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What is all this about? What is getting at the noble Lord, Lord Avebury? Why has he come forward with this Bill? I listened to his speech and am still as baffled as I was at the beginning. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, is angry. He is very steamed up about the outrage of a failure to bring forward stage 2. He is right to be, but he must concentrate his ire on the Government, not on us. We are the incentive that will provide the force for change that this Government need.

Since 1999, the edge between hereditary Peers and life Peers has become very fuzzy, but the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is in fact a hereditary Peer. It may shock the House to know that he was elected to this House by his fellow Peers. I find it inexplicable how he, who stands up for human rights, freedom, liberty, justice and democracy on so many issues around the world, can take advantage of a system and immediately pull up the ladder to ensure that nobody else can be like him. That is what is so shallow and disgraceful in the manner in which he has brought forward this legislation. That is his first incentive, I suspect.

The second incentive is entirely partisan. Nearly half the former hereditary Peers are Conservatives, so perhaps his plan is to ensure that the Conservative Party cannot elect new hereditary Peers and keep its numbers up. That is a perfectly valid political aim, but why does he not say so? Why does he not come forward and tell the House exactly what he is after?

The third possibility is that he does not want any further change at all. He prayed in aid my noble friend Lord Norton and my honourable friend Patrick Cormack, the Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire. Neither of them is very keen on further changes to this House, so perhaps the noble Lord is with them. I do not know, but why does he not tell us what his incentive is for this change?

When my noble friend Lord De Mauley spoke last time, he said something so good I could have said it myself, so I shall read it out:

I agree. If the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, insists on taking this forward to Committee, I shall certainly be one of those who seeks to amend it.

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1 pm

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on introducing the Bill. It is four weeks since we last discussed reform of your Lordships’ House and I have been suffering withdrawal symptoms. It is good to come again to debate this matter. I also congratulate him on his skill in technical drafting because my officials have not been able to find anything wrong with the Bill. I am sure that will not prevent noble Lords moving amendments when we come to Committee.

The formal position of the Government is, of course, that we do not oppose Private Members’ Bills in your Lordships House at Second Reading, and we will not seek to do so on this occasion. However, I should say to the noble Lord that the Government would not want to see his Bill on the statute book. I shall repeat quite plainly and clearly that we are clear that it would breach the commitments made by my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine during the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999. We wish to see the removal of the hereditary Peers as part of the comprehensive reform package that will be proposed for your Lordships’ House. My noble and learned friend has been quoted by many noble Lords in this fascinating debate. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Lea posed the question of what my noble and learned friend made of the pledge that he gave. Only God and my noble and learned friend know what was meant by the pledge and, so far, my noble and learned friend is not telling—I suspect that he would be very wise to continue not to tell.

It is worth noting what my noble and learned friend said in 1999. He said that the Weatherill amendment,

He also said that,

I know my noble friend Lord Desai thought that talking about privy counsellors and Privy Council terms was rather a murky area. As the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council is sitting beside me, I refer such murkiness to her. The fact is that those of us who were in your Lordships’ House—I was the government Whip on the Bill—were quite clear what the Irvine pledge meant. On 11 May 1999, my noble and learned friend said:

It was made clear that the basis of the composition of your Lordships’ House remains as it was when my noble and learned friend made that commitment. The Government said that while this transitional House exists, we will honour the figure of 90 hereditary Peers. We continue to do so.

It is worth pointing out to the House that in explaining what the transitional House meant, my noble and learned friend said:

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He also said:

It is of course true that the current transitional House has existed for longer than was originally envisaged. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, acknowledged the theoretical possibility of that in 1999. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that we should beware of negotiating with the Cecils, but I do not agree. The agreement in 1999 was a sensible and pragmatic way of seeing through reform of your Lordships’ House. I pray in aid the then noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—now the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury. Referring to by-elections, to which he said that he attached great importance, he said in 1999:

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that the by-election system is hard to defend, but it is the guarantor of a fundamental reform of your Lordships’ House, which is what we are engaged in. Noble Lords seem to find objectionable the prospect of a cross-party group taking forward proposals based on the votes of the Commons, which clearly voted for the two options of an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House. That will lead to the production in a few months of a White Paper, then to full consultation and debate, then, one hopes, to consistency among the political parties in their manifestos and, then—again, one hopes—as soon as possible after that to legislation for fundamental reform. That seems to be neither an objectionable nor a secret process, but a sensible way to go forward on the basis of the votes of the Commons, which has primacy, allowing for full debate. Surely that is the way forward.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the Minister spoke about a process of agreement and a manifesto, and said that we would go forward. I presume that he meant a manifesto and then going forward after a general election. Am I correct?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Absolutely, my Lords. I know that the noble Viscount asked earlier whether it was really a White Paper or a Green Paper. The answer must be that we will of course produce a White Paper; it will be a government White Paper, but helped and informed by the discussions in the cross-party group. Inevitably, it will have some green tinges as well. I suspect that we are not going to agree on matters to do with a voting system to be adopted, given the views of different parties. There may be other aspects on which there will not be unanimity of view, which can be reflected in the White Paper. What will be important is the commitment among the principal parties to fundamental reform based on the votes of the primary Chamber, the House of Commons.

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It is in that context, therefore, that, while I fully accept that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for whom I have great admiration, is put forward with the best intent, I do not believe that it could be considered to be in accord with the Irvine pledge, to which this Government remain committed. It is not part of fundamental reform, which we believe is the way forward. Talks within the cross-party groups have been enormously constructive, and I am confident that we can see fundamental reform of your Lordships' House in the next few years. That is surely the way in which we need to go.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us do not believe that the doctrine of primacy is as he states? With general legislation, whether it is to nationalise a bank or whatever, that must of course be true. However, while in a banana republic you may not need a two-thirds majority and both Houses involved in whether one or the other is going to be abolished, is it not the case that, on a constitutional question, simply pointing to a slim vote in the Commons does not decide the matter?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, Parliament will decide this matter when legislation is brought before it. I find it interesting that those many Members of your Lordships' House who are opposed to an elected element always say that one of their great fears in having an elected second Chamber is that it will challenge the primacy of the Commons. Here we have a clear case in which, after the last White Paper, which again was informed by the cross-party discussions, the Commons reached a very clear view that it would support an 80 per cent or a 100 per cent elected House. We are taking forward the White Paper on that basis and we have said that we have hoped that it would then be reflected in political parties’ manifestos leading up to the general election. On that basis, I should have thought there would be clear authority for a future Government after that election to put proposals before Parliament for reform of your Lordships' House. In that event, the whole parliamentary process will take its course.

1.12 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, first, I echo the good wishes expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on the occasion of his birthday, which I was unaware of when I spoke at the beginning of the debate. I am very happy to do that now and to see him celebrating it in such an appropriate manner. I also thank him for

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the kind remarks that he addressed to me, particularly his epithets of being shallow and disgraceful, which I am sure will do me a great deal of good with my party. I also appreciated the remarks that he made about the Bill itself.

The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, said that no one in this debate had defended the by-elections. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, did not attempt to defend them and neither did the Minister, who said that the by-election system was very hard to defend but that it was the guarantee of fundamental reform of your Lordships' House. That was precisely what I said it was not. When people agreed to the by-election system, they may have thought that it was going to lead to fundamental reform in the near future. The fact that it did not shows that it was ineffective—and still is.

Nothing in the Bill affects one way or the other the process that leads to fundamental reform, which was outlined just now by the Minister. Whether or not the Bill goes through your Lordships' House, we will have a White Paper in the near future and the process will certainly be reflected in the party manifestos in the next election. As I understand it, every party has agreed to fundamental reform, even if not all the details can be ironed out in the cross-party committee. Party manifestos from the three main parties will include a commitment to enactment of fundamental reform, whether or not the details are identical. That Bill, which will then be introduced in the next Parliament, will have a legitimacy that will probably make use of the Parliament Act unnecessary, because everyone will realise that the process has been agreed universally and that only the final settlement of the details in the election remained to be accomplished before its implementation.

Nothing in the Bill changes that. All that we are doing, if noble Lords are correct, is saying that in the meanwhile—in the three, four or five years before a Bill is introduced in the next Parliament to implement whatever fundamental reforms are agreed—we shall not have any by-elections. I have not heard anyone say a word against that idea. My noble friend Lord Addington characterised the by-elections as silly and demeaning to Parliament, and no one contradicted those adjectives. I hope, without going into any further detail at this stage, that we shall have a productive and short Committee stage and that my expectations about the nature of the amendments that will be tabled will be realised.

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

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