Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

4.45 pm

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I would certainly support the Motion standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. A final solution to the question of Lords reform has been dangled tantalisingly before us, arguably, for the past 100 years. The pace may have quickened in recent years but the outlook is still quite uncertain. In the mean time, certain specific reforms are needed to remedy some obvious weaknesses in the constitution of your Lordships' House. These could be introduced without in any way prejudicing the case for more radical reform, if that was thought desirable. The noble Lord has given us the opportunity to make these changes on a number of occasions over the past three years, but we have consistently allowed the uncertain prospect of more fundamental reform to stand in the way of necessary but more limited reform. I do not think that we should do this any longer.

To take just the most obvious case, everybody agrees that the need to reduce the size of the House is now pressing. The adoption of a scheme to enable Members of the House to retire would potentially open the way to a reduction in the size of the House. We fluffed the opportunity to salvage even this most uncontentious provision from the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill in the wash-up at the end of the previous Parliament. In the mean time, the House just gets larger and larger. I do not think that we should fluff this any longer.

On the question of more fundamental reform, I was not long in this place before it was obvious to me that it is rather well constituted for carrying out its principal role as a revising Chamber. The qualification for this is expertise and experience rather than the more nebulous quality of representativeness. These are things that can probably be better secured by appointment than election; it is more like choosing someone for a job than electing them to represent you. The bases of legitimacy are not better or worse, just different. In any case, if it is democratic legitimacy you are after, it is not clear that this place is conspicuously inferior to the other. Again, it is just different. The Members of this House may not be democratically elected, but in the way that we operate, with the writ of the Whips being much less irresistible and predictable here than it is at the other end of the building, I would

29 Jun 2010 : Column 1688

argue that the point of view of civil society gets a much fuller airing and receives a much better hearing here than it does in the other place. Subject to the changes about which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is talking, I would be relatively content for the method of recruitment to this House to remain broadly as it is. By common consent the House has never worked better. The case for election may be superficially attractive, but it remains essentially superficial. Where is the added value in a pale imitation of the House of Commons composed of people who could not get into the House of Commons?

The arguments for election versus appointment will no doubt be canvassed back and forth as the day goes on-indeed, that process has already begun. We will hear about election changing the balance of power between the two Houses and the need to tear up the conventions, or the confusion caused by two sets of elected representatives roaming around each others' constituencies. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who spoke earlier, I do not suppose that anyone's mind will be changed. We will just argue ourselves to a standstill.

Instead, I might suggest that we try to find a way through which gives something to each of the rival points of view. If we are to have an elected House-as I said, I am by no means persuaded that this is the right way to go-I would submit that we need a better system, and one better calculated to preserve the House's USP of expertise than one based on geographical constituencies such as is used for electing the other House. A system could be developed based on constituencies of expertise, mirroring the different walks of civil society-the law, medicine, the arts, sport, education, the Armed Forces, business, trade unions, the voluntary sector and so on. By departing from the geographical constituencies used for elections to the other place, this would bring something distinctive and provide the necessary added value. It would retain the necessary basis in expertise which those who favour appointment seek to preserve, and which is the essential hallmark of this place, but would at the same time concede something to those who favour election.

It may not be easy to devise a system which achieves universal suffrage. I would favour a system based on electoral colleges representing the different branches of civil society. It is not possible to get into the detail today, but I hope that it will be possible to submit more detailed proposals to the committee we have heard about this afternoon which is going to come up with a draft Bill by Christmas. I and others have made proposals along these lines before, but they have typically been given rather short shrift. The Wakeham commission was initially attracted, but-if I may be forgiven for saying so-its approach ended up by being one that seemed more inclined to find a difficulty for every solution. It cannot be beyond the wit of man to find a solution for at least some of the difficulties.

For instance, the House of Lords Library has a classification of existing Peers in 19 categories. We could do worse than take that as a starting point for determining the constituencies of expertise. At all events, I hope that the coalition may be willing to give these ideas more of a hearing than its predecessors,

29 Jun 2010 : Column 1689

and see them as a potential solution for many of the difficulties. For it seems to me that only by means such as these will it be possible to break the deadlock in a way which stands any chance of building anything like a consensus.

4.53 pm

The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, I know that brevity and clarity are at a premium in a debate of this length. I therefore ask your Lordships' indulgence if I take this opportunity to remind you of the consistent position of this Bench and of the Church of England in the matter of Lords reform and to reiterate the principal points made both to the Wakeham commission in 1999 and more recently in response to the 2008 White Paper.

We have, along with others, consistently raised the question about the purpose of a second Chamber. In the Church of England's submission to the Wakeham commission we expressed the point in this way:

"In a number of senses",

the second Chamber's role,

The distinction of roles implied by the historic functions of your Lordships' House suggests that a second Chamber requires a different mix of skills in comparison to the other place and, crucially, a source of legitimacy which does not pit the second Chamber against the first in a potential stalemate. It is clear that our focus must therefore be on the role of a second Chamber in holding the Executive to account.

The party-political system has contributed a great deal to the functioning of our democracy, but where it needs augmentation from a non-partisan element is in enabling Parliament to maintain the necessary checks and balances that good governance requires. Elected Members in the other place sit on behalf of all their constituents, not just those who voted for their party, and the Executive legislate on behalf of all. A politician will, no doubt, believe with a passion that his or her party's programme is the best hope for the common good, but understandable single-mindedness must always be moderated by the perspective of others, especially those who, because of expertise or experience, have reason to know the detail of how legislation impacts on people's lives. Furthermore, a move to a fully elected House would come at a time when the greatest issues that we face, such as climate change, competition for scarce resources and reform of our financial systems, cannot all be fixed within the short-term time horizons of the electoral cycle.

My colleagues on this Bench and I question, as others have, the composition of the committee set up by the Deputy Prime Minister to take a first look at reforming the constitution. We would have expected such a committee to include representatives of all the stakeholders in the present arrangements. In replying to this debate, will the noble Lord, Lord McNally, at

29 Jun 2010 : Column 1690

least acknowledge that, by setting up a committee entirely composed of members of the three main political parties, the Deputy Prime Minister runs the risk of appearing to foreclose the question about the role of non-party members in any future second Chamber?

At a time like this, your Lordships would expect me to raise the wider question of the place of religion and bishops in our national life and hence in our constitutional structures. The experience of the last decade or so has made one thing very clear. The theories of secularisation, with which most of us have been familiar for a long time, are no longer an accurate picture of how the world works. Contrary to expectations, increasing material prosperity, scientific advance and global mobility have not led to the death of religion or even to its relative eclipse. That may be a matter of celebration or dismay to some of your Lordships, but it remains true that the persistence of religion has to be accounted for and, since it will not go away, its ongoing place in society must be taken into account. It would be at the very least a shame if major constitutional reform, potentially the most significant for nearly 200 years and designed to last for perhaps several hundreds more, were grounded on a 20th-century theory of secularisation that has been fairly comprehensively discredited and no longer describes the world as it has turned out to be.

Of course I do not believe that Christians, let alone Anglicans, should be the only Members of a second Chamber who stand for and speak for their religious principles. Nevertheless, the established place of the Church of England is deeply woven into the constitution and unpicking it at any one point will have numerous consequences in other areas of our national life. Successive Governments, including the last, have asserted that they intend to do nothing to diminish the church's established role and I hope that we can look to the new coalition publicly to continue that commitment. Embeddedness in the nation's life and history should surely count for something. Of course, bishops of the Church of England claim absolutely no monopoly of those qualities among the religious communities of the land.

My case is this. I ask what a second Chamber is for and I remain convinced by the answer that it must be primarily a revising Chamber that does not seek to usurp the prerogatives of the other place. That in turn requires some distance from, or leavening of, the party system by independent Members chosen for a different set of virtues. Those virtues should include experience, expertise and wisdom gained in vocations to service outside these walls, and should be brought to the service of Parliament to serve the good of all. Some of these Members should represent the religious character of our country and the religious motivation that enhances citizenship for so many of our people.

5 pm

Lord Waddington: My Lords, it is both a pleasure and a privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate. I am sure that he knows that I do not underestimate the important role played by the Bishops' Bench in this House. However, this afternoon I will raise another matter of great importance that we are in danger of overlooking. It shows clearly that we cannot duck the

29 Jun 2010 : Column 1691

question of what should be the powers of a reformed House by saying that it can be left as a marginal matter.

I remind your Lordships that our constitution has been rickety since 1949, when the Government of the day, rightly or wrongly, upset the quasi-settlement of 1911 and used the Parliament Act to drive through a reduction in the delaying powers of the Lords without the consent of this House. It is arguable that with that precedent a Government could further reduce our delaying power; indeed, could so reduce it as to make it virtually valueless and render this Chamber incapable of fulfilling its most important role as the ultimate guarantor of the rights and liberties of the subject. Therefore, what is required is not a second Chamber that is an ever more efficient part of the legislative sausage machine, and not a second Chamber that does no more than-to use the jargon-add value to the legislative process by amending bills that have not been properly considered in the Commons, and by scrutinising EU legislation. We need a second Chamber that can block legislation for a meaningful period and stop a Government using their temporary majority to drive through irreversible change before the country has had time to grasp and digest its true consequences. That was precisely what the settlement in 1911 was about. We need a second Chamber that can stop a Government using their temporary majority to extend their own life, which is another thing that the 1911 settlement was all about.

That is what the country needs but, the way we are going, it is very unlikely to get it. This House with its present powers is, as I have shown, a very frail barrier against arbitrary government, and it is absolutely clear that, because it lacks democratic legitimacy, it will never get additional powers. However, if we do not look out, an elected House will also be denied meaningful powers in the name of preserving the primacy of the Commons. My noble friend the Leader of the House said as much when he hinted that there was no chance of any increase in the powers of the second Chamber.

After all the inglorious constitutional meddling of recent years, it would be surprising if many people did not feel now that the best course is to leave well alone. If an elected House comes into existence, we do not know how the relationship between the two Houses would work, and how the inevitable tension between them would be resolved. So why, many say, take a leap into the unknown?

I am afraid that the answer to that is very plain: the transition to an elected House is, in my view, well nigh inevitable. Lords reform is not, just now, a burning issue in the Dog and Duck, but when measures are taken to cut the number of MPs, surely it will be almost impossible to argue that people should be required to support an unelected House growing ever bigger and costing ever more, for I have seen no evidence to suggest that if a proposal were brought forward to encourage noble Lords to retire, there would be a great rush of people to the door. I do not believe for one moment that that would happen.

Therefore, I think that our job is to see that by the method of election to the new House, by a limit on the period for which anyone can serve and by other devices

29 Jun 2010 : Column 1692

we create a House far more independent of the Executive and therefore a better check on the Executive than the Commons has proved to be in recent years. Of course, we must see that the new House has meaningful powers and at the very least-this has not been mentioned yet today-the power to veto a Bill that seeks to further amend the Parliament Act.

I have not much doubt that a change to an elected House will cause much trouble and strife, with the new House using its democratic legitimacy to challenge the primacy of the Commons. However, there is perhaps some reason to hope that out of it all will come in time what is really needed: a new constitutional settlement with a written constitution granting the second Chamber specific powers different from those of the Commons-powers such as were mentioned very briefly by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, a few moments ago-and with it becoming something akin to the American Senate. That, indeed, would be a happy outcome.

5.07 pm

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord the Leader of the House for introducing this debate. I have to confess that I am somewhat irritated by the fact that we are invited to take note of the case for reform of the House of Lords, as though that were on the coalition's agenda. It is not. What is on the agenda is the abolition of the House and its replacement with something entirely different. That is quite an innovation but, as Edmund Burke taught us, innovation is not reform.

Of course there is a case for introducing reforms, particularly those that would reduce the size of the House, improve its structures and procedures, and set in place a statutory appointments commission. We have been discussing such reforms for some time now, many of them in the context of the House of Lords Reform Bill, for which there was wide support, and it is on those that the Government should now be focusing.

However, we have got nowhere because the posture of the previous Government, and now, alas, of this Government, has been founded on what I would call a grand illusion. That illusion is that you can invest this House with the legitimacy that we are told it lacks with reforms that do not upset the balance of power between the two Houses. My Lords, you cannot. This Government and the previous Government are and were hell-bent on creating a wholly or predominantly elected Senate whose powers would be neither more nor less than those enjoyed by the House of Lords today. They may succeed in drafting a Bill with that as their objective but they know that in practice it will be shown to fly in the face of all logic. Alas, they seem to be ideologically blinded to reality.

The abolitionists speak airily of "transition" to an elected Chamber, as though it will involve little of more consequence than a rechoreographing of the State Opening and a rewriting of the Companion to the Standing Orders. However, in effect, they will be provoking a constitutional upheaval of colossal import. To paint it as otherwise is, to put it politely, disingenuous and, less politely, pitifully naïve.

What would this hugely costly new creation be asked to do? If it is asked to do what the existing House does, but better and more democratically-

29 Jun 2010 : Column 1693

whatever that means-I cannot believe that it will succeed. It will fail because it will become, in the splendid description offered by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian,

What room will that give for the application of expertise and independence of thought, which are the hallmarks of the work of this House? One has to ask: in exchange for giving up most, if not all, of our capacity to scrutinise, advise and propose revisions to legislation to the high standards that we attain here, what on earth will we get in return, all in the name of greater legitimacy?

Those who claim that only a fully elected or predominantly elected upper Chamber will have the legitimacy to do what we do, fail to appreciate, or wilfully ignore the fact, that our true legitimacy lies in what this House achieves. I voted happily for the 1999 Lords reform Bill and I remain convinced that the House has since demonstrated that it can and does play a fundamentally important constitutional role. How? In simplest terms, the House of Lords seeks to meet the electorate's requirement that the legislation promised by the party that wins office is fashioned to the highest possible standard, consistent with the will of the elected House, whose primacy we unquestionably acknowledge. With few powers to exercise, and rightly so, we Members of the Lords participate in the legislative process by drawing on our experience and applying our expertise to help to ensure that Parliament delivers to the people what it has the right to expect: high quality, implementable Acts of Parliament.

It has yet to be proven to me that the fact that we are an appointed House disqualifies us from performing that crucial democratic function. I am yet to be persuaded-I am confident I never will be-that an elected Senate, riven by party political interests and divisions and locked in a permanent power struggle with the other House, will perform that service to the people better, if at all.

My final point is that we all know the broad outlines of what will emerge from this exclusive, closed drafting committee. That is pre-ordained. In the mean time, Cross-Benchers and Back-Benchers must satisfy themselves by writing letters to it, presumably enclosing a stamped addressed envelope. After today, we shall have to wait for the pre-legislative scrutiny stage before we outsiders can make any real impact. Believe me, those of us who do not share the abolitionist ambitions of the coalition Government and of those likeminded on other Benches, including my own, will, I trust, continue to make their case forcefully, but not just within the confines of Parliament. The people must be made fully aware of what is being proposed in their name.

Properly informed, I believe that they would recognise that their right to high-standard law-making would be put at risk by an ideology-driven move to create an elected Senate, no matter what the unintended consequences. Is this what the people want? The Government may claim that they already have the mandate to reform this House because it was in each party's manifesto, but do the people know what the full constitutional consequence of that is for the structure of Parliament and the balance of power between the

29 Jun 2010 : Column 1694

two Houses? Of course they do not. It has not been explained to them, and it should be. Then let them tell us what they think about that in a referendum, but, of course, they are not likely to get one. One referendum on AV will, doubtless, be considered enough. Besides, the coalition Government could well lose a referendum on a proposal to restructure Parliament in a way that alters the balance of power between the two Houses and puts at risk the quality of legislation, and they would richly deserve to lose it.

5.13 pm

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I wish to express the hope that our colleagues on the Front Bench will convey copies of this debate in Hansard to members of the committee who are not present in this House so that they may read speeches such as the one we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. I begin with a note of surprising agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I have some doubts about the timetable. In my Resolution, I very politely talked about the legislative timetable being unclear. That is not an insult, it is a statement of fact. So many things have to be decided before we get to a Bill that I think that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, is right.

Let me mention just three circles that have to be squared before we get to that point. The first is the question of the electoral system to be used. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that he is a heretic and believes in proportional representation. I join him in that heresy, but we must be aware that, at the moment, both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are not so persuaded-or, if they are, they are minded to have the horrors of the party list system, which is a form of proportional representation that most of us would not want in an elected House.

That is the first circle that must be squared. The second is to decide on the phrase used so blithely, "wholly or mainly elected", as though that is just some minor matter. It is not a minor matter. If the argument is that we have no legitimacy unless we are elected, what on earth is the point of having a percentage of illegitimate Peers in a future House? That does not make sense. In my view, only a wholly elected House stands up to any rational scrutiny. That issue is glossed over all the time in every document from both the previous Government and the present one. They say, "wholly or mainly", as though that is a minor matter that can be decided in five minutes. It is not; it is a major issue.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page