentrate on electorally popular measures and will have regard to the fact that, however interesting we may find Lords reform, it is not something that ever crops up on the doorsteps. The Bill is simply intended to tide us over until after the general election, and perhaps even a bit longer than that if Lords reform is not a priority for the next Government.

If the Weatherill amendment had not provided for the 92 hereditaries to be topped up, first by the runners up in the original election and then after November 2002 by election from the ranks of the excluded Peers or their successors, the number would by now be reduced to 82, and in the process of time the hereditaries would have disappeared through mortality without the need for further legislation. That simplification would not have made it either easier or harder to reach stage 2, but it would have avoided absurd situations in which a small number of voters, who themselves derive their franchise from being hereditary Peers, elected a new Peer from the ranks of the hereditaries who had been unsuccessful in the original election. The eight who joined this House by that extraordinary process are no doubt making a valuable contribution, but as a method of replenishing the House of Lords it does not seem to be altogether appropriate in the 21st century.

Before 1832, there were the rotten boroughs, of which perhaps the most notorious was Old Sarum in Wiltshire, where there were 11 voters, though Gatton in Surrey was the smallest, with an electorate of seven. Perhaps an even better analogy would be the pocket boroughs, where the representation was controlled by one or more patrons. Buckingham, which was controlled by the eponymous duke, had 11 voters, as did Winchilsea, which was controlled by the Marquis of Cleveland. In the by-election at Silverbridge, still under the control of the Duke of Omnium in 1875, if he had wished to exercise it 43 years after the Reform Act, 623 votes were cast. Though pocket boroughs were a recurring theme in Trollope, he could never have imagined the bizarre process that we invented in 1999.

In the two Conservative by-elections, there were 43 and 42 voters. In the single Cross-Bench election, there were 19. The Liberal Democrats had four voters, and Labour had three. This is a process by which a very small number of people could decide on a member of the legislature, a process that has seen no parallel for the past 175 years. In the many discussions that I have had with colleagues, none has defended the status quo on its merits. They argue that under the 1999 compromise, it was agreed that the 92 would remain inviolate until stage 2, however long that might be. But that bargain was only approved by the House to the extent that the number should appear in the 1999 Act. Parliament could not and did not say that a private deal made to ensure that the progress of the Bill was not unreasonably impeded should remain in force until a hypothetical stage 2 was enacted.

The minority outside Westminster who do take an interest in constitutional reform probably consider that the legitimacy of this House was enhanced by the 1999 Act and by the moves towards a more politically balanced Chamber over the past 10 years. We have been more effective in judiciously challenging unwise government policies, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor observed the other day. This Bill does not in any way inhibit this or the next Government’s freedom to propose wider reforms, but it does remove a serious and dysfunctional error in the Weatherill arrangements, which continues to undermine our credibility. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, that the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Avebury.)

12.17 pm

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, everyone will understand that there is total commitment in the Labour Party to addressing the issue of the 92, perhaps much along the lines that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has set out. But this is not the Bill to get that on to the statute book, and I want to explain why.

Let me set out a number of assumptions and a number of political realities. If people ignore them, they are either simply being naive or are introducing a spoiling measure. The test of whether a Bill has any chance of getting through the House of Commons in broadly the form that it leaves here is not the least of these considerations. There is a case for a Bill that could in the very near future get through the House of Commons with strong consensual support and could be a significant reforming measure, one which would, incidentally, change some of the caricature images of this House that persist in all parties and all sections of the public. That entails not only doing something like this but a fundamental reform of the appointments system. The Liberal Democrats have done some of that in their own ranks, but a statutory appointments commission would make a radical difference to the context in which people view the role of the House of Lords. I will develop that point a little later.

Why do I reach such an unequivocal conclusion about the Bill’s prospects? Everyone understands, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said, that it would not be possible to rule out fundamental amendments in the Commons to a Bill simply on the 92. I am not just talking about amending the detailed arrangements so far as the 92 are concerned; I am talking about amendments for election in one form or another. That election is what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, ultimately wants—at least it is what he voted for on a Liberal Democrat three-line Whip, although I do not know whether he did that of his own volition. It is not what the House voted for by a three-to-one or four-to-one majority in the various votes on 14 March. I have the highest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in many areas of policy, but I hope that he will excuse me if I am somewhat acerbic on this occasion.

Such a spoiling vote in the House of Commons on a Bill with these narrow credentials would produce a dog’s breakfast. It is a racing certainty that there would be amendments to this Bill, but another Bill to be debated on 20 July, that of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who is the noble friend of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is a different kettle of fish. That requires us to look even more deeply into the dynamics and realities of what Parliament as a whole will wear.

Perhaps we should try to make a dispassionate assessment of where the Lords reform process has reached after what was—and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on this—a rather contrived majority in the Commons, based on a good deal of tactical voting. That preference for electing the lot has being kicked into the long grass in terms of legislation before the next election. After the general election, there may well be a royal commission on the constitution, but it should not be a rabbit hole down which everyone disappears in a state of utter confusion and waits to see what comes back out, but an assessment of concrete questions on the checks and balances in the legislative process between the two Houses.

We need that careful, dispassionate and cool examination, because many of the people who say “elect the lot” by first praying in aid the concept of greater legitimacy, then run away from its consequences of more challenges to the House of Commons and its primacy, which would also be a racing certainty. Those people then say, “Okay, scrap the conventions approach, meet that earlier point somehow and make these justiciable”. However, as the unanimous Cunningham report pointed out, they cannot be made justiciable and set out in statute, because disputes between the Lords and the Commons would have to be interpreted by the Supreme Court in its new building over the road in Parliament Square. I can think of a number of statesmen from the past 500 years who must be turning in their graves at that prospect.

There is no way of achieving what many in the Commons think they want—and what at one stage Jack Straw told them they could have—that when the House of Commons does not like an amendment from the House of Lords it can simply cancel it out with a snap of the fingers. In summary, and I refer to my speech on 13 March, the policy of “legitimise it, then castrate it” is not a runner. That point has now, somewhat belatedly, been recognised by even Jack Straw and, in being forced to reflect on the clear and unanimous analysis of the Cunningham committee, we should now look forward because there will be three, four or five years before a royal commission can report following a general election fought on various manifestos.

The next logical question is: can nothing happen for the next one or two years? That is my view of this Bill. My answer and that of the cross-party group that includes the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and, prominently, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is that, not only is there a Bill tofill that gap, but it is available in the Printed Paper Office. That Bill had its First Reading on the same day as did the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—14 March—the day when we all voted. It has its Second Reading in this House in a full day’s debate on 20 July, when, I predict, there will be a considerable number of speakers.

So what precisely does the Steel Bill say which the Avebury Bill does not, and why are they fundamentally different? The central point is that the Steel Bill provides for the creation of a statutory appointments commission in place of the present patronage system. Implementing this part of the White Paper is a sine qua non of any early progress to consensus—and I speak for the consensus of a clear, two-thirds majority of the Labour group, although there is a minority with another view.

It translates into practical action many of the words that have almost been flogged to death—democracy, legitimacy, transparency and ownership—in the process of elections and appointments. It is a far more fundamental reform than many people have appreciated. A caveat is that the Civil Service authorship of this part of the White Paper shows through because it is very unsure of its footing by neglecting the necessary internal processes of the political parties—presumably because they are outside its purview in some way. Perhaps Jack Straw took his eye off the ball or my noble friends on the Front Bench did not get their heads around this issue.

My criticism of the White Paper in this regard, which is germane to what I will say later, is that it often implies that it would be for the statutory appointments commission to select from party lists—not only on grounds of probity, but more generally. It has been recognised that that would be a disaster and be rejected because it would mean that the great and the good would be perceived by members of parties—this is certainly true of the Labour Party—as doing the job of selecting right-wing or left-wing candidates and so on. That section of the White Paper is, after all, the one that relates to members of political parties who have taken the Whip here. We are not talking about the role of the statutory appointments commission relative to the Cross-Benchers, we are talking about that role vis- -vis the political parties—people who have to be whipped in this Chamber in the normal way that makes democratic government work.

We have to work out how political parties take responsibility in that new world—and I take my hat off to the Liberal Democrats for having more experience than others in this matter—and what the parties’ obligations should be as regards the new process, because they will have to register their criteria and processes with the statutory appointments commission. I predict that it would not be for that commission to have anything to do with, say, choosing left-wing or right-wing candidates or whatever. Desirable as it may be to say that a certain percentage of the Members will be of a certain ethnicity or that so many per cent will be women, surely, if people are to be whipped in this House, that must be down to the political parties. If the parties are to take ownership of the system, which is the key to this, they have to be happy with that. In a sense, it would make them—

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord. Can he help in one respect? So far, he has not said whether he agrees with the merits of this Bill, which has identical provisions to those in the Steel Bill. He has said why he thinks that it may be politically inappropriate or inexpedient, but does he agree or disagree with the principle of the Bill?

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Lester, reads Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I said that I have no difficulty with the words in the Bill concerning the 92 hereditaries. However, I cannot support the Bill, for the reasons that I am going through at the moment. Perhaps I may continue.


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