HC Deb 30 November 1998 vol 321 cc559-646
Madam Speaker

We now come to the main business, and I have had to limit speeches between the hours of 7 and 9 o'clock to 15 minutes. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.33 pm
Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I beg to move, as an amendment to the Address, at the end of the Question to add: 'But humbly regret that the Gracious Speech makes no mention of the Government's determination to remove the right of electors to vote for the candidate of their choice in European Parliamentary Elections; deplore both the Government's plans to turn the House of Lords into an enormous quango and also its intention to legislate prior to the conclusions of its own Royal Commission; and further urge the Government to accept the recommendations of the Neill Committee to introduce new rules for the fair conduct of referendums.'. In all conscience, many subjects in the Queen's Speech can be debated under the Home Office heading. On law and order, the Government say that they intend to be tough on crime, but they do not explain how that is to be achieved when the policy that they are set upon is to reduce the strength of police forces throughout the country. The inevitable consequence of their financial settlement is fewer police on the beat, although that was the last thing that they promised at the general election.

On political asylum, the Government say that they will improve the appeal process, but they have done nothing to discourage the influx of bogus refugees in the first place. Rather than numbers reducing, this year they have increased. I say this to the Government: I do not believe that it is a solution to say that the backlog has been reduced by giving permission to stay to thousands of people who are evading the proper immigration procedures. We will want to debate those issues further, including the issue raised today in the Daily Mail of crimes which have been committed by bogus asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

In the same way—obviously, Madam Speaker, I take note of your ruling of a few seconds ago— we shall want to debate the case of General Pinochet. Even the most fervent Government supporter cannot claim the handling of that case by the Government to be a triumph. He was given a VIP reception by the Foreign Office; he was backed by the Ministry of Defence; he was arrested with the knowledge of the Home Office; and then he was publicly lobbied against by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—quite contrary to the rules of justice in a case where the Home Secretary is meant to be acting in a quasi judicial capacity. It is quite wrong that a fellow Cabinet Minister should have acted in that way. I hope that the Home Secretary will note that.

Madam Speaker

Order. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was announced on Thursday that, with the agreement of both Whips, today's debate would be on the constitution and Parliament. "Erskine May" makes it clear that, once an amendment has been moved, the scope of debate is restricted by the normal rules of debate, which are that a Member must direct his speech to the question under discussion or to the amendment. The right hon. Gentleman has moved the amendment, so may I suggest that he concentrates his remarks on that amendment?

Sir Norman Fowler

Certainly, Madam Speaker. That is what I was about to do.

Those three issues show how things have changed for the Home Secretary in the past 12 months. Each issue has gone wrong, and for each issue the Home Secretary has direct responsibility. We still have the slogans—no one would accuse the Government of being short on slogans. Our concern is not about a lack of words, but about a lack of performance.

The Government's proudest boast is about their flagship. They may have put their radical plans on transport into the long-term car park, and they may have buried their radical intent on welfare reform together with two reforming Ministers, but on constitutional change their plans are still shining bright.

What are those plans? For European elections, they intend to introduce a system whereby power is taken from the people and given to the party.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler

I shall give way in a moment.

On reform of the House of Lords, they intend to introduce an assembly of appointees and placemen: a giant, ermine-clad quango. On referendums, they simply dither about the way forward.

Mr. Beith


Sir Norman Fowler

I shall come back to that point.

The country faces the prospect of referendums on proportional representation and on the single currency. By any standards, those issues go to the heart of our democracy. It is vital that the rules under which referendums are conducted are fair to both sides. It would be a travesty if the Government, and the Government alone, were to control the publicity, and were the only recipients of public money for such a campaign.

As the Neill committee makes clear, no Government can be truly objective in providing information for a referendum if they support one side of the argument. I am glad to see the Secretary of State for Wales, because we remember when he was the Minister of State, Home Office. We congratulate him on his elevation. There has been widespread criticism that the literature distributed to every household in Wales set out only the Government's case. The Neill Committee said: We were disturbed in particular by the evidence we heard in Cardiff to the effect that the referendum campaign in Wales in 1997 was very one-sided. It added that a fairer campaign might have resulted in a different outcome.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael)

indicated dissent.

Sir Norman Fowler

The Secretary of State for Wales shakes his head, but those are not my words: they are the words of the independent Neill Committee.

We expect the Home Secretary to give a clearer statement on policy than he gave in the debate on the Neill Committee's report. In particular, he should recognise that both sides of the argument should be

given a proper voice during a referendum campaign. We also hope that the Home Secretary will take this opportunity to announce a way forward in the debate on the voting system for the European elections.

One of the refreshing things about the European elections debate was that, in spite of the number of times that we debated the issue, there were always new facts to illuminate the picture. The new fact this time will be last Thursday's European by-election in Scotland, and we all know the result of that. Despite having flooded the area with senior Ministers—and despite the Prime Minister's having lectured Scotland on its duty to the Prime Minister—Labour was pushed into third place.

Why was that? I do not want to rub salt into the wound—[Laughter.] Certainly I do not. I am a generous and kind man. Let me put the point as kindly as it can be put: one factor was that the electorate did not quite take to the candidate, Mrs. Walker-Shaw. In particular, they were understandably concerned about her claims to have been born in Scotland. At one stage, she told a reporter that she had been born in Aberdeen; but, unhappily for her, a Sunday newspaper found a copy of her birth certificate, which recorded that she had been born in Staffordshire. Mrs. Walker-Shaw then issued a statement regretting that she went over the top in my answers to repeated questioning by a reporter". She said that what she really meant was that she had been conceived in Aberdeen.

Not surprisingly, the North-East Scotland constituency was by now becoming just a little sceptical about the position. Most commentators agree that the performance of the candidate had a direct bearing on the vote. Incidentally, help may be at hand for her: she is high on Labour's list of candidates for the European elections in June, and it will not be necessary for her to go into the complications of her birth certificate for that purpose.

The example that I have given demolishes the case made by the Home Secretary in debate after debate. He has argued that the candidate does not matter, that people vote only for parties and that, if a donkey were put up for election in Blackburn, the electorate would still vote Labour. Those claims have been proved to be nonsense. The fact is that Labour did not expect to come third. It did not plan to come third. It said—it span—that it was neck and neck with the Scottish National party. One of the reasons why it did come third was the electorate's view of the candidate.

Not even that is an end to the matter, however. My example illustrates another defect in the system of voting that the Government are introducing. Under the Home Secretary's system, by-elections themselves are on the way out, so if an MEP dies or, say, a Labour MEP becomes disillusioned with his party and resigns, that will normally not be followed by a by-election: the public will simply get the next candidate on the party list. The Minister for Arts, who was then a Minister in the Home Office—I am glad to see that he is present, ably defending the Home Secretary as always—explained the reasoning thus, during the Committee stage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill: There is a difference between the utility of by-elections for this Parliament and their utility for the European Parliament. The purpose of the regional list system is to provide an element of proportionality … A by-election would disturb the element of proportionality that the regional list system brings to the result of the election."—[Official Report, 5 March 1998; Vol. 307, c. 1247.] To those who say that no serious issue is at stake in the reintroduction of the European parliamentary legislation on Wednesday under a guillotine, I say, "Look at what is proposed." What is proposed is this: no opportunity for the public to vote for named candidates, party-only ballots, no administrative inconveniences such as by-elections and, of course, no constituencies.

Mr. Beith

Eighty per cent. of the electorate decided that a European by-election was not a particularly useful thing in the north-east of Scotland, and therefore did not vote. Could that be because the present system, to which the right hon. Gentleman wishes us to return—and to which we shall return, if he succeeds in blocking the Bill—provides no opportunity for any elector to vote for a different candidate from the party of his choice? How can a right be taken away from people who do not have it under the present system?

Sir Norman Fowler

I thought that the Liberals were in favour of the open list. They have been arguing for it over the past month. Now they are arguing in favour of the closed list. Before a Liberal spokesman contributes to the debate—I do not know which of the terrible three on their Front Bench will do so on this occasion—the Liberals should decide what their policy actually is. We know about the dark rooms, and the tablets, and all that; could someone now define exactly what the Liberal party is up to?

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Surely that is too much to expect from the Liberals.

Sir Norman Fowler


Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The right hon. Gentleman has argued that people vote for individuals rather than parties. Does he agree that the Leader of the Opposition sits in the House because he deserted South Yorkshire? Not enough people there vote for the Conservative party, so he had to go to North Yorkshire, where people do vote for it.

Sir Norman Fowler

There are a good many embarrassed faces among the hon. Gentleman's colleagues. A good many people have been dodging around the country over the years. I note that the Home Secretary is keeping quiet.

Instead of the constitutional reform that the Government promised, they are giving us constitutional reform that involves regional lists of candidates drawn up by party bosses. The effect will be that the elected MEP answers not to the public, but to the party. That is the basic defect of the system. [Interruption.] I would be delighted if a Labour Member were to make a speech in favour of closed lists. [Interruption.] In that case, it will be almost a maiden speech.

Finding Labour Members to defend the closed list has been a difficult task, as has been evident to anyone who has attended our debates regularly. However, when I made the point in a letter to The Times last week, a Labour Back Bencher—the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer)—came out of the woodwork. He made a rather odd claim about the position, and about individual lists; but what was most intriguing about his letter was his claim that he wrote as a Back Bencher who was not able to speak in the debate". "Not able to speak in the debate"? We have debated the issue four times. Was the hon. Gentleman bowled over in the rush to defend the Government? Was competition among those who wished to speak up for the closed list so fierce that Labour Members had to climb over each other to get at the Opposition? That is not my recollection. It did not look like that from the Opposition Benches—or, I suspect, from the Government Benches.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton)—who has obviously been allowed time off for good conduct—was prevailed on to speak twice. He made interesting speeches—we journalists must stick together—and his case on the closed list was only slightly dented by his admission that he actually supported the open list. Another Labour Member who spoke was later heard to say, "I did it yesterday; they can get someone else to do it today."

The fact is—as everyone knows—that Labour Member after Labour Member has attacked the closed list. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn); the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell); the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody); and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) have all attacked it. Perhaps above all, the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) has attacked it. He has said: The closed list system allows fixers to get their way, which is the real reason why I oppose it."—[Official Report, 10 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 229.] The only Members of Parliament who appear to have any enthusiasm for the closed list are the Liberal Democrats, who, until a few weeks ago, were strenuously arguing for the open list. That will come as no surprise to any hon. Member on either side of the House who has watched them in action over the years.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

My right hon. Friend is right to remind us that, in any battle between principle and expediency, among the Liberals expediency always gains the upper hand without much delay. Does he not think, however, that the reason for the Liberals' tergiversation in recent weeks is simply that, when they supported the open list, they believed themselves to be nominally part of the Opposition? They are now supporting the closed list in recognition of the fact that they are snivelling and sneaking up to the Government these days.

Sir Norman Fowler

I am a generous man. I would not dream of putting it in such emotive terms, but the point that my hon. Friend makes is that the Liberal Democrats are deeply schizophrenic. That is one of their characteristics.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler

I do not think

that I

will give way again. Let me go on.

Whatever we disagree on, let us not have any of the nonsense that the closed list was a manifesto pledge of the Labour party. The Home Secretary implied that the public should have known that the closed list was what the Labour party intended all along. That case was destroyed by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who said that he had absolutely no idea that it was a manifesto pledge, and for good reason. It was not a manifesto pledge; it cannot have been. If the closed list were a manifesto pledge, why did the Home Secretary announce on Second Reading that he was considering a different system? It was the Home Secretary who set the hares running on the issue and he cannot now row back from that.

This is an important constitutional proposal. It is precisely the sort of constitutional proposal that any self-respecting second chamber should challenge. The suspicion is developing that it is not only that the Government want the hereditary peers out; they also do not want an effective second chamber.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

I agree again with what the right hon. Member for Chesterfield said on that point. As a replacement for the House of Lords, the Government are offering us another form of closed list: a closed list of appointees and placemen. That is the only proposal in front of the House. If some people have their way, that is exactly how it will remain.

That point was put well by Steve Richards, political correspondent of the New Statesman, not exactly a Conservative central office publication.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

How does the right hon. Gentleman know?

Sir Norman Fowler

If the Home Secretary wishes to challenge that proposition, I invite him to the Dispatch Box.

Steve Richards said: In the House of Lords some of our peers are having a ball. They sense they have won the argument. They know they are privileged and want to hold on to those privileges for as long as possible … I am not referring to the hereditary peers … no the peers who are looking very pleased with themselves are those who have been appointed by Tony Blair over the last eighteen months … the appointed peers are perfectly happy about the short term battle to abolish the hereditaries, but I do not detect any great demand among them for further reforms which would threaten their own positions. That is the point. The Government are proposing an appointed quango; there is no doubt about that. No one knows where they will go next—there is no doubt about that because they have no idea where they will go next—but one thing is certain. They will come under no pressure from their appointees and their placemen, who are very content with their lot.

According to The Guardian on Saturday, the Government now intend to go further down the appointed road: they have an emergency plan to create 50 new Labour and Liberal Democrat life peers in one day in January. Therefore, we now face the prospect of an influx of Labour life peers, which will make Lloyd George's efforts look like a modest sideshow.

Therefore, life has never been more full of hope for would-be life peers. Last time round, the Home Secretary had his special adviser appointed a life peer. I warn those sitting in the civil service box that, this time, it might be their turn. We face the prospect of the Government scouring the highways and byways for candidates for the House of Lords. Indeed, perhaps we now know what the former Secretary of State for Wales was really up to on Clapham common: he was on a recruiting drive.

What is utterly absurd about the Government's position is that the legislation is being introduced before the White Paper and before the royal commission. That is the scandal. It is a nonsensical proposition. The sensible way—the only way of making progress—is for the Government to set out their proposals for reform and then to legislate.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler

I will not, if the hon. Lady does not mind.

However, that puts the Government into a deep difficulty. They have no idea of what comes next. The Government do not know, the Home Secretary does not know and the Prime Minister certainly does not know.

Evidence of that comes from an interview that was given by Lord Richard, who until the reshuffle was the Government's leader in the House Lords. Asked what the Prime Minister's vision of the future was, Lord Richard replied: I have no idea what the Prime Minister's views are. I have not talked to him about it. I don't think his mind has been engaged on this in any concentrated way". Therefore, for the first year of the Government's period of office, the Prime Minister did not speak to the Leader of the House of Lords about his flagship proposal to change the House of Lords. Indeed, Lord Richard questions whether there will be a second stage at all.

More guidance is given by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the enforcer-in-chief, in a remarkably detailed speech that he gave, evidently, in his constituency. Reviewing second chambers in other countries, he said: In some members are directly elected. In others elections are indirect. Some are appointed on the basis of their talent and ability. As far as I know, among western democracies, there is just one parliamentary chamber that is wholly appointed: the Canadian Senate. We are fortunate to have an up-to-date survey of the appointed upper house in Canada, which was carried out by the constitution unit. According to Meg Russell's report: The appointed nature of the Canadian senate coupled with the use of political patronage in appointments means that it has little respect amongst Canadians. Its work is largely ignored and even ridiculed by the media and political commentators. So there we have it. That is the precedent for the Government's second chamber.

Mr. Straw

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman could explain how the hereditary peers got there.

Sir Norman Fowler

The point that I am making is this: if the Home Secretary wants to put forward a case for reform, let him put forward a case for reform, but the fact is that he has not. He is giving us his special adviser, appointed to the House of Lords. [Interruption.] It is no use Ministers trying to shout in support of the Home Secretary. Everyone knows that that is the case. That is the precedent for the Government's second chamber. Again, it leads to the conclusion that here are a Government who do not want to be checked by any sort of independent second chamber.

The Government have had to be pushed into even giving the appearance of going beyond an appointed chamber. We Conservative Members set up our own inquiry. We have set out the principles on which that inquiry will operate. The Government are now to set up a royal commission. Why have the Government done that? The answer was given by the Minister for the Cabinet Office: If we hadn't have promised a Royal Commission the Tories would have tried to attack us for not consulting people". That does not sound like a Government who are committed to sensible reform. Not only have the Government been forced into a royal commission; they have also introduced legislation before that royal commission has had the opportunity even to take any evidence. That cannot make sense as a way of approaching the constitution.

What we know for certain is that we are being offered not an independent second chamber, but a chamber that depends on appointment and Government patronage. I do not believe that the British people will have any time for such a body. I do not believe even that many Labour Members will have time for such a body. It is a constitutional disaster and it should be rejected.

4.59 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

I am delighted to respond to this debate on the Government's programme on the constitution and Parliament. I am sure that any hereditary peers who listened to the speech by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) will realise the strength of my advice that they should throw in the towel.

Before I deal with the detail of today's debate, I should make a brief but wider observation. As Madam Speaker said, it is for the official Opposition to choose the subjects for the debate on the Loyal Address. I was intrigued by the fact that the Opposition did not want to debate home affairs issues that go wider than the subjects of this debate—as has been the usual practice of both Conservative and Labour Oppositions—but, having heard today's Question Time, I know why they wanted to avoid it. Today, we discovered the hollow words of the Opposition on, for example, police spending, which will rise in real terms. We know that the shadow Chancellor has said that that spending is reckless; therefore, the official Opposition are committed to it being reduced.

I am not at all surprised that the Opposition did not want to discuss asylum and immigration. We are putting right—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) alluded briefly to those matters before Madam Speaker made her ruling, I am prepared to allow the Secretary of State also briefly to mention them. However, I would be grateful if he would return very quickly thereafter to the subject of today's debate.

Mr. Straw

My final point is that I am not surprised that the Conservatives did not wish to debate asylum and immigration. Through our immigration and asylum Bill, we want to put right the shambles that we inherited.

I shall now come directly to the subject of today's debate—the constitution and Parliament. Implementation of any constitutional programme has to be detailed and thorough—although sometimes the provisions must also be complex. Our vision is a simple one: to strengthen the nature of British citizenship, to give the British people a chance to exercise more control over their own lives, and, simultaneously, to show greater responsibility to their fellow citizens and to the wider community.

Why do we need such change? First, we need it because since the war Britain has become too centralised in its government. That process—as I conceded in a lecture that I gave last Thursday—occurred under Governments formed by both parties. However, the process accelerated under the previous Administration, to a point at which public confidence in the very processes of government reached an unacceptably low ebb.

Secondly, we need change because—as a paradoxical consequence of our otherwise enviable history in securing constitutional change peacefully and incrementally—we in Britain have a less explicit understanding of our rights and responsibilities than do citizens of other countries with more turbulent domestic histories than our own.

Thirdly, we need our constitutional change programme because it is an integral part of the Government's overall programme to improve our society and to increase the opportunities for individuals and for families within it. Full citizenship requires both freedom from and freedom to—freedom from fear, from crime, from ignorance and from disease; and freedom to exercise positive rights and duties.

Our vision of strengthened citizenship lies behind all that we are doing—on human rights, on freedom of information, on higher standards of public life, and on transfer of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and to London. Yes, it lies also behind the long overdue reform to end the greatest offence to the very idea of democracy in the 20th century—the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I have been listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's speech. When he started it, he said that the hallmark of the Government's proposals was that they were detailed and thorough. Could he explain what is detailed and thorough about reforming the House of Lords by getting rid of hereditary peers without putting anything on the table about ultimate reform of the other place?

Mr. Straw

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall deal with that point, and then happily give way to him again.

Of all the changes that we are making, the one that will probably have the greatest long-term significance is the Human Rights Act 1998, which received Royal Assent last month. The Act will help to develop in the United Kingdom a human rights culture and a society in which the rights and responsibilities of individuals are properly balanced. We have already implemented one important provision of the new Act, section 19, which requires the Minister in charge of a Bill to make a written statement about the compatibility of its provisions with convention rights.

We shall bring into force the Act's main provisions as soon as we reasonably can. A major programme for training courts and tribunals is being developed, and we are having public authorities review their procedures on compliance with convention rights. Implementation involves a great deal of work and I shall make an announcement on a timetable for full implementation as soon as I am able to do so. Meanwhile, I have established a task force, chaired by my noble Friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, including representatives of non-governmental organisations and key Government interests who will help to keep up the momentum of implementation.

The Government's programme of constitutional reform aims to involve people more closely in decisions that affect their lives, not only by changing institutional structures but by modernising the way in which our institutions work. The result will be greater openness, greater accountability and greater contact with individuals and organisations outside Government.

A key element of the new relationship between Government and governed will be a freedom of information Act. When we publish a draft freedom of information Bill, early next year, I look forward to a thorough and informed debate on its proposals.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Will the Home Secretary be more specific on what he means by early next year? Is it by the end of January, for example?

Mr. Straw

I wish that I could be more specific. I hope—I say "hope" because of the complexity of the Bill's provisions and the need for parliamentary draftsman to have sufficient time—that it will be by the end of February, which would be sufficient time. I realise that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in the matter. Once the Bill is published, it will, among other things, go before the Select Committee on Public Administration—of which he is a member, and which undoubtedly will seek to interrogate me extensively on its provisions. Subsequently, subject to business managers, there will be a full debate on the Bill in the House.

Freeing information about public services and authorities has to be matched by the protection of information held about private individuals. On 16 July, the Data Protection Act 1998 received Royal Assent, implementing a European Community directive agreed by the previous Government.

The Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 received Royal Assent on 19 November, and provides for establishing a register of political parties. It will, among other things, prevent what has become known as the Literal Democrat problem, where candidates purposely use misleading titles to deceive voters and thereby pick up votes. The Act will prevent the deception of voters by Literal Democrats or others.

That Act is but one part of a programme to improve public confidence in the functioning of political parties and to sustain high standards of conduct in public life. Allied to that action will be publication, by the summer recess, of a draft Bill to implement the main findings in the Neill committee's report on the funding of political parties. The House will recall that, earlier this month, we were able to debate that committee's report. I was greatly encouraged by the large amount of cross-party support for its recommendations.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The Home Secretary says that the proposed new legislation will implement the committee's main findings. How can he possibly justify suggesting that when he has rejected the committee's most important finding, on referendums?

Mr. Straw

If the hon. Gentleman reads the record of the debate, he will see that I did not reject that finding. I made it quite clear that I was far from rejecting it. I make it clear to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield that, in the debate, I raised issues not about using public money in referendum campaigns—there should be evenness in funding—but about practical problems, most likely in a referendum on the single currency, of Ministers' access to official advice on, for example, possible turbulence in the markets. That is exactly the point that I made when we debated the matter about four weeks ago.

It seems to be a matter on which we should be able to reach sensible agreement on both sides of the House. There will be a substantial period during which there can be proper consultation with the Opposition, and it is plainly in the interests of all concerned if we can move forward on the matter on the basis of agreed proposals.

Mr. Bercow

If the Home Secretary is saying, on behalf of the Government, that he is in favour of fair funding for referendum campaigns, will he take this opportunity publicly to rebuke the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who made it clear in a recent television interview that he did not support such a proposition and attacked the Neill committee recommendations on the issue?

Mr. Straw

I know of no such suggestion by my right hon. Friend. I draw to the attention of Conservative Members my words of 9 November: We are talking not about spending money, but about having access to advice to which they Ministers— would not have access to during a general election campaign."— [Official Report, 9 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 58.] Everyone must recognise the difference between a referendum campaign and a general election campaign: a general election campaign takes place when a Government have finished their work and are seeking re-election; a referendum campaign takes place while a Government are in office.

I am delighted that we have been able to make such swift progress on devolution. The people of Scotland and Wales will be able to vote for Members of their new Parliament or Assembly just days after the second anniversary of the election of this Government.

The effect of devolution in Northern Ireland will be equally profound. Words such as "historic" and "momentous" are bandied about all too freely, but they are perfectly apposite to describe the Good Friday accord. Peace in Northern Ireland is a goal for which successive Governments have been striving for many years.

For the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies and the Greater London mayoralty and authority, we have developed voting systems that are tailored to the functions and geographical spread of the institutions—as we have, famously, for the European Parliament. On Wednesday, we can debate the finer details of the closed list system for the sixth time in a month.

We have all been elected on a closed list. There is no better example than the 12 lackey Members—there are many more—who went on the chicken run. In none of the constituencies concerned—Southend, West; North-East Hampshire; Mole Valley; Worthing, West; Stone; Charnwood; Bromley and Chislehurst; Surrey Heath; Hitchin and Harpenden; North-West Cambridgeshire; Mid-Sussex; and North-West Hampshire—were the voters given a choice in who should be the Tory candidate. The candidates were parachuted in by Conservative central office, or the Members parachuted themselves in, scared stiff—rightly—that they were going to lose the seats from which they were fleeing. The idea that the voters had some additional choice is preposterous.

Mr. Brazier

The Home Secretary has passed quickly over the genie that has been uncorked by devolution. What will the Government's attitude be should one of the first acts of the new Scottish Parliament be to exceed its remit and call for a referendum on the independence of Scotland?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are in danger of straying outside the terms of the motion. I would not want the Home Secretary to be tempted to do so.

Mr. Straw

I have been trying to stick to the spirit of "Erskine May". The subject of the debate is the constitution and Parliament; the detail is about the Neill committee and House of Lords reform. The hon. Gentleman should read the White Paper on Scottish devolution, which sets out the answer to his question. As for the best electoral system for this House, we had a full debate on the Jenkins report earlier this month.

The topic that has generated the greatest heat from the Conservatives, if not very much light, is reform of the House of Lords.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

I am afraid that I have not had the pleasure of hearing all the debates on the closed list system. Is that the full extent of the Home Secretary's defence of it? We are used to Members of Parliament and candidates exaggerating their personal vote in elections. The right hon. Gentleman's proposition is that it makes no difference to the electorate who stands. I would not normally choose an example from the Labour party, but does he remember when the Labour party chose Peter Tatchell as its candidate in a by-election in south London? Surely that was the single reason why a safe Labour seat went to the Liberal Democrats. It has stayed in the hands of the Liberal Democrats ever since. The electorate begin with a political loyalty, but it is preposterous to say that they do not want to know which individual is expected to represent that party locally.

Mr. Straw

Of course I remember the Bermondsey by-election at the end of January 1983. The right hon. and learned Gentleman does the Labour party too much credit suggesting that the only reason that we gained fewer votes than the numbers who turned up to Labour party public meetings was the candidate. The Labour party had a few problems of its own, as those of us who sought to canvass in that bitter January remember all too well.

I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was not present during the many hours of debate on the closed list, the reports of which I have here, because I have no doubt that he would have lightened the atmosphere. However, he has made my point. Mr. Peter Tatchell was on a closed list of one. The voters were faced with a simple choice. If they did not like the candidate, they did not vote for the party. We got a clear message. The same will happen with closed lists for the European Parliament. If people do not like the candidates, they will not vote for the party and we shall have to accept that. That is a necessary consequence of closed lists. I do not resile from that.

There are two fundamental objections to the present position of hereditary peers in our Parliament. The first is that they are hereditary—an idea that is as absurd as it is offensive. The hereditary principle is seen as preposterous—[Interruption.]

Mr.Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not know whose electrical device is making a noise. Can it be identified and turned off at once? Madam Speaker gets extremely annoyed when such things happen in the Chamber. Hon. Members on both sides must either leave their devices outside the Chamber or make sure that they are switched off before they come in.


Had the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) been present in our debates, he would know that every time that I have spoken I have been interrupted by a mobile telephone or a pager.

Mr.Kenneth Clarke

The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I am a bleeper-free Member of Parliament.


Would that I were.

I was saying that the hereditary principle is seen to be preposterous and risible when it is applied to any other walk of life. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has graphically put it, imagine inquiring of the pilot of an aeroplane about whom one was a little worried what his qualifications were and being told, "It was my grandfather who acquired the pilot's licence. I inherited it." Or imagine lying open-mouthed in the dentist's chair as the dentist drilled into the gum instead of the teeth. That would raise questions about his skills. Imagine if, when asked to produce his certificate of competence, he brought out one awarded in 1860 to his great great uncle William, but said not to worry because the skills had been transmitted through the genes.

I found it extraordinary that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield criticised the second chamber in Canada on the ground that everybody there was appointed. That is true, but they are appointed on their own merits, not on the merits of their long dead ancestors.

Labour Members are not the only ones to have taken the view that there can be no place for hereditaries in the House of Lords—a succession of Conservatives have done so. A former Conservative Home Secretary, now Lord Baker of Dorking, said in the House of Lords on 14 October, almost as an aside, that the position of hereditary peers was one which no one can defend".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 October 1998; Vol. 593, c. 977] In a pamphlet published in 1981, the former blue chip group of new Conservative Members said: Hereditary peers no longer command enough respect from the nation as a whole to justify their exercise of legislative power". [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?] None of them is here, but some are in the other place. The four authors include three former Ministers—William Waldegrave, Tristan Garel-Jones, and Ian Lang. The fourth was then plain Robert Cranborne, now Viscount Cranborne, Leader of the Opposition in the other place.

Another Tory—at that stage a young Tory—told the Conservative party conference in 1980 that hereditary peers were "silly". That young Tory was one William Hague. I accept that we can all change our minds over an 18-year period, but when we do we owe an explanation. If hereditary peers were "silly" in 1980, what has changed since then to alter the right hon. Gentleman's opinion today?


The Home Secretary makes a great attack on the hereditary principle and I accept that there may be mixed views on it. However, in attacking the hereditary principle, would he care to reflect on the British jury system? Are not the vast majority of people who serve on juries summoned to do so because they happen to be descended from British citizens and therefore qualify for that purpose at the age of 18? It is a random selection sample which is not based on qualification. I would be grateful for the Home Secretary's comments on that point.


I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he does not do himself credit on this occasion because there is a world of difference between people being chosen wholly at random and the composition of the other place.

Mr.Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

The Home Secretary referred to dentists. As I have just returned from the dentist, I hope that he will forgive my lack of verbal dexterity. Does his dislike of the hereditary principle extend to the monarch?



Maria Eagle

The Queen does not legislate.


My hon. Friend is right. There are overwhelming arguments for constitutional monarchy. Every other country with a constitutional monarchy does not have hereditary peers with legislative power.

Mr.Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The Home Secretary has not answered the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). If the Home Secretary is adamant that the principle of hereditary succession is, in his words, "risible", he will have to defend the position of the monarch rather better as many of his right hon. and hon. Friends will make their next target the removal of the hereditary principle as applied to the monarch and he will be caught out by them.


With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that we can speak rather better for what we believe than he can, and what he says is untrue.

Mr.David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Has the Home Secretary considered the position of the 12th Earl of Dunmore, Viscount Fincastle and Lord Murray of Blair, Moulin and Tillimet—who is one person—who did the other place a great service the other day by attending and speaking in the debate despite the fact that he has always lived in Tasmania, where he has now returned? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that there is any reason why that person should be legislating on behalf of the people of Britain?


No, I do not. However, it is consistent that the Conservatives, who gave votes to people living abroad, should rely for their majority on a very long list, which I shall not read out, of about 50 peers who live abroad and certainly would not serve on a British jury.

The first fundamental objection to the position of hereditary peers is that they are hereditary. The second, which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield missed altogether, is that they give one political party—the Conservative Party—an in-built 3:1 majority in the Lords, regardless of which party has the most popular support in the country.

Fifty years ago, a party leaders' conference on the future of the Lords agreed a memorandum that was signed for the Conservative party by the late Anthony Eden. Although there was not consensus on every aspect of reforming the Lords—hon. Members can read the full text in the Library—it was agreed that no one party should have a permanent majority in the Lords. That was in 1948, but one party does have a permanent majority. What exposes the Conservatives' complaints about our two-stage process as utterly hollow is that in the intervening period since 1949 they have done absolutely nothing to change that in-built majority. We know why—it has not suited them.

We all acknowledge the important work of the other place as a revising Chamber, but that function requires neither hereditary peers nor an in-built 3:1 Tory majority. We also know that when push comes to shove, the Conservative party has always been ready ruthlessly to exploit that majority in its favour.

On any basis, the poll tax was an issue of rather greater significance and popular controversy than the question of closed lists for the European parliamentary elections. As many of us recall, it was opposed by so many Conservative Members that the then Government's majority fell from more than 100 to just 23. What role did the 3:1 in-built Tory majority in the Lords play? Was it to stand up for the democratic will and to challenge the ambiguity of the Conservatives' 1987 manifesto commitment? No, it was not; it was to drive the Bill through regardless of the arguments.

The Conservatives' use of their in-built 3:1 majority has differed when Labour Governments have been in power. In an average Session when the Conservatives have been in power, there have been 13 defeats of Government business in the other place. In an average Session when Labour has been in power the figure has been five times that—on average 60 defeats, including the recent decision in the other place to override the elected will of this democratic House on five occasions in respect of the European parliamentary elections, forcing us now to use the procedures of the Parliament Act 1911.

I pose this question to Her Majesty's Opposition: if, by some freak of nature, the vast majority of hereditary peers had been overwhelmingly Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters and the in-built 3:1 unelected majority had been against their party, not in favour of it, would the Conservative party have been quite so relaxed about the reform of the other place? Of course not. The smile on the face of the shadow Home Secretary speaks for itself.

Mr.Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the recent record of the other place, including the poll tax. Would he care to comment on the constitutional propriety of the briefing to Conservative peers and Members at the time of the Queen's Speech that they should give zero tolerance to the Government's programme over the next Session—when the Government were elected with a massive majority?


The best comment that I can make is that that would be unwise for the Conservatives. They are paving themselves into a corner in choosing out of all the issues in the home affairs brief to concentrate on defending the hereditary principle when we have just had an admission—albeit through silence—that they recognise that they have never taken any action to reform the House of Lords because it gives them a convenient 3:1 majority. In many ways, I am delighted that they should draw public attention to such an issue.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

Will the Home Secretary give way?


No, if the hon. Lady will excuse me.

On the issue of the manifesto, two years ago Viscount Cranborne—now Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords—made a keynote speech on the constitution. It is worth re-reading, not least for its quaint assertions. He claimed that the "hereditary peerage"—more than half of whom went to Eton— are coming to represent the common man in Parliament". I tell the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that I do not think that half the members of the average jury will have gone to Eton.

The noble Viscount made an important admission in his speech. He engaged in an argument about our two-stage proposal, which had been well aired. He said that we should examine what Labour is proposing and test the justifications they give for their policy. It will then be for an informed electorate to decide". At the general election, an informed electorate did decide. Our commitment to a two-stage process could not have been clearer. We said in our manifesto: As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. By continuing to say that they will refuse to accept the will of the electorate on the two-stage process, the Tories put themselves in an entirely false position. As we have heard today, they have used the reverse of that argument on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.

Mr.Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?



The Opposition justify what they are doing on that Bill on the ground that the provision of closed lists was not included in our manifesto. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is right about that—we were committed to a proportional list, but we did not specify which kind of list. However, by using that argument, he is also saying that the manifesto should be treated as gospel and that, where it is detailed, there can be no doubt that the Government should be allowed to secure their business. If the Salisbury doctrine is to have any meaning, that must be the minimalist interpretation of it, but we are now told that both it and our manifesto are to be ignored. That is undemocratic and unconstitutional; it will not remotely impress the British people.

The Government believe that a second chamber can and should play a most important role. We value its wisdom and its work as a revising Chamber, as I hope we showed when we accepted a number of its amendments to two key Bills—the Crime and Disorder Bill and the Human Rights Bill. However, we believe that we must have a second chamber whose members sit in it by their own right, not by virtue of the acts of their ancestors.

In 1958, one of my distinguished predecessors as Home Secretary, Rab Butler, spoke on Second Reading of the Life Peerages Bill to introduce life peers into the other place. He said that the Bill would make it possible to offer life peerages to people of distinction in the public service, people who could represent some aspect of the nation's life with particular authority … men and women who will strengthen it the House of Lords by their knowledge of affairs and their experience and widely varied interests, political, scientific, economic, cultural and religious."—[Official Report, 12 February 1958; Vol. 582, c. 407–08.] We have always believed that life peers add great quality and diversity to Parliament, but we question why those who do not bring those values to Parliament on their own merits should be allowed to continue to sit in it. There is a world of difference between people who are appointed to a position on their own merit and people who are appointed to a position on the merits of their forebears.

Mr.John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?


I have given way many times and I need to come to a close.

As the Gracious Speech made clear, we intend to legislate in this Session to remove the sitting and voting rights of hereditary peers. We also intend to establish a royal commission and then a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider the longer-term future of a second chamber.

We shall be publishing a White Paper setting out our proposals, including those for a new system for the appointment of life peers. We have made it clear that under the new arrangements, contrary to the wild and inaccurate assertions of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, prime ministerial patronage will be reduced. We will seek to ensure the maintenance of a substantial Cross-Bench element in a second chamber, so that no party has an absolute majority—we shall be implementing the agreement between the parties that was signed in 1948. Even when we have done that, the Conservative party will continue to be the largest party in the other place. What more does it want?

We have made significant progress in our task of giving the constitution of the United Kingdom a radical overhaul. We look forward to further accomplishments in the Session ahead.

Mr.Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?


I am just coming to an end.

Much of the work on which we are now engaged—on standards in public life, on devolution and on the strengthening of local government—could and should have begun under the previous Administration. Prejudice and indecision prevented them from acting, and prejudice and indecision are the hallmarks of their opposition today.

The Conservative party's opposition is exposed as the hollow, opportunistic sham that it is by the fact that, although it huffs and puffs against the changes now, it will not—I guarantee—be pledged at the next election to abolish the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, to repeal a freedom of information Act or the Human Rights Act 1998 or even to reinstate the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

Her Majesty's Opposition know that they have manoeuvred themselves to the wrong side of the argument. They know that the British constitution needs modernising and we know that we are the party and the Government ready and able to deliver that modernisation.

5.36 pm
Mr.Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

The Queen's Speech and the Loyal Address at the beginning of a Session—especially the second Session of a Parliament—give a clear impression of the Government's priorities. This Government have, beyond doubt, decided to give the largest part of their legislative time to the abolition of the sitting and voting rights of hereditary peers—we know perfectly well that that will occupy a great deal of the legislative programme.

I shall not talk about all the other measures—some of which I agree with, some of which I anticipate and some of which I propose to oppose—that have been squeezed out. For some reason, the Labour Government have, in their second parliamentary Session, decided to make the abolition of the voting rights of hereditary peers the priority of the House of Commons.

I believe that the most important issue for the public in 1999 will be the British economy, especially when unemployment rises by hundreds of thousands. However, that will be debated tomorrow and my views on economic policy and mismanagement are well known. I wonder why the Government have made the centrepiece of their proposals this extraordinary attack on the hereditary peers, whom I will not defend—that is not the issue, as I shall make clear.

All that the Bill will do is remove the voting rights of hereditary peers. It is a more democratic and peaceful version of a policy that a former and more autocratic Government might have adopted—perhaps a few aristocrats' heads would have rolled in the baskets to relieve the starving masses of their problems. The political theatre of the House of Commons will be concentrated on the supposedly crucial matter of removing the voting rights of the large body of hereditary peers, but I do not think that that will work as a diversion.

The debate is about the constitution and Parliament, a subject that the Home Secretary seemed seriously to tackle in the first part of his speech. He launched into an interesting academic lecture, although he rightly decided that academic lectures—he has given a few good ones in his time—are not best given on the Floor of the House. He tried to cloak the matter with the dignity of a thought-through philosophy on the constitution and Parliament, the proper relationship between the citizen and the state and the checks on autocratic Governments.

The Bill addresses nothing of the kind. The Government do not work in that way. To say that the debate has anything to do with the long-term development of the British constitution is to elevate it above its true importance. The Prime Minister shows what he thinks of the constitution of the House of Commons—he does not believe that the House is important enough for him to attend or to take much interest in its proceedings. He throws the House Bills such as this one to keep the more difficult of his Back Benchers happy in fighting out old battles about hereditary peers.

The Government are embarking on a lot of constitutional reform, but they are doing so for short-term, party management reasons. They give ad hoc reactions to this and that crisis, but they neglect all the serious constitutional issues.

With hindsight, I believe that the Government of whom I was a member for so long were mistaken in becoming so immovable on the constitution. We should not have allowed ourselves to be put in a position where we seemed to be defending the constitution for every part of the United Kingdom as though it could never change. The benefit of having an unwritten constitution is that it evolves and changes. In the recent debates on devolution legislation, we accepted some of those errors, and that some of the changes—such as the creation of a Scottish Parliament—were permanent.

On devolution, the present Government made the error that they are now making on a bigger scale on the second Chamber. On Scottish devolution, we said, "We give up. We were wrong." We now wish to persuade the Scottish people that we accept that they will have a much greater role in governing their part of the UK in future, and that the Parliament is permanent. We will try to rebuild the Scottishness of our party in the Parliament.

The Government would not address the big issues—and the big, difficult issue is the West Lothian question, the existence of which was not even acknowledged by the Government. There is no answer to it in the arrangements that we have and, one day, it will explode. The Government instead argued about which Scottish Members of Parliament should be on the fixed list that they were proposing for the electoral system. Their aim was to beat the Scottish National party. I am not sure whether I hope they do or not; I suppose that, for the sake of the Union, I hope they do. However, the matter was totally misjudged, and we are left with a funny piece of the constitution that will have to be addressed—exactly the problem with House of Lords reform.

This is the first time that I have made a speech on the other place in all the time that I have been in Parliament. That is rather surprising. I have been here for a few Parliaments now—as long as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). I always assumed that if I carried on being elected by my constituency, it would not be long before I was voting for the abolition of the voting rights of the hereditary peerage—because of the easy arguments made by the Home Secretary. Those rights were nearly abolished shortly before I was elected, by all-party agreement.

I hesitate to give the exact number of years later, but I am genuinely surprised that we are only now discussing the removal of the voting rights of hereditary peers. If, at any stage, any Government of any complexion had asked me to vote for the removal of those voting rights, I would have voted in the Aye Lobby—if it was in the context of giving this House the opportunity to decide what sort of second chamber we should have. That is the point that the Home Secretary did not address. I never imagined that any Government would be daft enough to say that we should vote for the abolition of the sitting and voting rights of hereditary peers but not consider any other aspect of the second Chamber, or the consequences that that will have for the constitution.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Maria Eagle

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?


I shall give way to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who is obscuring the view of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle).

Fiona Mactaggart

How kind.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that nobody ever thought that any Government would be "daft enough" to undertake reform in two stages, could he perhaps explain why, when the Conservatives were not doing so well during the election campaign, they did not use as a major campaign item, designed to get more votes from the masses for their proposals, that part of the Labour manifesto which quite explicitly stated that this would be a two-stage process?


I did not think that the issue was worth a vote to anybody at the election—my constant regret when I speak on constitutional issues. Members on both sides of the House had to rush away to find exactly what was said in the manifesto at the last election. However, the idea that the Labour majority was based on the commitment to get rid of the votes of the peerage is somewhat exaggerated.

I cannot remember the last time anyone raised the issue with me, but I have made no secret of my views over the years. I always assumed that, eventually, we would address the question of the second Chamber—a substantial question.

First, one must ask whether we should have a unicameral Parliament or not. I have wavered on that over the years. In the past, I have almost fallen into the trap into which Ministers in the present Government have fallen: when the House of Lords was booting my Bills about, I wondered whether it might not be a good idea to have just a single chamber. On balance, I am against that.

We have a second chamber for the reasons that every other democratic state in the world usually has one: because it can provide some practical constraint on the occasional tyranny of the elected majority; because it can provide a check and a balance; because it can assist in drafting; and because it can occasionally cause a pause for views which are, in the instant, unpopular, but can be reflected upon as preserving minority and wider interests. Those are important issues. That is what the second Chamber is for.

It is not just a question of which party has the most seats at any given time, which is what the Home Secretary concentrated on. That part of the argument is obvious to the public, and the Home Secretary will not deal with it. He attacks the voting rights of hereditary peers—fine, I will not in any way defend them. He has already recounted how countless Conservatives have no intention of defending the voting rights of peers. However, he ignores the second part. What is the legitimacy of the body that we will leave once we have removed those voting rights?

If—in a healthy parliamentary democracy—we are to have a second chamber, it must have proper powers and a broad consensus of opinion behind it to give it the legitimacy to exercise those powers. There are many features of modern politics—most, but not all, down to this Government—which make the need to address the reform of the second Chamber more important than in the past. I fear, and I have no doubt, that the House of Commons has diminished in importance as a focal part of national debate for a variety of reasons.

I am a complete reactionary on this matter—I always was in government—but I think that a lot of the things that were done in the name of the reform of parliamentary procedure have weakened the ability of smaller groups of hon. Members to inhibit the progress of Government legislation. I never approved of the Jopling reforms, and I am afraid that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I were at one in our reaction to Parliament stripping itself of half of its effective ways of gently frustrating and delaying the Government and of bringing home to Governments the consequences of their actions. I knew that we would suffer from that when we were in opposition.

The power of the mass media has changed. I am not going to attack the media, but the fact is that the relationship with the media now dominates politics in a way that Parliament does not. Governments play to the media more than they need to—this Government more than most. The power of Alastair Campbell far exceeds that of the Leader of the House. Agenda setting is dictated by the way in which issues are presented. That means that there is all the more reason to look at parliamentary democracy, and at the checks and balances that two Houses of Parliament can impose on the Government. Single-issue lobbies are more powerful than ever. Commercial interests, as we know, can intrude on the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the process of government far more than in the past.

No task could be more serious than to look at the second chamber and ask what powers it requires, and I have touched on most of them. I can only give my personal opinions—they are my tentative opinions. The agenda has been forced, and I will wait for the royal commission. No doubt in the intervening time my views will become more crystallised.

I am driven to the conclusion that legitimacy will depend on having an elected element. Once we have changed the second Chamber, drawn it to the public's attention and said that it will not be what it was, the average intelligent member of the public will say that it cannot have legitimacy unless it has elected people. The people give legitimacy to Members of Parliament, and should be electing people for the second Chamber.

When we get on to voting systems, my eyes usually glaze over. However, Liberals will love debating the electoral system, the time scale of elections and whether members of the upper House should be elected for a longer term. In a senate or a second chamber, that matters. We will need something with legitimacy that is detached from the first chamber, and elected by a different method. The matter must be discussed, and as broad a consensus as possible reached, before we move on.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who no longer represents West Lothian—it has been renamed.

Mr. Dalyell

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he would wait for the royal commission. Does he recollect Michael Foot's adage that a royal commission can be like a broody hen sitting on china eggs? It may be a very long time before this particular royal commission reports. I was the late Dick Crossman's Parliamentary Private Secretary during the last attempt at Lords reform, and I know that it is a complex mire.

Mr. Clarke

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. This is one of the issues on which I also agree with my late boss, now Baroness Thatcher, who hated royal commissions. I hate them, too. They are a dreadful idea. They used to be set up only so that the Government could get rid of a subject on which they had no opinion and did not want an opinion. Usually, a raft of royal commissions is set up towards the end of a Parliament. Then, Ministers can go through an election refusing to answer questions about the subject, saying that they are waiting for the royal commission to report. After their re-election, they receive the report and put it on a high shelf where it can gather dust for a year or two while nothing actually happens.

To be fair, a few royal commissions have produced dramatic results, but it has been usual in the past for the most cynical Prime Ministers—Harold Wilson and people like him—to set up royal commissions when they wanted to get rid of a subject rather than because they wanted to do something. They wanted to get Parliament to shut up, and to stop demanding that something be done.

The royal commission could take a very long time, which is why we should let the two Houses of Parliament form a respectable group, or let the parties put together a group committed to coming up with some proposals on a time scale.

In a two-chamber system, the first House must obviously have primacy. The House of Lords should not be allowed more than a fixed delaying power. It should have drafting power, but its power to delay is very important. It should have no power over taxation, public expenditure or war and peace; indeed, no body in Europe outside Parliament should have such power either, but I should not be diverted from my task and into that point.

All those are big issues, but not one of them is addressed by the Government. In my opinion, the country needs a modern second chamber that can carry out some of the functions to which I have referred. The Government have raised a big issue. Modern government needs checks and balances more and more, a point not dealt with by the Government.

Even worse, the Government have given their case away by saying that they will set up a royal commission. They accept that there are big issues that ought to be addressed. They accept that Governments require checks and balances, but not the current Government. Some day in the future, a modern second chamber will address all the problems, but not under the Blair Government, and not now during their period in office. Apparently, the Government are so superior that they will sail on for two or three years without addressing the issues, except through discussion by the great and the good on a royal commission.

Mr. Straw

I am listening with care to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument, but his point is a parody of our position. We believed that there must be a two-stage process because of the history of the difficulty of reforming the other place in the face of its built-in 3:1. Another reason is the history of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's own party. At every stage, attempts to go for comprehensive one-stage reform have faltered. That was our experience in 1910–11. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that getting rid of the hereditaries will at least deal with the most objectionable part of the composition of the other place?

Mr. Clarke

The Home Secretary comes close to my case. Change was temporary in 1910. It has not been addressed since because it is difficult for the Government of the day to go for comprehensive reform. For 88 years Governments have decided that they cannot address the problem of the hereditary peerage. No Government have previously believed that the peers can simply be swept away without the big questions being addressed. The Home Secretary thinks that I am parodying his case, but the Blair Government appear to believe that they can be trusted to sail on safely with a second chamber entirely appointed by the Executive, or by a method chosen by the Executive.

Perhaps the Home Secretary can address my fears to some extent. He did not make it clear whether he thought that an appointed second chamber would be a temporary expedient, or whether it might be permanent. He did not rule out its being permanent. He did not accept that it would necessarily take a royal commission to decide that. Is it temporary? Or is the Home Secretary contemplating that it might be permanent?

The Home Secretary talked about improving the method of appointment. He talked, too, about the absurdity of a chamber in which people have inherited their right to vote, and I agree that that is absurd. It is, however, a pretty close second in terms of absurdity to suggest that a democracy such as ours should have a second chamber in which everyone has been appointed by the Executive, as if that were some strengthening of our political system.

The Home Secretary will have difficulties with such a chamber. As has been said, its Members will acquire their own sensitivities. He will find it difficult to canvas the idea that there might be an elected element to the second Chamber because the people who will oppose that idea will include all the great and the good—our old friends from both sides of the House—who, having put on the ermine, will think it extremely important that they should see their terms out. They will not be anxious to have elected successors.

Mr. Wilkinson

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a most important point about the legitimacy of the other place. Will he have the courage of what I hope are his convictions and say that we need a senate if the checks and balances to which he has alluded are to carry the support of the country? So long as the upper chamber is properly defined and its powers limited, surely a senate would meet the case? Otherwise, we would face the danger of having appointed senators for life, and they are not popular these days.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not mind whether we call it a senate or a House of Lords. My views on that are not firm, but the form of the chamber should be debated and contemplated before we make a change. I do not think that the Bill should be allowed to proceed without any further indication on such matters.

Maria Eagle

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Ms Oona King

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke

I shall take a final intervention, and I believe that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) tried to intervene earlier.

Maria Eagle

I have listened carefully to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech, which is, as usual, thoughtful. Will he explain why abolishing the hereditary peerage as a first stage would preclude any of the debate to which he has referred, and why a House of Lords consisting only of the life peerage would be any worse than what we have?

Mr. Clarke

If the Government would commit themselves to abolishing the voting rights of hereditary peers at the stage at which the House has agreed a replacement for the second Chamber, they would be in a respectable position. Constitutional conventions would mean that they would get their way, and the Salisbury doctrine should certainly be maintained. They would have embarked on major reform that would eventually end hereditary voting rights, but only once we had protected the rights of the citizen—that is what really matters, as the Home Secretary said—and of individuals who may belong to unpopular minorities, including those who belong to parties that are for the time being out of office. There must be checks and balances in the constitution to ensure that an overmighty House of Commons—or a Commons that is too weak and that is governed by a party management more interested in the media than in parliamentary democracy—cannot sweep Members along in its response to pressures of the moment.

In conclusion, I undertake that, if I am still a Member of Parliament, I shall vote for the abolition of the voting rights of hereditary peers, as I would have done at any time since I entered the House, if it is part of a Bill that gives the House of Commons the chance to decide what form of second chamber—a senate or a House of Lords—we are to have in a modern constitution. It is a farce to say that people such as me are defending earls from Tasmania and hereditary voting rights. I have never been interested in the slightest in defending such things.

However, the Bill is a piece of gesture politics that will take up an inexcusable proportion of the coming Parliament's legislative time. If it is swept through as it stands, it will be yet another example of so-called constitutional change by the Government which will do lasting damage and which will reduce yet further the role of parliamentary democracy.

6 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

I was excited when the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) tempted me to think that he would join us in the Lobby, but he spoilt his commitment to do so with a number of caveats that will not be satisfied. That aside, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is making a fundamental mistake if he thinks that the Government's approaches to the constitution are short term or ill thought out: they are not, and they will be remembered for many years to come as very significant to change in this country.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman made an important point when he suggested that the previous Government—of whom he was a member under Lady Thatcher—mistakenly believed that the constitution should not change at all, because a high price has been paid for that belief. I have been a long-term supporter of Scottish devolution—and, indeed, devolution for Wales and the English regions—and I watched as the Scottish people became more and more angry with the Government in London who seemed to be disconnected from Scottish interests. The result was the collapse of the Conservative party in Scotland, which has done the Conservatives no good and the Scottish National party much good. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that that is the case and I am sure that he also knows that, if the Tory party is ever to recover, it must recover in Scotland. It must address the needs of people in Scotland, and that is why I agree with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary when he claims that the Conservative party will not repeal any Act that gives extra powers to Scotland.

The Government are showing considerable courage and a well-thought-out strategy for change in three main areas. The first is the national and local impact of constitutional change; the second is the international aspect, including human rights legislation; and the third is the modernisation of Parliament itself. The three are linked, and it is important that we recognise that.

It has become clear that the British parliamentary system, which has been very successful over the centuries and has been copied by many other countries, has become rusty and archaic. It is a tragedy that we did not modernise it earlier. The most obvious area for change is the House of Lords, because even people such as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe have acknowledged that it is indefensible for the hereditary peers to vote, and to vote in such numbers as to overturn the majority will of the House of Commons. That is unacceptable and it must change.

I part company with the right hon. and learned Gentleman and most of his party over the lack of confidence that they show in the ability of this place and the country to modernise our constitution as we have done in the past. In relatively recent times—for example, the post-1945 period—we have written constitutions for other countries that have been remarkably successful. Those countries include not only Commonwealth countries, but Germany. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is, I understand, an admirer of the way in which the German constitution works, but it was largely written by the British. It was structured so that the second chamber was partly inclusive of local government structures, so that an authoritarian Government could not abolish local democracy as had been done in the past and—I have to say—as the previous British Government did in some ways. That was an abuse of centralised power and that is why we have to reverse what they did. If we have been so successful in writing other countries' constitutions, why does the Conservative party lack the confidence in the British people and Parliament to modernise our own?

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Gentleman said that the Government's plans were well thought out. Is not the difficulty with the reform of the House of Lords that we are being asked to embark on a process when we have not been given the benefit of the Government's thoughts on the outcome of the proposals? We are being asked to replace an eccentric and bizarre institution—albeit an institution with some real strengths—but we will not have an opportunity to debate or consider the likely outcome of the change and how practical and beneficial it will be.

Mr. Soley

The essence of that argument, which has been put time and again by the Conservative party, is, "We want to see an exact plan. We know that no one can draw up an exact plan that gets everyone's agreement to every dot and comma, so the change will not happen and we can carry on having the hereditary peers to give us our built-in Conservative majority." That is the argument, but it flies in the face of this country's history. To use a Conservative phrase, we don't do it that way. We build up change, and that has been a successful approach. The House of Lords dominates the argument to a degree that is not wholly desirable.

The other area of our constitution that must be modernised is local government. Devolution to Scotland, Wales and, I hope, London and the English regions is important. The roots of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe are in the north and he will remember that the most successful time for this country, economically as well as politically, was the last century. That was the time when our local government was most adventurous, assertive and politically and economically active. The great cities of the industrial revolution—Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool—fed the wealth of Britain and helped to create a local structure of rights and responsibilities that we undermine at our cost.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will also know that many great Conservatives came out of that system, but the Conservative party has lost its confidence to the extent that it no longer believes in what it achieved in the past. It is time that it looked back to its roots to see where it should go in the future.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

My hon. Friend may recall that the predecessors of the Conservative party opposed a Bill to give Manchester—by that time, the second or third largest city—any Members of Parliament at all.

Mr. Soley

My hon. Friend will understand that I am not defending everything that the Conservative party did in the 19th century. I suggest that the Conservative party has forgotten that a better and more appropriate system of local government was achieved at that time, and it does so at its peril.

Local government is important, and it is currently undervalued. We must address our responsibility for that, because Members of Parliament sometimes behave as though they are super-councillors. We must give power back to local authorities and we must give power to the regions.

One of Germany's greatest success stories was based on the economic development powers of its regions. Like almost all the other European countries, Germany has successful regional development, which we do not have here. The English regions do not enjoy the benefits that many of the European regions enjoy, but with devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions, we can start to do so.

When the Conservatives removed powers from London government, they left a big hole. No sensible decisions could be reached by 32 London boroughs meeting together. When they tried to decide which borough should have a waste disposal plant, none of them wanted one. If a city does not have a basic planning mechanism to underpin economic efficiency, why should anyone be surprised if that city becomes unattractive? For example, Frankfurt and Brussels argued that London should not be the home of financial institutions because it had a poor environment and economic infrastructure. One of the reasons for that is the lack of an effective government for London.

I shall turn briefly to the international aspects of constitutional change. Many changes are so dramatic and fast that they have an impact on our constitution beyond what we envisage when they occur. Britain's incorporation of the European convention on human rights is a significant step forward. Conservative Members should remember that that document was drafted by British jurists. It is curious that we gave the document to Europe and were the first to sign it, but did not incorporate it into our legislation. That is another classic case of the British saying, "Do as we tell you, not as we do."

That process left a number of holes in our system, which had worked well in the past. One cannot continue with a system that was built on the assumption that one could do anything that was not against the law, without recognising that the way in which the world has changed necessitates building into that system certain defences of basic human rights. That is why I welcome the change made by the Government.

I welcome also the signing up to the International Criminal Court, which reflects this place at its best. You would rightly check me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I began to talk about a recent case, but an historic, watershed decision was made by the Law Lords last week. That is curious because it fits so precisely with our past. One has only to walk through Westminster Hall to realise how, 400 years ago, this country was separating the political from the legal.

We advance the rule of law through a process of passing Acts of Parliament in a democratic structure. What happened last week was another step on that road which was very welcome and of which we ought to be proud. Whatever one thinks the outcome should be in that case, the process says that dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Milosevic should no longer be able to commit crimes and assume that they can never be called to account for them. That is one of the most important ideas growing throughout the world, and we should be proud of our part in its growth. The process started in Nuremberg in 1945, but it has moved on. We need to move it on again. Dictators who so appallingly disfigure the face of the 20th century with their torture and genocide can no longer assume that they can simply walk away. The International Criminal Court is part of that process. It has implications in that it limits our freedom to operate in other areas but it is important.

My final point, which is linked with the overall approach to the constitution, relates to the reform of Parliament. I speak as a member of the Modernisation Committee. I know that some of my hon. Friends are at times frustrated because the progress does not seem to be as fast as they would like it to be. It is important that we carry the other parties with us in reform as far as possible.

I, and many other Members, have thought for many years—hon. Members elected in the last election simply embellish our views—that Members of Parliament are no longer as effective as they used to be. Modernisation must therefore make Members more effective. We recognise that a delicate balance must be struck because Parliament is not the same as Government. Effective Members of Parliament may not always be good news for the Government, but it is important that we become effective because we have lost confidence in ourselves.

The House of Commons arranged for Members of Parliament to report back to it on the Jamieson raid at the turn of the century and on the Clerkenwell riots in the 1830s. When we have had cases such as arms to Iraq or the Brixton riots, we have arranged for the inquiry to be conducted by a judge or a civil servant. I mean no disrespect to those people but the House ought to have a little more confidence in its ability to deal with such matters itself. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the commitment in the Queen's Speech to a freedom of information Bill, not only for its own sake—although several correspondents have said that the Government were not planning to introduce it—but, more importantly, because the Queen's Speech said that there would be pre-legislative scrutiny in this House and the other place. There is much talk about stripping away the powers of the House of Lords, but hon. Members must recognise that we are giving the other place additional important duties.

There is an agenda of linked proposals which combines reform of Parliament with the reform of local government and of our national constitution in a way that very much fits, as I hope I have shown, with our history and our hopes and aims. If we achieve that, the Government will be remembered not only for years but for decades to come, and they will have changed the face of this country.

6.15 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

I follow the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) in recognising that the House and the country have tended to innovate step by step in constitutional matters. The hon. Gentleman described that as the way in which we do things and sought—in vain—to enlist the support of Conservative Members. Although he is right in his historical description of how we have proceeded, he will agree that the period of the outgoing Conservative Government was marked by their negativism and hostility to constitutional reform.

That was a period of stasis for which the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), as one of the most senior members of that Government, bore a heavy responsibility. He cannot shrug his shoulders and say, "Well, I know better now." He did immense damage in delaying the implementation of devolution in Scotland when the settled will of its people had been established before his Government took office. He cannot just say, "Perhaps we should not have disposed of the government of London without any proper authority to do so and left Britain's capital city without a representative government."

The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot use his arguments of letting the good be the enemy of the best to carry the support of the House for a further period of know nothing, do nothing on constitutional reform. He may be semi-detached from his party and not carry a great deal of weight with its members. His speech was markedly different from that of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), the official spokesman for the Opposition, who showed no regret about the past. In that, I suspect, the right hon. Gentleman was more honest than the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe because the right hon. Gentleman will continue as the Conservatives governed in the past. He saw fit only to make narrow criticism of the contents of the Queen's Speech and to make fun of attempts to reform the indefensible upper Chamber.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush did the Government less than justice on the broad scope of the constitutional reforms that were adumbrated in the Queen's Speech. There has been no point in history when a Government have proceeded with such a massive agenda for change as this Government have. The change is belated. That is not a criticism of the Government; reform-minded parties have not been in government for a long time.

Change is overdue and the fact that it has been proposed with the consent of such a large part of the British electorate is due to the awareness—contrary to what the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe said—that the economy is not always uppermost in people's minds. He left office as Chancellor of the Exchequer with a healthy economy for which he can claim a good deal of responsibility, But his party was swept out of office because the stench of corruption made the British public recognise that a change of system was more important than their short-term economic position. He would do well to learn from that lesson rather than read the Government a new one about how they should let the upper House well alone.

Mr. Grieve

Recent opinion poll soundings suggest that more than 60 per cent. of people polled think that it is highly undesirable that the Government should embark on reform of the House of Lords without identifying stage two. How does that square with the right hon. Gentleman's view that there is an overwhelming desire for the upper House to be reformed along the lines that the Government have proposed?

Mr. Maclennan

Two parties, which not only recommended reform of the upper House but precisely the way in which it should be reformed—as reflected in the Queen's Speech—commanded the support of 64 per cent. of the electorate at the election. I do not believe that the minds of the British public have been changed dramatically on that or, indeed, any other matter in the interim. The Government are entirely entitled to proceed on the assumption that they have the electors' support for this measure.

Mr. Tyrie

What are the Liberal Democrats really getting for selling their souls in the Lobby on this issue? Do not they realise that Labour's manifesto commitment on Lords reform is clearly self-contained and not dependent on any further reform? The Liberal Democrats are committed to a democratic upper House, but the likelihood of their getting it is entirely dependent on whether Labour ever delivers stage two—and the likelihood of that is very slim.

Mr. Maclennan

The likelihood of our delivering constitutional reform which modernises Britain's system of government is enhanced by the extent of the agreement that was reached prior to the election between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party, which has been sustained since the Government took office. That has resulted, as I have said, in an unprecedented programme, which is being implemented with deliberation and, indeed, rapidly by comparison with any previous episode in our history.

Although we share the Government's views on the appropriateness of their proposed programme, there is not an identity of view about the end point. That stems from a somewhat different approach to constitutional reform generally, and to what is desirable. Although the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, in his thoughtful speech, rightly recognised the step-by-step approach, it is time we acknowledged that we should be seeking to establish new fundamental principles in our constitutional settlement—principally the notion that constitutionalism is a safeguard for the rights of citizens. The constitution should rest on the sovereignty not of this House, but of the British people.

That is not a purely theoretical matter, for this House is capable of acting with authority in a majoritarian fashion in disregard of the rights of minorities. The rights of minorities can best be protected by a fundamental constitutional law to which the courts can pay proper attention when Parliament, for whatever reason, is unwilling or unable to do so. I know that such an argument appeals not at all to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, as his remarks about the position of asylum seekers showed. He is prepared to trade their interests for some column inches of headlines in the Daily Mail. We should be more sensitive to the rights and needs of minorities than Parliament is often able to be.

It may be said that, in enacting the Human Rights Act in the previous Session, we have moved a long way towards blunting the sharp edge of the old doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. However, hon. Members will remember that the Government were at pains to state in introducing the Bill and, indeed, in designing it, that it was not intended to limit parliamentary sovereignty; and that, where a clash occurred between the interests of minorities and the will of Parliament, the latter would prevail. That is why I unashamedly advocate a fundamental written law of the constitution. We shall not arrive at that point in one big step. The process, however, has been given a great fillip by the scope of reforms embraced by the Government and well begun.

One of the disadvantages of the piecemeal approach to reform is that it is capable of producing some incoherences. I fear that that has indeed been the consequence of proceeding with the decentralisation of government by route of devolution rather than by the introduction of a federal solution, to which my party is firmly attached. I predict that problems will become substantially greater unless the Government proceed, as they have said they may in due course, towards establishing a regional dimension in England, with powers for regional assemblies not merely to supervise the regional development agencies, which they are in the process of establishing, but over all the functions of government that were grouped together by the late Conservative Government in regional Government offices; these should be brought under the supervision and control of regional assemblies.

Such balanced home rule all round has long been an objective of my party, and clearly distinguishes it from the Labour party—in government and before—which has tended to yield decentralisation only under pressure from a particular part of the country.

The coherence of the settlement must be objective, notwithstanding the fact that different parts of the reform are proceeding at different speeds. I particularly draw attention, not only in the light of the significant judicial events in the House of Lords last week, to which several hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, have referred, to the fact that the political importance of the judiciary has never been more evident. It is important that, in the ultimate constitutional settlement towards which we strive, the independence of that judiciary should not depend, as it does today, on the independent-mindedness of the judiciary in which we have certainly been able to trust, but on the independence of its appointment and on constitutional safeguards.

That is not a matter of theory either, as is demonstrated by the provision of the Scotland Act 1998, which, until tackled, would have allowed the Scottish Parliament to remove judges on a motion without cause given. That is not only against the traditions of the Bill of Rights but a dangerous step. I believe that it was an attempt to subordinate the judiciary to the Executive—an attempt which it is right to resist. If we are to have in our constitution the checks and balances to which the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe paid lip service, they demand more than the conventions on which these things have rested hitherto, because it is clear how frail those conventions are when they come into conflict with the interests of parties seeking power.

There have been conventions in respect of the use of power by the upper House. There has been a convention—known as the Salisbury convention—that the upper House will not overturn, or prevent the passage of, legislation that has been foreshadowed in the manifestos of incoming Governments. That convention has been rudely shaken by the actions of Lord Salisbury's grandson and his colleagues in the other place, in respect of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. We cannot place any weight on such conventions in the face of such casuistry as has been shown in the discussion of that measure.

The Bill, as was its intention, would have clearly imported into our law the principles that had been foreshadowed in the manifestos of the Government and, incidentally, of the Liberal Democrat party.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

Let me finish the point.

The Bill clearly set out that there would be a move to a proportional system for elections to the European Parliament. The precise detail of the system was not a matter on which the Labour party or we had given a firm or final view, but the fact that a specific system was not favoured has been used by the upper House to defeat the clear and, I believe, authorised view of the Government that they have a mandate to introduce that legislation—and soon.

Does the hon. Gentleman still wish to intervene?

Mr. Lansley

I am afraid that further explanation did not remove my question. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the Government, in pursuing their mandate for a proportional system, did not say what type of proportional system it would be; and that, in that respect, the House of Lords, far from departing from the Salisbury convention, was within it? It was, in fact, exercising precisely the role discussed in this debate—that of causing the House of Commons to be checked and to consider again, and to consider in favour of a system of elections for the European Parliament that was manifestly preferred in debate, as opposed to what was insisted on by the Government Whips.

Mr. Maclennan

The House of Commons and the House of Lords have considered this matter several times. In opposing the measure, the House of Lords is abusing its position. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a violation of a long established convention; and it is good reason, and could be described as the occasio belli for the war against the hereditary peers that is about to break out—alas, for I would have preferred them to be removed by something other than outright war.

It is highly questionable whether it is appropriate for the Leader of the Opposition to seek to unleash those forces—once again, in defiance of the undertakings given by the party in government to the electorate before the general election. Nothing could have been clearer than the Labour party's commitment to reform the House of Lords in two stages, and it was right to take that view, for there is no conceivable reason why the hereditary peers should have any say whatever in the shape, functions or membership of the House of Lords that will replace them.

Mr. Wilkinson

If it is such a monstrous outrage to unleash these savage, slavering, old Etonian, ermine-clad, hereditary dogs of war in the other place, why do the public at large not appear to be incensed? I do not know whether I am unique, but I have had no letters of protest at what the hereditary and appointed peers have done in the House of Lords in postponing the passage of the Bill to this Session of Parliament—in fact, to the contrary. I have had letters to the effect that it is very good that we have had a chance to think again about the matter.

Mr. Maclennan

I believe that the hon. Gentleman, like many of his hon. Friends, lives in somewhat cloistered circumstances. Normally, the spectacle of their ermined Lordships opposing the will of the elected House of Commons may be regarded as simply ridiculous, but if it is sustained, it will be regarded as wholly unacceptable, and reason enough for the Commons to insist upon its will being done.

Mr. Grieve

Would the right hon. Gentleman care to tell the House the extent to which he has received representations from his constituents criticising the decision taken by the Lords to reject the legislation on closed lists?

Mr. Maclennan

Well, I have certainly had representations about it, but my view is well known, and it is evidently shared by many people, in my constituency and elsewhere.

I have to tell the Home Secretary, although he is well aware of my view, that I believe that the Bill would have had an easier passage in the upper House if he had accepted the system of election to the European Parliament that my right hon. and hon. Friends suggested, which would have provided for a mixed system, a semi-open-list system, allowing members of the public to vote for the party or, if they so chose, to alter the order in which the names were given in the published list—the Belgian system of election. The Home Secretary would have been wise to take that route, but the fact that he has not will offer me no comfort if, ultimately, the House of Lords seeks to overrule the clear and repeated wish of the House in this matter.

Perhaps more notable than the matters that have been considered regarding especially the future of the upper House are the omissions from the Queen's Speech in the field of constitutional reform—or at least the shy way in which intentions have been expressed, with hints that we may see more later, although not just yet. The Home Secretary spoke of the freedom of information legislation. That is a vital piece of the constitutional package, and it is disappointing, in view of what was said by the outgoing Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as to its state of preparedness, that we are promised no more than a draft Bill.

I know that the Government have it in mind to introduce several Bills in this Session and carry them over into the next. We have heard that they may do that for the financial services Bill and the electronic commerce Bill. Will the Home Secretary give thought to the possibility of introducing that freedom of information Bill in this Session, with a view to carrying it over into the next, to make certain that it is enacted as soon as possible? The delay was defended in the Gracious Speech in the name of open government, and of giving the House an adequate opportunity to discuss the measure. We view that with little sympathy, and wish to express our concern that the timetable is slipping.

A case for similar treatment could be made for the enactment of the proposal of the Neill committee on setting up an election commission. That would be a suitable matter for introduction in this Session of Parliament, although time might prove a little tight to allow it to be enacted before the next Session is complete. In a programme of constitutional reform as substantial as that which the Government have embarked upon, momentum must not be lost. There will always be reasons for delay. To be candid, it seems that in respect of the election commission the Opposition have a fair point in saying that they must have some assurance from independent, outside sources that the conduct of referendums is fair. I hope that the Government may feel able when replying to the debate to give an indication of their thinking on that point.

The Opposition have chosen to confine their discussion, in terms of their amendment on the wide constitutional issues, to three matters. The programme that the Government have embarked upon goes very much further than that.

I hope that I may be forgiven for concluding my remarks by returning to an issue that is of great importance, which is the report of the Jenkins commission. It seems highly desirable that the Government's clear undertaking to hold a referendum be fulfilled as soon as possible. I well understand their desire to see how the elections pan out in the spring, with new systems of election in place, but I hope that it will be possible shortly thereafter to take the first necessary steps giving effect to the undertaking to enact a Bill that will enable referendums to be held, and enable the people to decide on a fair voting system for the House in future.

6.42 pm
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) on a thoughtful speech about the constitution. I agreed with a great deal of it. I agreed particularly when he said that the present Administration is one of the most radical reforming Governments of the 20th century in terms of the constitution. Indeed, it might well be said that it is probably one of the great reforming Governments of the constitution of any century. The Government have gone further in changing our constitution than any Government that I can recall. I congratulate my right hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench on that.

I chaired a short part of the Scotland Bill Committee, which meant that I was not able to take part in any of the proceedings on that Bill at any stage. Therefore, this is the first opportunity that I have had to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who I know cannot be in the Chamber this evening because he happens to be in Scotland with Her Majesty the Queen opening the new museum for Scotland. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the skilful way in which he steered the Scotland Bill through this place and on the way in which, first, he steered through the House the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997. That was followed by the overwhelming yes, yes vote in Scotland for my right hon. Friend's proposals.

I am a longstanding supporter of devolution for Scotland. I believe that it is right. It ends an anomaly that has been present for far too long. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) mentioned the West Lothian question, but the poll tax question in Scotland was much more important than that. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to the poll tax in terms of the English Bill. The Scottish Bill, however, was driven through the House against the wishes of Members representing Scottish constituencies and against the wishes of the people of Scotland. It was clear that the poll tax was to be imposed on Scotland alone. The right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who now sits on the Opposition Front Bench, was a Scottish Office Minister at that time. He lost his seat as a result of the poll tax measure that he drove through the House.

That was the real anomaly in our constitution. It was the anomaly that allowed the House to impose on Scotland legislation that was not the wish of the Scottish people. I do not intend to take the route of making a speech about devolution at any great length. I merely say that I have always supported devolution as a democrat, as a means of improving democratic structures. It is part of the changes that the Government are introducing. I have never supported, and never will support, devolution on the basis of nationalism. I do not believe that devolution is about nationalism. Instead, it is about improving democracy in this country.

I shall give a mild warning to some of my hon. Friends. I wish that they would stop talking about the first Scottish Parliament for 300 years and start talking about it as a new democratic Parliament for the 21st century. That is what it is about. It is about democracy, not nationalism. Nationalism is backward looking and we are forward looking. We want to look forward to our new democracy.

I congratulate my right hon. Friends on the next step that they are taking, which is to abolish hereditary peerages. It is long overdue. I have heard some dubious defences advanced in the House, but I have heard nothing like the ones put so far on behalf of hereditary peers from Opposition Members. They are saying that however rotten something is, we should not cut out the rotten piece before we manage to build an entire new house around it. What nonsense. If someone has dry rot in his house, he gets rid of it. It may then be necessary to embark on some restructuring of the house but no one would leave the dry rot to damage the rest of the house while restructuring takes place.

Mr. Grieve

Would the hon. Gentleman like to identify exactly what it is about the present structure of the House of Lords which makes the hereditary element rotten—as opposed to the life peers element? What practical effect is it that he identifies as being rotten which requires removal at the initial stage?

Mr. Maxton

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary rightly referred to what was the English poll tax Bill. I would say that the Scottish poll tax Bill was even worse. The Government of the day pushed through the Scottish Bill even though the Conservative party had not referred to it in its manifesto. However, it was pushed through the House against the wishes of the Scottish people and Members representing Scottish constituencies. Equally, the House of Lords bowed it through almost without debate. That is an example of a rotten majority of hereditary peers being used to drive an unwanted measure through Parliament.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's analogy about rotten wood in a house. Those of us who find that we have rotten timbers in our house do indeed take out those rotten timbers, but it is generally a sensible precaution to have standing nearby the new timbers to put in place. Our argument is that the Home Secretary and the hon. Gentleman have no new timbers to put in place to replace those that they wish to cut out.

Mr. Maxton

The new timbers are there.

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe said that he would always vote for the abolition of hereditary peers. He essentially said that any royal commission established would get rid of hereditary peers. So what is wrong with getting rid of them now and then considering the future structure at a later date? That seems an eminently sensible thing to do. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said, there would still be a Tory majority because the Tories had 18 years in which to appoint their life peers.

I congratulate my right hon. Friends on their intent to abolish hereditary peers. I look forward to voting for the Bill that will have that effect when it comes before the House: it has been a long time coming. I am an historian and I remember reading Roy Jenkins's book entitled "Mr. Balfour's Poodle" about the 1911 crisis. I recommend it to anybody who intends to take part in later debates. There are some wonderful quotations from Winston Churchill, if from no one else, about the position of the House of Lords and hereditary peers.

There is a need to move on from the debate, as the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said. I hope that I am giving him the correct title—it is right honourable, is it not?

Mr. Maclennan

indicated assent.

Mr. Maxton

Yes. There are two reasons for changing the constitution. The first is to get rid of anomalies that have been present for a long time, as with the abolition of the voting and speaking rights of the hereditary peers and the introduction of devolution to Scotland. The second reason is the need to keep up with our rapidly changing world: to consider where we stand and how we can adapt or radically reform our constitution to take account of such change.

The internet introduces a totally new element into the way in which our people obtain information. All past Governments have relied on keeping information to themselves for the purposes of power, because retaining information gives them power over people who do not have that information. Suddenly, the internet has released such controls: people can watch me on the internet as I speak; they can read what I and other hon. Members have said in the debate on the intemet tomorrow morning; and they can read all the White Papers that the Government produce on the internet. People now have access to information as never before. The other day, there was a short piece on the "Today" programme about how dissidents in China use the internet to get information to each other and to change the way in which China operates.

Technology is advancing rapidly, yet what are we doing? I suggest that the next general election should use electronic voting: people should be able to go into a booth and put their vote into a machine which records that vote immediately. People might ask what that has to do with democracy, but I believe that it will encourage more people to vote. In my constituency, many people do not vote because they would have to travel a mile and a half, often walking past other polling stations, to get to their polling station and vote. Electronic voting would allow people to use any polling booth in the constituency and, eventually, any polling booth in the country.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I know of the hon. Gentleman's fondness for electronic matters, but his remarks are rather wide of the amendment we are debating.

Mr. Maxton

I thought that we were talking about the Gracious Speech and that, therefore, we could go a little wider and refer to other constitutional changes that might be introduced. However, I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We have a Government who are introducing radical change. This place will increasingly become an anachronism if it does not change itself. That does not mean minor tinkering around the edges of procedures, but radical change to the way in which we look—getting rid of costumes and many other things—and to the way in which we operate. However, as you will again rule me out of order if I go too far down that path, Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me say only that I am disappointed by the decision not to introduce electronic voting to Parliament. I think that that was a mistake; I hope that the Government have not completely abandoned the idea and that we shall return to it at some stage.

The time has come to hold a Speaker's Conference or to set up a royal commission—however much people might criticise them—to consider whether this place is viable in a modern technological democracy. Is it not time to consider whether we should move from these premises to a new Parliament building, purpose built for the 21st century, instead of continuing to work in a building that is no longer usable in terms of modern technology? I hope that the Government will consider my remarks and institute some sort of mechanism whereby we can put our ideas and proposals to a commission or a Speaker's Conference.

The right hon. Member for Devizes sits with a smirk on his face. With the poll tax in Scotland, he did more damage than any other man. He is now supposed to be in charge of devolution matters—

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Maxton

Well, he was when the Scotland Act 1998 went through. His job now is to sit and smirk and try to put people off their speech—he is not going to put me off. It is time for radical change, and that means more than reform of the House of Lords and devolution. The next step is to change this place—the House of Commons. We need to leave and go to a modern Parliament building somewhere else.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It might be of help to the House if I read out the following statement. The scope of the debate is determined by the amendment before the House, which relates to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, the House of Lords and the Neill committee report. Reference to other constitutional matters should be made only as background to those main subjects.

6.56 pm
Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton). If I can find my way through my notes, I shall refer to some of the points he raised—albeit, you will be glad to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not those relating to electronic communications or the other matters that so move him, but about which I know little.

Before I forget, I should like to refer back to a point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). I agree with his exhortations to the House to have more confidence in its own ability to conduct its own inquiries, rather than farm them out to judges and other dignitaries beyond our bounds. That makes sense only if the House equips itself with those outside experts to use in the Committee that would look into such matters. I hope that the Government and the House authorities will carefully consider that.

I start on a conciliatory note—at least, one that is conciliatory to the Government, if not to most of my right hon. and hon. Friends—by welcoming the undertaking to introduce an age of consent Bill. Before you intervene to rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should say that this leads directly to the subjects for debate. I welcome the undertaking because the current age of consent, 18, is unrealistically high. It is certainly cruel to those young men who are permanently homosexual and it offers absolutely no help or real protection to those who are passing through a phase on their way to heterosexual orientation.

It is extremely satisfactory that the new Bill will strengthen the protection of teenage boys and girls from those who take advantage of special positions of trust. I hope that the improvement will ensure that the Bill will now pass in another place. However, we have their lordships to thank for the chance to present them with a better Bill. That would have been less likely had the other place been filled only with placemen and party political loyalists, as the Government are—whatever they say—likely to go some way further in contriving, at least for the foreseeable future.

Like most of my hon. Friends, I see no merit in the bald proposal simply to exclude hereditary peers. If the White Paper is coming as soon as the Home Secretary says it is and we are well down the road of stage two, there is even less reason to act now. Let us wait for both stages to come together and consider them simultaneously. The Government are foolish to press on in the way they propose: the passage of such a Bill will take an inordinate amount of time—time that the Government will find they can ill spare from their legislative programme. I do not believe that it is all part of a well-thought-out stage plan.

The Government might calculate that they will gain some sympathy by persuading the public that they are fighting valiantly on behalf of democracy against the massed might of feudal reaction, but the electors are shrewder than that. They will suspect that the Government are engaged in a shallow exercise, not a constructive piece of reform. They will realise that the Bill will make the other place not a whit more democratic, but visibly and obviously less independent. Above all, the passage of the Bill will continuously remind the public—

Maria Eagle

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Can he define what he means by independent? The current composition of the House of Lords suggests that it is Conservative rather than independent.

Sir Peter Lloyd

I believe that the hereditary peers are particularly independent. The fact that— [Interruption.] I know that better than the hon. Lady, because I served in the previous Government and know the number of amendments that we were obliged to take account of and adopt. On the whole they were sensible amendments, and many of them improved Bills, but they were uncomfortable for the then Government to recognise. I believe that the House of Lords as presently constructed has independence as one of its merits, but, as I shall say later, the upper House needs thoroughgoing reform.

The Bill will remind the public continuously what a sensible Government would not, and should not, want to advertise: that they are concentrating on stage one because they seem to have absolutely no idea of what to do for the all-important stage two. I hope that Parliament will resist stage one successfully. If it does not, I fear that the Government will be sufficiently satisfied not to hurry to get round to stage two. We need a fully reformed second Chamber—one that has dealt with the hereditary principle, which, although it introduces valuable people in the upper House, cannot now be defended.

We will not achieve full and workable reform in this piecemeal fashion. I could accept even the Home Secretary's two-stage argument, so long as we knew what stage two would be while we were considering and voting on stage one. We would get full and thoroughgoing reform much more quickly and much more effectively if the Government had the sense to put the two parts together.

No doubt the long-drawn-out struggle on hereditary peers will be a handy excuse for the Government, who look as if they are to renege on their election promise to hold a referendum on the electoral system. The wording in the manifesto was such that it led the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), his hon. Friends and everyone else to believe that the referendum would be in this Parliament. I am disappointed that the Government seem to be going back on their word, not out of indignation on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, of course—and certainly not because I believe that proportional representation would be an improvement; I do not—but because the matter should be argued out and then settled by the electors in a reasonable time scale. Held over as an ever-present but indefinitely postponed possibility, it will have an unhealthy, distracting and debilitating effect on the work of this House.

Nevertheless, the Government show all the signs of wanting to avoid any such referendum. They know that it would be divisive in the Labour party, and they perhaps fear that they would not win. Above all, they know that the Prime Minister would have less of a hold over the Liberal Democrats once the issue had been decided one way or another. He would no longer have the ever-receding promise to dangle before them.

As the Gracious Speech reminds us, the Government were the reverse of tardy in setting up the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly after conducting referendums, which brings me to a large part of what the hon. Member for Cathcart said. Every Conservative Member hopes that the Government and the hon. Member for Cathcart will be proved right in their belief, not that Scotland and Wales are nations—that has never been in doubt—but that they are nations that can be fulfilled and comfortable in the United Kingdom only if they have their own separate national Assemblies in which their nationhood and distinctiveness can be expressed politically.

Likewise, we hope that the fears of many Conservative Members that this kind of devolution will, on the contrary, point up differences, create new areas of conflict and drive the nations of the United Kingdom further apart will be proved wrong. We shall see.

All Conservatives will want to make the new arrangements work as well as possible now that they are in place, but what the Gracious Speech does not acknowledge is that the West Lothian question remains unanswered. It remains unanswered partly because the referendums were held before legislation had gone through the House, which felt disbarred from altering in legislation what appeared to have been promised and approved in a referendum.

The West Lothian question must be answered at some stage, however, if the United Kingdom is to function harmoniously. It can, no doubt, be left over while the Government have a good majority in England as well as in the United Kingdom as a whole, but there will come a time when a Government who do not have such a majority in England seek to impose a policy on England, in respect of a matter that is devolved in Scotland, which is unacceptable to the majority of MPs representing English constituencies. That will create a crisis which would not be contained without further fundamental constitutional change.

This is very much unfinished business, left by the referendums. It has the capacity to blow this House apart, if it is not faced with timely imagination, but the words that the Government have used in the Gracious Speech give no hint that they recognise that, let alone how they propose to resolve the dilemma. The dilemma remains to be dealt with, partly because the referendums were held before the legislation had been examined by Parliament, and because Parliament undoubtedly felt diminished in its capacity to consider the legislation radically when Bills were presented to it.

If referendums are to become a regular part of our system, as they appear to be, I hope that we can find a way of conducting them that will make it less likely that such problems will be produced by the results. That will not rule such problems out, but they should at least be considered before—and at the same time as—the people consider the matter.

7.7 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

It has been enlightening—in popular speech, the word "not" would usually be used after phrases such as that—to hear the attitude of Conservative Members towards House of Lords reform. It goes without saying that there is no justification for the hereditary principle; it also goes without saying that the Tories will defend it until their dying breath.

We know that the Conservative party has a love of the hereditary principle that stretches back a long way. It is interesting—instructive, even—to note that, in the 17th century, the Tories were called the Abhorrers, because they abhorred the Addressers—the Liberals; credit where it is due—who demanded that King Charles II listen to their address of Parliament and give Parliament a whirl. That, naturally, sent the Abhorrers absolutely round the bend. To be frank, they went berserk because they were outraged that anyone could question the principle of hereditary power—and they are still taking the same line 300 years later.

I have to put it to Conservative Members that, if they are ever going to get the hang of this modernisation thing, they had better start now.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Lady comment on why, leaving aside Conservative Members, 60 per cent. of the electorate do not seem to have got the hang of this modernisation thing in respect of the House of Lords, because they disapprove of the Government introducing the two-stage process without saying what the end product will be?

Ms King

It is clear that the British public disapprove of Tories having an in-built majority because their ancestors did some favour to some king, queen, duke or whoever 300 years back. I do not believe that that is a reasonable argument.

The Tory amendment mentions how the Government's plans will turn the House of Lords into an enormous quango". As a journalist said yesterday, better a quango of the living than a quango of the dead. The current quango was put in place in the 12th century. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said that, for some reason, the Government persist in reforming the House of Lords. Let us spell it out: the reason is the minor issue of democracy. That is why the Government are reforming the House of Lords. There are 626 hereditary peers, two of whom are from ethnic minorities and 16 of whom are women, which is less than 3 per cent.

I do not expect Conservative Members to take this argument seriously. Look at the Conservative Benches. Does anyone see a woman sitting there? I often look across at those Benches. On these Benches, more than 40 per cent. of the Labour Members present are women, because the Labour party is more democratic.

Mr. Tyrie

Is the hon. Lady aware that, in his new appointments to the House of Lords, the Prime Minister is making roughly the same proportion of women peers as did the previous Prime Minister? There has been no sizeable increase in the proportion of women being sent to the House of Lords.

Ms King

What I am aware of is the fact that the Prime Minister will reform the House of Lords, so that the current principles will no longer apply. I also note that Baroness Uddin, the recently appointed peer from my constituency, is the first Bangladeshi woman to be appointed. Unlike the Tories, the Labour party uses its powers to promote representative democracy.

I find the Tory position shameful, and I think that many Conservative Members do, too, and are unable to defend it. Could there be anything more like a closed list than the hereditary principle? When did the seat of Cranborne come up for election? Was there consultation? Who was on the shortlist? The hypocrisy is mind-boggling, and the transparency of the Conservative party's argument is almost indecent.

The closed list is in line with the basic premise of our democracy, which is the party system. The party chooses the candidate. I have never heard Conservative Members rail against that principle, because each and every one of them were elected under that system. Everyone in this Chamber was elected on that principle. The Tories support the hereditary principle for no other reason—except perhaps family attachments—than that it guarantees them an in-built majority.

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe made a great speech in favour of the status quo. His ancient forebears, the Abhorrers, would be proud of him. It would be funny if it were not so sad. He spoke about the need for legitimacy. How does he justify leaving the Tory hereditary in-built majority in place for the two or three years it will take the royal commission to report?

It is clear that that majority is illegitimate—as the right hon. and learned Member intimated—and it must go. It is also obvious that the Tories will continue to cling to their illegitimate power for as long as they can. That is shameful to us and to most of the country. I have heard my hon. Friends ask, "What more do they want?" It is crystal clear what they want: they want blood—blue blood. They will continue with their spurious arguments as long as they can to keep that unfair, in-built, hereditary majority.

In the meantime, if the Lords persist in voting to thwart the will of a democratically elected Government, they will be like turkeys voting for Christmas. I admit that that is a cliché, so I was pleased to note that they may also be turkeys voting at—I stress at—Christmas. I should like to put on record my best wishes to them for a merry Christmas and a happy new year, because it will be the final new year of this or any other millennium in which the Tories will be able to use their illegitimate, hereditary power. I shall also be charitable enough to say that I hope they rest in peace.

7.15 pm
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

I was surprised that the Labour party put reform of the Lords in its manifesto, because history tells us that it becomes a bed of nails in the end. I fear that that will also be the case this time round. Now that the Government have decided to reform Parliament, we must all decide what we want for the upper House.

The first matter to be clear about is whether we really want a second Chamber. I believe that it is right to have some check on the almost untrammelled power wielded by the Executive in this House. Many Labour Members disagree, but they have not said so tonight—although I think I noticed the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) nodding in favour. Three times this century, Labour has been committed to abolishing the upper House completely—most recently in 1983. Indeed, it was one of the founding thoughts of the Labour movement.

The Conservative party accepts the need for a constitutional check on the Executive's powers in this place. The trouble is that their power is becoming untrammelled. The restraint on that power has traditionally come from independent Back Benchers, but their numbers have been in decline for many years, and under new Labour they are an endangered species. I expect that they will shortly be extinct—there will then be only a few dinosaurs left, such as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who usually sits just below the Gangway.

I do not want a weak Executive; I want a strong Executive, but an Executive who remain accountable to Parliament. Everywhere we see Labour circumventing Parliament, and slipping out of accountability to this place. By carrying on in that way, the Labour party has made the strongest possible case for bicameralism.

Mr. Lansley

Does my hon. Friend agree that, far from the debate on closed lists being a cause of war, as the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) suggested, it has shown that, although independent-minded Labour Back Benchers may have spoken against closed lists, none of them voted against them? It took the House of Lords to provide a check on the Executive's desires.

Mr. Tyrie

That is an excellent point. We have scarcely seen any independence or preparedness to speak out. As I said, the independent Labour Back Bencher is an endangered species.

The second matter we have to decide is how best to make an upper House effective. I believe that only with an element of democratic legitimacy can a second Chamber perform its job effectively in the 21st century. Without it, the Lords will rarely have the confidence to ask the Executive in this place to think again. We must go down the democratic route in reforming the second Chamber.

The third major issue we have to decide is the powers of the second Chamber and the balance between the two Houses. If the risk of constitutional gridlock is to be avoided, one House should have the last word, and it must be this House. The role of the second Chamber should not be to replicate what the Commons does, but to give the Executive time to think again on contentious issues, and to act as a constitutional long stop.

The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, and the precedents that have grown up around them, form a sensible basis for the division of powers between the two Houses. None the less, there is a case for some change. The Lords have an absolute veto on only one issue: a Bill to prolong the life of a Parliament. Perhaps that absolute veto should be extended to cover other constitutional issues.

I have mentioned three issues on which I think it is important for the House to come to a view. Has the Prime Minister been thinking about the need to bolster accountability or for a balanced constitution? I do not think that he has for a moment. I do not think that he has any intention of improving parliamentary democracy, or of making the second Chamber more effective. That is why we are having reform in two stages, and why the manifesto said that stage one should be a self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future". That is why the manifesto is virtually silent about stage two. Labour was never serious about that.

I have never heard the Prime Minister put the case for a revising body, or for a constitutional long stop. All that I have heard from him, from time to time, is the language of class politics, some of which I have found nauseating. I am not convinced that the Prime Minister even believes that there is a case for an effective second Chamber: he has never given us any evidence to support the view that he has such a belief.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

What about this Chamber?

Mr. Tyrie

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I sometimes am not sure whether the Prime Minister even believes in parliamentary democracy here: he is scarcely ever present. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister should come here more often if he wants us to believe that he takes the place seriously. That is what all previous Prime Ministers have done. His voting and attendance records must be worse than those of any other Prime Minister in British history. I have not checked that, but I shall be surprised if I am not right. Winston Churchill, after his stroke, may have rivalled the present Prime Minister's record, but, if so, his is the only case after 1953.

The country can learn something by watching the way in which the Prime Minister has treated his own party. Before the election, we were told that it was safe to vote Labour, because the Prime Minister had the party under his control. Well, the hon. Members for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), and, in particular, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan)—who is quite a moderate man, as I have got to know—can testify to what the Prime Minister's control over the party really means. It is a type of control that the British constitution can do without. It uses the language of modernisation to disguise a ruthless centralisation of power at No. 10 Downing street.

We are already seeing that centralisation in the discussion about the House of Lords. We do not have to wait to find out; we do not have to guess what the Prime Minister is going to do with an appointed quango; we can see what he is doing now. He has appointed 105 peers so far, at an annual rate of 67. That is three times the average annual rate of the past 40 years, and almost three times the rate achieved by his predecessor. [Interruption.] Labour Members are making some very banal remarks.

In fact, the Prime Minister has appointed more peers since coming to power than have been appointed at any comparable time during this century. Harold Wilson's second Administration—even boosted by the "lavender list"—only got the annual average up to 38. What is more, the Prime Minister's appointments are blatantly partisan. Fifty-four per cent. of those appointees are taking the Labour Whip. I have been able to check back only as far as 1958, but in that time, no Prime Minister has let the number in his party rise above 50 per cent.

Incidentally, the figures for new peers exclude a number of Cross Benchers who are listed as having donated more than £5,000 to the Labour party—and then there is the Islington mafia. No wonder the accusation of cronyism will stick.

Maria Eagle

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the record of previous Prime Ministers from his party? Lady Thatcher created 205 peers, of whom 98 were Conservative, and the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) created 160, of whom 75 were Conservative. We are talking about a percentage of about 50. The current Prime Minister's appointment of 54 per cent. of peers from the Labour party in the first year of the Labour Government goes nowhere towards redressing the 3:1 majority of the Conservative party in the House of Lords. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that the number of Labour peers has made much difference?

Mr. Tyrie

Lady Jay has made it clear that, following the removal of hereditary peers, there will be a rough balance in the upper House, and, therefore, the Labour appointments can be explained only on a partisan basis. The figures that the hon. Lady gave make my point for me. I think that she will find that they are 47 per cent. respectively for the two most recent Conservative premierships—although I may be slightly out, because I made the calculations in my head while I listened to her. As for the 54 per cent. figure, which I calculated beforehand, this is a sharp increase on figures in the mid 40 per cent. range.

We are moving into an era of Blairite patronage: an era in which packing the House of Lords will be the norm. We are beginning to witness an unacceptable exhibition of prime ministerial power, which the country will start to notice. So far, people have not noticed it at all.

The Prime Minister says that there is no need to worry, because he will hand responsibility for all the appointments that we have been debating to an independent committee; but what confidence can we have in such a committee? We know from the Jenkins commission that it is possible to rig an outcome by appointing people who hold only one view. Why should we believe that there will be any more independence in the new committee than there is in the existing honours committee? We have been given no explanation to that effect.

The Prime Minister has breached all precedents, in regard to both the scale of his appointments to the House of Lords in the past 18 months and the proportion of Labour supporters whom he is putting there. He is breaching other precedents as well—for example, on consultation.

There is a long-standing precedent for consultation on House of Lords reform. On each occasion during this century when a Government proposed comprehensive reform—in 1910, 1948 and 1968—they invited the major parties beforehand to consult on the future of a second Chamber, but that has not happened this time. It is outrageous that this Government should proceed with fundamental reform of the House of Lords without at least trying to establish agreement with the major parties first.

The Bill threatens to eradicate all remaining independence of the second Chamber. That has stirred even a friendly press against the Prime Minister: even Alastair Campbell could not control it. So we have been offered a sop—and what is it? It is the sop of a royal commission to look at stage two reform. What confidence can we have in that? Labour will not even tell us its terms of reference; it certainly has not done so today. Will those terms of reference be to work up proposals for a largely democratic upper House, or would a wholly appointed Chamber do? Unless Labour rules out a wholly appointed House, the royal commission may merely decide to rubber-stamp the existing stage one proposal.

Then there is the membership of the commission. How confident can we be that it will not be another case of "packing", as we saw with the Jenkins commission? We must face the uncomfortable truth that royal commissions have a habit of kicking issues into the long grass. Stage one will be with us for a long time.

I am very disappointed in the Liberals. Unfortunately, only one of them is present, but I suppose that is better than none. They have decided to team up with the Government, and to abandon their traditional role as an Opposition party. What do they think that they have got out of their constitutional deal? I can only assume that the answer is proportional representation—the wrong kind—in regard to European elections.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

For the moment I shall refer merely to the Human Rights Act 1998, devolution for Scotland and Wales, London government and the move towards regional assemblies, as those are the only examples that come to mind immediately.

Mr. Tyrie

Has the Liberal party influenced any of those decisions? Do they think that they will secure anything more as a result of their constitutional pact? Have they not understood that, when the Prime Minister says, "Closed lists it will be", closed lists it is?

Where has the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) brought the Liberals? They have abandoned the proper and traditional role that they should have. They want a democratic upper House, but they should surely realise that that is the last thing that they will get if Labour secures stage one reform without our having first debated and clarified what stage two will contain, and when we will secure it.

Only one course is open to those who sincerely believe in the diffusion of power, and in the need for checks and balances in the constitution. Only one course is open to all of us who are suspicious of an over-mighty Executive, whoever may be in control of them. We should oppose the Bill, and we should call for Labour to abandon the artificial distinction between stages one and two. If we are to have Lords reform, let us have one Bill, let it come before the House after all-party consultation and let it be a Bill to strengthen the legitimacy of the House of Lords.

7.29 pm
Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

Just 18 months ago, I was elected by the people of Salford to try to ensure that their voice was heard in Parliament and, indeed, by Government. I have done my best in that regard, but it has become increasingly clear to me that one of the biggest challenges for all of us is the requirement to make politics relevant, and to ensure that our decisions here reflect the priorities of those whom we represent. If we are really committed to representing our communities, it is clear that we must revitalise our democracy, reinvigorate our Parliament and renew our constitution.

I have listened to the debate. I have heard the Opposition become more excited and animated than for some time. They certainly were at the beginning of the debate; time has perhaps taken its toll already. They have become excited and animated about the subjects that they have chosen to put in their narrowly worded amendment. They have become excited about the virtues of closed lists and open lists for the European parliamentary elections. They have become over-excited about the composition of the House of Lords and the need to retain the rights of hereditary peers to vote and to influence our legislation. Those may be the sort of issues that excite and animate the Opposition, but they are not the sort of issues that excite and animate the people whom I was sent to the House to try to represent.

Perhaps the best speech that I have heard this evening was made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who made the most down-to-earth, practical statement of the changes that he would like. The only difficulty was that he wanted to vote for the abolition of the right of hereditary peers to vote, but not yet. Perhaps we have the chance to persuade him to be a little more forthcoming in the way in which he approaches the issue.

Mrs. Laing

The hon. Lady may be surprised to hear that I entirely agree with what she has said. Has she thought of asking her Government, whom she supports, why we are spending so much time on those issues, which, as she rightly says, do not excite the people—who sent her, me and all hon. Members here to talk about education, health and the economy? Why are we spending so much time on those internal issues?

Ms Blears

We are spending so much time on those internal issues because, as I understand it, the issue of closed lists versus open lists has been debated on six separate occasions in the House. The Opposition have wanted to take up valuable parliamentary time in discussing those fairly arcane and irrelevant issues. If the Opposition show some common sense, we could get those matters through this House and then concentrate on jobs, the national health service and improving our communities.

There is a fundamental issue at stake in debates such as this one, about constitution and Parliament. We can discuss and pontificate all that we like, and I have no doubt that the debate will be vigorous and fascinating for those who are in the political class and for those who exercise power, but a whole swathe of people are completely disaffected and alienated from the political process. In recent times, there have been worrying developments in my constituency and in most of the great cities—in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and London.

At the last general election, the turnout in my constituency was barely 60 per cent. Average turnouts at local government elections last year were between 20 and 25 per cent.; in inner-city wards in my constituency, they were between 11 and 16 per cent. I use that simply to illustrate that a large section of the community that we are supposed to represent in the House is completely disengaged from the political process. The longer that we spend discussing the virtues of closed lists and open lists and arcane internal politics, the more we exclude those people from our discussions, from deciding their future, from engaging in politics and from being part of what is an important political process.

There are people in my constituency—I was shocked at this—who genuinely do not know even how to vote. Generations have not worked and generations have not voted. They do not know what happens at the ballot box. A young person has asked me, "Will I have to write an essay on politics? Will the council be able to trace me for my poll tax debts?" That is the situation that we are in. People do not know how the system works. They are not a part of our democracy or of our constitution.

Mr. Allan

Does the hon. Lady accept that, to an extent, political parties must take the blame because, in safe seats, they tend not to work so hard? Does she agree that fairer voting systems, in which every vote counts, are an important way of ensuring that political parties work in those areas because they will need the votes?

Ms Blears

I represent the area where I was born and brought up and where I have lived all my life. No one works harder than me and my party to try to engage people in politics. It is a fairly superficial argument to say that proportional representation will be the answer to all the problems of engaging the community back in politics. This is a more fundamental issue about making people feel that they have a stake in their community, that they can affect what goes on and that they can make a real difference to their lives. Simply imposing another structure and another process is not the answer. We must fundamentally engage with people, use relevant and accessible language and express political ideas in a way that catches their imagination and fires their enthusiasm to be part of a political process.

I emphasise that the system of politics and democracy that I want is not looking backwards towards the House of Lords, or towards a system of privilege, power and elite, or to history. It looks to the future and engages the people whom I have talked about, making them feel that they can make a difference. It is vibrant, modern, fresh and alive. In this House, the sooner we stop talking simply to one another and having incestuous debates that do not relate to the people, the sooner our democracy will begin to live and be able to breathe new life into civic and parliamentary affairs.

In their wider constitutional proposals, the Government have a dramatic programme for increasing citizenship and for making people feel that they have a stake in the affairs of their country. I look forward to the Government implementing their programme to begin to reconnect the people with democracy.

7.36 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I listened with interest to what the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) said and I disagreed with most of it, save to say that she is right to draw attention to the fact that there is less concern to be involved in political issues these days. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) is probably right to say that the political parties have something to do with that, but the way in which we organise ourselves in this House has something to do with it too. This is an extremely important debate. Far from being irrelevant, it goes to the heart of what we should be discussing in this House—the great constitutional issues.

The great issue that we are discussing tonight is the total absence of the Government's plan for an alternative to the revising chamber in this Parliament. That is a national scandal, to which attention has been drawn by all Conservative Members. There has been no acknowledgment from Labour Members of the constitutional vandalism that they are wreaking.

The measure that is included in the Queen's Speech is the seventh of a series of measures that are wreaking huge constitutional change. The Home Secretary referred to incremental change, which was a complete misnomer. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) had it right when he said that, in constitutional terms, this is probably the most radical Government this century.

The proposal to abolish the independent revising chamber of this Parliament, the other place, is the seventh measure. It follows devolution in Scotland and Wales, which is now all coming adrift; and the creation of a new tier of government in the English regions, which no one in my part of the world, the south-east, wants. They think that it is merely another unnecessary tier of local government. Together with what is going on in Scotland and Wales, it is stoking up the demand for an English Parliament. The Government have no idea of the whirlwind that they are going to reap from the changes that they are forcing on the British people.

The third measure is the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into our legislation. I have said this to the House before, and I apologise for saying it again, but it is important that Labour Members should understand: incorporation will change fundamentally the ways in which the House operates and is regarded by the people outside. That measure will put power into the hands of the judges in a way that they do not currently enjoy. So long as those judges reflect the prejudices of the Labour party, it may be content with that, but there will come a time when the judges do not reflect its prejudices and when it starts to realise that, instead of coming to the House to seek the redress of grievances, our constituents will make their way to the law courts.

The fourth change, which has been mentioned several times already in the debate, is the change to the voting system used in the European elections. It is no good for Labour Members, such as the hon. Member for Salford, saying that it is irrelevant whether we use open lists or closed lists, because it is a fundamental issue. The people of Britain have no idea that, in next year's Euro-elections, they will be able to vote not for an individual candidate but only for a slate. That will be their only opportunity.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) has already listed the deficiencies of the Government's proposals for the European elections. I should like to ask the Minister what will happen if—as frequently happens in the Labour party—a Member of the European Parliament is removed from the party list? Will a substitute be found, or will a by-election be called? What will happen? What arrangements will there be to deal with circumstance such as that?

The fifth matter that I should like to deal with is the Government's flirting with proportional representation as proposed in the Jenkins report. The hon. Member for Salford did not seem to be as keen on proportional representation as some other Labour Members. I am delighted that there is some common ground between us on that issue, if not on others.

The penultimate issue—before that of abolishing the independent upper House—is the Government's further transfer of powers from this place to Europe. Those powers are hugely important. Transferring powers may not seem to affect people's daily lives, but that perception will change once the transfer affects people's businesses, prices, jobs and ability to hire others.

The measures that were passed in the previous Session, and the ones that have been heralded for this Session in the Queen's Speech, add up to a catalogue of constitutional vandalism, which raises the question: why are the Government doing it? I believe that the legislation is being proposed and passed because the Prime Minister has been searching for a big idea. Unfortunately, however, most of the dramatic reforms that were necessary to sort out the United Kingdom and put it back on its feet were made by my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). Trade unions have been reformed, and British industry is now among the most successful in the world.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Although I know that the hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber for most of the debate, I am not sure whether he was here when I mentioned the fact that hon. Members have to speak to the Opposition amendment. Therefore, we cannot talk about the records of previous Prime Ministers and Governments.

Mr. Howarth

I accept entirely your stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I was trying to make a point by asking why the Prime Minister wishes to create—in the words of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—an "enormous quango". I think that, as we are examining a major constitutional change, that question is fair and should be asked. What is driving the Government to implement the change?

I contend—I hope that you will allow me to express my contention, Mr. Deputy Speaker—that the Prime Minister has invented the need for constitutional change, including abolition of hereditary peers' voting rights, because he wishes to make his mark in history and go down as one of this century's great Prime Ministers. I do not think that he is likely to fulfil the ambition. However, he will certainly go down in history as a significant Prime Minister—as the man who destroyed the unity of a kingdom that, for three centuries, has advanced the cause of liberty, free trade and the rule of law. He will be remembered as the man who stumbled round like a mad axeman, scything away at institutions that have evolved over centuries and served the nation well.

Ms Oona King

Would the hon. Gentleman be prepared to go down in history as the first Tory to support ending the hereditary principle?

Mr. Howarth

I am not alone in supporting the hereditary principle, and I shall certainly be voting for it. I shall deal in a moment with that matter. This is a very serious debate. It should not be trivialised as, I submit, the hon. Lady trivialised it. Although she is a very charming lady, and I should be happy to work with her on other issues, this issue is not trivial.

We are already beginning to see the results of the whirlwind sown by the Government. Labour was pushed into third place in a European by-election in Scotland, demonstrating that the policy of trying to buy off Scottish separatism has failed dismally. I believe that, as a whole, the collection of measures introduced by the Government will cause discord throughout the Kingdom.

Another feature—it is singularly unattractive—of the Government is the ruthless manner in which they promote their policy and in which the Prime Minister attempts to impose his authority on Labour Members. Such practices are quite unlike those that were used by my right hon. Friends who previously commanded the House.

What about closed lists? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said, only one Labour Member has spoken in favour of closed lists, whereas 21 have spoken against them. They have been afraid to vote against them. The experience of Mr. Ken Coates may be instructive. In the European Parliament, the Labour whip was removed from him because, as he wrote in the Daily Mail of 23 October last year: I had refused to sign a gagging order and agree to keep quiet about my opposition to Tony Blair's plan to introduce a closed regional list system of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament. It may seem an obscure issue on which to stand and fight, but its anti-democratic implications are so enormous that they must be resisted, come what may … I will not be gagged. Mr. Coates's experience is instructive for two reasons. First, it shows that their lordships are seeking in another place to fight the Government on an important issue. They have the support of at least one Labour MEP who is prepared to stand up. Secondly, it shows the Government's Stalinist approach to anyone who stands in their way.

The Government's plans for the other place are an extremely important issue. I do not oppose the Government's plans simply because the Prime Minister wishes to stuff the other place with his cronies, but support the other place for other reasons. The first—which I have not said before this debate—is that, as a Conservative, I believe in tradition. I believe that it is incumbent on the Government to prove that the system that has served the United Kingdom so well for so many centuries is now uniquely broke and needs fixing. I do not believe that that is true.

I believe that the British people value tradition, pageantry and the rich tapestry of tradition that is embodied by the other place and was shown so emphatically last week, during the State Opening of Parliament. I tell the hon. Member for Salford that I suspect that far fewer people will switch on their tellies for this debate than turned them on last week to watch the pomp and circumstance of the State Opening.

Maria Eagle

The hon. Gentleman seems to respect the tradition of the other place, but does he not really respect the fact that it has an in-built Conservative majority?

Mr. Howarth

That was a cheap remark; I do not believe that at all. I am arguing passionately in favour of tradition because I believe in tradition.

I believe also that the other place provides our nation with continuity. Our system of government is admired around the world precisely because it gives us a sense of continuity. If the other place is to be composed only of Tony's cronies, stuffed full of the Prime Minister's appointees, they will all—apart from a few token young people—be middle aged, The great advantage of the lottery of accident of birth—which is far better than the lottery of being the Prime Minister's friend—is that it often provides the other place with very young, very able, blood.

Ms Blears

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

No; I do not have much time.

Some of the best speeches that I have heard in the other place have been made by—

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

No, I shall not; time is running out.

Some of the best speeches in the other place have come from young hereditary peers. It may not be fashionable to support the hereditary principle, but I support it because I believe that there is some value to this nation in continuing with that tradition. It is one of those intangible benefits to the nation that we throw away at our peril.

A further reason for supporting the other place is that, in that House, people are beholden to no one. They are independent. If they take the Conservative Whip, fair enough, but many times they vote against. In 1985–86, their lordships voted against my Government 22 times. In 1989–90 they did so 20 times. In the past Session, the upper House voted against the Government on 31 occasions. If we take out the five times that they dealt with the closed list-open list argument, that leaves 27. Averaging that out over 12 months rather than the unusually long 18-month Session that we have just had, we reach a figure of less than 20. Their lordships have not exceeded the voting pattern that they showed when the Conservatives were in power.

The final reason is that, as I said to the Home Secretary, removing the hereditary principle from the upper House unquestionably puts the sovereign at risk. The Labour party will have to explain that.

The Government have made no case for an alternative to that which they wish to destroy. It is incumbent on them to explain to the British people what they intend to put in its place. Opinion polls have shown that 68 per cent. of the public—73 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds—want the Government to come up with a proposal before—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


7.52 pm
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) will probably be surprised to hear that I like the tradition of piers, but the only one that I like is the one in Cleethorpes, which gives fine views over the River Humber and has a nice night club. That pier has about as much right to rule over this country as those next door.

On a sadder note, I want to break some bad news about a tradition that has bitten the dust. Poor old Lord Snooty—does anyone remember him?—is no more. He has been banished from the pages of the Beano because he is not relevant to kids today. Kids today? I did not identify with Lord Snooty 30 years ago. I was more of a Bash Street Kids girl or Minnie the Minx—I had the red hair, the boots, the bonnet.

The Tories in the House of Lords should have seen the writing on the wall, but they did not. They signed their own death warrant by voting down the European Parliamentary Elections Bill five times. I have heard some spurious and fallacious mutterings from the Tory hereditary peers—repeated in the Opposition amendment—about that Bill. All the drivel—and it is drivel—about people in this country voting for a person rather than a party is outrageous. We have to get real. Few people in this country voted for a person in the general election. They voted for the party banners that we stood under. I am under no illusions about that.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Shona McIsaac

No, I have only a short time.

I was voted in because I was a Labour candidate. Few people, if any, voted for me as a person. I have a sneaking suspicion that my husband voted for me because I was me, and I voted for me because I was me—but if I had not been the Labour party candidate, I would not have voted for me either. It is all about parties.

I have no problems with closed lists. There we go—we have found a Back Bencher who likes closed lists. I challenge anyone who says that they are here because of who they are. It is so arrogant. They should give up the party tag, stand as an independent and see who wins. An official party candidate will every time.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Shona McIsaac

Okay, just the once now.

Mr. Grieve

I seem to have heard a great deal in the Chamber during this Parliament about the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell). It has been suggested that he was elected because of the rejection of another candidate who was standing for his party, which would not otherwise have been rejected.

Shona McIsaac

I was talking generally—and after all, the other parties withdrew from that election. The hon. Gentleman could have got the hon. Member for Aldershot, who is behind him, very worked up with the mention of the word Tatton.

I was elected 18 months ago because the majority of people in this country wanted a Labour Government. It was not Shona McIsaac they were voting for.

The people of this country thought that they had got rid of the Tories last May. They did not. The Tories are alive and well, sitting on their red Benches next door and waiting for their sons—it is largely sons—to inherit. I cannot accept them lording it over us in that fashion. It is undemocratic that 600 families can rule by accident of birth alone over 60 million people. It is out of date.

The hereditary peers are hardly representative either. It has already been said tonight that there are only 16 women among the hereditary peers and two from the ethnic minorities. Looking a little deeper, they are all from one social class. We do not see them down at Kwik Save or putting a fiver on the lottery. We are far more likely to see them falling off their horse at a local hunt. They do not scrutinise legislation, they block. It is simple: Labour has a majority in the House of Commons; the Tories have a majority in the House of Lords. So, they are going to block, because they believe that it is their right—indeed, their hereditary privilege—to block anything that us oiks, Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minxes and Dennis the Menaces do in this Chamber.

Labour has been accused of class war. Some of the worst examples of that that I have come across have been from those defending the hereditary principle. I got a strange little pamphlet in the post today called "In Defence of Hereditary Peers". Here is the class war clincher from that document. It describes the voters of this country as an uninformed and ill-educated electorate. If that is not class war, I do not know what is. It is saying that the Lord Snooties next door can lord it over us "uninformed and ill-educated"—that probably just means that we did not go to Eton—Bash Street Kids in the House of Commons. We should know our place and should not forget it.

Various opinion polls have also been mentioned suggesting that people did not want to get rid of the hereditary principle. I tested the waters in Cleethorpesnot literally; I did not jump off the pier or anything like that—asking people what they thought. Almost 70 per cent. said that they wanted to scrap the voting rights of the hereditary peers. That is a higher percentage than the Labour and Liberal Democrat votes combined, so there must be a few Tories who want the measure, too. We must get a few things clear. There are more than just Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters who want the change. Plenty of Tories have said that we have to get rid of the principle.

A lot has been made of Labour's policies. Getting rid of the voting rights is just a first step. That is made perfectly clear in our manifesto. The detailed reform will come later. We also made it clear that there will still be a second Chamber to act as a check on the Executive and the Commons. We are not getting rid of the House of Lords; we are just getting rid of the voting rights of the hereditary peers.

Our policies also state that no party will have an overall majority in the House of Lords. Surely that is fairer. When the House of Lords voted against the previous Government, it was because coalitions were formed with other parties. At the moment, the Tories in the House of Lords have nobody but themselves to convince when they want to vote down Government legislation. I cannot accept that. Some of our detractors parrot the line that we have not said what would replace the hereditary peers, but we do not need to replace them. If we scrapped the hereditary peers, the House of Lords with about 500 Members, would still be one of the biggest second chambers in the world. Surely we can work with that.

I do not know whether Lord Snooty's fictitious family had been around for 800 years, but if the Beano, which is a far more loved institution than the House of Lords, can get rid of Lord Snooty, the parliamentary Bash Street Kids can certainly get rid of hereditary peers. They are unelected, undemocratic and, like Lord Snooty and his pals, they have had their day.

8 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Hearing the admirable speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) made me remember what an excellent vintage 1970 was in parliamentary terms. Their speeches reminded me of a delicious auslese—only when the grapes have been nipped by the first frost of political winter does their true savour come out. It did in full measure and how privileged we were to experience it.

Madam Speaker's selection of the loyal Opposition's amendment was particularly wise. The Liberal amendment, rather like the speech of the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), was prolix in the extreme. Our amendment focused on the three key constitutional issues at the heart of the Queen's Speech: first, the voting system for the European parliamentary elections; secondly, the nature of the House of Lords and the Government's determination to press ahead with the abolition of voting rights for the hereditary element before the House or the country have agreed on what is to replace them; and thirdly, the rules for the conduct of referendums—a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is a particular expert. I am glad to see him on the Front Bench.

I shall take as my point of departure not the speech by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac)—the quicker we move on from that the better—but the observations of the Home Secretary. He said that the justification for the proposed radical constitutional changes was that they would strengthen the nature of citizenship and involve people more closely in the determination of the decisions that affect their lives.

In respect of reforming the House of Lords, I do not see how that can possibly be the case, at least in the interim, if we are optimistic; for very much longer, if we are pessimistic, we shall have to endure an upper House of placepersons. Is that what the public want?

I have never encountered in any general election campaign—and I have fought a few—any elector calling for reform of the upper House. People have called for better living standards and improved health services. My electors have just signed a petition, with 80,000 signatures, against the dismemberment of their local hospital. People have called for better pensions and improved standards of education, but I have never detected the call for class warfare that was so odiously expounded by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes, who so rapidly made her departure from the Chamber.

Mr. Grieve

Does my hon. Friend agree that the electorate have also called for a better standard in the drafting of legislation—a matter that has not been brought before the House?

Mr. Wilkinson

My hon. Friend is right about that, as he is about so much. He exemplifies the need for an effective second chamber that has the authority of the people's support behind its composition.

Helen Jones

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilkinson


The pernicious element in our political system is patronage, not primogeniture. It is certainly not the class system which is an irrelevance. We have only to walk along the Royal Gallery or look up at the west window of Westminster Hall to realise how irrelevant class is. We are all mortal and we all face the same dangers in combat as the many people from the other place who laid down their lives, but we have a common duty to serve our fellow citizens better. That should be the test. I am not at all convinced that an upper House of appointees would do the job better—far from it. I would advocate a senate in which 100 per cent. were elected on a different franchise from ours and for fixed terms. Such a model might also find favour with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe.

The worst of all political motivations is jealousy, which is corrosive. The democratic process is about mutual respect—respect for those in office and, among those who hold office, respect for those who put them there. Those who put them there should do so freely through a franchise and a ballot system of which they approve and which maximises individual choice and accountability. That is why the closed list system that the Liberal Democrats love so much is so deplorable. How deplorable it is that they should have sold their independent soul to the Labour party and that a once-great party that governed this country for decade after decade should have capitulated root and branch to the socialists.

Moving on to the growing importance in our constitution of referendums, I shall highlight one way in which contemporary circumstances demonstrate why we need a proper code of conduct for referendums. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that in the last Session we considered the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill. The referendum was flawed because there was a single ballot paper with two questions: Do you approve of a directly elected mayor? and, Do you approve of a directly elected assembly? The issues should have been separated, but they were not. We argued that to put such a question in advance of the legislation and before we knew what would be the role and functions of the authority was dishonest, and so it has proved. We heard today that one of the central responsibilities of the mayor—to control London Transport—has been taken away from him. So the electorate of London were voting on spurious grounds. That is why the recommendation of the Neill committee should have been encapsulated in the legislative programme and enacted in this Parliament.

We are seeing a diminution rather than a deepening of democracy. I revert to the theme that is, I believe, central to the thoughts of us all, especially about the conduct of European affairs—we need a deepening of democracy. We look, perhaps rather pathetically, to the European Parliament better to control the European Union. We know that our hopes are vain and that the European Parliament is probably more interested in its perquisites than in doing a proper job.

The European Parliament, however, must at least be elected properly, especially because it has a co-determination role in the European Union and because, as we know from experience, the European Union will increase its budget year on year—the budget will increase by 19 per cent. in the next few years.

We need to be able to choose individuals who are clearly the best people for the job. We need on occasion to be able to vote across party lines. We may know what the "selectorate" do not know—that an individual has a past, a character weakness or a lack of intellectual capacity that should debar him or her from elective office. However, under the list system, the electors can do nothing about that.

Maria Eagle

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that argument applies to hereditary peers? No one has the chance to decide whether hereditary peers are fit to serve in a legislative House.

Mr. Wilkinson

First, I suggested for the future a wholly elected senate. Secondly, the upper House is a revising chamber; it has no power over money Bills or budgetary matters, which is of crucial significance.

I hope that, in judging these constitutional matters, people will recognise that, in a true democracy, representatives must know their electors and their electors must know them. Currently, we hardly ever see Members of the European Parliament. They seldom hold surgeries and are not involved in the day-to-day matters about which people really care. As I said, the electorate have more important concerns—their standard of living, their jobs, their health and their local schooling—than the constitutional monstrosities that the Government are proposing in the Queen's Speech.

8.13 pm
Miss Melanie Johnson (Welwyn Hatfield)

During such a debate, for most of which I have been in the Chamber, I am especially proud to be on the Labour Benches—not only because of the quality of Labour Members' arguments, but because of the wider setting. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was right to begin his speech by placing the subject in a much wider context and I was disappointed that so few Conservative Members picked up on that.

Like Members of Parliament, the constitution exists for a purpose. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) said, Members of Parliament are here to help people in their ordinary lives outside the House of Commons and the other place. I have been helped in my intention to be brief by the fact that the Tories have not mentioned law and order, one of the many matters which the constitution exists to uphold, but which the official Opposition removed from the scope of the debate by not referring to it in their amendment.

This morning, I was sitting not on these green Benches but on a magistrates' bench. I was dealing with people who had first offended at the age of 13 but who were still going through the offending and imprisonment routine in their 30s and 40s. One of the reasons why we are discussing the constitution is so that we can make the right decisions, implement the right systems and processes and allocate the right resources to tackle matters such as youth offending. I am disappointed that the official Opposition have not enabled the many Labour Members who wanted to talk about the wonderful things that the Government are doing on that score to say more about how we have the answers to many of the law and order problems that everybody outside faces.

The regional lists are closed but, as many hon. Members have said, they are not as closed as hereditary peerages. Indeed, they are less closed than the lists used when Tories went on the chicken run from, for example, St. Albans to Hitchin and Harpenden, neither of which constituencies is a million miles from mine. I know that the electors of St. Albans wanted to vote in my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), but I am also sure that many of them wanted to say no to the former Member for that constituency, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). Like others, they found it disappointing not to have such a choice.

Selection in the Labour party is very democratic. I was on a short list of six candidates, several of whom are now also Members of Parliament. However democratic that process, electors may nevertheless vote for only one party, so it is ridiculous for Conservative Members to make a fuss about the European elections when they have lived with the system for Westminster elections for so many decades.

Conservative Members seem to be arguing that, because we are not doing enough about the hereditary principle, we should do nothing at all about it. I want to know what has happened to democracy and its principles. Why has the word "democracy" not been used more often in this debate? Perhaps Conservatives are uncomfortable with democratic means of getting their way in Parliament. Dubious means have been used in the other place to frustrate legislation. Indeed, I am sure that dubious means would have been used to frustrate legislation on the abolition of hunting, for example—the other place would have come to a different conclusion from that of the House of Commons. Moreover, as other hon. Members have asked, to what extent do those with hereditary peerages represent women and the ethnic minorities?

Conservative Members have spoken about tradition. I expect that similar arguments were used to justify slavery or other practices that were once seen as traditional but have since been recognised as inappropriate in a more modern society. How can we justify a second chamber in which a large number of the people making decisions are there by virtue of their birth, in which women are under-represented and in which ethnic minorities are hardly present? As an argument, tradition cannot have any weight.

Mr. Lansley

I recall that the Earl of Shaftesbury was a Conservative, so I do not think that the hon. Lady can arrogate to the Labour party the responsibility for abolishing slavery. Will she deal with the real argument about the House of Lords? The Labour manifesto said that abolition of the voting rights of hereditary peers would be a self-contained step. Conservatives believe that the step should not be self-contained; before it is taken, a clear decision must be made on what should come next.

Miss Johnson

I will be delighted to move on to that point in a moment. First, it was explicit in the Labour manifesto that this would be a two-stage process. In voting for a Labour Government—as people did with a massive majority—it was clear that people would be voting for a two-stage process, of which only one stage would be completed during this Parliament.

As has been said, we cannot reject hereditary Members. We are stuck with them by right of their ancestry—regardless of whether they are useful, appropriate, mad or sane. Some peers may fit into any one of those categories.

The two-stage process has been raised, and it is an interesting point. The Home Secretary made a powerful point about what you would do if you found that your dentist—or the pilot flying your plane—was in that position of responsibility as a result of a purely hereditary principle and had no relevant skills.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss Johnson

I am answering the point made by your hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). If a dentist or surgeon worked on a hereditary basis, Opposition Members would not say, "Let us wait and see how it turns out before we decide whether that person should go on doing the job." That is the point that you are putting.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. I am not putting any points. Would the hon. Lady try to use the correct parliamentary language?

Miss Johnson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will endeavour to do so.

If we do not have the two stages, we will not move forward on the hereditary principle; instead, we will maintain something that we feel is dangerous, inappropriate and out of place. The Opposition argue that we should move forward in one fell swoop and not in two stages—a proposal for which we have electoral support. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—who is not in his place at the moment—likened a royal commission to a broody hen sitting on china eggs. My grandparents had hens, and that was quite an effective manner of getting them to lay eggs. I would not want to indulge in my hon. Friend's pessimism on a royal commission.

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) talked about moving in one fell swoop and about having an exact plan. That is the perfect ploy for delay, which must be the reason the Opposition proposed it. They know perfectly well that if this process has to be carried out in one fell swoop, it is highly unlikely to take place. They are keen to see a second chamber without any legitimacy, and one in which the hereditary principle is still very much alive and well. That would be ideal for the Opposition.

One could say that the House of Lords was built by the Tories, for the Tories, to keep the Tories in power. It is not an independent second chamber. We have heard evidence today of how it has been biased against Labour Governments. The built-in majority results in limited changes when the Tories are in power, but massive opposition when the Conservatives have been removed by the people from Government and do not have their previous legitimacy in this Chamber.

We can see why the Tories want to maintain the present position; their opposition is self-interested. This is about the class war, it is about the Conservatives making sure that they have a mechanism to try to defeat the will of the people of this country and about the rights of the House of Commons to have its say as the democratically elected Chamber.

Like many others, I am happy to see a second chamber—our proposals are not about removing the second Chamber altogether. However, we can make this first step in a good way to show that we are modern and looking to the future and that we do not want to support a principle that has no validity in a democratic system. We can move towards getting rid of hereditary peers and towards a discussion, through a royal commission, of how we make an effective second chamber that we all need in order to be an effective House of Commons.

8.25 pm
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I found some of the parts of the speech by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) rather obscure, but one of her points went to the heart of our discussion. She said that the purpose of the constitution was to deliver what people wanted. From that, I inferred that she wished to see the constitution altered, so that she—and, by implication, her party—could deliver the policies that they thought were correct. I have to say that that is never how I have viewed the purpose of a constitution.

Miss Melanie Johnson

That is not what I meant in the slightest. I meant that the constitution needs to relate to the things that mean something to people in their ordinary lives—education and health, for example. The policies do not matter particularly, but the constitution must be capable of delivering the things that the electorate as a whole want.

Mr. Grieve

I am grateful to hear that from the hon. Lady, but she still misses a central point. One of the values of a constitution is to provide a framework within which decisions are taken which command as much approval within the community as possible, so that those decisions which are often inimical to certain groups within the community nevertheless command respect and are accepted. That applies as much to decisions taken by Conservative Governments as to those taken by Labour Governments.

That is why I believe so strongly in a constitutional monarchy, which I believe provides the framework within which people can relate and have a common focus of loyalty, which is so important where there are other areas in which we may have disagreements.

It is with that in mind that I approach the whole question of constitutional reform. In the past year, I have spent many hours in this House debating the Scotland Act—I think we clocked up 190 hours. We have debated also the Human Rights Act—which, unlike some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, although they had good reasons, I supported and broadly approved of—the Government of Wales Act and a number of other constitutional measures.

It is perfectly proper for the House to consider constitutional reform, but we would do well to have in mind when we do so the purpose of what we are doing and what we are trying to achieve. In that context, there was a great deal of open scrutiny of the Human Rights Act. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar) for the dialogue and debate which undoubtedly improved the Scotland Act. In contrast, the Government of Wales Act was one of the worst-drafted pieces of legislation I have ever seen, and its hallmark was precisely the reluctance of the Government's ministerial team to engage in any debate on it.

We are now facing a new raft of legislation. The question of the reform of the House of Lords will clearly attract a lot of emotion; we have heard quite a bit in this debate. I start from the premise that we need a second chamber—that seems to command a considerable measure of agreement in this House—that a revising chamber is important and that a chamber which can keep the lower House, the House of Commons, in check and make it think again, even if it will not ultimately stop legislation, is also important.

Unlike some Labour Members, I do not believe that unbridled democracy, which, of course, neither the United Kingdom nor any other country has, is an unbridled good. Ultimately, there must be checks and balances in any working constitution. Interestingly, it was from the Labour Benches that we heard that point, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) for pointing out that the powers of the Commons to obstruct—not prevent—legislation, and to make the Government think again have been consistently eroded over the past 30 years. The result is bad legislation, which, ironically, places a greater burden on the upper House. It must do our job for us, and that creates more frequent confrontation than should be necessary.

The upper House is undoubtedly an eccentric institution. It has one great merit—historical continuity. However, I accept that that could be preserved even within the reforms that the Government have suggested. At the same time, the great virtue of the other place is undoubtedly its independence. That independence arises not only from the eccentric fact that it contains people who have not been placed there, who depend on no one and who are selected from a substantial and random pool, but because its members bring to bear a range of independent ideas, backgrounds, professions and jobs. The diversity is considerable. One need only consider the contributions made by several hereditary peers to note that they often turn out to be of considerable value. We ought to pause and think about that before we embark on any programme of reform.

We should also consider independence of party. Party allegiance will count for something, but the peers are not ultimately dependent on party. The hereditary peerage is beholden to no one. We should take that into account in considering how, if we are to get rid of the hereditary element, we can improve on it.

Let me offer briefly two possibilities. First, if we are to have an elected second chamber, which has much to commend it, the powers of the second chamber will be circumscribed in relation to the powers of the first. The likelihood is that the second chamber will therefore attract politicians for whom, I hesitate to say, it will not be the first choice of where to go. Far from the elected element representing diversity, we may end up with an elected element composed of placemen who want to go there because it is rather a soft touch. It may well attract those who fail to get into this House. Some creative thinking is required on that point if we are to embark on reform towards an elected second chamber.

If we are to stick with an appointed second chamber, we shall face considerable problems. It is no good the Prime Minister promising that some nebulous commission will make the appointments. We need to get down to the nitty gritty of what will happen in practice if we are to understand how appointments will take place in a way that will enable independence of thought to flourish. If we do not, we shall end up with a chamber of placemen. That is undesirable, but surmountable. Surely we must debate that issue.

I freely acknowledged during our debates on the Scotland Act 1998 that I had learnt a lot from the process of debating. However, we seem to have reached the stage at which debates on Bills involve a statement from the Government Front Bench, endorsed by clone-like comments from the Back Benches and ritually opposed from the Conservative side before they go through. It is no wonder that Bills return with hundreds of amendments from the upper House when it has considered the detail. We must consider how we can improve legislation, rather than simply ritualistically deciding that one part of the upper House offends some susceptibilities and should be got rid of. In fact, if our correspondence bundles reflect the position, the vast majority of the electorate find the House of Lords a wholly innocuous institution that generates many benefits.

Shona McIsaac

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his postbag. I have had a number of letters about the upper House and fox hunting. People who wanted hunting abolished believed that the Tory hereditary peers in the House of Lords would thwart any legislation. People in the country certainly understand that point.

Mr. Grieve

The Bill in question never went to the upper House, having failed to get through the House of Commons in the time allotted to it. Even if the upper House had rejected a Bill, there is no doubt that, if it had been re-presented, it would have got through. The checks and balances should not disappear. I fail to follow the rationale of the hon. Lady's argument.

I would be perfectly well prepared to engage in vigorous and interesting debate on how to create a reformed second chamber, but I will be blowed—and my constituents will be blowed, too, if I read their letters and the opinion polls correctly—if I am to sign away an element of the upper House's independence that has made some interesting and amusing contributions, and some of great benefit to our national life, when no one on the Government Benches is prepared to suggest how the replacement will improve on the current position.

Far from encouraging us to engage in debate, and to look at the big picture, the Government are asking us again and again to consider narrower and narrower issues. When the public—and, sometimes, even hon. Members on the Government Back Benches—point out that the Government are going off the rails, as with the closed list for proportional representation for next year's European elections, they are ridden over roughshod. We are told that it is all the fault of the upper House, but it is, in fact, clearly articulating the disquiet that the electorate are registering.

I hope, for the sake of my country, that the Government will go down as a successful reforming Government. They have come in with a lot of ideas, but after 18 months, evidence has emerged with startling and hideous clarity that they are blinkered against any reasonable debate. Above all, they are blinkered by their own spin doctors against articulating their fears or the drawbacks that they see in their own policies. There are one or two notable exceptions to that, which is why I singled out a few Ministers earlier.

The Government's proposals are dreadful. They fail to address the big picture, if I may use the Prime Minister's phrase. Until they do so, the Opposition are entitled to oppose them. I am sorry to say all this to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for whom I have a great deal of respect. I wish that one or two other Ministers were present. When Governments embark on policies that I believe to be highly objectionable, it is my duty to oppose them. The Government will, at the end of the day, have the majority to carry their proposals, but the development of the debate is extremely valuable.

Historically, those who have believed that they could ride roughshod over others to achieve their aims have tended to come a cropper. I am mindful of the comment made to King Henry V when he thought that he was on his way to conquer France. The Duke of Burgundy said that the King had all he required to achieve that, but that he would, by the time he achieved it, be heartily tired. Unless the Government think again, I intend to ensure that that is exactly how they feel.

8.39 pm
Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

I want to concentrate on the reference in the Opposition amendment to reform of the House of Lords, although the other two issues raised in the amendment are equally important. I have been struck during this debate and previous debates by one word that we hear time and again from Conservative Members. It was used by the Leader of the Opposition when he opened the debate on the Gracious Speech last Tuesday. It has been used constantly today, not least by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd). The word in question is "independence".

I wish to explore what is meant by that. I have made several interventions to try to tease out what the Opposition mean when they use that word because it can have several meanings. What is it that is independent about the current upper Chamber? How representative is it? What is its composition? What does its voting record over the past few decades show?

I ask the House's forgiveness in advance for giving percentage figures that are inherently boring, but I hope that hon. Members will bear with me because they have an impact on one's view of the upper Chamber's independence. How representative are the current members of the upper Chamber? More than half of them are hereditary peers—626 out of 1,166. Of those, 299, or 47.7 per cent., take the Tory Whip. Some 17, or 2.7 per cent., take the Labour Whip, and 24, or 3.8 per cent., are Liberal Democrats, Another 198 are Cross Benchers, who swing all ways in casting their vote and are not reliable in a party sense, and they form 31.6 per cent. Some 88—or 14.5 per cent.—have no affiliation, not even to the Cross Benches.

My hon. Friends have already pointed out that less than a third of 1 per cent. are from the ethnic minorities and, of the hereditary peers, only 2.5 per cent are women. For the benefit of Conservative Members, I should point out that the two latter facts narrow the range of experiences on the basis of which those who sit in the upper Chamber can speak and vote. The value of having a diverse range of people in any legislature, including this House, is that they bring wider experiences of life to the consideration of legislation. That is an important point that is not often made.

At the general election, the Labour party experienced one of the three biggest landslides this century. It was the best result the party had ever had. The Conservatives will not wish to be reminded, but they had their worst result since 1832. What impact has that massive change in political views had on the independence of the House of Lords? Well, 47.7 per cent. of the hereditary peers still take the Tory Whip. In other words, the landslide had no impact whatever on the composition of the upper House.

Some Conservative Members have defended the hereditary principle, but others seemed somewhat embarrassed and said that they would vote to get rid of it, given the opportunity, in favour of a senate or something. It is a democratic outrage that an election can demonstrate such a change in political opinion but that the impact on the other place is zero. The hereditary peers are representative only of an old aristocratic section of society. I do not wish to sound prejudiced, but they overwhelmingly represent one social stratum and one type of life and experience. That does not fit my definition of independent. Most of them are conservative, if not in party affiliation, in experience, background and life style.

What of the life peers? I have heard it said that the life peers restore the balance and make the hereditary aspect acceptable. The current Chamber contains 531 life peers. The Tories have 173, or 32.5 per cent.; Labour has 158, or 29.7 per cent.; the Liberal Democrats have 45, or 8.4 per cent.; there are 120 Cross Benchers, or 22.5 per cent.; there are nine Law Lords, or 1.6 per cent.; and the bishops make up 4.8 per cent. Even among the life peers, the Tories still have the biggest group. Labour has fewer life peers, but the number is closer to equality with the Conservatives. Cross Benchers form the next biggest group, and the others make up the numbers.

The Tories still have the most peers, whether life or hereditary, despite the fact that they went down to their worst defeat since 1832. While the hereditary peers still exist, the Tories can call on them whenever they want to ensure victory in the upper Chamber.

That is not what I call independence of either representation or composition, although the Conservative party has a tendency to use the word "independent" interchangeably with the word "Conservative". We have all come across that on local councils, where they also used to use the word "ratepayer" to mean Conservative.

What have the peers done over the years in their voting record to indicate the independence that the Conservatives seem to value as their most important contribution? I have a list of important defeats inflicted on Governments by the House of Lords since the Liberal Government of 1909, and it makes illuminating reading. My conclusion, from reading the list, is that the upper Chamber has defeated Labour Governments much more often than it has defeated Conservative Governments and, when we used to have Liberal Governments—a long time ago now—the Lords defeated them much more often than they defeated Tory Governments.

The defeats that the upper Chamber has inflicted on Labour and Liberal Governments in the past have also been more extensive and on much more important pieces of legislation. The upper Chamber has also tended not to press Conservative Governments so far, so defeats are inflicted but entire Bills are not lost. A further important aspect is that defeats inflicted on Labour and Liberal Governments chimed in with the Conservative Opposition of the day.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Lady is making a fascinating and thoughtful speech. However, she is surely not suggesting that the upper Chamber, whether elected, appointed or hereditary, should operate by trying to achieve equality in the number of times that it rejects the legislation introduced by different Governments.

Maria Eagle

Of course I am not suggesting that—it would be nonsensical. I am trying to illustrate that the composition of the upper Chamber becomes important when we examine how it exercises its powers. I shall give some examples.

We have all read in history books about the crisis that brought about the first of the Parliament Acts, when the upper Chamber decided to defeat the Liberal Government's Finance Bill. The first Labour Government were defeated on proposals to nationalise the mines, and those defeats benefited the private mine owners, those landed and propertied interests that the upper Chamber tends to represent and protect.

At the time of the vast programmes of nationalisation on which the post-war Labour Government embarked, the Lords tended to defeat the Government in order to prevent the vesting days of nationalised industries. That was still occurring under the Wilson Governments, when the Lords inflicted defeats on legislation that nationalised assets. Those were clearly Government policies that had been included in the party's manifesto.

The upper Chamber has not only inflicted far fewer defeats on Conservative than on Labour Governments: it tends to concentrate its defeats of Labour Governments on important legislation and is not concerned that the policies were in the party's manifesto.

Reference has already been made to the manifesto commitment to reform the upper Chamber, which is specific. It says: The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered. That is why I take exception to the implication in the amendment before us today that we should propose stage two of the reform before abolishing the rights of the hereditary peerage to sit and vote. It is clear from the manifesto that that is not envisaged as stage 1 of the reform.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I have been listening to the hon. Lady's speech with great interest. Does she accept that Conservative Members would have vastly more faith in that second step if the royal commission had been set up on the day the Government came to power, so that there was a chance of putting serious reform before the House now?

Maria Eagle

I am happy to give my view on that. Of course, I am not a member of the Government but a Back-Bench supporter. There is no reason why the royal commission cannot report quickly, and I would support that. The view that the royal commission means that reform will disappear into the dim and distant future is not necessarily correct. Although I can understand the hon. Gentleman's view, which is based on the role of royal commissions in the past, this commission will not necessarily be the same.

It is important to see off, at long last, the hereditary peerage in the short Bill that will come before the House. That will not impede the upper Chamber's ability to conduct its affairs, or prevent it from doing its job within our constitution. There is no reason why the royal commission cannot report quickly and why stage two of the reform cannot be achieved more speedily than some Conservative Members fear it will be.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Maria Eagle

No, I am short of time.

We are witnessing a re-establishment of the pattern of the upper Chamber's behaviour towards a Labour Government. It has started to defeat the Government on major legislation to fulfil pledges and manifesto commitments. That is why the reform of the upper Chamber must proceed as quickly as possible, whether or not stage two has been worked out.

8.54 pm
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) for introducing to the debate important and interesting facts about the many facets of independence, which the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) greatly exaggerated. I had visions of Conservative hereditary peers independently getting into their cars and into their planes in Tasmania to come here for the debate on European elections, when we know that their independence took the form of responding to a telephone call from the Conservative Whips in the other place, who whip peers every time they need them to vote.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) made a frank admission about the role of personal votes. During the general election, my father went around saying, "Vote for my son. He needs a job." I suggested to him that that was not the ideal campaign slogan, but I know that I got a personal vote.

I agreed with the spirit of what the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) was saying. On election turnout, my experience in Sheffield is that when political parties are fighting a close battle they do bother to make themselves relevant to the electorate. That is not the effect of the electoral system on its own—the fact that there is a contest is important. Sadly, under the current system, in many areas there is no real contest, so politicians do not bother to make themselves relevant. The hon. Lady's experience may differ, of course.

Two key issues were raised about the European elections. We are all grateful to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) for another chance to debate that important issue and the reform of the House of Lords. A common thread runs through those arguments: can the Government exercise their will and make their own mistakes, or should we have a new doctrine that the other place exists to save the Government from themselves?

If Conservative Members believe that the Government's proposals are wrong, they should stand in the next election on a platform of returning to first past the post for European elections and to the existence of hereditary peers. If they had any confidence in themselves, they would believe that they could win an election in 2001 on that platform. The European Parliamentary Elections Bill has undergone a revising process, and the Conservatives should not block the legislation altogether because that is outside the domain of proper scrutiny.

Dr. Fox

There is a mechanism by which the Government and this House ultimately get their way—the Parliament Acts. That is the proper constitutional procedure to use.

Mr. Allan

We are all aware that the Parliament Acts are being invoked for the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, but the Conservatives gain no credit by delaying the legislation for so long and causing disruption.

The other common thread that runs through the two issues is that they both involve members of the Conservative establishment trying to protect themselves against what they see as threats in the form of fair voting systems and the end of their in-built majority in the House of Lords.

Liberal Democrat Members are prepared to associate ourselves with those important reforms. We agree that they are not perfect in every respect, and we have voiced criticisms on many occasions and will continue to do so. However, on balance the reforms are worth while.

On the European elections, most of the problems that have been revealed in our debates have related to internal Labour party selection processes rather than the voting system itself. We are interested to note that Conservative Members have linked that to the Neill committee recommendations, and I hope that they will be playing an active part in reforming party funding, as we certainly will be. The Home Secretary has already brought in the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998. We are now moving into a constitutional phase in which legislation deals with the internal affairs of political parties. That is necessary as we end the fiction of parties being secondary to individuals.

We are no longer in a world in which the country squire is elected and casually joins the Whig or Tory factions, and in which the party is secondary to the main interest of politics. In my experience, the party is one of people's principal concerns and is certainly all-pervasive in the House and another place, to a greater degree than has been admitted in the debate.

Conservative Members have no credibility on the issue of European elections. They allowed the Scotland Bill and the Wales Bill to be passed with closed-list systems. In Committee, they did not support a Liberal Democrat amendment, on the Belgian open-list system, to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. The Conservative spokesman, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, said that he accepted that the Bill was likely to be passed and that the most important point was to have a review afterwards. The Conservatives were offered precisely that in this House and, at that very late stage, seemed to turned down the amendment for which they had argued in Committee. Our only conclusion is that their real motive was to see the Bill fall, as indeed it did in the previous Session. Their real motive is to block a system in which all votes in June will count under a fair electoral system.

I was interested to note that young peers were called in evidence by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). The other day, I told a young peer, my noble Friend Lord Addington, that on the day of the Queen's Speech, I felt that some hon. Members were keen to dive straight into the House of Lords and say, "Come on, outside now." Lord Addington discouraged me from doing so. He is as wide as the Mace and a very keen rugby player, which suggests that his promise that peers can defend themselves perfectly well is adequate to scare us off and will force us to reform the House of Lords by constitutional means.

I certainly worry about the prevalence of gun cases in some of the Range Rovers in which peers travel up to London. That, too, suggests that the Government's constitutional method is the one to take us forward—even though I recognise that the atmosphere in this House is sometimes a little more heated.

Tory arguments on the issue of the House of Lords have become very confused. They appointed life peers while in government and did not criticise their role, yet now trot out the argument that such peers are no more than automata who have no independence and are not able to make any decision. We heard again about Tony's cronies. Although we are still appointing Paddy's cronies and Willie's cronies, there are still far more of Maggie's and John's cronies than anyone else's. Indeed, a few of Lloyd George's cronies are probably still lurking in the corner.

The fact that such peers are life peers does not devalue them completely. The fact that the Government are appointing them to redress the balance causes some concern, however, and we would certainly favour an independent commission creating a balance of peers according to the split of votes at the election. We believe that is the fairest way forward in the interim. To simply say that all life peers have a problem and all hereditary peers are great, which certainly seems to be the tone of Conservative arguments, devalues the debate.

We would like the second stage of reform to begin as quickly as possible. Conservative Members who have spoken in favour of some reform seem to be latching on to the single Conservative policy of wait and see. Famously, the Conservatives have a wait-and-see policy on other issues, too. They think that, until they have seen the total shape of reform, they should not make a decision or take any steps forward.

The role of the House of Lords is crucial. The Conservatives seem confused on that, too. On the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, they have argued all arguments, from the House of Lords being a revising Chamber to the matter being one of fundamental principle. The hon. Member for Garston has done us a great service in pointing out the way in which Conservative peers have defeated non-Conservative Governments, which suggests that the revision varies very much according to the political predilections of the Government of the day. Revision can mean many things according to who is in government. What seems clear is that revision takes the form of blocking far more frequently when centre and left parties are in government.

We believe that all this points to the need for a written constitution. We need clearer authority than any single Government or Parliament eventually to resolve such issues of major change. Parliament needs to cede some of its authority to an independent authority. We welcome the Human Rights Act 1998 as a key stage in that process. The lack of clarity in our constitution causes the fear on which the Conservatives are so keen to play. The fact that nothing is written down and that there is no other limiting factor creates a climate of fear, which the Conservatives are using to try to hold us back.

As an example of the assistance of the written constitution, I would cite the Republic of Ireland, where the Government have had to use explicit referendums to decide every cession of power to the European Union. The ability under a written constitution to decide what goes before and outwith Parliament and what needs to go to the people would be very helpful—not least to the Conservatives in clarifying and achieving some of the objectives that they state that they want to limit an Executive's powers.

It is time to be bold on this issue and to move on the agenda. We are prepared to associate ourselves with the agenda of electoral reform for Europe and reform of the House of Lords. We are prepared to let the electorate decide on whether that agenda has been successful. We do not want to leave that decision to hereditary peers, who were elected by no one.

9.4 pm

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

This debate has left me with the definite impression that many Conservative Members have been asleep for the past 40 years—some for even longer. For 40 years, the House of Lords has been a mixture of hereditary and life peers. I do not recall the Conservatives making any substantial criticism of that arrangement until now, when it is proposed that it should change. Indeed, the Conservative party fought the general election on the basis that our constitution had reached such perfection that any one change would be for the worse. There was no question then of the House of Lords being in any way affected. Now that it is proposed to remove hereditary peers, we are told that we would be removing the respectable part of the House of Lords and that what is left—life peers—is no longer respectable and, indeed, quite intolerable. That reflects a state of mind, but I am not sure whether my mind can cope with it.

Conservative Members have also totally ignored the point that has been made in response to the broad slurs of "Tony's cronies" and placepersons. The Government have already said that a commission will be set up to appoint life peers to the House of Lords in the interim before a royal commission has considered the matter and defined a longer-term solution. Those aspects were not mentioned of course; they were inconvenient to the Conservatives' argument.

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was like a breath of fresh air. His contribution was elevated more by the flatness of the surrounding countryside, but at least he appears to be a paid-up member of the 20th century, unlike the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who seems barely to have entered the 17th century, given the views that he expressed about the hereditary principle.

However, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe did not tell us why—if he abhors the hereditary peerage as much as he said—the hereditary peerage should have any say on the House that follows it. Why should it be there to define its successor, and why should that privilege linger for generations to come, in the form of the House of Lords that it has defined?

Conservative Members have made much of their argument that what is really at issue is the need to abolish the hereditary peerage at the same time as deciding what will follow it. That is sophistry, because Conservative Members know that, if so complex a measure were introduced, it would be balked at every turn in the House of Lords. There would be an exact repeat of what happened when Harold Wilson introduced a similar Bill. Why should the hereditary peerage be in a position to balk a Government's business? And not only this issue would be balked. There would be a road block of all the Government's measures for the next 12 months at least. For 12 months, there would be frustration of a Government who received an immense endorsement from the people only 18 months ago.

The truth underlying the Conservatives' feigned Olympian detachment is revealed as they seek to define a proper and appropriate process. Their stance hides the crude politics of the Conservative party maintaining its dominance—maintaining its say through the future House of Lords. The party has done it before; for a large part of the 20th century, it has maintained power under the table, through privilege. However, one of the main messages of 1 May 1997 was that the British people would not put up with that any longer. If Conservative Members realised that, they might halt their party's decline.

9.8 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

The issues that we are discussing tonight are fundamental, because they concern the working of our democracy. I shall keep my remarks short, owing to a lack of time, but there is so much that could be said on these matters, and much of it has been said tonight.

The reason I am so concerned about these aspects of our democratic system is that, when one looks at the whole picture, it becomes clear that the Government are undermining the balance of our parliamentary democracy. Their plans for dealing with the issue of the second Chamber—how it should be constituted and who should sit in it—are part of that undermining process.

We should have debate first, then action. It is illogical and dishonest to do things the other way round, as the Government are intent on doing. We should debate first what the second Chamber is about and what it is to do. We should then debate how it should be constituted.

Personally, I do not defend the hereditary principle. Had there been anything to inherit in my family, I would have been rather annoyed if my brother had inherited it all and I had been ignored. It is an academic matter as there was nothing to inherit. My brother and I are therefore good friends. I would have been angry had it not been so.

I have been amused to hear the arguments of Labour Members about the so-called Conservative majority among hereditary peers. I fully appreciate the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), whose logic I usually admire—although I might not always agree with her. However, that is not my position this evening. The hon. Lady and her hon. Friends have overlooked an important point. They may challenge the legitimacy of hereditary peers but they cannot challenge their independence. The fact is that one does not inherit political views. They are not in the blood. It just happens—

Maria Eagle

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing

I shall give way in a moment.

It just happens that many of those who sit through an hereditary right in another place are Conservatives. Surely Labour Members must appreciate that tomorrow's hereditary peers could become members of the Labour party. They could do so if they wanted to because they are independent.

Maria Eagle

My points were made on the basis of figures that show how many of the hereditary peerage take the Conservative Whip. Of course that may change over generations.

Mrs. Laing

I agree. The hon. Lady's facts and figures are indisputable. However, she cannot dispute that if 100 hereditary Members of another place decided tomorrow to join the Labour party, they could do so. They would be able to do that because they are independent. Therefore, to challenge the independence of hereditary peers is wrong. This point has been entirely overlooked through prejudice.

Much of the debate has been about what people who sit in another place do in their leisure time. That is irrelevant. It does not matter whether someone goes hunting on a horse, plays badminton or whatever. That is irrelevant. What matters is what they do when they are in Parliament. I repeat that one does not inherit political views. Such views come not through the blood but through decisions which independent people reach on their own, and in the 1990s we are all individuals.

I am sure that my uncle, who was once chairman of the Labour party in Scotland, is most amused that I am sitting on the Conservative Benches.

Dr. Fox

Upwardly mobile.

Mrs. Laing

I wonder—we Conservative Members will be that when we are sitting again on the Government Benches.

I shall turn briefly to my second point. Once again, the Home Secretary did not make clear this evening his attitude to the need to regulate the conduct of referendums. If referendums are to be part of our constitutional democracy, we must have regulations. If a referendum is not properly conducted, the result is undermined and the referendum has no legitimacy. I introduced a Bill a few weeks ago that would have had the effect of regulating referendums in accordance with the recommendations of the Neill committee. The Government did not oppose my Bill but neither have they supported it. We are asking only for a fair and level playing field.

I ask Ministers to tell us what the Government are afraid of. What are they afraid of when they refuse to legislate on the conduct of referendums? Are they afraid that on the next referendum that is called on a major constitutional issue, as is likely within the next year or so, the Neill committee's recommendations will mean that the Government will not be able to use their machine and taxpayers' money to fight their side of the argument?

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

They are afraid of the people.

Mrs. Laing

Indeed, they must be afraid of the people. If they are not afraid of the people, why are they afraid to consult the people under fair rules? Why are town council elections, parish council elections and even some student elections at universities better conducted than referendums on major constitutional issues? It is illogical and unfair; unless and until the Government agree to establish rules for the proper regulation of referendums, we shall continue to ask: of what are they afraid? If the Government want to conduct opinion polls, they can continue to do so; but if they want a referendum to be legitimate, it must be conducted under rules.

The hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) said that the people who elected us to Parliament are not interested in constitutional matters. If people believe that the constitution is a dry and boring matter which is discussed only by lawyers, it is not surprising that they are not especially interested. However, when they begin to realise the Government's underlying agenda for change to our constitution—surreptitious, gradual and, I would argue, dishonest change, because the Government do not explain their overall strategy—the people become interested in the constitution. They will quickly come to resent what the Government are doing to undermine our parliamentary democracy.

9.16 pm
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

This debate began in a most interesting fashion, with the Home Secretary detailing what he described as the Government's detailed and thorough constitutional changes. However, they must have been different constitutional changes from those that have been presented to the House, which could not have been described as either detailed or thorough. The parliamentary Session began with the Government's devolution proposals, which laid the ground for the further constitutional changes that have since been proposed. To understand exactly what stage we have reached in those constitutional changes, we need to examine the process, for it is instructive in showing how the Government have gone about those changes.

First, let us look at what we were promised before we reached the devolution referendum, when we were still at the White Paper stage. We were promised that the proposals would preserve the Union and that they would bring an end to nationalism. The Secretary of State for Defence said that they would kill nationalism stone dead. Well, nationalism did not appear to be stone dead in north-east Scotland last Thursday, when the nationalists looked rather triumphant. That only goes to show that when we said that the proposals presented a tremendous danger to the Union, our warning was correct.

During the passage of the Scotland Bill through the House, we were told that the Government would always look at devolution in the worst-case scenario; they would legislate just in case the consensus broke down. Despite the lovely winceyette, cuddly and all-inclusive, new-age politics that we were supposed to have in Scotland—which fell apart last Thursday—the Government would always look at the worst-case scenario, just in case. We said in return that we would be constructive in our approach to the Bill.

Is that what we got? It is not. In the other place, we got 186 groups of amendments to the Government's flagship Bill: the Government had to amend a Bill on their main proposal for constitutional change that was desperately flawed, as we had warned—it was so flawed that a bus could be driven through the holes in it. The second Chamber here, which the Government say has no democratic legitimacy, had to deal with 186 groups of amendments to a Bill that sets up a unicameral body. That, in the Home Secretary's words, was detailed and thorough. The Bill was a dog's breakfast—it was even being amended at Third Reading, days before coming back to this House.

We have already had several verdicts on devolution and I believe that we are to get another in the next couple of days. We never believe the leaks that we read in newspapers, but if the leaks in The Herald are to be believed, the verdict of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which is dominated by Labour Members, will be damning indeed, saying that the Bill was poorly drafted and that Ministers did not understand their briefs. There are various criticisms of the process and of the fact that it will not fulfil the promises that the Government had outlined at first. Ministers had a unique combination of incompetence and naivety in their approach to the Bill, and—typically for the culture of the Government—Ministers of State get the blame, not Secretaries of State.

There was a by-election last week and, in the collapse of the Labour party's vote, we saw that the public had also lost confidence in the ability of the Secretary of State for Scotland to deal with the nationalists, although, as a by-product, I noticed that the Liberal Democrats were today cosying up to the Scottish nationalists, just in case they might be the winners in future elections. The Liberal Democrats take the term "lowest common denominator" to new levels.

On Wales, which is the other part of the flagship, we heard interesting noises from the Home Secretary—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the terms of the motion are quite carefully defined, and he should refer to it.

Dr. Fox

Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am simply pointing out, as your fellow Deputy Speaker pointed out earlier, that background issues lay behind the Government's broader constitutional programme.

The Home Secretary said in his opening speech that he believes in equal funding in respect of referendums. I presume, therefore, that he agrees with the Neill committee, which had grave reservations about the referendum in Wales—had the Government not spent money on one side, there might have been a different result. That has enormous constitutional implications for us, and is something that we should consider.

As several speakers—most notably, my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd)—have said, the most important section of this part of the agenda is the fact that the West Lothian question remains unanswered: 20 years after that question was first asked by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), we still have no answer to an important constitutional conundrum.

How can it be that the West Lothian question was regarded as so unimportant that it was not addressed in the Government's well-thought-out, detailed and thorough constitutional programme? The reason is that it cannot be answered within the Government' s devolution plans, because devolution cannot answer the West Lothian question. The West Lothian question defies the logic of devolution, which says that the constitutional arrangements in one part of the kingdom can be changed without changing them in the rest.

One of the issues that has come forward clearly today is the conduct of referendums. I thank those who have worked with us on that in recent times—Charter 88, the constitutional unit, the Electoral Reform Society; those who responded to our reasoned plea—the Law Lords, the peers, members of all parties in this House and the bishops; and all those of all parties and none who responded to what we had asked.

What we are interested in achieving in the conduct of referendums has to do with something that lies at the heart of the British people—a sense of fairness. I do not need to point out to the House that the groups with which we have worked are hardly the usual bedfellows for the Conservative party, but they all share a fear of the Government's approach to referendums.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said so clearly—not only tonight, but on a previous occasion—if referendums are to be part of our constitutional architecture, and it seems that they shall be, we need better guidelines than we have at present. As she pointed out, we have adequate guidelines for the conduct of every other type of election in this country; why not for the conduct of referendums?

I was extremely interested in what the Home Secretary had to say, because—if I may use the term—his mood music was interesting and fair on this subject. As he will know, we have, with the co-operation of the groups that I have mentioned and a large input from Charter 88, developed a draft Bill which we believe could answer these points. I hope that he will enter into conversation with us, to discuss the content of the Bill and whether we could legislate in this Session in respect of this part of what the Neill committee has said. Any assurance that he could give the House—

Mr. Straw

indicated assent.

Dr. Fox

The Home Secretary is nodding, and I am pleased to see that.

What we propose is very simple. We believe that there is a need for minimum regulation to deal with finance and media access during a referendum campaign. There is nothing to prevent the Government from putting their case in any referendum to the people—that is right and proper. What is objectionable is the Government using taxpayers' money to support only one side—as happened in Wales—because taxpayers will inevitably support both sides.

Having established minimum regulations on finance and media access to both sides of a referendum campaign, we should go further and examine what other regulations may be necessary. It would be sensible to consider who should set the question in the referendum, who should decide on the timing, what constitutes validity and what thresholds need to be set. Those questions should be of equal importance to both sides, as they deal not with specific issues, but with the mechanism by which a referendum would be valid in the eyes of the electorate. That is the most important aspect. Will those who lose in a referendum believe that it was fair and accept the result? The low turnout was one of the factors that undermined the referendum in Wales.

We need look no further than the referendums that may come up in the near future. I have no idea whether the Liberal Democrats know when the referendum on proportional representation will take place—if they do, their information is probably not correct—but we know that it will happen at some point. There will also be a referendum on economic and monetary union. Without the referendum commission, the question would probably be, "I, the Prime Minister, the Almighty, being such a great guy, if, at some point in the future, I decide that it would be reasonably good for the United Kingdom to consider monetary union, do you think that I perhaps should be given the chance to take this country in at some point to be decided in the future?" That is the sort of crisp question that we are likely to get, and it is all the more reason to establish a mechanism to make the process more valid.

What is the difference in validity between a pre-legislative and a post-legislative referendum? Our recent experience in Wales and Scotland strengthens the case for a post-legislative referendum. A Bill has been amended and changed until it is almost unrecognisable, yet in both its forms, it is supposed to be the same measure that the voters voted for, and that cannot be so.

The case for a post-legislative referendum is also strengthened by the changes being made to the legislation for London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) pointed out. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham referred to other cases in which people have voted for one thing and have got something quite different. It should be our practice to have post-legislative not pre-legislative referendums, if they are to have legitimacy.

I do not intend to say much about the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. We have had a rota, and have taken turns to speak on that Bill, so there can hardly be a Member who has not spoken on it. The attitude of Labour and Liberal Democrat Members is instructive. There is a clear principle, which is choice for voters. Choice for voters is good, maximal choice is best, and some choice is better than none. However, the Government have adopted the reverse principle—not voter first, but party first.

I was astonished to hear the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) say that the Salisbury convention had been badly shaken by the decision to reject the closed list. There is nothing in the Labour manifesto about closed lists. The Liberal Democrats did not say that they would change from open to closed lists when it suited them. This was a properly constituted matter: the House of Lords decided that the House of Commons should think again.

The House of Commons can get its way through the Parliament Acts, and the Government have made it clear that they will do so. That is the correct process. For some reason, the idea has been put about that there has been undue process and an abuse of Parliament. This is how Parliament is supposed to work. We have a system of checks and balances to ensure that the House of Commons gets its way, but does not rush through legislation if the other Chamber believes that it should think again.

I hear people say that this is the settled will of the House of Commons. It is the settled will of the House of Commons through the Whips—there is no doubt about that—but it is hardly the settled will of the House of Commons as conveyed by Labour Members in speeches here. Labour Members went out of their way to be absent: to be in their constituencies, having dinner, seeing their best friends or doing anything to avoid having to defend a position that they found very unpalatable.

Most of today's debate has concerned reform of the Upper House. I feel that, generally speaking, the standard of debate on this issue should be raised from the caricature and tiresome class-war rhetoric that has featured too much today. I exempt the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who made an informative and intelligent speech. I wish that more of her colleagues had done the same.

The debate is not about the Government's right to have stage one without stage two, which is clearly in their manifesto; it is about whether the Government are wise, or correct, to have stage one without stage two. It is not about the Conservative party's blindly defending the rights of hereditary peers—although that is what the Labour party would love us to do, because it would make its job so much easier. It is very unlikely that, if we started with a blank piece of paper, we would end up with the constitutional position in which the United Kingdom currently finds itself.

I do, however, defend the public service of men and women in the other place, over many years. That has been cheaply denigrated today by too many Labour Members, many of whom have been in Parliament for only a short time. Above all, Conservative Members defend the right of the people to know how they are to be governed. In saying that they want stage one without stage two, the Government are, in effect, saying, "We are going to change the way in which you, the people of Britain, are to be governed through Parliament, but we are not going to tell you what that change is to be".

We need, first, to determine whether there is a need for a second chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) presented a passionate defence of our two-chamber system today. Next, we need to decide on the role and function of a second chamber: we must do that before we decide on its composition. To decide who is to sit in a chamber before deciding what it is to do is rather like setting up a factory, employing staff and then deciding what the factory will make. It would be ridiculous to put us in such a position.

After that, we should decide on our criteria for the chamber. We have set out six criteria for any change to the upper House. It should hold the Government to account better than the present Chamber; it should have a substantial number of independent Members, free of any political party; the Prime Minister's power should not be increased; Members must be drawn from all parts of the United Kingdom; the impact of reform on both Houses should be considered; and the House of Commons must remain supreme. Those are clear criteria, set out by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Straw

Do those criteria include an end to the built-in 3:1 Tory majority in the other place?

Dr. Fox

It is typical of the Home Secretary to ask such a question. We are talking about engaging openly in a process of reform, which, as the Home Secretary knows, we have offered to do on several occasions. We have wanted to take part in a full, one-stage, coherent process of reform. We are talking about the better governance of the United Kingdom—and what does the Home Secretary talk about? He talks about the Labour party's interests. The Labour party can see any part of constitutional change only in terms of what is in its interests. Only when we have decided what the role of the Chamber can be shall we be able to decide what its composition should be.

We heard one or two extraordinarily interesting contributions. Perhaps the best was that of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who, in a "Beanoesque" speech, said, "No one voted for a candidate in the election. No one voted for me." The hon. Lady has not worked out that the whole point of an election is that the voters are supposed to have a choice. According to her, it is all about party. It takes one of the newest Members of Parliament to speak the truth, for that is indeed what it is all about for the Labour party: it is all about party.

Last week, Lady Jay referred, in the other place, to Cross Benchers' being independent "in name only". That betrayed the fact that, under the current Administration, people are either with the Government or against them. It is not possible to be independent: you are either "them" or "us". As my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood pointed out, they do not understand the danger of patronage.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester said, unusually in this Government, the new life peers being created are predominantly Government peers—54 per cent. so far. It is clear that the Government intend to pack the upper House, to increase the Prime Minister' s power and to increase the Executive's power when we should be bringing it under check.

What is the demand for the constitutional change that is being put forward? Are our voters stretching out in constituencies demanding constitutional change? Are lorry loads of petitions making their way into the House at this moment to be dumped on our desks? Do barges sail up the Thames, with the people of this country demanding that we have constitutional change? No, they do not. That is not what people are interested in, as many hon. Members have pointed out.

The trouble is that the Government believe that history began on 1 May 1997. They have little respect for our traditions or our heritage. [Interruption.] Labour Members may well roar their approval because that is exactly the perspective. They see us not as a nation state, but as a conglomeration of regions, just as they see the electorate not as a whole, but as a coalition of minorities. As they say, they want us to be governed by modern European mechanisms of government, but we are not a modern European nation. [Laughter.] We are a strong, independent nation state that twice this century, because of the values that we have held, has been able to get Europe out of trouble of its own making. It is typical of how little feel the Labour party has for our country's traditions that it can mock them in such a way.

I look forward to the Secretary of State for Wales answering the debate. He is in a particularly difficult position: either he wins his election and gets a job that he does not want, or he stays in extended exile. I enjoyed his shotgun wedding to the Welsh Labour party last week, with him being led down the aisle by the Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) could be the best man, but best man is not a term that counts in the Labour party; only Blair's man counts.

We have in the Secretary of State someone who has come late to the constitutional debate, having not taken part in the devolution flagship debates, and he is left to clear up what is now a mess. The European Parliamentary Elections Bill tries to gag the voters and to boost the party bosses. The House of Lords reform is to bolster the Prime Minister, not to improve how we are governed. The nationalists are resurgent. The United Kingdom is in peril.

There is more that unites us as a nation than divides us, but the Labour party refuses to see it. The Government's approach is piecemeal, vacuous and superficial. It is all about Labour. It may be good for Labour, but it is bad for the United Kingdom. It should be opposed. We will relish that opposition.

9.38 pm
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael)

What a rant that was. I was looking forward to a wide-ranging debate reflecting the scope and breadth of the Government's constitutional reform programme. From devolution to the incorporation of human rights legislation into domestic law, to the reform of the other place, the Government are committed to overhauling and modernising our constitution. Instead of that sort of debate, we have had a narrow, petty amendment, reflected in narrow, petty arguments from Opposition Members. What we have heard in the past few minutes was the worst and narrowest of the contributions.

If anyone has come late to the constitutional debate, it is the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). I have been involved in that debate for more than 30 years. My commitment over the years is beyond doubt. After the contribution that he has just made, his commitment to anything is slightly doubtful.

In the last Session, 10 constitutional measures were enacted, when constitutional experts said that two would be ambitious, yet it would have been 11 but for the refusal of the hereditary peers to accept the wishes of those who have been elected. There is more work to come in this Session, as well as a number of draft Bills—more than enough, I would have thought, to engage Conservative Members—yet instead there has been a series of stale and stereotyped attempts to defend the indefensible: the so-called right of an in-built Conservative majority to frustrate the policies of an elected majority in the House of Commons. That is what the debate has been about.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was right to criticise what he described as the "ritual opposition" of Conservative Members, who have debated nothing but one issue. They have offered no real debate on the European elections or on the Neill committee's report. They have shown no real engagement on the major constitutional issues raised by the 10 major constitutional measures that I mentioned. They have also not attempted to debate the measures that were introduced in the Gracious Speech.

I tell the hon. Member for Woodspring that the Government's authority is based on our constitution, and on the confidence with which people voted for us and their desire for us to make this a modern, democratic Government. He has confessed that the previous Government did not leave us a modern and democratic House.

The language used by Conservative Members in today's debate has been curious and loaded with prejudice. They accuse us of undertaking reform piecemeal. It is more appropriate to talk of incremental change. As we have an uncodified and unwritten constitution, we are bound to effect change in a case-by-case, incremental process. I thought that Conservative Members favoured such a process—of careful, incremental change, driven by a coherent philosophy. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary clearly said at the beginning of the debate, we certainly take such an approach.

I agree with the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) on the Government's courage in proceeding with the modernisation agenda at every level of government.

Mr. Lansley

I fear that, in his comments on the previous Session, the right hon. Gentleman may be failing to distinguish between activity and achievement. Nevertheless, on the coming Session, will he explain—if he has a coherent philosophy—what the Government propose as the democratic and modern alternatives to the current House of Lords and to current electoral systems?

Mr. Michael

The alternatives are simply what we promised in our manifesto—to remove the entirely undemocratic and unjustifiable votes of elected peers. We shall then move forward. Until we have taken the first action, we cannot get Conservative Members to engage in proper debate. They are stuck on defending the indefensible—an unelected majority in the other place. Once we have dealt with that, perhaps the Government will be able to have a coherent debate with Conservative Members and not only with the Liberal Democrats. Conservative Members have opted out of the debate.

This Session will also bear witness to several of the previous Session's measures bearing fruit. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) mentioned that point. As a consequence of the Human Rights Act 1998, for example, the Bills that have been published already this Session have been accompanied by ministerial statements certifying their compliance with the provisions of the European convention on human rights. The constitutional reforms that the Government have undertaken are starting to have a direct beneficial effect on the lives of ordinary people. None the less, today's Conservative amendment is narrow, bitter and arid.

Why did Conservative Members not want to talk about the new Northern Ireland Assembly, the government of London, or the sentence in the Address celebrating the fact that people will be able to vote in elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly next year, and my Government will work to ensure that both are established successfully"? It was not until the hon. Member for Woodspring replied for the Opposition that a lame attempt was made to criticise the exciting progress being made by the Government. Perhaps Conservative Members are so quiet now because that legislation completed its passage, finishing the job, in the previous Session.

The fact is that 1999 will be very much a year of destiny for Wales and Scotland and for all of the United Kingdom. I am very concerned that there are those in Westminster and in Whitehall who misunderstand the process of change that we are experiencing, just as they seemed to misunderstand the referendum process that we experienced. Conservative Members' mention of referendums and, in their amendment, of the Neill report was meant simply as a hook to be used in attacking the devolution process. Dare I say it that hon. Members and some people in Whitehall believe that, after 7 May, they will no longer have to consider or bother about Wales or Scotland?

There are also those who pursue a nationalist agenda and talk as if, after devolution, a deep divide will develop between the English border and the Welsh border. There is neither a new Offa's dyke to be erected nor a new Welsh sea to come between us. The point of our constitutional change is for the people of Wales to elect representatives who are directly accountable for the decisions that are currently taken by the Welsh Office. It will be essential for the Assembly to engage with other Departments of state and be involved in legislation and administration that is done on an England and Wales basis or a United Kingdom basis.

Reform of the House of Lords, reform of this House and systems of election are closely related and are about improving democracy in this country. They are not about undermining our democracy, as the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) suggested, any more than devolution is about separation. It does not mean cutting the ties that bind us. Instead, it gives us the opportunity to create better government. My vision of devolution is not about the arid separatism that nationalism implies. It is dynamic devolution, in which accountability and democratic participation are brought to decision making for Wales and in which we develop new partnerships and new links between the different levels of government to create a dynamic economy and movement in social and economic development, enhance the opportunities available to every sector of the economy and society in Wales and move the whole United Kingdom forward.

Dr. Fox

Will the great new democratic freedom in Wales and the lust for devolution be extended to the Labour party in the form of one member, one vote?

Mr. Michael

Every member of the Labour party will have a vote in the selection of the leader of the Labour party in Wales.

It is not surprising that the hon. Gentleman wants to move away from the argument about the effectiveness of our systems. If we are to be effective—if this House and the House of Lords are to be effective—it is important that decisions should be taken at the right level, that we should get the right results and that we should enhance quality of life for people in every part of this land. Conservative Members seem to have lost sight of the fact that that is what constitutional change is about. It is not about arid theory; it is about making life better for people.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

My right hon. Friend is expounding the most exciting aspect of the devolution debate. For too long, this country has been over-centralised. Now, we have the opportunity to release the talent of the British people in all their countries and regions. That is the way to get this country moving again. I thank him for raising the subject.

Mr. Michael

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend, as an English Member, understands the process of devolution and the fact that, for it to be effective, there needs to be a dynamic partnership between different levels of government. That is why I shall be putting my energy in the coming months into preparing the ground for that new relationship and dynamic devolution that I spoke about earlier.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I, a number of my hon. Friends and even the Home Secretary were brought to account by the Deputy Speaker when we ranged outside the narrow confines of the amendment. It appears that the Secretary of State for Wales is straying on territory—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am perfectly capable of knowing what the Secretary of State is saying.

Mr. Michael

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not here when the Opposition spokesman raised the same points of devolution to Wales to which I am alluding. I am referring briefly to those issues because they are vital. Until the winding-up speech, the Opposition chose to ignore them. I am also trying to bring home to the hon. Gentleman, if he would care to listen, the fact brought to the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac)—that the views of ordinary people are important. Some 70 per cent. of her constituents wanted to scrap the voting rights of hereditary peers. That reflects the views of my constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) asked us to reflect on what our constituents expect of us—an improvement in the quality of their lives. That is the basis on which we should judge constitutional change. Those who operate at the grass roots—businesses, trade unions, local authorities and voluntary organisations—need to be the partners of Parliament or an elected Assembly. The votes of hereditary peers have never helped us on such issues.

Reference has been made to devolution, which as my predecessor—my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies)—said is not an event but a process. It is neither a single one-off election nor a point on a process from dependency to complete independence, but a process of engaging people as we seek to do in Wales and in every part of the United Kingdom.

Defending the powers of hereditary peers seems a million miles away from the issues that affect our constituents. That is why I am delighted that the Gracious Speech this year underlines the importance of the events of devolution, including the election, in the next 12 months. It reminds us that those developments will enhance the unity of the United Kingdom, not undermine it. England and Wales will remain partners, bound together by our common legal and economic framework and the accidents of Welsh geography, but allowing us to express our distinctive identity through the Welsh Assembly, which will provide us with our own clear voice.

Let us apply to the House of Lords and the arguments made by the Opposition the same test of success that I will apply to the Welsh Assembly. What does it do for our people in terms of a strong economy, jobs, better education, opportunities for all, a better health service and healthy, safe communities? The Assembly and the House will be judged by those criteria, which should also apply to the House of Lords. We should consider whether the retention of the rights of hereditary peers can do anything to help.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

My right hon. Friend mentioned Offa's dyke. He will know that that great earthwork goes through my constituency, as does the earthwork of Watt. However, I am not concerned with Anglo-Saxon imperialists. How does my right hon. Friend envisage his plans helping the economy in my constituency? What will his proposals do for Alyn and Deeside?

Mr. Michael

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He does not realise that, as a teenager, I became a world expert on Watt's dyke, but I shall speak to him about that some other time. Each of the 10 measures to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred will improve the quality of life and its freedoms and the accountability and responsibilities of institutions to the British people. That is our agenda and that of my hon. Friend in his constituency and his work.

Mr. Grieve

I know that time is short and that the Minister still has points to make. He was kind enough to pick up my remark that we should get away from ritual. In the next few minutes, would he be willing to address some of the issues that were raised in the debate?

Mr. Michael

Yes, but to do so I shall have to turn to my right hon. and hon. Friends and to the Liberal Democrats, as they were not addressed by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) noted the ambitious nature of the Government's reform programme. I welcome the fact that he and his party are prepared to enter into debate about modernisation. We may not always agree—it would be nice if the Conservatives took that on board—but he was right to point out that the underlying casuistry of the self-seeking actions by the hereditary peers, who have undermined the conventions of our democratic traditions, has been defended outrageously by Conservative Members this evening.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Michael

I am coming to the speech by the right hon and learned Gentleman.

In contrast, the Conservative speeches—the right hon. and learned Gentleman was the first who gave the slightest hint of engaging in debate on how to reform the House of Lords—

Mr. Clarke


Mr. Michael

I should get my retaliation in before the right hon. and learned Gentleman replies. He was the first for some time to give the slightest hint of engaging in a debate on how to reform the House of Lords, but he retreated rapidly from any real engagement. We shall engage the Conservatives in a full debate only when the rights of hereditary peers have been removed. The Conservatives will not seek to restore such a barmy constitutional anachronism, so let us remove the appendix and get on with improving the health of the body politic.

Mr. Clarke

I thank the Minister for giving way. He listened to some of the debate, in which I heard no Conservative Member defend our right to a permanent majority in the upper House. Will he address the question that the Bill would make the present Government the first for almost 200 years accountable to a second House entirely appointed by the Executive? Does he have a solitary argument in favour of that in terms of the accountability that he is now talking about?

Mr. Michael

No. The composition of the House of Lords will be changed by the removal of the hereditary peers, so the form that it then takes will be a matter for constitutional debate and consultation.

Sir Norman Fowler

Answer the question.

Mr. Michael

I have answered the question; if Conservative Members listened to the question and the answer, they might learn something.

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe made a quirky claim to be a close ally of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), which sounded like another vicious personal attack. Other than that, his position was illogical and untenable. He argued that the outrage of the hereditary peers' genetic veto should continue while we build a consensus on how to construct a second chamber that retains and improves what is good about the House of Lords and removes what is bad. When we published our proposals in opposition, I found it extraordinary to behold the instant conversion of hereditary peers to the wholesale democratisation of the House of Lords provided that we waited until every detail had been worked out and agreed before we removed their votes.

The right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) is usually a thoughtful man, but he made the ridiculous assertion that the hereditary peers are independent and not merely Conservative. Of course we need a balance in the constitution, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe rightly said, but how will parliamentary democracy be reduced if we make the House of Lords more democratic? Reforming the House of Lords is like eating an elephant; it must be done a bite at a time. That suggestion seems to contain much wisdom.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) made a typically vigorous speech and said a great deal with which I agreed. I am glad that he was not intimidated by his confrontation with large, gun-toting, rugby-playing Liberal peers. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was worried about the Government's response to the Neill report. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary dealt with those issues comprehensively and at length on 9 November.

I remind Conservative Members that we made clear in the general election our intentions for the House of Lords. Our manifesto said: As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered. Our intentions were clear and we have pursued them in government.

It is absolutely clear that no Government this century have undertaken such a radical and wide-ranging overhaul of our constitution. Far from wrecking the constitution, we have sought to amend it. The Liberal Democrats have been engaged in that process but there has been no Conservative engagement, to that party's eternal shame. Conservatives can claim no rights or authority as supporters of the constitution when their approach is entirely negative and destructive.

During this Parliament, we will ensure that decisions are taken much closer to the people. We will improve local government and government at the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland level. We will ensure that people no longer have to go to Strasbourg to enforce their basic human rights. We will clean up politics by giving effect to the recommendations of the Neill committee. We will end the absurd anachronism by which people can serve in this legislature not by virtue of election or their own merits but by accident of birth. I am proud of what we have achieved and of what lies ahead.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 133, Noes 350.

Division No. 1] [9.59 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Amess, David Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Lansley, Andrew
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Leigh, Edward
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Letwin, Oliver
Baldry, Tony Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Bercow, John Lidington, David
Beresford, Sir Paul Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Blunt, Crispin Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Boswell, Tim Loughton, Tim
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Brady, Graham McIntosh, Miss Anne
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Brazier, Julian Maclean, Rt Hon David
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter McLoughlin, Patrick
Browning, Mrs Angela Madel, Sir David
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Malins, Humfrey
Burns, Simon Maples, John
Butterfill, John Mates, Michael
Cash, William Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Chope, Christopher May, Mrs Theresa
Clappison, James Moss, Malcolm
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Page, Richard
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Paice, James
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth Paterson, Owen
(Rushcliffe) Pickles, Eric
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Prior, David
Cormack, Sir Patrick Redwood, Rt Hon John
Cran, James Robathan, Andrew
Curry, Rt Hon David Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Day, Stephen Ruffley, David
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen St Aubyn, Nick
Duncan, Alan Sayeed, Jonathan
Duncan Smith, Iain Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Shepherd, Richard
Evans, Nigel Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Faber, David Spicer, Sir Michael
Fabricant, Michael Spring, Richard
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Steen, Anthony
Fox, Dr Liam Streeter, Gary
Fraser, Christopher Swayne, Desmond
Gale, Roger Syms, Robert
Garnier, Edward Tapsell, Sir Peter
Gibb, Nick Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair Taylor, Sir Teddy
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Tredinnick, David
Gray, James Trend, Michael
Green, Damian Tyrie, Andrew
Greenway, John Viggers, Peter
Grieve, Dominic Wardle, Charles
Gummer, Rt Hon John Waterson, Nigel
Hague, Rt Hon William Wells, Bowen
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Whitney, Sir Raymond
Whittingdale, John
Hammond, Philip Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Heald, Oliver Wilkinson, John
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Willetts, David
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Horam, John Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Woodward, Shaun
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Yeo, Tim
Hunter, Andrew Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Tellers for the Ayes:
Jenkin, Bernard Mr. John M. Taylor and Mr. Tim Collins.
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Abbott, Ms Diane Dafis, Cynog
Ainger, Nick Dalyell, Tam
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Alexander, Douglas Darvill, Keith
Allan, Richard Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Allen, Graham Davidson, Ian
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Dawson, Hilton
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Dean, Mrs Janet
Ashton, Joe Dismore, Andrew
Atkins, Charlotte Dobbin, Jim
Baker, Norman Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Ballard, Jackie Donohoe, Brian H
Banks, Tony Doran, Frank
Barnes, Harry Dowd, Jim
Barron, Kevin Drew, David
Battle, John Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Bayley, Hugh Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Beard, Nigel Edwards, Huw
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Efford, Clive
Begg, Miss Anne Ellman, Mrs Louise
Beith, Rt Hon A J Ennis, Jeff
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Fearn, Ronnie
Benton, Joe Field, Rt Hon Frank
Blears, Ms Hazel Fisher, Mark
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Fitzpatrick, Jim
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Fitzsimons, Lorna
Bradshaw, Ben Flint, Caroline
Brake, Tom Follett, Barbara
Brinton, Mrs Helen Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Foster, Don (Bath)
Browne, Desmond Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Buck, Ms Karen Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Burden, Richard Foulkes, George
Burgon, Colin Fyfe, Maria
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Galloway, George
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Gapes, Mike
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Gardiner, Barry
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Gerrard, Neil
Canavan, Dennis Gibson, Dr Ian
Cann, Jamie Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Caplin, Ivor Godman, Dr Norman A
Casale, Roger Godsiff, Roger
Caton, Martin Goggins, Paul
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Golding, Mrs Llin
Chaytor, David Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Chidgey, David Gorrie, Donald
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Grocott, Bruce
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Grogan, John
Clelland, David Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Clwyd, Ann Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Coffey, Ms Ann Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Cohen, Harry Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Coleman, Iain Harvey, Nick
Connarty, Michael Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Cooper, Yvette Hepburn, Stephen
Corbett, Robin Heppell, John
Corbyn, Jeremy Hesford, Stephen
Corston, Ms Jean Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Cotter, Brian Hill, Keith
Cousins, Jim Hodge, Ms Margaret
Cranston, Ross Hoey, Kate
Crausby, David Home Robertson, John
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Hood, Jimmy
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Hoon, Geoffrey
Cunningham, Ms Roseanna Hope, Phil
(Perth) Hopkins, Kelvin
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Hoyle, Lindsay Michael, Alun
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Miller, Andrew
Humble, Mrs Joan Mitchell, Austin
Hurst, Alan Moffatt, Laura
Hutton, John Moran, Ms Margaret
Iddon, Dr Brian Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Illsley, Eric Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Morley, Elliot
Jamieson, David Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Jenkins, Brian Mullin, Chris
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Johnson, Miss Melanie Norris, Dan
(Welwyn Hatfield) Oaten, Mark
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) O'Neill, Martin
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Öpik, Lembit
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Organ, Mrs Diana
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Osborne, Ms Sandra
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Palmer, Dr Nick
Jowell, Ms Tessa Pearson, Ian
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Pendry, Tom
Keeble, Ms Sally Perham, Ms Linda
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Pickthall, Colin
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Pike, Peter L
Kemp, Fraser Plaskitt, James
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye) Pollard, Kerry
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Pond, Chris
Kidney, David Pope, Greg
Kilfoyle, Peter Pound, Stephen
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Powell, Sir Raymond
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Kingham, Ms Tess Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kirkwood, Archy Prosser, Gwyn
Kumar, Dr Ashok Purchase, Ken
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Quinn, Lawrie
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Radice, Giles
Laxton, Bob Rammell, Bill
Leslie, Christopher Rapson, Syd
Levitt, Tom Raynsford, Nick
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Rendel, David
Linton, Martin Robertson, Rt Hon George
Livingstone, Ken (Hamilton S)
Livsey, Richard Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Roche, Mrs Barbara
Llwyd, Elfyn Rooney, Terry
Lock, David Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Love, Andrew Rowlands, Ted
McAllion, John Ruane, Chris
McAvoy, Thomas Ruddock, Ms Joan
McCabe, Steve Russell, Bob (Colchester)
McCafferty, Ms Chris Salter, Martin
McDonagh, Siobhain Sanders, Adrian
McDonnell, John Savidge, Malcolm
McGuire, Mrs Anne Sawford, Phil
McIsaac, Shona Sedgemore, Brian
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Shaw, Jonathan
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Sheerman, Barry
McNulty, Tony Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
MacShane, Denis Shipley, Ms Debra
Mactaggart, Fiona Short, Rt Hon Clare
McWalter, Tony Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McWilliam, John Singh, Marsha
Mahon, Mrs Alice Skinner, Dennis
Mallaber, Judy Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Martlew, Eric Snape, Peter
Maxton, John Soley, Clive
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Southworth, Ms Helen
Spellar, John Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Squire, Ms Rachel Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Steinberg, Gerry Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Tyler, Paul
Stinchcombe, Paul Walley, Ms Joan
Stoate, Dr Howard Ward, Ms Claire
Straw, Rt Hon Jack Wareing, Robert N
Stuart, Ms Gisela Watts, David
Stunell, Andrew Webb, Steve
Sutcliffe, Gerry Welsh, Andrew
Swinney, John White, Brian
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann Wicks, Malcolm
Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
(Dewsbury) Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S) (Swansea W)
Taylor, David (NW Leics) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) Willis, Phil
Temple-Morris, Peter Wills, Michael
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W) Winnick, David
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W) Woolas, Phil
Timms, Stephen Worthington, Tony
Tipping, Paddy Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Todd, Mark Wyatt, Derek
Tonge, Dr Jenny
Touhig, Don Tellers for the Noes:
Trickett, Jon Mr. David Hanson and Mr. Clive Betts.
Truswell, Paul

Question accordingly negatived.

Debate adjourned. — [Mr. Pope.]

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.