HC Deb 05 July 1985 vol 82 cc686-91

Order for Second Reading read.

2.6 pm

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I have it in Command from the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Dr. Marek

First, may I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the message from the Queen, and I apologise to him for detaining him in the House on what is now a procedural matter.

The reform of the House of Lords has been talked about for many decades, but nothing has been done. The last serious attempt to reform the House of Lords was with the Parliament Bill in the late 1960s, which was roundly defeated by a coalition across party lines. I should say that I do not believe it was a good measure.

However, it is inexcusable that, in what we call a democracy, one of the two main legislative Chambers is not an elected body. If one is born in the right bed, one can take part in the legislature of the country. If one is not born in the right bed—that includes everyone in this House and, except for about 1,500 people, everyone else in the country—one cannot take part in the legislative process. We must start to consider how to make Britain a true and total democracy. Unless we reform the House of Lords, we cannot call ourselves a complete democracy.

In "Vacher's", one sees a list of members of the House of Lords. There are three peers of blood royal, two archbishops and 25 dukes. I could spend much time talking about the 25 dukes, but I shall not. There are 28 marquesses and 157 earls and countesses. As far as I am aware, none of those people has any special — [Interruption.]

The thunderclap that we have just heard leads me to believe that I should tread carefully during the next few minutes.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Divine retribution.

Dr. Marek

None of those people has any special abilities to take part in our legislative process.

After that, we come, in order of seniority, to 104 viscounts, 24 bishops and 864 barons and baronesses. Well over 1,000 members of the other place are there because of fortuitous circumstances. The exceptions are the life peers and peeresses, who may be appointed because of some expertise or ability, or the help that they can give the Government of the day or, more rarely, the Opposition of the day, in running the business in the other place. This cannot be the right way to proceed in a democracy.

One has to pay a price for democracy. Members of the legislature have to be elected. One may end up with members who may not be the best that one could possibly have. However, in a democracy, election is the only way. This House is not perfect. I am not perfect and I do not think that any hon. Member would say that he was perfect, in command of all arguments and could give an unbiased and honest judgment on any matter. We all fall down on occasions. On the other hand, we have been elected, and we have the trust of the electorate that for one Parliament they will expect us to use our judgment to the best of our ability.

There are no electors to send anybody to the other place. It can introduce legislation, and change and impede legislation from this House. Out of the 1,000 Members in the other place, not many play a part. At the most, it is a couple of hundred, and not many are there day in and day out. I have been looking at the House of Lords Handards and I have found that two or three dozen Labour Members and five or six dozen from the Government Benches take a regular and active part in the proceedings there.

We can go two ways. Given that we want a democracy, and that there is something to be said for an elected system, should we abolish the House of Lords completely or should we try to make it an effective body? My party believes in total abolition of the House of Lords. If there were a Bill to that effect before the House, I would support it. However, it is not one of the major items of legislation that will be passing through the next Parliament under the next Labour Government. We can either make the House of Lords effective as a revising chamber, or we can abolish it completely.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

The hon. Gentleman has just said that his party's policy is to abolish the House of Lords, and if a Bill to that effect were introduced he would support it. How does he square that with an article that he wrote in the Western Mail on 22 February when he said, "Abolition will not do"?

Dr. Marek

The hon. Gentleman apprehends my next point. I can square my remark. Abolition will not do, for one reason. I should like to see an effective revising chamber and I should like more elected members of either House to keep control over the Executive. I do not believe that 650 Members of Parliament are sufficient to control the Executive in all the many decisions that are taken. I am not saying that the decisions are taken unaccountably, but they are taken without elected Members knowing about them unless a particular Member has an interest in something and happens to be in the right place at the right time to ask the question. An elected representative may then be able to influence a decision. By and large, however, we have the Civil Service, quangos, boards and nominated bodies which run the country and it is impossible for 650 MPs and between 100 and 200 of their Lordships to try to keep effective control over the Executive and the Civil Service.

My view, which should command thought in the House, is that we need greater numbers. To achieve that, we should reform, rather than abolish, the House of Lords, although I should be happy to agree to its abolition, simply because we do not have democracy there. Generally speaking, one must be born in the right bed to be a member of that place.

The House of Commons is the primary legislative Chamber, so that the House of Lords must be the reforming Chamber. Therefore, the Lords should not challenge this House, and for that reason the powers of the other place can remain roughly as they are, although I could be persuaded that the powers should be changed in either direction.

An important reason why this House keeps its primacy is that it is based on representation, on the single-Member constituency, and Members of the Commons have contact with their electors and are responsible to them.

If we wish to keep this House as the primary instrument for legislation, we must do something about elections to the House of Lords. One method would be to have large constituencies so that Members of the House of Lords could not be identified with any area. To achieve that, we would need a form of proportional representation. For that reason, the Bill suggests the single transferable vote for elections to the other place. PR is beloved of the alliance parties, and it is a pity that Liberal and SDP Members are not here to discuss this matter.

What will happen if the Bill is not placed on the statute book and nothing is done about the matter? Sooner or later there will be a Government with a sufficient majority to get their way. Such an Administration may go for total abolition. But if the House of Lords were not abolished, it might be changed in such a radical way that there would not be a general consensus in this House about its composition. It is likely in the future that a Government with such a majority will be in power.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House realise that the House of Lords needs reforming. We should do it by means of a consensus which would gain general acceptance from the people. We could do that even in a Parliament such as this, in which the Government have an enormous majority. If we do not do it, sooner or later —because it needs to be done—a Government with an enormous majority may do something which we do not like.

2.18 pm
Mr. Michael Portillo (Enfield, Southgate)

I scarcely recognise the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), so brief has he been in his remarks today. I congratulate him on presenting his case in a few minutes. I was used to sitting opposite him in the Standing Committee on the Transport Bill, and in those deliberations we suffered long hours at his hands—or should I say at his mouth?—as he kept us in our places, sometimes entertained but sometimes less entertained.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn

What a dreadful thing to say of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Portillo

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham on making such a brief contribution today, yet putting his points lucidly. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) wishes to speak, so I shall not detain the House for long because I am sure that the great British public are looking forward to hearing from him. I am sometimes perplexed how it is that the Labour party's first instinct when faced with a problem is to turn to constitutional reform. I fear that it does so with a disregard for the consequences. When the previous Labour Government found themselves in difficulty, constitutional reform was their immediate knee-jerk reaction.

There was disagreement over whether Britain should be in the EEC and the Labour Government's reaction was to hold a referendum. Although that was a constitutional innovation, that did not bother them, as it got them off the hook on which they found themselves. Subsequently, they had problems in maintaining a majority with their allies in the House. That meant that they were willing to contemplate setting up assemblies for Scotland and Wales and to hold more referendums. Again, they acted without regard to whether those actions would be good for the long-term constitutional health of the United Kingdom. They found a way of getting themselves out of a tight corner politically and they were willing to throw constitutional tradition and history to the winds in the interest of self-preservation.

The Labour party is proposing once more either the abolition of the House of Lords—as I understand it, that would make the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) perfectly happy—or the reform that is proposed in the Bill, which amounts to abolition and the establishment of a different House.

Given the present state of the Labour party, it is interesting to look for clues in ascertaining what led it to devise such a scheme. The first clue is that the Bill proposes that the new House should be elected regularly every five years. We are moving from a position in which a Parliament has a maximum life to one in which elections fall regularly on a certain date. Why should the Labour party want that? I suspect that it knows that it will lose general election after general election and that it is looking for an opportunity in mid-term, when there are protest votes that we know about of a sort that I believe were displayed even yesterday, to have a different House elected and possibly to capitalise on the votes that may be swinging around. In effect, it is a call by the Labour party for a recount. If it loses a general election, it wants a second bash at it when it has a second House. I understand that the Labour party is keen on second bashes. I believe that it called for a recount in the Brecon and Radnor by-election but to no avail.

The second possible clue lies in the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the GLC. When these authorities are abolished, the Labour party will be deprived of great areas where a protest vote could be lodged between general elections. Areas of control were passed to the Labour party by those who wished to register their feelings in a mid-term contest. With the abolition of these authorities the Labour party is left wondering how it will be able to make mischief during the long periods when Labour Members have to sit on the Opposition Benches, the Labour party having lost the previous general election once again.

I find many features of the Bill surprising although I understand why the Labour party has embarked upon it. If the hon. Member for Wrexham wishes to intervene to explain what he means by the passage in the Bill which reads: the exercise of political power, much of it in secret, by those who do not derive their authority from the people", I shall be willing to allow him do so. I cannot understand what that means. The House of Lords is, for the moment, the more public of the two Houses in this Parliament. It is the one which is now seen by those who watch television.

Dr. Marek

I shall intervene, only briefly as we have only seven minutes in which to debate the Bill. I am not suggesting that the House of Lords exercises power in secret. However, the Executive, the Civil Service and other bodies exercise their power in secret. That is the meaning of the preamble.

Mr. Portillo

I believe that the hon. Gentleman will think, on reflection, that the drafting of his Bill was slightly confusing on that point. I am grateful to him for setting us right.

I have spoken to many of my constituents since the proceedings of the House of Lords have been televised and many of them say that they realise now for the first time what a splendid place the House of Lords is as presently constituted. They realise for the first time that the other place has a residue of expertise to deploy on important issues.

That reminds me of the time when I was involved in the consideration of a patents Bill, which came before the House about nine years ago. It would not be unfair to hon. Members to say that at that time there were very few Members who had an understanding of the subject. However, in the House of Lords there happened to be two or three of the leading world experts on patents, who were able to bring their expertise to bear. They gave the Bill a much more mature and thorough consideration than it might otherwise have received. This is only a small example of what happens so often with their Lordships.

Of course, their Lordships do not attend every debate in the way that hon. Members do in the House and their interest in a particular subject is not always 100 per cent. Their Lordships are distinguished in different fields. The majority were given seats in the House of Lords because they had distinguished themselves. The Labour party continues to nominate people to that House on that basis — often because they have a political expertise and because, as working peers, they will help the Labour party and show the same talents and abilities that they showed either in this House or outside politics.

I think that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) and I have the same desire at heart — to safeguard democracy. Those are the terms in which the hon. Gentleman couched his argument and I have taken his words at face value, something I find it hard to do. The Labour party is afraid of the independence of the House of Lords. During the past few years, Labour Members have seen that the House of Lords is willing to consider carefully and independently the legislation that comes from this House. Constitutional reform by the abolition of the House of Lords would merely be the prelude to a much more devastating constitutional reform. With the House of Lords out of the way, our ability to stop that devastating change would be that much more restricted.

2.26 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) has introduced this Bill. The House should promote a public debate on the existence of the House of Lords. I am surprised that Conservative Members oppose the Bill. However, when the Leader of the House informed the House of the Queen's consent to the Bill, I detected some note of resignation in his voice, because the House of Lords has been more trouble to this Government than it has been to other Governments. But for the House of Lords, the local government abolition legislation might have travelled much further. That demonstrates not the democratic credentials of the other place or its desire to promote democracy but how reactionary the Government are with their majority in the House of Commons and how determined they are to force the destruction of democracy in so many aspects of life.

Mr. Cecil Franks (Barrow and Furness)

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the view that, in the absence of an effective Opposition to the Government in this Chamber, the House of Lords has assumed the mantle of a de facto Opposition?

Mr. Corbyn

The hon. Gentleman has only just come into the Chamber, but he obviously has not had a chance to hear the results of the Brecon and Radnor by-election. I think that his party understands that there is enormous opposition both inside and outside Parliament to the Government.

When I show guests and people from overseas around the Houses of Parliament and explain to them how the House of Lords came into existence, they cannot believe that in a democratic society we hand legislation to people whose sole fortune in life has been to be born into a particular family or at a particular time. Even worse is the patronage that goes with the make-up of the House of Lords through the appointment of life peers. My guests say to me, "Why does your country, which prides itself on being so democratic and having a democratic parliamentary system, allow this ridiculous anachronism to continue?" To allow hereditary peers to have a say in the legislative process is a ridiculous anachronism. As far as I am aware, hardly any country allows a hereditary form of government. Why should we allow it here?

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham has done us a great service in putting the Bill forward. I might have some disagreements with my hon. Friend on the methods of election of a second Chamber or on the justification for having a second Chamber. I very much agree with him, however, that we cannot justify in a democratic society allowing this undemocratic obstacle to be in our path.

Every time that there has been a major constitutional reform it has been as a result of the House of Lords' obstructionism, be it the people's Budget of 1910 or the other, later examples. It is important that that obstruction be removed. I firmly believe that a future Labour Government, elected as they will be at the next election, will be obstructed by the House of Lords, because the House of Lords represents economic and social interests that are fundamentally opposed to the interests that the Labour party represents and that a future Labour Government will represent after the general election.

I find it surprising that none of the—

It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Tuesday 16 July.