HC Deb 01 February 1999 vol 324 cc609-97

Order for Second Reading read.—[Queen's consent, on behalf of the Crown, and Prince of Wales's consent, on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall, signified.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I should inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.15 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

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

The most important thing about the Bill, and what should be the most important thing about this debate and this issue, is that it is all very simple. What our manifesto said is simple and this legislation is simple—and we can best judge it if we recognise the almost exquisite simplicity of what it proposes. The Bill removes the right presently enjoyed by some 750 people—almost 100 more than the total number of Members elected to the House—to sit and vote in our Parliament solely on the basis of their birth and without any consideration whatever of their personal qualities or achievements. The Bill will modernise the way in which we handle legislation, improve our Parliament and so lead to a better Britain.

Hereditary peers lose the right to an automatic place in Parliament in clause 1. They should then have the right of any citizen to vote, and to stand for and to be a Member of this House without disclaiming their peerages. That is the effect of clause 2. Clause 3 makes consequential repeals to the Peerage Act 1963, and clause 4 brings the main provisions of the Act into force at the end of the Session in which it is passed, cancels the existing writs of summons that otherwise run for a whole Parliament, and provides for a power to ensure that peers can register as parliamentary electors for the first register that comes into force after they leave the Lords.

The proposals follow precisely those in our manifesto: to remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in our legislature as an initial self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future. It has been suggested that an amendment may be moved from the Cross Benches in the House of Lords whereby some 90 or so of the 750 might remain in the transitional House until the second stage of reform. The Government have made it clear from the outset that we would prefer to proceed by consensus. However, if such a proposal is made in the Lords and the Government's legislative programme is not being frustrated, we are minded to accept it. Even with such an amendment, the automatic rights of hereditary peers would have been removed and those elected by their peers would serve in a personal capacity—their heirs would not inherit their seats.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can help me regarding the mechanisms of the Bill. If the Lords amendment is moved and accepted by the House and the Government, and peers elect their contemporaries for the purpose of the transitional arrangements, will there be a statutory provision or will they be created peers and life peers again? On what basis will they sit once their right to sit as hereditary peers is removed by the Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

With respect to my right hon. Friend, they are precisely the matters that will be addressed by the amendment that will, no doubt, be moved in another place. It is the other place's amendment, not ours, and I do not propose to address it today.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is the right hon. Lady saying that, if a similar amendment is moved in this place, the Government are not minded to accept it?

Mrs. Beckett

No such proposal appears in the Bill as it stands and nor do the Government intend to insert it.

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mrs. Beckett

I am about to answer the hon. Gentleman's question. If an amendment is moved in this place, I shall advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against it—and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. Should the Bill be actually obstructed in the Lords, despite being a clear manifesto pledge, or should it appear that the consensus and good faith for which we hope are lacking, then it is to this simple Bill that we would wish to apply the Parliament Acts so that the legislation can be carried in this Parliament, albeit after a delay.

The Government have provided for a two-day Second Reading debate for two reasons: first, the Bill, although short, is momentous in its effects; and, secondly, we recognise that hon. Members may want to range over matters relating to the White Paper. I intend to focus on the content of the Bill. In tomorrow's debate, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department, will focus on the transitional House.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Before the right hon. Lady moves on, I should like to return to the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). Is the right hon. Lady saying that if an amendment were to be tabled in this House of the type referred to, she would invite her right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against it? She intends, in effect, to put a pistol to the heads of Members of the upper House. If that is the case, the word that would be applied in the courts is blackmail, but as I am sure that that is not a parliamentary expression, shall we simply call it threatening behaviour by the Government?

Mrs. Beckett

Absolute claptrap. The matter is simple and straightforward: this is what the Government said that we intended to do and it is what we propose to do. We are perfectly willing to work with members of the House of Lords if that is what they want, in order to allow some of them to remain on the basis that is being discussed. However, the Government propose to act as we have set out in the Bill itself.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

There is not much point, but I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell).

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Will the right hon. Lady explain to the House whether she thinks it right and desirable that existing hereditary peers, who play a substantial part in the present role of the House of Lords, should continue to be able to play such a part during the transitional period? If she agrees that it is right and that that is why the Government would accept the amendment, why are they not prepared to include such a provision in a Bill to which they could apply the Parliament Acts?

Mrs. Beckett

I have just given the right hon. and learned Gentleman the reason. What he is discussing is not the Government's proposal; the Government's proposal was in our manifesto and it is before the House today. We are prepared to take, on advisement, other proposals that might come from another place. We are prepared to consider them not unsympathetically, but we are not prepared to run the risk of the Bill before us today not being the same Bill, in essence, when it leaves this House.

Mr. Cash

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

I will, but then I must get on.

Mr. Cash

Given the drastic treatment that the Government propose for the House of Lords and the peremptory manner in which they are introducing it, will the right hon. Lady be good enough to tell us whether she proposes to use the guillotine at some point during the proceedings?

Hon. Members

On the peers.

Mrs. Beckett

Neither on the peers, nor on the Bill. As I hope to show later in my speech, to call the measure drastic is to put it a little high; it is certainly long overdue.

I turn now from what we are doing—modernising our Parliament and delivering better government—and how we are doing that in this Bill, to why we are doing it. To have a legislature in which 750 people are entitled to sit by virtue of their birth alone is utterly, totally, literally, indefensible. It is indefensible in principle and indefensible in practice. It simply cannot be defended.

As has often been said, if one went to the airport and was told that the pilot did not himself have a pilot's licence, but that there was no need to worry because his grandfather had a licence, one simply would not get on the plane. However, we do not need to rely on analogy; we can rest on experience.

A few weeks ago, for example, the 12th Earl of Dunmore flew from his home in Tasmania to take his seat in the House of Lords for the first time. He explained his action as a gesture—almost, I suppose, a sentimental gesture to his forebears—and a recognition of his heritage.

I am not attacking him for that. He has that right, even if his journey sounded like a particularly superior kind of tourist trip. In fact, far from attacking him, I am extremely grateful to him. What the Earl did demonstrates that unless we pass the Bill, he can go on popping in whenever the fancy takes him for the rest of his life, and his heirs after him.

In his one pleasantly unassuming person, the Earl destroys with brutal clarity the Opposition's case. In their 1997 campaign guide, they said that it is important to defend the hereditary principle in its own right. Really? It was reported that the 12th Earl of Dunmore was born in Australia, has always lived in Australia and had never even visited this country before. Yet he and another 61 hereditary peers who no longer even make their home in Britain can, if they choose, turn up, take the taxpayer's shilling towards their expenses—taxes to which they may well not contribute—and exercise their right to speak and vote on our health service, our schools and our housing. They have the power to affect all our lives and then just go home.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

If the right hon. Lady wants to proceed from these particular examples to a general conclusion, why did she not frame the Bill to exclude people who do not live in this country? If she wants to use another example, why does she not get on with it, instead of concentrating on a minority of peers who are untypical of the hard work and long hours put in here by the overwhelming majority?

Mrs. Beckett

Getting on with it is precisely what we intend to do and what the Opposition apparently do not want.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way, particularly as she says that she wants to get on with it. Given that she claims to attach great importance to a thoroughgoing reform of the House of Lords, why is she unable this afternoon to give the House an indicative timetable within which full reform will be completed? Will the right hon. Lady at least assure the House that she expects reform to be completed within her remaining political lifetime?

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, I can definitely give that assurance. I concede that the great hereditary principle that the Opposition want to defend allows a mere 62 foreign residents a place in our legislature at present. But on what basis did the remaining 688 find a place?

Some undoubtedly did so as a result of the public service performed by their forebears, but even if they are themselves assiduous in their public service, it is not on that basis that their own place has been earned. Others, as we all know, benefited from dubious favours—sometimes sexual, sometimes financial—performed for past monarchs, sometimes centuries past. I hope that I am not being too offensive when I say that, looking at a very long list, it is no longer apparent how others got their place at all. Whether or not hereditary peers are qualified to legislate is academic. The fact is that they do not have to be qualified.

It is not only the hereditary principle that is indefensible, but what happens in practice because its effect is to perpetuate a 3:1 permanent in-built majority for the Tory party over the Labour party in the House of Lords.

When lost for any argument of merit about the Lords, Tory Members and Tory commentators are prone to fall back on the line, "Well, it works", as the Leader of the Opposition said the other day. It works for them, all right.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made a fascinating but unintentionally revealing comment in response to my statement on the matter on 20 January. We will go into the next general election, he said, without knowing what Parliament will look like on the other side of that election."—[Official Report, 20 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 912.] Yes, that is what happens at general elections, at least in this House.

Of course the Conservatives are used to one half of Parliament staying the same—staying 3:1 Tory, no matter what happens at the general election. For example, in the last general election, the Conservative party got 34 per cent. of the popular vote, but it has 66 per cent. of the membership of the House of Lords. The Labour party got 48 per cent. of the popular vote in that election, but still had only 24 per cent. of the membership of the House of Lords.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am grateful to the Leader of the House. I do not expect her to have the exact figures at her fingertips, but in developing the case of the Tory-dominated upper House, can she give the House some idea of the number of times that that Tory-dominated House voted against legislation or measures initiated by the previous Conservative Government?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am coming to precisely that point.

Defenders of the present system like to pretend, as the right hon. Gentleman endeavoured to suggest, that the House of Lords is even-handed between Labour and Tory Governments. It is sometimes suggested that it is only if a Labour Government have lost popularity and ground that peers begin to flex their muscles, responding to a shift in the popular will. Rubbish.

No Labour Government have ever had a bigger mandate than this one, and even the most staunch Conservative will hardly yet claim an irresistible surge of popular support towards that party. Yet even in this Parliament, the House of Lords has—almost always on the balance of votes of hereditary peers—defeated us almost three times more often, on average, than it did the previous Tory Government, even at the depths of that Government's unpopularity and rejection, and after the gradual withering of their majority. Nor is that the slightest bit unusual. For decades, the track record of the House that the Conservative party calls independent has been persistent obstruction of Labour Governments, with occasional rejection of the Tories.

If ever the people needed the claimed protection of the House of Lords, they needed it when, some 600 years after it was first tried, a British Government were again stupid enough and unjust enough to introduce a poll tax. What protection did the people get from the House of Lords? With a few honourable exceptions, the Lords waved the poll tax on its way, rejoicing.

In this Parliament, on the votes of hereditary peers, the Lords have tried to make exceptions to the handguns ban following Dunblane, to undermine the phasing-out of assisted places in some schools, and to put in exceptions to the national minimum wage.

Some Opposition Members have started to say that they do not mind the House of Lords being replaced, as long as it is replaced with something better. Anything would be better. It is impossible to imagine a system for selecting a legislature that is worse than selecting the first-born child—mostly only the first-born male child—of the same named families in perpetuity, irrespective of whether that person is even the most interested or best qualified among the members of those families. Talk about first come, first served.

Dr. Julian Lewis

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. She seems to be objecting to the randomness of the hereditary principle. She says that anything would be better than that. By the same token, would it be better if people were judged by juries that were appointed, rather than selected at random?

Mrs. Beckett

No one is selected at random to enter this House or the House of Lords. Members of the House of Lords are placed there as a result of patronage. In the transitional House, the situation would certainly be better because at least everyone in it would be there as a result of what he or she had done, and not as a result of what his or her great-great-grandfather did.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

This will be the last time that I give way because I know how many hon. Members want to speak, and I want to get on.

Mr. Robathan

I find the right hon. Lady's revelling in many years of class warfare both interesting and amusing. I agree with much of what she says, but will she state categorically that she believes that the present Leader of the House of Lords would be there even if it were not a fact that her father was a Labour Prime Minister?

Mrs. Beckett

That is an insufferably insulting assertion, which the hon. Gentleman repeatedly makes. My right hon. and noble Friend the Leader of the House of Lords is in that position because of her own abilities, qualities and achievements; she is not there in the place of her father, as everyone in the country is perfectly well aware.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Beckett

I am happy to give way to one of my hon. Friends, but it must be for the last time.

Dr. Starkey

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that a considerable number of hon. Members of this House are the daughters or sons of Members of Parliament, which does not imply that they are here only because of their birth, but that they have been elected on their own merits? Is not that precisely the point that my right hon. Friend was attempting to make about the current Leader of the House of Lords?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right. As I said, should the Bill pass into law, it will remain the case that all those entitled to serve in the House of Lords will be there as a result of their own achievements.

As for the ridiculous nonsense about the House of Lords being a House of "Tony's cronies", even if all the hereditary peers were to go at once, in the transitional House—still 500 strong—there would still be a 2:1 majority over Labour. The Tory party has never thought that its huge majority among hereditary peers was enough, and when in government, consistently created twice as many Tory as Labour life peers as well. To listen to today's Tory party, anyone would think that this Prime Minister had created vast and unprecedented numbers of Labour peers, whereas only half the peers created in this Parliament have been Labour peers. That is why we are still in a minority, even among life peers.

Far from being stuffed with Tony's cronies, it is nearer the truth to say—with deep respect to the Father of the House—that the House of Lords is stuffed with Ted's cronies, Margaret's cronies and John's cronies. Today's life peers result from the actions of eight Prime Ministers over 40 years, and each of them was put there on the basis of his or her own contribution to public life. This Prime Minister will be the first to give up even a fraction of his powers of patronage.

Mr. Bercow

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I am sorry.

The Prime Minister is to forgo his right of veto over the names nominated by leaders of other parties. He is to give up to an independent appointments commission his right to nominate Cross-Bench peers. The Government have also made it plain that we shall not seek more than parity in numbers with the Conservative party in the transitional House, and that we do not believe that any party should seek a majority in the House of Lords. I look forward to hearing the Conservative party spokesman say the same.

There remains one further major argument about the nature of the Government's proposals: that stages 1 and 2 of reform should go together, that it is too soon to get rid of hereditary peers, and that they should not go until we have decided just what should replace them.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I am awfully sorry. I must get on. I feel confident that I could answer the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Grieve

The right hon. Lady does not know what it is yet.

Mrs. Beckett

I do.

There is a flaw in that, at first sight, reasonable argument, and it is really a rather large flaw. It is that the Conservative party has been deploying that argument, with every appearance of sincerity, for 88 years.

The Conservative party conceded officially that the hereditary principle had to go at the start of this century, but if it has its way today, that will still be the basis of the House of Lords at the start of the next century. What is more, if we listen to these siren voices and leave all the hereditaries in place, we shall leave them—for they are the largest number—in charge. They could dictate what would replace them, and so continue to perpetuate the hold on power that they now enjoy.

While the hereditaries remain, not only their votes, but their voices bedevil any proper consideration of what stage 2 ought to be. Previous attempts at reform have all failed precisely because stage 1 and stage 2 were taken together. We all know that there are those—even in this House, let alone in the House of Lords—whose real desire is to preserve the Lords as it is now, with membership and all, permanent Tory majority and all.

These people have never had to come clean, because for the past 88 years, they have been able to tie everybody else up in knots by asserting that, of course, they are willing to go when their day comes, but first, they must insist on knowing exactly what will replace them. Divide and rule has been their principle: they have always been able to divide those who wanted change and that is why, after 88 years, they still rule.

In fact, I believe that we will never get a sensible, mature debate about what stage 2 ought to be while that debate is dominated, as it always has been, by the self-interest of today's House of Lords and of the Conservative party, and not by the national interest.

In the meantime, we have dealt with the argument, "We don't know what will follow the abolition of the rights of hereditary peers." What will initially replace the hereditaries will be a transitional House, which will be much better—because it will be based on the achievements of today's membership—than the one it will replace.

That brings me to the last, desperate argument of the opponents of change: "If it ain't broke," they say, "don't fix it." A membership of 750 hereditary peers—not even the best qualified in their families, just the first—that is broke. A permanent 3:1 Tory majority—whatever the outcome of the general election—that is broke. The Lords having as many powers to handle legislation as the House of Commons, which they mostly choose to use to revise legislation, but which they could use to block legislation and stop it in its tracks, and to destroy the legislative programme of an elected Government—that is broke.

In 1911—when the Conservative party of the day displayed more enlightenment than its present-day successor and first conceded the end of the hereditary principle in our legislature—some men had two votes, a few still had no vote and no women could vote, let alone stand for Parliament. In those 88 years, our country has changed beyond recognition, our society has changed beyond recognition and it is long past time that our Parliament changed too; 750 people are Members of the House of Lords by accident of birth.

Almost all those people are men; almost all are white; most have little, if any, experience of school, health care or housing in common with most of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen. Like everyone else, they have a place in our national life, but it is not in our Parliament.

4.44 pm
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

this House declines to give a Second Reading to the House of Lords Bill as it fails to address the role of the Second Chamber, its relationship to this House and its long term composition and hence, rather than improving the governance of the United Kingdom by establishing a sustainable, balanced and effective constitution, it merely adds to the incoherence of Her Majesty's Government's piecemeal constitutional changes. There are two parallel but distinct debates. There is the debate about the Government's small-minded proposals for so-called reform of the House of Lords, which is piecemeal, incoherent and unsustainable. There is also a genuine debate about the reform of Parliament as a whole, which will come about because it is required and because it is being made more necessary and being expedited by the Government's piecemeal, and therefore unstable, constitutional changes.

This debate is not about the Government's democratic legitimacy in proposing a plan that, as the Leader of the House of Commons, reasonably pointed out, was in their manifesto. It is about the wisdom of doing so in the way that they have, and about the Government's motives. In a strange twist, we are not having to defend the hereditary principle because the Government are not attacking it. They have made it clear that they do not question the hereditary principle in relation to the monarchy, but in signalling their willingness to accept the Weatherill proposals in the House of Lords for the transitional phase, neither are they questioning the principle in relation to the other place. We do not know how long the transitional phase will last.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware of the fact that the monarchy, although it may be based on the hereditary principle, no longer has a veto over the legislation of the House? Does that not make a bit of a difference?

Dr. Fox

The monarchy is not an example of the hereditary principle; it is the embodiment of it. The Leader of the House and her hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) are arguing that it is not the hereditary principle, but the issue of to which part of the constitution it is applied that is at stake. That is very different from attacking the hereditary principle itself, and perhaps the hon. Lady should think through her argument before she intervenes again.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Would not it be more logical for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) to argue that the monarchy should lose its right to give assent for Bills to become Acts of Parliament?

Dr. Fox

It would be logical from what the hon. Lady says, but I suspect that she reflects the opinion of Labour Back Benchers rather than that of the Government. I am sure that that will come out later in the debate.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Fox

No, I shall make some progress if I may.

The tone and language used by the Leader of the House are disturbing. Despite the fact that she does not believe that hereditary peers should remain in the other place, she would have done well to thank those who have given tremendous service over the years, whether hereditary or life peers, to Parliament and to the governance of our country. This tone of spite and resentment is an unwelcome addition to the debate. If the House of Lords as currently constituted has worked well, it is because of the calibre of those peers and their willingness to engage in public service for, it must be said, a good deal less than the remuneration of Members of the House of Commons.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

Is the hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Opposition, defending the right of the 62 foreign-based nationals to sit in the House of Lords, or does he have proposals to tackle that?

Dr. Fox

The hon. Gentleman should be wondering about Scottish MPs and their right to vote in this Parliament post-devolution, instead of worrying about other foreign nationals.

We must ask ourselves how the Government arrived at their current position. They clearly know what and whom they dislike, so they know what they want to abolish. However, so little is their understanding of the constitutional complexities, they have no idea of what to replace the House of Lords with. The right hon. Lady says, "We know what we will replace it with. We will replace it with a royal commission, which will think about how it proposes to replace it. Then we will have a joint committee, which will think about what the royal commission has already thought about." That is supposed to be clear and decisive government. The Government have started yet another constitutional initiative without any idea of how it will finish.

The Government's obsession with composition rather than function shows their lack of understanding of the role or necessity of a second Chamber, and how much these changes are based on their perceived party advantage. It was interesting that, in previous debates, the only interventions were on the question of which party had the greater advantage. [Laughter.] I accept that there is a Conservative advantage in the upper House, and I shall come to that in a moment. No one in the real world could fail to recognise that fact, but there must be better reasons for reforming part of our Parliament than that.

Of course, the Government did not even want a royal commission. They were pushed into having one, against their will, as a fig leaf to cover the intellectual nakedness of their argument. The prelude was the White Paper. In her speech, the Leader of the House returned to the sort of interesting arithmetic of which the new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry might have been proud. In the White Paper, she states that there are 476 Conservatives in the House of Lords, out of a total of 1,165. To me, that says "41 per cent.". The next sentence reads:

As can be seen, the Conservatives have a clear majority over the other parties overall". This is the least informative and most incoherent White Paper with which we have been presented for a long time. It is a second-rate propaganda sheet, which would have failed the Advertising Standards Authority's "legal, decent, honest and truthful" test. It is a complete distortion of the facts. I am sorry that the right hon. Lady chose to reiterate those "facts" today, when she said that the Conservatives had an overall majority in the House of Lords. Perhaps she would like to take this opportunity to correct her arithmetic.

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman would have heard if he had been listening, I referred throughout my remarks to those who are entitled to sit in the House of Lords.

Dr. Fox

The clear impression given in black and white by the White Paper—from which I quoted a moment ago—and given by other Ministers is that the Conservatives have an overall majority in the House of Lords. I am glad that the right hon. Lady has just confirmed that that is untrue.

The Government's case is a masterpiece of rewritten history and distorted logic. First, we were told by the Leader of the House of Lords—the right hon. Lady repeated it today—that we cannot have one—stage reform, because hereditary peers have blocked previous attempts at it. [HON. MEMBERS: "True."] I hear "true" from the Government Front Bench. It is worth pointing out, however, that the last reform, in 1967–68, was accepted by the upper House, but blocked in the House of Commons. It was not hereditary, life or any other peers who blocked that reform; it was blocked by this House.

Secondly, the right hon. Lady says that there must be speedy reform. Anyone can see, however, that a two-stage reform could take longer than a one-stage reform: any interim House's establishment could be held up by the Parliament Acts, and the process for the second stage might have to start all over again. The only reasonable reading is that the Government want to scrap the hereditary peers, and then kick the whole process into the long grass.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

So far, the hon. Gentleman has criticised the Government for having a royal commission and for being forced into having a royal commission when they did not want one, for excessive speed and for embarking on a process that he thinks will take too long. What is his position? Does he accept that a change of this magnitude requires public consultation before the final form of the House of Lords is settled, or would he prefer the Government to produce a final proposal and force it through?

Dr. Fox

Our position has always been clear. We want a single-stage reform if there is to be reform, and we believe that it should be preceded by public consultation. That is why we set up a commission under the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay—nearly a year ahead of the Government's proposals for a royal commission, which they were pushed into precisely because of our wider proposals.

Let me take up the right hon. Lady's point about general elections. She was trite but predictable when she said that we never know what Parliament will look like before we go into a general election; but we do know what the structure of Parliament will look like when we go into a general election. Because it is clear that the Government have no intention of pushing through a reform before the next general election, the public will be asked to vote without knowing what the structure of their Parliament will be by the end of its Session, and that is something that we have not experienced before. It means asking the people to accept that the form of their government is to change, without knowing what it will be. That is the point that I was making; the right hon. Lady was being purposely obtuse.

Mr. Bercow

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call Mr. Hope.

Dr. Fox

I will give way to my hon. Friend first, and then to the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope).

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Dr. Fox

I said that I would give way first to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That was not very clear, if I may say so. I had already called the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope).

Mr. Hope

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman for about 10 minutes and I am still confused. I should be grateful if he would clarify the position: do the Opposition support, or not support, the hereditary principle—yes or no?

Dr. Fox

We have made it perfectly clear that the hereditary principle in itself is not something that we challenge. Nor is it something that is challenged by the Government in their position towards the monarchy, but we accept that the Government made their policy clear in their manifesto and that change will happen. Therefore, the debate is not about whether we will defend the rights of hereditary peers; we have accepted that those rights in the House of Lords are to end. The argument is about how we wish the House of Lords to be constituted.

Mr. Bercow

Does my hon. Friend agree that any worthwhile reform of the House of Lords should not be power neutral, but strengthen the power of the legislature in relation to the Executive in general, and in relation to the position and powers of the Prime Minister in particular?

Dr. Fox

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I wait some time before I come to that matter. I wish to deal with it in some detail.

We have to ask what sort of model for Parliament the Government seek in the Bill. Do the Government want an effective revising Chamber? It seems not because they seem to want, effectively, one-Chamber government, where the Executive are in control. They seem to want a Commons that is merely a rubber stamp for the Executive, in the same way as the Cabinet, with its half-hour sessions, is merely a rubber stamp for the Prime Minister's inner circle.

That is why the second Chamber is to be reduced to a quango. Of course, there will be a new appointments commission. Of course, the Prime Minister will give up his right to appoint Cross Benchers—big deal; we know who will appoint the appointments commission. Knowing that it lacks either legitimacy or longevity, the interim Chamber—the halfway house—will be a pliant, supplicant body.

That reflects perfectly the Prime Minister's instincts. He is not democrat man; he is Executive man. That is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the amendments that the Government say that they are willing to accept—the so-called Weatherill proposals. That reflects the Prime Minister's preference for expediency over principle.

The Leader of the House reiterated what was clearly in the Labour party manifesto, yet we now hear that 91 hereditary peers will survive in the interim Chamber, and she said that the previous one lasted for 80 years; that is, they will survive if they are good girls and boys and if they have the intellectual rigour, independence of mind and parliamentary tenacity of the so-called Blair babes.

Mrs. Beckett

If the hon. Gentleman does not wish those peers to remain, the remedy is simple: he can vote for the Bill.

Dr. Fox

I understand the procedural excuse that has been given by the right hon. Lady, but the Government have signalled in advance that they will accept something that is utterly out of step with their manifesto—they will accept hereditary peers remaining and voting in the House of Lords. However, that proposal will be introduced only in the House of Lords, so a major constitutional change will not be debated in this Chamber and, if it is, it will be rejected by the Government in this Chamber—the Chamber that the Government claim has democratic legitimacy. It will be put forward in the House of Lords and fully debated in the Chamber that the Government claim has no democratic legitimacy. That is a perverse position for a Bill that supposedly strengthens our constitutional relationships. It says everything about the Government's relationship and respect for our democratic traditions.

Several questions remain unanswered. Perhaps the Minister can answer them tonight. If reform is such a priority, why was the royal commission not set up 20 months ago—a question that the hon. Member for Corby might like to ask? When was Lord Wakeham invited to chair the royal commission? I understand that, although it was such an important and fundamental appointment, he was asked to do so only 48 hours before the announcement. Will the Labour party give advice and evidence to the royal commission? Will it be in public? Will all the hearings be in public?

When will the new appointments system be set up? Why cannot it be set up now? We know the answer—so that the Prime Minister can pack the Chamber in advance. Have the Government ruled out a fully elected second Chamber? How do we know that we will get from stage one to stage two? How long will the Joint Committee last?

Those are all legitimate questions that should have been answered by the Leader of the House. They are not simply procedural things to be kicked into the long grass, as the Government want. Parliament should have answers to those questions as we start on the process of considering the Bill.

In answer to the point raised by hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), we are today engaged in a debate on an issue that is much bigger than the Bill and much wider than the Government's viewpoint. We are engaged in a serious debate that should, and does, cross party lines. The debate is about the case for real reform of Parliament as a whole.

I believe that we require a stronger Parliament. First, however, we shall have to decide not only what we want Parliament to do, but Parliament's relationship to the Executive, to the judiciary and to Europe. Only after we have decided what we want Parliament to do should we divide the powers between the two Houses—assuming that we believe in a bicameral system. Only then can we decide the membership and size of the two Chambers. Secondly, we need a stronger Parliament because of all the different trends that have emerged in our recent history.

Maria Eagle

The hon. Gentleman is using an argument—that we should decide everything now, except composition—that is similar to the one used by Austen Chamberlain in 1911, during the passage of the Parliament Act 1911. All one would have to do to make the two arguments exactly similar is to substitute the word "composition" for "powers". In 1911, the Conservative party was arguing that composition should be discussed, but that powers should not be. Nevertheless, the basis of the arguments is exactly the same: let us delay. Has the hon. Gentleman not learnt that we are fed up with delay and that we want action?

Dr. Fox

The hon. Lady raises several issues. The first is that, as my grandfather was barely a toddler in 1911, I cannot be held answerable for events in 1911. Secondly, things have moved on. I shall explain in a moment why I believe that we now have to have a different approach, and why the Opposition want reform to be made in one go. I am simply telling the hon. Lady and the House that we should have a wider perspective on the reform that we want.

The trend in our democratic history has been to move from unaccountability to accountability. Recently, however, there has been a reversal in that trend. We have had, for example, European directives and legislative initiation by an unelected Commission. Judicial activism is increasing, questioning ministerial decisions on the basis not of legality but of merit. The Human Rights Act 1998 will give us judge-made law. Closed election lists are being introduced in legislation, so that politicians, not people, will have powers. There has also been an increase in the Executive's power because of patronage and the Whip system.

The way in which we are governed has changed fundamentally. Since 1970, there has been a 23 per cent. reduction in the amount of primary legislation passed by Parliament, but a 52 per cent. increase in the amount of secondary legislation passed by Parliament. Is that legislation scrutinised properly? Do we as a Parliament feel that we properly scrutinise legislation—the laws by which we are governed?

Is there not a role for a strengthened upper House to take on precisely that function? Does not our consideration of this Bill provide an opportunity for us to strengthen Parliament as a whole, and to ensure that our legislation is properly scrutinised, so that we can do our job properly?

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

As we are receiving a lecture from the hon. Gentleman, will he remind us what the Conservative party did in 18 years in government to strengthen the role of this House against the Executive?

Dr. Fox

After winning our landslide victory, one of the first things we did was to establish and strengthen Select Committees, which provide a way of scrutinising the Executive. Although it is legitimate to ask why, after 18 years in office, we did not introduce such proposals, I shall, in a moment, explain to the hon. Gentleman exactly how we did introduce such proposals.

There are several ways in which we could establish a strengthened second Chamber. Moreover, such a Chamber does not necessarily entail a weakened House of Commons. One of the House's failures in 1967–68 was to believe that any increase in the strength of the other place would cause a weakened Commons. Such an outcome is not inevitable.

Parliament currently does not perform certain functions. Is it democratically acceptable, for example, for a Minister—in a Government of whatever political complexion—to go to a Council of Ministers meeting and to agree to a directive that must be obeyed in British law although there was never any democratic scrutiny of that directive? Is there not a role somewhere in our legislature for providing such scrutiny? [Interruption.] I am appalled that there should be cat-calls from those on the Treasury Bench when I ask such a question. The House of Commons has to debate those legitimate issues.

Just as it was true with devolution that we could not change the constitution in one part of the kingdom without affecting the other parts, so we cannot reform the House of Lords without reforming the House of Commons. If we are serious about constitutional reform, we shall have to have a meaningful debate about the House of Commons.

There is invariably conflict for members of the governing party between the interests of Parliament and the interests of the party. That is unavoidable when the Executive sit in the legislature. Resolving that conflict is essential to our ability to protect the rights and liberties of those who elect us. Today will simply be the first part of that serious debate.

Reform is welcome if it improves the way in which the people of Britain are governed, but the Bill neither seeks that nor results in it. It has been brought forward out of spite. It is designed to put the Labour party first. It is piecemeal and incoherent, and it will be unstable. For the sake of the good governance of the United Kingdom, we shall oppose it.

5.6 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I strongly support the Bill. If the hereditary system were not so controversial, I should claim paternity of it. I was expelled from a Conservative-controlled House of Commons after I had sat here for 10 years on the ground that I was disqualified as a peer. I was re-elected and came back. I was sent to an election court, where two judges declared that a peerage was "an incorporeal hereditament affixed in the blood and annexed to the posterity". I was so curious that I went and had some blood taken out. I still have it, although I am afraid that it is clotted now.

On the basis of that judgment, the House thought that I was permanently disqualified from sitting here. I had many helpful letters. One man wrote and asked whether I could look up my birth certificate and see whether I was illegitimate, because if I was I would be all right. I also had a postcard from a Conservative peer saying that as far as he was concerned I was, but that had no legal validity.

I welcome the Bill. However, let us be clear about the House of Lords. There is no magic or mystery about it. Every generation has done what it liked with the House of Lords. For my sins, I had to read the history of the place. Let me give the House a few examples. When peerages began in 1272, they were not hereditary. The Prime Minister is going back to Edward I, modernising himself back to the middle ages. Only in 1387 were all peerages created by letters patent. One young man proposed to Edward IV's daughter and was made a duke. When he got his dukedom he decided that he would not marry her, so his dukedom was taken away. There was another lad in 1549, William West, whose uncle was Lord De La Warr. He wanted the peerage, so he tried to poison his uncle and he was disinherited for life. The House of Lords can do what it likes.

On 7 February 1649, when the House of Lords was abolished, Lord Salisbury got himself elected to the House of Commons—in the Cromwell period—first for King's Lynn and then for Hertford. The Cecils know where power is and they are always there. They are at it again.

The treaty of Utrecht was passed in 1713 by swamping the House of Lords. In 1876, when the Government wanted to have Law Lords who were not hereditary peers, they introduced life peerages for Law Lords. In 1911, the Parliament Act was carried under a threat of swamping. In 1917—

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)


Mr. Benn

I am finishing this little bit of history.

In 1917, there were some German peers, so the Government passed the Titles Deprivation Act 1917 to take peerages away from the King's cousins who happened to be Germans. The Duke of Cumberland went down the pan on that basis. Then there was the creation of life peerages in 1958, and further legislation in 1963. We live in this mysterious building, where we are taught that history is around us and that we have been a democracy since Magna Carta, but any Government can do what they like with the House of Lords.

I must warn my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that although she has done away with tribalism, she has not gone an inch towards democracy. There is not one single democratic ingredient in the Bill that I will vote for tomorrow night.

Mr. Brooke

I was slightly surprised that the right hon. Gentleman omitted the original proposal to introduce life peers into the House of Lords in 1857, which was defeated by the Lords themselves.

Mr. Benn

I tried for ten years to get out of the place, but I will not go into that again. I have touched on my own interests, which I felt I had to declare under the Nolan rules. From 1945 until today, 11 Prime Ministers—including the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath)—have created 1,082 peers. The right hon. Gentleman created a lot of peers during his premiership. It takes 43 million electors to elect 659 Members of Parliament. It took 10 men and one woman to appoint 1,082 life peers.

This proposal has no democratic element at all. We have a transitional scheme, under which 75 hereditary peers will elect each other. A person will be able to get into Parliament by three ways—by being elected by a constituency, by being elected by other hereditary peers or by appointment by the Prime Minister, with all risk of cronyism removed. In all fairness, that is not a democratic system.

Every life peer is unaccountable and irremovable, although my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House's comment that it did not follow that life peers would stay for life must have frightened some of them up the other end. Presumably, if Lord Wakeham comes up with a scheme, the life peers will go too.

I do not know when the second stage will come. Lord Wakeham is being assisted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and others, and the royal commission must report by Christmas. There will then be the Joint Committee of both Houses. Following those debates, there will be legislation. However, I fear that the transitional scheme will be permanent—because it suits everybody at the top. The hereditary peers will have a corner of the other place, and the Prime Minister will retain his patronage.

Mr. Forth

On the assumption that the right hon. Gentleman stood with the rest of his colleagues on the Labour party manifesto, he will be aware that the first page of the White Paper says: Our objective will be to ensure that over time party appointees as life peers more accurately reflect the proportion of votes cast at the previous general election. Even if the right hon. Gentleman accepts the nonsense contained in that statement—which suggests that there will continue to be life peers but that, as time rolls on, their composition will be changed to reflect each election—does he agree that he, as a loyal Labour Member who stood on that manifesto, has committed himself to the continuation of life peers?

Mr. Benn

I will leave my position to the end and I will make it clear that I will vote for the Bill. However, I will comment on the transitional and secondary stages.

It took 700 years to make the House of Commons democratic. When I was born, in 1925, women did not have the vote until they were 30. I have lived in the period when the House of Commons became democratic. I believe that it could well take as long to get a democratic second chamber—because the powers-that-be do not want a democratic second chamber.

The reason for that is that the person in Britain who needs the House of Lords more than anybody else is the Prime Minister of the day. That is one reason why the Prime Minister supports the monarchy. Every Prime Minister needs the monarchy to give him or her the Executive power to do all the things that Prime Ministers can do. It is interesting that Prime Ministers get their legislative majority from the electors and their Executive authority from the Crown. At some stage, we must address that question.

The present Prime Minister has created 55 peers since the election. That is probably no more than the average, which is about 22 a year. I hope that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup speaks tomorrow, because the House must recognise that Prime Ministers desperately need the House of Lords to control, to reward and to create vacancies in the House of Commons. Nobody has ever offered it to me, but many Members have been told, "If you are ready to go, old boy, we could get you in the other place and then we will have the vacancy we want for somebody in the House of Commons." That is the reason the Lords have continued. It began with the king, who wanted his placemen there, and continues to the present day.

If we examine the prerogatives of the Prime Minister, in terms of appointments alone, we see that Prime Ministers appoint archbishops and bishops. Mrs. Thatcher appointed 26 bishops and archbishops. The Almighty himself would have been proud to have had such a record. The Prime Minister appoints all the judges. The Prime Minister appoints all the Commissioners in Brussels. The Prime Minister appoints Ministers and peers. Some say that Prime Ministers would like to appoint the mayor of London and the leader of the Labour party in Wales, but I shall not go into that. The Prime Minister's power of patronage is phenomenal.

The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), mentioned the fact that the Prime Minister has many other powers. The Prime Minister can go to war without consulting Parliament, unlike in most civilised countries. The Prime Minister can sign treaties without consulting Parliament. The Prime Minister can make laws in Brussels without consulting Parliament. When I was on the Council of Ministers—I was President in 1977—every time I agreed to a directive in Brussels I was using the royal prerogative of treaty making. No consultation with Parliament was necessary.

What we really need—and I am drafting it now—is some legislation. I am going to call it the modernisation of the premiership Bill. Every other institution is being modernised, but we need to modernise the premiership. It has become, by default, a presidential system without the checks and balances that exist in the United States. In America, the President has no control over Congress. We know that from the trouble he is in at the moment. President Clinton cannot control the Congress or the Senate, but here we have a president with no checks or balances. I say that as no criticism of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, because Mrs. Thatcher was just the same and I dare say that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who honours us with his continued presence, also exercised presidential powers. The process is on going.

My draft Bill will provide that all the Crown prerogatives exercised by the Prime Minister are subject to democratic vote in the House of Commons. It will be a simple Bill that will not even be an innovation. I do not know whether the House realises, but we can create peers ourselves. That is a bit of a puzzle, and I do not know whether anyone can tell me how we do so. I shall tell the House. When a Speaker retires, the House passes a humble address, praying that Her Majesty confer a signal mark of honour on whoever it is, Bernard Weatherill or Madam Speaker, in due course. We have established the precedent of creating peers and, if we are to have a democratic Parliament and proper accountability, the House of Commons should restore itself instead of proceeding on the ground that it does everything it is told.

I shall vote for the Bill because, as I say, it abolishes feudalism. However, when we come to the second stage I must tell my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that if she thinks that I shall vote for hereditary peers to elect other hereditary peers, she has made a big mistake. If she thinks that I will vote for more life peers made by the Prime Minister, she has made a big mistake. One of the ways in which the premiership can be held in check or balance is by free votes in the House of Commons. I am in favour of the House of Commons, on matters of this magnitude, exercising its free judgment. I have been here an unconscionably long time—[HoN. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, I have. The more I look at this place, the more I fear that the House of Commons has surrendered its responsibility for representing people and has become a queue for office or for people hoping to get on the "Today" programme. I do not think that that is what we are all about.

I wish my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House good luck with the Bill. She made a passionate speech and her Bill will go through, but she should not ask us to reverse the manifesto by endorsing the right of some hereditary peers to elect each other. I also beg the Government not to ask us to endorse the principle of appointment. Both those proposals are an absolute denial of the democratic principle on which this House is based and on which the second House should also be based.

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

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), in his ever-useful radicalism, showed only one piece of naivete. That was in his belief that the House of Commons might at some stage cease to be influenced by patronage. I do not know what composition the House of Commons would need before the right hon. Gentleman's idealistic view about its immunity to the delights of office might prevail on it to oppose the Executive arm of government. What is certain is that he shows a degree of realism in his regard for the prime ministerial power, and I share whole-heartedly his regrets about the development of unchecked presidentialism. I shall have something to say about that later in my remarks.

However, I shall begin by dealing with the Bill. As the Leader of the House said, it is a free-standing reform, worthy of consideration on its own merits, and I shall do it that justice. I must admit at the outset that I could not possibly emulate the right hon. Lady's lip-smacking relish in pronouncing the demise of the hereditary peers. I am not sure that it would be entirely seemly for me to try, although I enjoyed her performance and even the astringency with which she expressed her expectations.

I certainly like the Bill's directness. The language of clause 1 has an historic, almost beautiful clarity. It states: No-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage. That, it seems to me, is the appropriate full stop to a passage of this country's history which, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield reminded us, is, from the standpoint of the millennium, of comparatively recent date.

Mr. Benn

Of course, the clause will also knock out Lord Whitelaw, who sits in the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage but who is the first peer created with that name. Presumably there will have to be an amendment to allow him to stay: I do not know whether the Government have given any thought to that, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will bear it in mind.

Mr. Maclennan

That sounds to me like a Committee point.

In a modern democracy, the participation in the work of Parliament of hereditary peers is an anomaly that is not merely theoretically indefensible. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has shown rather scant regard for the deliberations of this House in withdrawing so early from the debate. He was unwilling to allow me to intervene in his speech, and evidently now is unwilling to listen to my speech—an example of the courtesy that one has come to expect from new Conservatives. The hon. Gentleman's answer to the question posed by the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) about whether the modern Conservative party believed in the hereditary principle was equivocal, to say the least. He answered it with a double negative, saying that the hereditary principle was not something that the Conservative party would challenge.

By simple extension, that must be regarded as a straightforward endorsement of the hereditary principle, which baffled a few who were listening. I do not know what audience the hon. Gentleman addresses when he endorses the hereditary principle, but I think that it is the most indefensible of our historical relics.

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Maclennan

I give way to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack).[Laughter.]

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am grateful to the antediluvian right hon. Gentleman. What my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was making clear, and simply so, was that in monarchy, the hereditary principle is supported not only on the Conservative Benches. Labour Members also support that principle, because everyone who supports the retention of a monarchy must support the hereditary principle.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Member for Woodspring was asked to give his view on the hereditary principle in the context of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. He did not choose to take refuge in the kind of evasion offered by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire.

The hon. Member for Woodspring also expressed a remarkable turnabout in the Conservative party's view: Conservatives used to think that the beauties of the British constitution were its capability of evolution and the step-by-step incrementalism that had enabled it to adapt uniquely and differently from the bouleversements that characterised continental European and other constitutions that had changed only by revolution. Tonight, the hon. Gentleman, speaking for the Conservative party, has offered the view that that is all for the past, and that the only way in which to approach modernisation of the House of Lords is through total reform of Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman went much wider than reform of the Commons by talking about the role of judges in our legislature, and about a vast range of other matters. He said that we could reform the House of Lords only if we had a new, written constitution. If that is what the hon. Gentleman meant, I am prepared to listen seriously to him, particularly if he produces a draft for our consideration.

The Liberal Democrats have, of course, already done that: we have a coherent view of our goal, but we are not so unrealistic as to believe that we could introduce it in this Session of Parliament or the next and command the support of the House or of the British public. Incrementalism is how we have reformed our constitution, and it remains the way in which we must reform our constitution if we are to have any success in bringing it up to date.

The theoretically indefensible nature of the House of Lords must be borne in mind when one views the Bill. In addition, the present House of Lords is a practical obstacle to the effective use of the second chamber to complement the work of the House of Commons. The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East—

Mr. Benn

Chesterfield, now.

Mr. Maclennan

I apologise to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. I still think of him as he was when he played a part that I did not have the honour to witness, but of which I have read, in the reform of the House of Lords. It is that part for which he may well turn out to be remembered by posterity.

What I am trying to pray in aid is the possibility that the upper House could valuably complement the work of the House of Commons in overseeing the work of the Executive. That would tackle the issue of the prerogative powers to which the right hon. Gentleman drew attention, and to which I shall return.

The fact that the majority of members of the House of Lords sit there by accident deprives that House of any claim to have its views deferred to by those who exercise public power on behalf of Britain's citizens. However informed may be the views expressed in the other place, those who owe their participation in decision making to election are entitled to disregard those views in reaching their decisions. The involvement of hereditary peers diminishes the democratic authority of Parliament as a whole when it questions and oversees the business of government and when it holds the Government to account. As those functions are the very business of Parliament, the hereditary peers must go.

Hereditary peers are about as independent of party as I am. I shall not repeat the illustrative figures that the Leader of the House properly gave the House, but she did not specifically mention the 200 or so hereditary Cross Benchers. We will not find independence in their ranks either. When Labour has been in power, the Lords have defeated the Government an average of 60 times per Session, while Conservative Governments have been defeated an average of only 13 times per Session. Those numbers have the familiar whiff of partisanship. Hereditary peers are not independent. They are Conservatives, either in or out of the closet.

The Liberal Democrats welcome this first reform because we know that it is only the first of several. Some people—they have a respectable argument—would follow the footsteps of the great Tom Paine, dispense with the second Chamber and rely solely on the elected House of Commons. There are others—perhaps there are more in this House—who would keep the second Chamber only so long as it does not trespass on the turf of the House of Commons. Neither group has grasped the potential value in a modern democracy of a legitimate second Chamber, one that owes its legitimacy to election. Such a Chamber need not diminish the primacy of the House of Commons by usurping the roles currently exercised by this House.

A legitimate elected second Chamber could amplify the work of Parliament by drawing to itself tasks not presently performed, or not effectively performed. I again invoke the support of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield for that concept. Although this House works hard on legislation and oversight of Government, there are substantial areas of public business that we do not effectively consider. The powers of Ministers that derive from the Crown prerogative are not under systematic scrutiny. In a modern constitutional democracy, that is not acceptable.

Let me instance two examples. The power of public appointment has become ever more important, particularly with the establishment of executive agencies that spend huge sums of public money. There is no systematic oversight by Parliament or any requirement for advice and consent to appointments. We remember how the former Conservative Home Secretary asked Parliament to accept as head of the Prison Service a man whose background was not in the service. Shortly thereafter, when they had had a slight tiff and he wished to cover up his own responsibilities, he invited us to accept the man's dismissal. Parliament never considered the appointment or, properly, the dismissal. When great offices are given such responsibilities for effectively running our country, the time has come for Parliament to play a part in their oversight. That function would be suitable for a properly elected second Chamber. If it were to exercise such a role, this House would not be in any sense diminished, for we have never had such a power; if we have, it has never been effectively recognised or acted upon.

My second example of the exercise of prerogative power is the power to make treaties. This House has a limited part. It may be called upon ex post facto to approve them or to legislate to give effect to our international undertakings, but there is no constitutional requirement for prior scrutiny, still less for hearings before advice and consent is given. This is a matter of growing importance to our democracy because policy agreements with other countries increasingly condition the lives our citizens. That role, too, could be exercised by a legitimate upper House without detracting from the exercise of functions by the House of Commons.

Hon. Members, especially those who represent Scottish or Welsh constituencies, should remember that as decision making is devolved to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, it is important that the interests of those nations and regions are understood and directly represented here in the United Kingdom Parliament. A properly elected upper House could reflect the constituencies of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. That would help to secure the unity and sense of purpose of our country.

Because the upper House could have an enhanced role without diminishing the House of Commons, I welcome this Bill as an important step forward in adapting our constitution to meet present requirements. There have been criticisms that the measure is too limited and fails to spell out the ultimate shape or function of an effective second Chamber. The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Woodspring, echoed those criticisms this afternoon. However, I do not agree.

The decision to proceed to reform the House of Lords in two or more stages seems to be a sensible recognition of the problems that beset and foiled earlier attempts at reform. It also recognises that the removal of the anomaly of hereditary peers is a stand-alone reform for which the Government have a clear and unmistakeable mandate. I think that the views of the public are important in determining how the upper House of Parliament should be reformed.

The decision also recognises that, in reaching conclusions about the shape and functions of the reformed second Chamber, the public and Parliament should be consulted. The public's voice will be heard in the first place through the workings of the royal commission, whose appointment the Government have announced. Parliament will be able to express its views through the activities of the Joint Committee, which the Government have reaffirmed that they intend to appoint following the report of the royal commission. That is a very proper way in which to proceed under our incremental system.

As far as the composition and functions of the House of Lords in the first stage of reform are concerned, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are content with the proposals set out in the Government's White Paper. After all, it is merely an interim phase and the Government have signalled their intention to move to the next stage as quickly as possible by asking the royal commission to report by the end of the year. That does not seem to conform with the actions of a Government determined to kick into the long grass a reform of such massive importance. The Government have asked the royal commission to come to a conclusion about matters of great importance with unprecedented urgency and speed.

The Government point out properly in the White Paper that-they are seeking an analysis of the issues and not an accumulation of the views that may be found by grazing around the university campuses of this country. There is a clear need to pool the information systematically and present thought-out proposals that will commend themselves to the people of this country and to Parliament.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he thinks—I am interested to hear his speculations—the Government did not set up the royal commission 20 months ago?

Mr. Maclennan

When they came to office, Labour established a vast—indeed, an unprecedented—programme of constitutional reform. Some 11 Bills were introduced and enacted in the last Session of Parliament, and the Government should be commended for moving on those fronts with unparalleled speed. The relevance of that to the House of Lords draws upon the arguments of the hon. Member for Woodspring. In the second phase of reform of the upper House, it will be necessary to take account of the will of Parliament as expressed in giving effect to the devolution measures that were enacted in the first Session. I believe that it would have been premature to have announced the royal commission prior to the enactment of those measures. However, I welcome strongly its appointment today and look forward to the announcement of the remaining members of the commission.

As to the interim proposals, I welcome particularly the Government's proposition that the transitional House should involve proportional creations by the Liberal Democrats and other parties. That is also a reflection of Labour's undertaking given prior to the election and included not only in its manifesto but in an agreement entered into between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party in the committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and by me.

I also welcome the Government's continuing view that party appointees as life peers should more accurately reflect the proportion of votes cast at the previous general election. In seeking only parity of numbers, the Government are making it plain that it is not their intention to swamp the upper House with cronies of the Prime Minister, or of anyone else.

I am pleased that, in the conclusion of the White Paper, the Government affirm that the process of reform is designed to give the House of Lords what is described as "a new legitimacy". In my view, such legitimacy requires a predominantly elected Chamber. Democracy is based on elections and to the extent that a legislature is comprised in some other way—however meritocratic it may be—its legitimacy is diminished. The Bill will help us enormously to advance toward that goal. If the Bill is enacted, a major constitutional objective—one that has baffled previous Labour Governments—will have been achieved. I strongly hope that the Bill enjoys the support of the House.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It will not have escaped the House's attention that a great many hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. If those who catch my eye bear in mind the needs of others and confine their remarks to a reasonably brief span, I shall be able to accommodate a great many more hon. Members than would otherwise be possible.

5.41 pm
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak in the debate and I shall certainly heed your instructions and be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Bill is important: it is part of the Labour Government's constitutional reforms to modernise and democratise the Government and to make democracy more relevant to the people of this country. It must be seen in the context of what we have done in Scotland and Wales, and of our establishment of the regional development agencies, which Labour Members hope will soon become regional assemblies. We must also take into account the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he said, rightly, that we have to address the way in which the House of Commons functions. We are doing that through the work of the Modernisation Committee, on which I serve and whose work I want to continue.

It is absolutely right that the Bill would abolish the rights of hereditary Lords and that the reform is to be carried out in two stages. The problem has existed for a long time and it would constitute an unacceptable delay if we were to wait for stage 2 before abolishing those rights. In his attempts to oppose the Bill, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is defending the indefensible: in the present day, the hereditary principle as it is embodied in the House of Lords is unacceptable and has to be done away with.

People throughout the world find it incredible that, in 1999—on the edge of the 21st century and the next millennium—there are people whose right to sit and take a view on the government of our country is based on the actions of their ancestors many years ago; even though, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House pointed out, those actions were often not honourable. The reasons why many titles were established are, to say the least, quite dubious, yet the people holding those titles play a role in our government and had a hand in determining the poll tax and many other wrong and totally unacceptable measures. It is right that we should tackle their position, and that we should do so in the way the Government propose.

The review that is to take place has to cover, among many other things, the functions and composition of the upper House. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I do not think that, in proceeding in that way, the Government are seeking an unacceptable delay. It is right that reform should proceed in that way, because many factors have to be considered.

Let us take the example of the clergy: I am a member of the Church of England, but I think that the position of the clergy in the upper House is nonsensical. The upper House contains two archbishops, a number of bishops—Durham and so on—who are there because of their importance in mediaeval times, and several other bishops who sit in the upper House according to seniority. Bishops have several ways of entering the House of Lords, but if we argue that they should continue to have seats, it is nonsense that other religions should not have similar representation. That is one of the issues that must be considered.

The hon. Member for Woodspring talked about Cross Benchers as if they were independent. That is absolute nonsense, as anybody who has been in politics for a long time knows. I have been involved in politics for well over 40 years and I know that of those who claim to be independent or, when we knock at their door, say that the election is a secret ballot or that they do not know how they will vote, about 90 per cent. vote Conservative.

A few months ago, I was talking to someone in my constituency who remarked how terrible it had been when we had political bishops in Liverpool and Durham, in reference to Bishop Sheppard and the previous Bishop of Durham. I pointed out that a former Bishop of Burnley, Holderness, had been a staunch Conservative, and the person replied, "Yes, but that was not political. He was looking after the interests of the country." I am sure that Cross Benchers say that, but when they turn up, the majority of them vote Conservative. That is not in the interests of the country or of my constituents. It is time those peers had their places removed.

We want a second Chamber. I believe in a bicameral Parliament. As we move towards a new and better democracy, which the Government are trying to bring about, we need a second Chamber that is defensible. If, in the interim, an amendment in the second Chamber proposed that 91 hereditary peers should sit, I would accept that as long as it was clear that ultimately they would not have that right. That interim period is only to give us time to find out what the review says, to give the joint committee time to proceed and to give the House time to legislate.

The Bill is extremely welcome. The majority of people in the country believe that the second Chamber that we have at present is a nonsense and is indefensible. Let hereditary peers keep their titles; let them keep their heads; but for heaven's sake, get rid of their right to vote in today's Parliament. It is time for a change. It is time for hereditary peers to lose their vote in the other place and to gain a vote in parliamentary elections and the right to stand for election to this House if they want to have a voice in Parliament.

5.48 pm
Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short speech in this important debate.

The Bill, which purports to be radical and modernising is, I regret to say, a betrayal of Britain's great radical traditions. True radicalism does not just destroy; it preserves and recreates. The Leader of the House described the Bill as momentous. The Great Reform Act 1832 did not only do away with rotten boroughs but laid the foundations for what became, step by step in the 19th century, the basis of our modern democracy.

Sadly, the Bill merely destroys what has been an essential, practical part of the workings of our upper House over the centuries without making any proposals about what to put in its place. There is no excuse for that. The Government have had 18 years to think about these matters; they knew that they would introduce this reform and, frankly, either they have not thought about it or they have funked it.

Mr. Hope

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. I put to him the same question that I asked the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). Clause 1 states: No-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage. Do the Opposition agree or disagree with that clause?

Sir Nicholas Lyell

The Opposition do not support the continuation of the hereditary principle in its present form. Speaking entirely personally, I think that one of the matters that the royal commission will want to consider—as the Government wisely want to consider, and I shall throw them a bouquet in a moment—is the possibility of some hereditary peers being allowed to continue at the election of their fellows.

However, that is not Conservative policy—I speak from the Back Benches—and it is not Conservative policy to support the hereditary principle. What we demand is a one-stage reform, which is perfectly possible, whereby a sensible and carefully thought out proposal for the future is introduced at the same time as the aims of the Bill are implemented.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Is not the essential point that an unreformed second Chamber could block proposals from this place?

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Possibly. I shall deal with that in a moment.

We Conservatives have never been against the genuine reform of the House of Lords. Conservatives have always been in favour of evolutionary reform. Indeed, as the Leader of the House will recognise, one of the ironies is that it was the radical but evolutionary Conservative reforms of Harold Macmillan's Peerage Act in 1963 that created the modern system of life peers, who look like forming the mainstay of the second Chamber, at least until a fully thought out reform is implemented.

Although I am deeply critical of the emptiness of the Bill—the right hon. Lady puffed herself up, I say with respect, by-describing it as "exquisite simplicity"—I give the Government one cheer for seeming at last to listen, with regard to the setting up of the royal commission, even if that should have happened 18 or 20 months ago. It is a step forward which I welcome.

A further step forward, as far as it goes, is the Government's indication that they are minded to accept an amendment that will permit 90 or 91 existing hereditary peers to continue to play a role in the transitional upper House, pending proper reform. Why should that reprieve be so limited? Is it not a fact that the Government deeply need the constructive contribution made by so many hereditary peers of all parties, and that if the Government did not accept this reform, they would have to create a large number of the existing hereditary peers as life peers in order to continue the effective work of the upper House? In seeking genuine, evolutionary reform of the second Chamber, we should bear those points in mind.

Dr. Starkey

I am puzzled by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's use of the word "evolutionary". My understanding of evolution is that it involves change by a number of steps. Is not that exactly what the Government are proposing? Can he explain his understanding of evolution? Is it rather a "big bang" approach which the Conservatives seem to be suggesting?

Sir Nicholas Lyell

To give the hon. Lady a simple answer, she is proposing to wipe out fish. She might leave mammals and birds, but she is wiping out fish. She is not allowing fish to evolve. She is simply wiping out one portion of the practical workings of our Parliament, and that is not evolution. One can never carry analogies too far, but let her reflect on that.

Meanwhile, I shall give the Government a little more credit. I understand their desire to ensure some change. They are entitled to remind us, as the right hon. Lady did, that since 1911 many attempts at radical reform have foundered, just as they foundered a generation ago—not because of the opposition of the upper House, she should remember, but because they were caught between the hammer of Michael Foot and the anvil of Enoch Powell, in what seemed to be an unholy alliance to defeat any reform in the late 1960s.

Given the real role of so many hereditary peers of all parties and none, I suggest that it would be sufficient and wise in the interim to allow them to continue to play their part until proper reform is introduced.

I shall throw out a few thoughts about the role and composition of a properly reformed upper House. We are not dealing with a blank canvas. The Government may not have thought through their proposals, but a great deal of constructive thought has been given to the matter over the past 20 years, not least by some of us who entered the House in 1979, when 18 years of continuous Conservative rule were certainly not envisaged by me, and when the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) represented a real threat, with his proposals to alter the House of Lords. Likewise, some constructive proposals were offered by the committee chaired by Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the late 1970s.

The upper House is, first, a revising Chamber. For that, we need peers who are not there just for the kudos, but who are prepared to do the work and who in future, I suggest, may have to be paid something for doing so. Secondly, the upper House provides a check on the Government of the day, giving them the opportunity to think again, as the present Government recognise.

However, that understates the true function of the upper House. Our reforms must ensure that it continues to fulfil its primary function as a constitutional anchor, made up of a group of citizens of stature, independence and discretion, who carry the confidence of the country as a whole. If they say to the Government of the day, of whatever complexion, "Stop and think again", they must carry weight not just by their votes, but by their reputation.

How should Members of the upper House be selected in future? The Government's interim proposal is for an appointments commission, whose recommendations the Prime Minister will undertake not to veto. I sincerely warn against so-called independent appointments commissions. They are inevitably more quasi-autonomous than autonomous, and they are not answerable to Parliament.

If the Prime Minister's objective is to appear not to be appointing his cronies, such a commission may indeed seem to be helpful to him, but the danger is that by hiding behind such a commission, he will be divesting himself not of his power, which as Prime Minister will always remain very great, but of his responsibility and his answerability to this House.

In another, parallel respect, the Lord Chancellor, to his credit, has moved away from the idea—much floated before the general election—of such an independent commission for the appointment of judges. The Government should think very carefully indeed before allowing the Prime Minister to escape answerability on the vital matter of appointees to the House of Lords.

The greatest strength of our constitution is that almost every aspect of public life must in the end be answered for by a Minister or the Prime Minister, and thus effectively by the Government of the day. That is a real sanction—for Governments, unlike so-called independent commissions, can be kicked out by the electorate. That is the democratic foundation of our constitution.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is, perhaps, a little at cross-purposes with the White Paper. The independent commission, which will be appointed on Nolan principles in order to preserve its proper independence, will appoint the Cross-Bench peers. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will retain responsibility for appointing any Labour peers, and has undertaken not to exercise any veto over the names put forward by the leaders of other parties.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I am grateful for that clarification; I think that I understood it. My criticisms still carry weight.

Ultimately, the Prime Minister is responsible for the system as a whole. If it goes awry, he must be seen to be answerable for it. If it goes awry in a way that distorts our constitution, the Government of the day must not be seen to be hiding behind a so-called "independent" commission.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

I am at a loss to understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Is he saying that the independent commission should be independent of the Prime Minister or answerable to him?

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I do not believe in independent commissions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, the Prime Minister will appoint the commission and members of the commission will enjoy being on it. They are inevitably under considerable indirect pressure to do roughly as they are told by the Prime Minister of the day. We should not put too much faith in independent commissions.

Part of the upper House may well be directly elected by the electorate. I have always favoured reforms that allow part of the upper House to be elected. It will be particularly important if hereditary peers are to be done away with altogether, because it will be a way of introducing new and younger blood to the upper House. As the Government's White Paper points out, one of the difficulties and ironies is that the average age of life peers is seven years greater than that of hereditary peers, notwithstanding the large number of hereditary peers and the fact that they presumably live to old age on exactly the same statistical basis as all the rest. If we are to get new and younger blood into the upper House, we must find a method of doing it. The idea of having a proportion of elected peers has merit.

Once elected, for whatever party, the elected peer should have a substantial period of office—at least six and perhaps nine years per election. He will have the authority of having been elected, but he must also be given a substantial measure of independence because an important feature of the upper House is that its Members, whatever their political persuasion, should be independent.

Dr. Starkey

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman clarify the fact that, although he refers to new peers as "he", he envisages that some might be women?

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Of course. The House knows well enough that when we talk about people who will be elected, they will be of either sex. It depends on who stands.

Members of the upper House will have the authority of having been elected, but it is vital that they have a substantial measure of independence. Only a proportion of those who are elected should be elected at the same time. I recommend a partially rolling Chamber of a third of elected members elected every two or three years so that there is no sudden change. When a Government are on the wane, Opposition Members may be elected to the upper House as time goes by; likewise, when a new Government are elected, they will not have a clean sheet and will have to sustain momentum if their elected Members are likely to form a majority in the upper House.

Independence and continuity are vital attributes if the upper House is to remain the constitutional anchor that has served us so well as over the centuries.

Although Conservatives welcome genuine moves towards reform, we have to oppose the Bill because it remains deeply wrong in principle to destroy without renewal. I not only sincerely believe that criticism myself, but in conversation with people of almost any party—including less dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the present Government—it seems to find widespread support.

In response to that criticism, the Government have at least made some moves towards speeding up the process of genuine reform and maintaining continuity with the upper House. I welcome those changes and ask the Government to think sincerely about extending them. For all the points that the Secretary of State made—they were very much jejune debating points, starting with the Earl of Dunmore flying from Tasmania, which I was amazed to see at the top of her list—it is clear that no Government have anything deep to fear from the House of Lords. In practice, Governments will be seriously defeated by the upper House only when they have lost the argument.

Constitutional matters are not the preserve of any one party, however large its majority. May I say to the Government's credit that if they continue to listen, there remains the opportunity of constructive reform? I hope that that is what will happen.

6.6 pm

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell). He and I have agreed on many issues in the past. Sadly, we are now on different sides of the House, but I can at least agree with much of what he said about phase two—eventual final reform of the House of Lords. I disagree with him, however, on the history of Conservative attitudes towards reform of the Lords. It is abundantly evident why reform should be carried out in two stages.

In some of the speeches that I have made in the Chamber since finding myself—very happily, I might add—on the Labour Benches, I have tried to relate the subject to the reasoning that led me here. One of my first speeches was on Europe and I have made several on Ireland. We are now discussing the constitutional agenda, and Lords reform is an important part of that. I therefore welcome the opportunity to speak on the first day's debate of this subject.

I have always been strongly in favour of reforming the House of Lords and abolishing the hereditary right to sit in that Chamber. In 1977, the first Temple-Morris effort to reform the Lords was made by way of a committee of the then Bow group, which I chaired, on Lords reform. It was called "secundus inter pares" and in the autumn of 1977 it made proposals not unlike many of the suggestions for phase two reforms that we are discussing today.

The proposals achieved a little publicity—they came out just before the Conservative party conference in Blackpool. When I duly went to Blackpool in October and was lingering innocently by a book stall, I heard the sound of marching feet behind me. To my horror, the then leader of the Conservative party was rapidly approaching. When she saw me she stopped, wheeled round and said abruptly, "Peter, I have read your pamphlet on the House of Lords." With that, she turned round and marched on. She did not say another word to me. I must confess that I never imagined that I had bright future under that leadership. If I needed confirmation of that in my early days in the House, I certainly got it then.

The traditional Conservative response to Lords reform has not changed this century. Lords reform has always been on the Conservative party's agenda. The party has 'been pragmatic about it and, on occasion, has made constructive proposals, but there has always been an element of compulsion. In that context, my former party's ideas are unchanged: basically, it would like to leave the House of Lords as it is because it likes the place. On the other hand, it is pragmatic because it has always realised, since the debates leading up to the Parliament Act 1911, that the House of Lords will probably have to change one day. I am trying not to score points but to present a factual argument. There is a dilemma, which is evident today: how much should people co-operate over something that they realise might have to change one day when they would like to leave it as it is?

Mr. Hope

My hon. Friend might be able to help me with the contradictory answers that I have received across the Chamber this afternoon. Based on his experience, can he clarify whether the Conservative party does or does not support the hereditary principle?

Mr. Temple-Morris

Judging by the election manifesto—on which, I have to say, I stood, although I was blissfully unaware of that particular element of it—it seems that we were elected on the basis of support for the hereditary principle. The party is not, with all respect, what I like to refer to as the old Conservative party. I have no doubt that, in those days, elements of it would have liked to reform the House of Lords. I believe that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) will address the House tomorrow and it will be particularly interesting to hear what he has to say.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am most grateful to my former hon. Friend for giving way. Does not he remember that, in 1984, I introduced a Bill to reduce the number of hereditary peers to 200? He, and the Leader of the House, voted against it.

Mr. Temple-Morris

I do not like half-hearted reform. I have no doubt that I chose the right course of action by marching into the Lobby firmly to encourage my former hon. Friend to be slightly bolder in his efforts. I am very sad, because he now has a wonderful opportunity to make a constructive contribution.

The Government's approach has always been consensual. We could have achieved one-passage reform of the House of Lords only if my former party had taken a constructive view from the outset of this Parliament, when possibilities were being discussed. We could have put reform through in one measure, but it has been patently clear from the various perambulations of the Conservative party that—as in so many other things, I fear—it cannot quite make up its mind.

I want to get away from the present, to quote from the admirable report by Lord Home and to finish my point about the fact that the Conservative party's basic attitude has been unchanged throughout this century. The element of compulsion—the dilemma—began in the debates on the Parliament Act 1911. A footnote on page 30 of Lord Home's report quotes A. J. Balfour, no less. What he said is unchanged: I dislike the whole thing. I would like to leave things as they are if we could. I don't believe you can make a better House. But that is not the question. The question is: can you make a Second Chamber strong enough to stand and resist assault? Can you make such changes as will enable our men to fight with success in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland against single-chamber government? I don't think we can in our democratic days unless you admit an elective element". That was way back in 1910. That comment is typical: once driven towards reform—because people cannot defend the indefensible—the party gets constructive.

It is inevitable that there will be reform in the end, but unfortunately, once the immediate threat of abolition—the sword of Damocles—and, in particular, the threat of a unicameral Parliament are withdrawn, the measure of co-operation drops—and drops at the first opportunity that the Conservative party has. I repeat that that is a major reason for the justification of the two-stage sequence for reform. We must concentrate on reform for the future; we must not spend hour after hour, day after day—and even Session after Session—arguing about the past.

That leads me to Lord Home's report, to which I want to refer in a little more detail. With all due deference to the private Member's Bill of my former hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), it is a last major effort within the Conservative party at addressing reform of the House of Lords. The Conservative review committee's attempt at reform in 1978—which took place a year after my first attempt—is referred to in the White Paper, at page 49. The motivation for Lord Home's report was exactly the same—fear of abolition and fear of the possibility of a unicameral Parliament as part of the abolition—but it was clearly pro-reform and favoured a stronger and more legitimate second Chamber.

The quality of the report's findings mark it out as very worthy indeed. Sadly, however, the reaction of the then leader of the Conservative party—when Leader of the Opposition in 1977—to Lord Home's report and to my humble efforts, which argued for much the same thing as he argued for in his far more illustrious report; and her reaction to these efforts when in power, made it patently clear that, once the threat of reform of the House of Lords and the element of compulsion were no longer present, co-operation would be dropped.

Lord Home chaired the committee and its report is relevant to the debate and to the royal commission, and for the Government. It recommended a mixed House of Lords, part elected and part nominated; the abolition of the hereditary right to sit; elections under regional proportional representation, particularly if the electoral system for the European Parliament went in that direction, as it now has, so that recommendation is still very much alive; salaried Members, called Lords of Parliament; and separation of the awarding and carrying of titles from the legislature.

The background was set out for possible reform, but that did not take place. The party remained pragmatic—at least in part, if not in the whole—because an essentially pragmatic act incurred the displeasure of the present Leader of the Opposition: directed at Lord Cranborne, who created what I refer to as the Cranborne arrangement.

I shall make specific points about the second stage of reform—for the royal commission, primarily, but also for the House to consider.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

The hon. Gentleman has pointed out, helpfully, how much constructive thought came from Conservative Members back in 1978. Does not that point up the message that I am trying to get across to the Government? Our complaint is not that there will be reform, but that there should be reform in a single stage, not in two stages. The Government have quite enough power to say, "Okay, if you haven't achieved reform in three years, we will have our way." With the presence of that sword of Damocles, is there not an opportunity to achieve constructive reform in a single stage?

Mr. Temple-Morris

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman was the Leader of the Opposition I would treat what he says with more credibility. I agree with the sentiment that he expresses, but the evidence was not present in the past and it is certainly not present in the activities of the current leadership and of Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen. Such evidence has never been present in this Parliament. The party cannot agree; indeed, that is self-evident from the right hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Temple-Morris

Once more, then I must get on.

Mr. Grieve

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who, in any other context, I would also refer to as my friend.

I want to pick up a point that the hon. Gentleman made earlier, which ties in. There has been opposition from Conservative Members since the start of this Parliament, which makes, it is said, single-stage reform impossible. Surely, since the start of this Parliament, we have never been told by anyone—either through the setting up of a royal commission or the Government expressing a view—how the total package might look. Therefore we have never been able to comment on it, contribute to it or agree it.

Mr. Temple-Morris

That really is not good enough. The former Leader of the House of Lords was in constant conversation—often of a prandial nature—with the then leader of the Conservatives in the Lords. The two knew each other extremely well. Like many other hon. Members, I know both the people involved. It was made clear again and again that the Opposition could have a consensual approach. It was patently obvious that they did not want to take such an approach. Eventually, however, we had the Cranborne arrangement, which, I am afraid to say, we would not have had were it not for the compulsion of the moment. It was only when he was compelled to give in that he did so, and the Government reasonably accepted the arrangement.

I should like to make some specific points about the second stage of the reform. Like Lord Home, I believe that there should be a mixed House of Lords. That will almost certainly be the inevitable outcome of any reform. I suggest 70 per cent. elected and 30 per cent. non-elected. We should also consider having a third of members appointed, a third elected by proportional representation under a regional list, and a third elected by colleges of interest.

The proposal for some members to be elected by colleges of interest always crops up, but is usually dropped because it is considered to be too complicated to arrange and agree the colleges. However, the Irish Senate has such a system. The flaw in its system—with which I have had a lot to do—is not the colleges of interest but the electorate, because the electorate comprises Members of the Dail and members of local authorities. It is the most political electorate around, and that is why the Irish Senate is not what it was intended to be.

Bishops and Law Lords should not sit in the House of Lords. Bishops and representatives of other religious denominations could be colleges of interest in their own right. The Law Lords would continue to sit in the Privy Council. I am sure that, whatever we do, there will be too many lawyers in the upper House, so we do not need to send people there to exercise judicial office.

I can knock the question of dual mandates on the head. When we created the system for the first elections to the European Parliament, many people said that we must have dual mandates. Committees said how marvellous it would be for these lovely MEPs to come and tell us what was going on. When all bar one of those who achieved a dual mandate did not last more than one Parliament before, virtually to a man, they came back here, it rapidly became apparent that dual mandates would not work because MEPs had a lot to do. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly will have plenty to do, but they could be colleges of interest to elect representatives to a reformed upper House. They could also be given a right of audience, as the European Parliament gives visiting Ministers. I see no reason for the second Chamber to be limited to its membership.

As for the style and title, the other place should be a separate body, as Lord Home recommended. If it keeps the name House of Lords, members could be referred to as Lord with their surname while in the Lords, and otherwise as MLs, just as we are referred to as MPs. That is a fair solution. It would be nice to keep the name House of Lords for romantic reasons, if for no other. I would not defend that point of view to the end, but the names House of Commons and House of Lords have a certain ring to them. We should not worry about the name, but rather devise a modern arrangement that we can live with in the next millennium.

6.23 pm
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

As the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, the problem that we face is the overweening power of the Executive. It is to the reform of both Houses that we should address ourselves, and not merely to a minor reform of the House of Lords. The power of the Executive that the House has to endure is far too great—Labour Members are enduring it now, as Members on the Conservative Back Benches endured it for 18 years. This measure will enhance that Executive power, because it will add considerably—directly or indirectly—to the Prime Minister's powers of patronage.

Mr. Hope

The hon. Gentleman said that clause 1 is a minor reform of the House of Lords. Does his party support that clause, which states: No-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage"? Does the hon. Gentleman support or oppose that clause?

Mr. Wells

I cannot speak for my party—I am not the spokesman on these issues—but I shall give the hon. Gentleman a direct answer. I agree with the statement in clause 1. I do not believe that membership of the upper House should be based on hereditary principles. In all his questions, the hon. Gentleman has failed to distinguish the difference between supporting the hereditary principle and deciding the membership of the House of Lords. I do not believe that it should be decided on the hereditary principle, and I hope that that is clear enough for the hon. Gentleman to understand.

Both Houses of Parliament have fallen in the public's esteem in the past 40 or 50 years. That should worry both Houses considerably, especially the House of Commons. It is essential to reform both the House of Lords and the House of Commons if we are to restore public respect for this vital instrument of democracy.

If we are to go down the path of reform, we should start with the traditional approach to which the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) alluded. We should call together all parties and peoples in the House—perhaps under the chairmanship of the Speaker, a Speaker's conference—to decide how reform should take place.

One of the first issues to consider would be the entitlement of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords. I said that that was not a major point, because if we abolished the hereditary principle, we would not change the constitution, except that we would put the House of Lords much more in the power of the serving Prime Minister, and would make it a party political machine supporting the Government in power.

What would happen after successive Prime Ministers had appointed their appointees to the House of Lords? Presumably, it would have a large number of members, unless there was a retirement provision or they were appointed for a set period. The consequences of the Government's proposal are not clear. We do not know what will happen at stage 2, what the royal commission will decide and what further legislation will be required.

What will happen once we have tinkered with the extraordinary system in the House of Lords? No one would have invented it: it is a crazy system. If we take one of the bricks from the wall, the whole thing will tumble down. That is why we must have a discussion on what we mean by reform and what we want from it.

I should like the House to consider carefully whether we should straightforwardly abolish the House of Lords and have no second Chamber. In the Commonwealth, the New Zealand Parliament abolished its second Chamber 40 years ago. It has proceeded comfortably and well without a second, revising Chamber. That may be the simplest solution for us all. If we did that, we would have to reform this place.

Dr. Starkey

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wells

No, I want to keep to Mr. Deputy Speaker's time limit, so I cannot take the hon. Lady's intervention.

If we abolished the second Chamber completely, we would have the simplest solution of all; but it would require major reform of our proceedings in the House of Commons. Indeed, part of this process will involve reform of the House of Commons in any event. I shall be referring to some of the respects in which we must do a great deal better in future.

If, however, the House of Lords is to have an elected element—as suggested by both the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris)—it will gain democratic credibility, and will demand to be given power. It would, surely, be possible to allocate some powers to the House of Commons, and some to the second House. The second House, for example, could be given responsibility for many matters that are currently in the gift of the Crown—Crown privileges, particularly in respect of foreign affairs and treaties. That would accord with what happens in the United States Congress, which has considerable powers in that regard. As the House will know, it refused to agree to the treaty of Versailles after the first world war, which was, possibly, one of the reasons for the second world war. It interviews all those appointed to ambassadorial posts, and the Senate's approval is needed before such appointments are made.

Indeed, the question of appointments—which was raised by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield—is extremely important. The Executive has far too much power over appointments to quangos, and to other bodies that spend huge amounts of public money. Certainly, such appointments should not be allowed without parliamentary supervision.

Those, then, are powers that could be divided between the two Houses; but do hon. Members imagine that the House of Commons will give up the power over the Executive that it currently has? Had we passed a motion opposing the signing of the Maastricht treaty, for example, the Government would have had to retract their signature, or they would not have been able to continue to exist. My proposal therefore would mean this House giving up power to the new, elected House of Lords.

I do not believe that we shall get through the House of Commons any proposal that would empower the House of Lords—the upper House, the second Chamber or whatever we want to call it—to gainsay or second-guess the elected Chamber here. We would not secure that kind of reform, and that suggests that the best way forward may indeed be a single-Chamber Government. If we are to have a single-Chamber Government, we must take over, and call to account, the powers of Crown privilege and appointment held by the Executive; but we ought also to take powers to control the Government's power to borrow. The House of Commons has never been able to do that, which over the years has got us into a huge amount of trouble economically. That has led to rampant inflation, mainly under Labour Governments.

We would also have to include European affairs when considering how to deal with a reformed House. Currently, we handle European affairs very badly, although we probably handle them better than most European Union Parliaments—with the exception of the Danish Parliament. I agree that Prime Ministers, and Ministers generally, should not go to the European Council and make agreements on our behalf without authorisation from the Parliaments that they represent. I think it monstrous, for example, that the monetary union proposals presented to the European Union were agreed by two leaders, President Mitterrand and Chancellor Kohl, with no reference to their parties, their Parliaments or their people. That, surely, is the kind of power that we should give reformed Houses of Parliament.

I feel that, when the European Scrutiny Committee and European Standing Committees A and B do not think that Ministers should go to Europe and agree, on behalf of this country, legislation passed by Europe, that should be binding on the Government. In such circumstances, this House of Parliament does not agree. It should have the power not to agree, and Ministers should have to withhold their agreement. I know that they will not like that, because they will not be able to wheel and deal. So be it—and so much the better for the supremacy of Parliament.

Scotland is to have a national Parliament, Northern Ireland and Wales are to have Assemblies, and presumably we shall eventually have regional government of some kind in England. We shall need representation of those powerful regional bodies in this place. That could be the basis of a second Chamber, but those bodies would also have to be represented, in some way, in this House. I am rather attracted to the proposal in the White Paper that we should find a place for a Committee—a Grand Committee, or a European Committee—that MEPs would not only be able to attend, but be expected to attend. They would have a duty to attend. It is important for us to understand increasingly what is going on in Europe, and to be able to influence MEPs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred to the power of the judiciary, which is becoming greater and greater under the judicial review procedure. Under the human rights measures that we have enacted, the judiciary is increasingly beginning to make the laws of this country, including administrative law. It is usurping the powers of Parliament and the House of Commons.

Another worry is caused by the fact that, on many occasions, we conduct our business in an absurdly childlike manner. Everyone is aware, from BBC radio and television, of the appalling spectacle that we present when we call the Prime Minister to account at Prime Minister's Question Time, which degrades the House and diminishes those who take part. We need to find an adult, sensible way in which we can hold our Prime Minister to account, with papers in front of us—hold him to account realistically and effectively. We must develop such techniques.

I consider that our Select Committees have been a success since 1979, and that we should give them more powers: greater powers to command debate on the Floor of the House, and, indeed, powers to bind the Government to abide by the results of debate here. That would truly empower the Select Committees, which do a great deal of work and generally achieve consensus in their recommendations. We should possibly establish a Grand Committee to bring the Prime Minister to account in an orderly manner. It could be televised, but, again, in a sensible and adult fashion.

We have a great deal of reform to consider, but the Bill constitutes a way of avoiding such consideration. It is a way of enabling the Executive to increase its power, and of reducing respect for the House. A proper, sensible attempt should be made to secure consensus among the parties. Contrary to what was said by the hon. Member for Leominster, that has never been on offer to the Conservative party, although I understand that it has been on offer to the Liberal Democrats. We need to consider all these issues in a proper, orderly, responsible manner.

6.39 pm
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

I find it difficult to listen to some of the speeches from Conservative Members, with the exception of that of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), because they try to defend the indefensible. We have the spectacle of adversarial politics at its worst, because no one in the entire world could possibly defend the hereditary principle.

The Bill is not before time. Hereditary peers represent no one other than themselves. The whole principle is a denial of the basic democratic principle of equal citizenship. In 1701, Daniel Defoe put it succinctly when he said of the membership of the House of Lords: Great families of yesterday we show, And lords whose parents were the Lord knows who. Hereditary peers are responsible to no one, but they are overwhelmingly Tory politically; there can be no argument about that. They are partial in throwing their weight against Labour and Liberal Governments. After the Parliament Act 1911, two Bills of the Liberal Government—the Welsh Church Bill and the Home Rule Bill for Ireland—were thrown out by the House of Lords. I quote the playwright Tom Stoppard, who said that the House of Lords exercises responsibility without power, the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages. It is said that a second Chamber has three main functions: to delay hasty legislation, to act as a revising Chamber, and to ease the burdens on the House of Commons. The last function will be largely lifted as a result of devolution. I agree with the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford: I hope that devolution will include the English regions.

The White Paper says: Britain needs a two-chamber legislature", but does it? I question that. I agreed with an enormous amount of what the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said about reform of the Houses of Parliament; I will not go over all that he said, but I found myself agreeing with much of it. I ask the Government to put before the royal commission an option that is not mentioned in the White Paper: not having a second Chamber at all.

Let us look at the possible composition of the second Chamber if it were elected. If it were elected simultaneously with the House of Commons, it would merely duplicate the membership of the House of Commons. People might say, "Elect it under a different system," but the arguments would then be about which system was the more democratic. However, if it were elected at different times from the House of Commons, doubts would be created about which was the more legitimate Chamber and the efficiency of the Executive would be reduced. Sometimes we may want to take that approach if we think that the Executive is too powerful, but having a second Chamber means taking Ministers away from more useful business.

If the second Chamber were purely nominated, it would lack the authority of a popular Chamber. It would be filled, irrespective of who the Prime Minister was, and the independent commission would not exist for ever, with placemen and women. If it were hostile to the Government, an indirectly elected Chamber could be destructive. If it were favourable to the Government, it would be superfluous.

One argument is—my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) referred to it—that a second Chamber could be based on members of trades and professions, as a large section of the Irish Senate is. It could be, as they say, a House of experts, but is that really what we want? Do not forget that all those experts would be willing and able to talk on any subject in the House of Lords, senate, or whatever we like to call the second Chamber, irrespective of their experience.

If a person is elected to represent doctors, what weight could be given to the views that he or she expresses on, say, the euro? The House of Lords contains many notable lawyers. Lord Denning has been notable as a judge, but does that make his opinion on, say, the strategic defence review significant? Let us look at the function of the House of Lords.

Mr. Hawkins

I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's choice of example. Anyone who knows the family history of Lord Denning, whose 100th birthday we were all glad to celebrate recently, knows that one of his brothers was a general and another was an admiral, so he might have had quite a lot to say about the strategic defence review.

Mr. Wareing

Perhaps, but what Lord Denning has to say may not be significant.

Let us look at the question of delaying legislation. On the whole, legislation is not rushed. People talk about rushing legislation, but it is not rushed. Most of the important measures that have come before the House of Commons have emanated from ideas that have been debated over long periods.

Take, for example, devolution for Scotland. That has been argued about for decades. Some Scottish Members would probably argue that it has been debated ever since Culloden and that we are only just coming around to it. No one could say that that has been rushed.

When the nationalisation legislation was pushed through by the post-war Labour Government, it had been debated for decades. Even Winston Churchill had argued in 1909 for the nationalisation of the railways. It was not until 1947 that that came about.

I am pleased that the present Government are the first to legislate in favour of the minimum wage, but economists and others, including trade unionists, have argued and debated the whys and wherefores of the minimum wage for a very long period. I am sorry that we have had to wait until this Labour Government for it to make its way on to the statute book.

No one can say that that reform of the House of Lords has been rushed. It was debated after the 1909 Budget. We had the Parliament Act 1911. It took another seven years to get the Bryce report, with its complicated ideas for reform of the second Chamber. It was debated again in 1949 after the Tory Government held up the Bill to nationalise steel: the Parliament Bill was introduced in 1949 to reduce the delaying powers. Again, we had debates in 1968 about the reform of the House of Lords, which was scuppered largely—perhaps justifiably in view of the evidence at the time—by Michael Foot and Enoch Powell. We now have the debate yet again.

Legislation is not rushed. It is the length of time that has been taken to act on ideas, not hastiness in acting on them, that has frustrated our electors. They say, "Get on with it. If you believe in something, go ahead with the legislation."

We are told that we need a second Chamber to revise, but revision is not best done by a second Chamber that is composed in the ways that I have mentioned. Revision is best done—as the Government are doing—by consulting before legislation is introduced.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that legislation is best introduced after consulting. It therefore seems perverse that he is supporting the House of Lords Bill just as a royal commission is being established to consult on it.

Mr. Wareing

I have already made it clear that it has taken the House a long time to reach the point of debating a Bill abolishing the legislative rights of hereditary peers. The idea of abolishing those rights is not new; it goes back an awfully long way. The hon. Gentleman himself has probably, at some time, belonged to a debating society that debated the hereditary principle. Nevertheless, this is the first occasion on which the House has considered legislation expressing a determination to abolish those rights—something that any rational person should have expected Parliament to do many, many years ago.

There are other ways in which the revisory process may be performed. Advisory bodies, for example, surround the Executive and could perform such a function. If there is a legislative problem—where revision is necessary because of a drafting problem—parliamentary counsel would be available to deal with it. Why do we have parliamentary counsel, if not to advise on drafting legislation?

If there is a failure of substance in legislation, the best way of dealing with it would be by establishing working commissions, comprising members of appropriate trades, professions or interests. Such a commission could be established to consider each Bill.

When the Labour party was in opposition, and Mrs. Thatcher's Government was introducing legislation—such as the Health and Medicines Bill in 1988—we, like other Oppositions before us, consulted the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, trade unions and dentists' professional organisations. In future, such consultation could be performed in a much more formalised manner.

A dentist is not required in a second Chamber to debate foreign policy. However, in working commissions, dentists could debate parliamentary business, give advice and point out the difficulties and potholes on the pathway to legislation.

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

They could also point out the cavities.

Mr. Wareing

I have known the right hon. Gentleman for many years, and I appreciate his sense of humour.

A second Chamber is not more likely than the first Chamber to reflect the popular will. Moreover, I suggest that it is not necessarily suitable—it is not suitable—for a revising Chamber to act efficiently, so that it assists the Government and advises the House of Commons. I was interested in the comments made by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford on strengthening Select Committees. Although one could argue about how to strengthen them, doing so would certainly be a means of creating greater parliamentary control over the Executive, which I believe is necessary.

I make only one concession to those who argue in favour of a different type of second Chamber. A different Chamber may be required if the United Kingdom is to have a federal constitution—perhaps after we establish English regions, and after the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly are well under way. Perhaps we will have to establish such a Chamber then, when so many of the important social services have been devolved to the assemblies.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)


Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wareing

I shall give way to the hon. Lady, as I think that she asked first.

Mrs. Laing

Is not the hon. Gentleman arguing, most eloquently, for a total reform of Parliament itself? As he just said, we now have devolution and the opportunity—although Opposition Members do not want it—for regional assemblies. Does he therefore agree that, rather than debating the short Bill before us, which deals with only one aspect—

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

Order. As I have said before, an intervention is not an opportunity to make a speech.

Mr. Wareing

I shall answer the question of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) with pleasure. I honestly believe that the Bill is necessary now. It is necessary if only to ensure that the Government—who were elected with a large majority, in 1997—have a reasonable chance of having their legislation passed in the other place.

I see no justification for maintaining the hereditary principle.

Mr. Grieve

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying—he wants the hereditary element in the House of Lords to go, regardless. However, in his very thoughtful speech, I should be very interested to hear his views on the timetable, after the Lords go, to deal with the issues that he is raising today. Those issues will not be dealt with.

Mr. Wareing

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, they are being dealt with. The Government have published a White Paper, which is there for us to read and to ask questions on. Today's debate will not be the only opportunity for us to raise the issues between now and publication of the royal commission's report, at the end of 1999.

If we move towards a federal Britain, my prescription—it is outlined in the White Paper; I shall not go into the details now—is typified by the Bundesrat, in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Currently—in this Bill—we have to deal with the House of Lords. I believe that the Lords spend enormous amounts of time in wasteful debate. Although the House of Lords deals with legislation, an occasional glance at its Annunciator shows that it is acting as a debating society. I have no argument with hereditary peers taking part in a debating society, but they do not have to use one of the Chambers of Parliament to do so.

The House of Lords ties up Ministers' time, which could be better used in other ways. [Interruption.] Ministers will admit that I do not often sympathise with them in the work that they do. However, the time that they spend answering questions in the House of Lords, and dealing in this place with amendments from the other place, could be better spent.

The House of Lords is able also to defy the electors.

Mr. Hawkins

Does the hon. Gentleman accept Opposition Members' view that, when Ministers are questioned in the Chamber of a House of Parliament, they are being held to account for the work that they do? Should not Ministers—the Executive—be held to account by Parliament? Is that not why we are here?

Mr. Wareing

Yes, they should be held to account. Ministers should be held to account by the elected Chamber—the House of Commons—and by Members of the elected Chamber serving on Select Committees. Moreover, I believe that the Prime Minister should have to attend Select Committees if called upon to do so. Ex-Prime Ministers should also have to attend when called. Baroness Thatcher refused to attend the Foreign Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament when we were debating the scandal of the Pergau dam. The Prime Minister should be called to account.

The late Baroness Stocks once described the House of Lords as a perfect eventide home. It is time to recommend its closure.

7 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The difficulty for the Conservatives is that few of us would start from here. That is always a problem in such debates. It is clear from what a lot of what my right hon. and hon. Friends have already said that we would not have abolished the existing House of Lords because we believe that it performs a useful and robustly independent legislative role. Neither would we have set up devolved Assemblies and Parliaments in Scotland and Wales, and perhaps in Northern Ireland. However, we have to face the reality that such developments are occurring. In Scotland and Wales, they are well under way and we now have the Government's proposals for the House of Lords. We have to react to what the Government are doing and produce our ideas in the light of that.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

How fiercely independent does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the House of Lords is when 50 per cent. of all Divisions in the Lords during the life of the previous Labour Government resulted in defeat for the Government, whereas during the 18 years of Tory rule, only about 5 per cent. of House of Lords Divisions resulted in Government defeats?

Mr. Forth

That might suggest that our legislation was better than Labour's. The hon. Gentleman has a point, but the fact that the bulk of the upper House has been hereditary has, in a peculiar way, made it independent by definition. Life peers certainly cannot be said to be independent.

Mr. Hope

Half the hereditary peers in the House of Lords take the Conservative Whip, which hardly makes them independent. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to answer a question that I have asked other Conservatives: does he support clause 1, which abolishes the hereditary principle? What is the Conservative party's position on the Bill?

Mr. Forth

I support clause 1. I am going to give my views in a moment, but first I should like to set the scene by quoting myself, which I always find pleasurable and productive. On 20 January—this is quite recent, so it is fresh in my memory—I asked the Leader of the House: As the main criticisms that the Government are making of the House of Lords appear to be that it is undemocratic, unrepresentative and unaccountable, can the Leader of the House guarantee that at the end of the process, the second Chamber will emerge as democratic, representative and accountable? To my delight and pleasure, the right hon. Lady answered: The right hon. Gentleman identifies our case accurately. The House of Lords is uniquely undemocratic, unrepresentative and unaccountable."—[Official Report, 20 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 919.] There is a surprising amount of common ground on which I would like to build. That is a useful starting point, which goes some way towards answering the question of the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope).

We already have the beginnings of the process of devolved representation and legislation in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. The process of change of the upper House is already well under way. I regret that I have to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), who advocated a single Chamber. I have taken it as axiomatic that a legislature should have two Chambers for checks and balances and revisionary purposes. I am uneasy about a unicameral approach, even though our friends in New Zealand have gone down that path. We know that they have bitterly regretted some recent developments, so I am not sure that we should regard what they do as a good example.

Mr. Grieve

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key issue is the size of the country concerned? A unicameral system may work well in a small country such as Denmark or New Zealand, but applying the principle to a country of 60 million people is a different matter.

Mr. Forth

That is a powerful point that we would do well to bear in mind.

We are faced with the reality of devolution and the perceived need—now broadly accepted—to change the nature of the upper House. Picking up on what the hon. Member for West Derby said, I have become an advocate of an English Parliament in response to the system that the Government have set up in Scotland and Wales. Just over a year ago, we embarked on the argument that, in fairness and for good administrative and legislative purposes, it is proper that the English people should be asked what they want, which has not yet happened. If they agree, they should be given their own legislature. That would answer the West Lothian question and would render regional assemblies inappropriate and unnecessary.

If we accept that that is a legitimate approach—I realise that not everyone does—it is easy and essential to move on and look at the role and functions of what would then be a federal Parliament, when the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish were dealing with their domestic affairs through their new elected and accountable Assemblies. That would necessarily lead to a dramatically reduced House of Commons, dealing with foreign affairs, defence and overall economic matters.

To complement that, we should have a revised upper House consisting of 87 elected members. I do not pick the number 87 out of thin air. That is the current number of European constituencies. There would be no need for a lengthy and complicated study by the boundary commission. We have a ready-made electoral map on which an elected upper Chamber could be based. We could have multiples of 87, but I would feel comfortable with 87. The members should be elected for six-year terms, with one third of them being elected every two years. That would give the second Chamber a separate political legitimacy from the House of Commons. It would also allow the electorate the opportunity to express a view during the term of a Government, which would be a useful and necessary political device.

I accept that this is new political territory, but the Government have set in train a process that gives us not only the opportunity, but the obligation to look seriously at the way in which our country is run and our legislation is developed. What I have said may be somewhat radical, but this is the opportunity for a radical approach. The Government have already been radical with their measures for Scotland. They are already denying the people of England the say that they should have in all this. They are asking us to review the role, functions and nature of the upper Chamber, which surely also involves considering what the House of Commons does.

If we are considering a different sort of representation at English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish level, and a different kind of upper Chamber, accepting—however reluctantly—that the basis on which the House of Lords has operated for 1,000 years can no longer continue, surely the Government and the royal commission will accept that this is an opportunity to look in the round at how we govern and legislate, and to review our accountability and representativeness. I do not accept that a unicameral approach would give such legitimacy. I have no fear, as a member of this House for the time being, that a new, powerful, differently accountable and representative upper Chamber would necessarily pose a threat to the House of Commons. It should complement what the House of Commons does and its accountability. I believe that a self-confident Government should have no fear of a new-style, legitimate, elected and accountable upper Chamber—something that surely flows from what the Leader of the House said a few days ago.

Finally, I must accept that we would need a supreme court of the kind that the United States has. I believe that the Supreme Court has served the US extraordinarily well and has, on occasion, been radically and robustly independent from both the Executive and the legislature in the US. Again, we would have nothing to fear from that. Indeed, some recent and somewhat regrettable events have demonstrated that our own supreme judiciary is nothing of which we need be desperately proud—it has its faults and failings. I would have thought that something akin to the US Supreme Court would be a necessary adjunct to an elected upper Chamber.

We must take the opportunity given to us by the Government—largely by accident—to look properly and in the round at what we are doing about our government and our legislative procedures. I hope that we do that radically and responsibly, and give ourselves and our people a properly thought-through, balanced and functioning system of legislation.

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

If the Conservative party follows the views of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), it will end up as an English nationalist party—which would be a sad end for a once-great party.

The main message that I have taken from Conservative speeches today—particularly that of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—is that the Conservative party intends to go into the next general election as the only party in Britain which supports the right of hereditary peers, wherever they may live in the world, to vote in our legislature.

Mr. Letwin

That is not true.

Mr. Soley

I invite the hon. Gentleman to say categorically and unequivocally that the Conservative party will oppose the right of hereditary peers to vote in the House of Lords.

Mr. Letwin

I am most interested in the hon. Gentleman's observation—I cannot for the life of me imagine how he got that idea. Does he agree that the Government are proposing, and will accept, that hereditary peers should continue in the House of Lords?

Mr. Soley

No. The proposal is clear. For a limited period, 10 per cent. will continue to have the right to vote. I asked the hon. Gentleman a question that he has not answered. Does the Conservative party intend to oppose the right of hereditary peers to vote in the House of Lords—yes or no?

Mr. Letwin

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in order to do that, the Conservative party would have to vote against an amendment to keep hereditary peers that the Government would be supporting?

Mr. Soley

This is no time for wriggling. Is the Conservative party in favour of hereditary peers having a vote in the House of Lords, as a second Chamber, in the future? The hon. Gentleman's co-defendant on the Front Bench—[Laughter.] The hon. Gentleman's supporter on the Front Bench, rather—the hon. Member for Woodspring—avoided that question.

As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said a few moments ago, the Conservatives say that they would not have started from here. The point is that we are starting from here because this is where the previous Government left us; it is, therefore, difficult to start from anywhere else. It is simple to express whether one thinks that hereditary peers should have the right to vote in the House of Lords. I will give the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) one last chance to answer that question, yes or no. The people of Britain have a right to know, and they need to know soon.

Mr. Letwin

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me one last chance, although it took him rather a long time to do so. Will he accept this perfectly clear statement from the Opposition; that there is not a chance in hell of the Opposition proposing the resurrection of more hereditary peers than will already have been put in that House by the Government? In the second phase—if the Government allow a second phase—the Opposition would not dream of proposing the hereditary principle as a way forward. Is that clear enough for the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Soley

No, it is not. The question that the hon. Gentleman has to answer is this; if the hon. Gentleman was a Minister in a Tory Government, would he be proposing the abolition of the right of hereditary peers to vote in the House of Lords? The answer, as we all know, is a resounding no. It is a resounding no because the hereditary peers have given the Tory party a built-in majority for more years than many of us care to remember.

I enjoyed the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), as I always do—not least because of his historical grasp. However, he gave one or two examples that must be dealt with. He referred to a US-type system. I have never thought of my right hon. Friend as the greatest supporter of the US system, and there is a lot that is wrong with the US constitution.

My right hon. Friend suggested that it was a good thing that the Senate and the Republicans could hold the President over a barrel, as they are doing now. However, that is not a good example of why we should have an elected second Chamber—it is a profoundly bad one. Everyone knows that the battle in which the President is engaged in the US has nothing to do with the political, economic or social problems facing the US. It has everything to do with the fact that the Republican party could not beat a Democratic President on two occasions and seeks to remove him from office because it cannot win. A few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield gave the Levellers as another example. I am a great supporter of the Levellers, and, in some respects, that important part of history set the standards for democracy here and elsewhere. The problem with the Levellers was that because of the way in which they carried through their policy in a situation that was fraught with difficulties, we ended up with the only period of dictatorship that this country has ever known. Again, that is not a good example.

A far better example from our history concerns Britain's writing of large parts, if not most, of the constitution of what was then West Germany after the second world war. The reason we put into that constitution an indirectly elected part of the Chamber was precisely to stop a centralising Government taking power again. Hon. Members on both sides of the House who believe that the only democratic proposal is an elected second Chamber must be aware that there are profound dangers in that, as historical examples show.

My right hon. and hon. Friends who follow that line ought to take into account the fact that when Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister, she had no hesitation in destroying local government when she did not think that she could win the elections. An elected second Chamber—particularly one elected at the same time as this House—would do exactly the same. In the German constitution, we built in the safeguard of an indirect part of the Chamber.

Mr. Cash

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Bundesrat is, in fact, anything but independent, and furthermore that it is the biggest bunch of fat cats that has been seen this side of the Alamo?

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember that the Bundesbank has been one of the most successful organisations in Europe. Local government has been represented on the board of the Bundesbank, which is why regional economic development in Germany has been much more successful than here.

I wish to refer to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. We should have a sense of history in a debate such as this. I compliment my right hon. Friend on having the good fortune to be the person who modernises Britain's constitution by introducing this fundamental reform of the House of Lords. It is profoundly important, and it is right that in this debate, we do not lose our sense of historical perspective.

Mr. Brooke

For the benefit of those who are reading this debate centuries from now, it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman knew that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred to the Bundesrat, and that his answer was in the context of the Bundesbank.

Mr. Soley

If that is what he said, I entirely accept that. I answered in the context of the Bundesbank in my second example, because I thought that that is what the hon. Gentleman said. Either way, in the political and economic structure of West Germany—[Laughter.] Conservative Members may laugh, but we should take pride in the fact that we wrote that constitution and set up much of the economic structure. If we recognised what we did for the Germans, with their full co-operation, we might recognise that lessons could be learnt from what we did then. We do not necessarily need to go back to 1911 or the 1640s, because we have had a good record more recently.

Mr. Maclennan

I follow and to some extent support what the hon. Gentleman has said about our wisdom in respect of the German constitution. Does the hon. Gentleman support what we did to the voting system for West Germany?

Mr. Soley

Not necessarily. In local government, much can be said for a different type of voting system, but there are horses for courses.

The importance of our current proposals is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said earlier, that we are trying to modernise the British constitution, not just in one area—the House of Lords—but through devolution to Scotland, Wales, London and, I hope, the English regions. I am confident that this Government will radically reform the British constitution.

The special tragedy of the Conservatives—their party used to take pride in the British constitution—is that they let it freeze in the 20th century and made no significant changes to it. They believed that it kept them in power, and to some extent it did. The one constitutional change they did make, they now tell us that they did not intend—I refer to the Single European Act, which removed some power from the House of Commons and made it indirectly controlled through the Council of Ministers.

Britain has the advantage of having an unwritten constitution, although some people disagree that that is an advantage. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) might prefer a written constitution. The advantage of an unwritten constitution is that it can continually evolve. The United States is having difficulty changing its written constitution as it now needs to. However, because we did not change our constitution in the 20th century, it has become redundant in many areas and is seen by many people as irrelevant to our needs.

The message about reform today is that it is necessary to deliver the right economic and social policies that the country needs. We are not doing this just for the sake of reform or even because the principle of hereditary voting is wrong. We are doing it because we need efficient, democratic government—and that means reform. That also means that we need the first stage reform, because that is where reform has been blocked in the past. Members on both sides of the House have referred to the failure of reform in the 1960s. That happened because people, including some Labour Members, fell for the Conservative argument that we had to change everything or nothing. That is a fatal mistake which we must not make now.

We want the first stage reform now. It has been argued that the Bill will lead to a neutered second Chamber, but the Conservatives will still have a majority. It is worth reminding the House of the long-term aims of the Government, which were spelt out in the White Paper: The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered. It also states: No one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords. That gives the lie to the argument that the Bill is an attempt to install a Labour majority in the House of Lords. We will not have a majority in the House of Lords once the Bill becomes law and we will not be able to create such a majority artificially, because of the independent appointments system. We will then move on to the second stage, and debate on the form it should take will continue. Now, we must focus on the first stage.

It is time to be brave and to recognise that reform of the House of Lords is essential. The hereditary principle is a nonsense. People talk about the hereditary vine, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield produced a phial of blood to show that the hereditary principle is not always entirely pure. Occasionally, as the nobles wandered the highways and byways of olde England, they spread their seed far and wide. That gives a new meaning to the phrase "genetically modified crops". I think that they should be labelled, but that is another issue. As my right hon. Friend said, the hereditary principle has been used as an advantage and switched on and off as necessary. It is no longer necessary and we must reform the House of Lords to achieve an efficient, democratic Government. We must have the first stage in order to move on properly to the debate about the second stage.

7.26 pm
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

Those of us who have sat through the debate so far will have realised that many of the more interesting contributions have crystallised what is wrong with the Bill. I am sure that it is widely agreed that constitutional Bills should be of particular interest to us all as parliamentarians. After all, if parliamentarians are not sensitive about parliamentary democracy, no one else will be. It behoves us, especially at a time when Parliament seems to be falling into public disrepute, to take any parliamentary reform seriously.

It is my contention that it is impossible for the conscientious parliamentarian, who wishes to see an effective second Chamber as a contribution to the democratic process, to support the Bill, because it leaves the future of that Chamber as a void. As we have heard in many of the contributions today, people have tried to fill the void by suggesting what the result of the reform process should be. That is an entirely legitimate debate that this House and the country should be having, but the Government have introduced the Bill before any sensible consultation process has started and they have got everything in the wrong order.

It is absurd to claim that any second Chamber would be better than the current one, as the Leader of the House did earlier. It is not possible to hold that position sensibly. The objection to the current second Chamber, which we have heard from Labour Members today, is that nobody should be able to vote in it by reason of heredity.

Mr. Hope


Mr. Green

I shall save the hon. Gentleman the trouble. The answer to his question is yes. In order to vote for the Bill, one must believe that any replacement House of Lords would be better than the one we have. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] It is interesting that Members on the Government Benches are chorusing yes. They are saying that if the Prime Minister of the day chose to appoint 500, 600 or 700 peers from his party to ram through legislation of which they disapproved—and they should remember that they will not always be in power—that second Chamber would be still better than the current House of Lords. If they believe that they are mad. They would be wrong and the proposition is anti-democratic. The Bill contains no guarantees that any of the promises given by the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House would be put into law, that Lord Wakeham's committee need listen to any of the proposals in the White Paper, or that the Joint Committee of the two Houses will be abolished. The Bill contains no safeguards to ensure that a new second Chamber is better than the existing one.

Dr. Ladyman

The hon. Gentleman is right: the hypothetical situation that he has described would be anti-democratic. However, does he honestly believe that it would be less democratic than the Conservative party's permanent 3:1 majority in the present House of Lords?

Mr. Green

Yes, it would be less democratic, as modern patronage, as opposed to old patronage, would be involved. [Laughter.] It certainly would not be better.

Labour Members are proof of that. They regard it as preferable for a modern Government to decide to subvert Parliament by using its majority in this House to destroy the revising power of the second Chamber. That is an interesting insight into new Labour. It shows that Labour Members do not have a democratic bone in their bodies. They do not accept what Parliament is for. They do not realise that any Parliament needs a revising function, which must have at its heart the ability to defeat the Government of the day. If they do not accept that, Labour Members ought to be unicameralists, but I think that they profess not to be.

Maria Eagle

When previous Bills have been introduced suggesting that the powers of the House of Lords should be changed, the Conservative party has always said, "Don't deal with the powers, deal with the composition." This Bill deals with the composition of the second Chamber, but now the hon. Gentleman says, "Don't deal with the composition, deal with the powers." Is not the hon. Gentleman really saying that he simply does not want the matter to be dealt with at all?

Mr. Green

No, I am not saying that. The hon. Lady is extremely effective at attacking the Conservative party of 1911, but she should either bring herself up to date or find a new intervention for the second day of this debate tomorrow.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten the House about the Conservative party's attempts since 1911 to reform the other place?

Mr. Green

The most successful reform of the House of Lords this century was the introduction of life peerages. That was done by a Conservative Government, so the hon. Lady need not worry on that score.

Legitimate arguments can be held about the competence of the current hereditary peers and about the role and composition of the second Chamber. However, no case can be made for asking this House to change radically the composition of Parliament without any indication of how it will be composed at the end of the process. We could have a second Chamber with a majority appointed by one Prime Minister—the parliamentary equivalent of the South sea bubble, the worst kind of capitalism, when investors were invited to buy shares in a company whose purpose would be revealed later. The Government are asking us to have a House in Parliament whose composition and role will be revealed later. That is no way to reform Parliament.

Dr. Ladyman

I am glad to have been able to catch the hon. Gentleman before he proceeds too far down his line of argument. I have just realised what he has said. He contended that the introduction of life peers was the greatest reform of the House of Lords so far and added that it was done by the Conservative party. However, was not that exactly the power that he attacked as new patronage only a few minutes ago?

Mr. Green

No. I was attacking the possibility that the Prime Minister of the day could be allowed to abuse that patronage. The Labour party claims to be modernising the constitution, but in fact it is seeking to entrench that abuse—a process that is neither sensible nor democratic.

Labour Members should consider their individual positions, as they will vote on the Bill as individuals. I suspect that they would feel rather uncomfortable at being invited to vote for legislation on health, education or any of the vital issues if the Government introduced it by saying, "We are introducing a reform and we have no idea where it is going to end up." I suggest that they should feel even more uncomfortable about being asked to vote for constitutional reform, about which they have a responsibility as individual parliamentarians, and to take their vote seriously.

The point has been made that a huge popular demand exists for the abolition of the hereditary peerage. It does, but only one poll has been taken about the means that should be adopted. In answer to a question about whether hereditary peers should be abolished before other details of the reform are decided, 25 per cent. of people agreed that the peers should be abolished. However, when asked whether things should be left as they are at present until the details of the reforms are decided, 68 per cent. of people said that things should be left as they are. Although I accept that there is a huge popular mandate for getting rid of the hereditary peerage, the British people do not support the way in which the Government are going about it.

The Government have said already that they will accept an amendment that will drive a coach and horses through their protestations about how much they hate the hereditary peers. Earlier, the Leader of the House performed an extremely spirited Madame Defarge act when she expressed her deep hatred of hereditary peers. Therefore, it is slightly odd that the Government's first action is to reach for a compromise that will preserve 100 hereditary peers for the indefinite future. They object to the hereditaries so much that they will put them in what they describe as a transitional House and leave them there for as long as possible.

The Bill is therefore misnamed: it should be called the Abolition of Hereditary Peers (Apart from the Ones We Won't Abolish) Bill. That is what the Government are doing. The Bill is full of rhetoric about how unfit hereditary peers are to legislate on any matter at all. Nevertheless, the Government also appear to think that hereditary peers are uniquely able to legislate on the future of the peerage and the second Chamber.

The Government's position is completely incoherent. If the hereditary peers can legislate on those matters, they cannot be so unfit to legislate on other matters. If the Government do not believe their rhetoric—and the gap between words and actions is huge—no one else should.

The White Paper, I admit, offers hints about where we go next but it is not Whitehall's finest hour and does not illuminate the underlying issues as it should. The first problem with it has been touched on already by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). The Government constantly repeat the line that there is an inbuilt Conservative majority of 3:1 in the House of Lords. In fact, the tables in the White Paper give the lie to that assertion. My hon. Friend has mentioned the overall total, but I point out to Labour Members that, even though there are 627 hereditary peers in the House of Lords, only 300 are Conservatives. That is less than 50 per cent. of the total—hardly a 3:1 Conservative majority.

The Government derive the 3:1 figure by ignoring the Cross-Bench peers, about whom we have heard quite a lot of sneering in the debate. That is especially regrettable, as many of the Cross-Bench peers contribute to the debates of this Parliament a degree of non-partisan expertise that is one reason why the House of Lords is probably held in higher repute than the House of Commons at present. Labour Members should consider that point.

The second big problem with the White Paper is that reveals the Government's tendency to blackmail. On page 29, it states: If there is consensus, the Government will make every effort to ensure that the second stage of reform has been approved by Parliament before the next election. Sadly, the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) is no longer present. He referred to the consensus that has been on offer from the Government all along. The consensus seems to be, "You agree with us, and we'll form a consensus."

Dr. Fox

On our terms.

Mr. Green

Precisely. Consensus has to be on the Government's terms: there is no possibility of any consensus on any other terms. I do not think that that is a sensible way to claim that a national consensus is being sought.

It is right that a Government should try to seek a national consensus on a constitutional reform such as this. One assumes that they want to set in train a process that will be permanent. They know as well as anyone else, that if they proceed on this partisan basis they will not achieve a permanent settlement. As a result, this country will be going through constitutional change for decades to come. Experience suggests that countries that have constant constitutional upheaval are not better governed in the long term.

There is no guarantee in the Bill that the safeguards mentioned in the White Paper will be maintained. Perhaps a Minister could give us such a guarantee that the aspirations of the White Paper are in fact firm commitments. Similarly, the Bill contains no guarantee of a timetable. This matter should not drift on from Parliament to Parliament, and I seek some assurances from Ministers about the timetable.

The possible reduction of the powers of the House of Lords is another problem with the White Paper, which states on page 40 that there should be arrangements to give government Bills introduced first into the second chamber the same protection as those introduced first into the House of Commons, so removing an artificial constraint on the management of Parliamentary business". The words "artificial restraint" are wonderful Whitehall weasel words: in other words, the Bill removes something that makes it slightly more difficult for the Government to put through their Bills.

That paragraph alone gives the lie to any suggestion that the reform is about democracy. It is about increasing the power of the Executive vis-a-vis Parliament. As such, it could be extremely dangerous.

Other clear weaknesses are not touched on by the White Paper. We cannot consider the composition of the House of Lords without considering its role. The Bill tends to increase the power of the Executive. The transitional house will, as the Bill stands, be worse than the existing House of Lords.

Much has been made of evolution, but the Bill is not evolution. Evolution is an inevitable process, but the Government's direction is not clear, meaning that the reform cannot be an inevitable process. They are not taking a sensible evolutionary approach to constitutional change.

The central problem of the Bill, however, is that it sets up a quango as part of our Parliament. The Bill contains no guarantee that the quango will not last the 88 years that the previous transitional arrangement lasted. The quango will be completely under the control of the Prime Minister of the day. That is not modernisation; it is playing blind man's bluff with the British constitution and with British democracy. Anyone who cares about the roles, powers and democratic function of both Houses of Parliament will oppose the Bill.

7.42 pm
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

I welcome the Bill, which deals swiftly and effectively with important unfinished business. One of the most amazing things about the reform is that it has not been done before. Attempts to deal with the hereditary peerage litter the century—in 1910 and 1911, in the 1920s, in the 1940s, and in the 1960s. One reason why those attempts failed is that many of them were one-shot attempts, a fact from which we have rightly learned.

The hereditaries have survived because of a combination of inertia, disagreement over alternative arrangements and the indifference of the Conservative party. I am proud that the Labour Government are beginning the process that will finish the job and give us a modernised Parliament appropriate to the 21st century.

The issue before us may not top the public's agenda, but it remains important. People want, and deserve, a more representative Parliament. The hereditary principle is clearly an anachronism that diminishes the credibility of the whole of Parliament. The current set-up also clearly frustrates the democratic will. The hereditary principle enshrined in our Parliament is clearly an absurdity.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Plaskitt

Not at this stage.

One key test that we can apply to the House of Lords is whether, if we were starting out from scratch, anyone would suggest that the hereditary principle should be enshrined in Parliament. It is inconceivable that anyone would suggest that. Would anyone come up with the idea of having an upper House of Parliament of about 1300 members, many of whom rarely turn up? A majority of the House of Lords have inherited their seats, and they lack any discernable merit or right to a voice in legislation. Would anyone come up with such a chronically unrepresentative Chamber as the current House of Lords, which contains 759 hereditary peers, of whom one is black, one is Asian and 14 are women. Half the 759 went to Eton.

The House of Lords remains basically an aristocracy. Long after the aristocracy lost its social influence and its economic power, it still holds political power. The Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George was right: Aristocracy is like cheese—the older it is, the higher it becomes. The House of Lords fails the "would you start from here?" test. It also fails the test on whether there is any reason for continuing with its uniqueness. No other Parliament in the world has a system like ours. No other country with an hereditary monarchy extends the principle into its legislature. No sound reason can be found for the institutionalisation of aristocracy.

There has, of course, always been one very unsound reason for continuation. The House of Lords serves, and always has served, the political interests of the Conservative party. The House of Lords is a Conservative House—with a very big C. Throughout the 20th century, the House of Lords has frustrated the will of non-Conservative Governments.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Plaskitt

Not at this stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) mentioned Arthur Balfour. Balfour was quite blatant about the role of the Lords, saying in 1906: Whether in power or whether in Opposition, the great Unionist party should still control the destinies of this great empire. That was almost 100 years ago, but the facts have continued to speak for themselves.

On average, the House of Lords defeats Tory Governments 13 times a Session. It defeats Labour Governments 63 times a Session. The current Government, with their massive popular mandate, had 33 defeats in their first Session, almost all of them attributable to the votes of hereditary peers, the Members of Parliament that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition, described last year in his speech to the Centre for Policy Studies as: "the independent element".

Just in case the first-born of our nobility should ever stray from their innate conservatism, Tory Governments have kept the other place topped up by appointing twice as many Conservative life peers as Opposition peers. There has always been a smile on the face of the ghost of Arthur Balfour. No wonder the Tory 1997 election guide said: It is important to defend the hereditary principle in its own right.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

Does my hon. Friend accept that when Arthur Balfour said that the House of Lords was essential to the Conservative party, he meant, not only that it was essential to the party's dominance of Parliament, but, as he demonstrated in his 1905 resignation honours list, to the party's finances?

Mr. Plaskitt

That is true, and it is an interesting historical addition to the debate.

Mr. Green

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us how many of the Labour life peers created by the Government have contributed to Labour party coffers?

Mr. Plaskitt

That is irrelevant to our debate.

The Government are unquestionably right to finish the business in a series of quick steps. The process is set out in perfectly logical sequence: first, remove the hereditary element; then establish an interim House; then set up a fast-track royal commission. That sequence gives the prospect of a settled new structure, based on consensus and possibly in place before the next general election. It is the best way to finish the job with the minimum of disruption to the Government's important programme. Once all that is done, it will be easier for us to deliver effectively the agenda on which we were elected.

The Government have set down the right basic principles for the next important stage. The proposed reform will secure the pre-eminence of the House of Commons. There will be no permanent majority for any party in the second Chamber, a reduction in prime ministerial patronage, and a broad mix of interests. A more representative second Chamber will result. If we place partisan interests to one side, we can see that a logical, straightforward reform is being proposed. It seems that it is widely accepted by many peers. They are presumably privately amazed that they have got away with it for so long and are now, for the most part, placidly resigned to their fate.

It tells us much about the Conservative party in this place that this sensible, logical reform has caused such consternation in it. I suspect that most Conservatives are still in tune with the spirit of Arthur Balfour. His outrageous assertion of the right of the Tories to govern in perpetuity, regardless of the democratically expressed will of the electorate, still has its supporters here. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has not come to this debate because in a pamphlet last year for the Conservative Policy Forum he gave the game away by saying: For Conservatives the constitution works. For the people, it does not. It should, and when the Bill is enacted, it will.

7.51 pm
Mr. William Cash (Stone)

It is fair to say that the present House of Lords and the hereditary principle are indefensible. That has been commonly accepted across the Floor today. I do not have quite the reservations of some of my hon. Friends about the manner of the Bill's introduction. I see no particular problem, given that the royal commission will be set up and the Government's majority means that they will get the Bill through one way or another.

We should concentrate on how best to address the remaining questions. I hope that the royal commission, in the short time available to it, will take evidence from as many people as possible and carefully consider the point that lies at the heart of the Bill: whether the proposals put the national interest ahead of party interest. When the ultimate provisions are revealed, that will be the acid test of whether the Government's policy matches up to my argument.

I have heard repeatedly that the House of Lords has in the past exercised its independent role and stood up for the nation. I have a searing instance in mind. Some 450 peers, mostly hereditary, were whipped in to defeat something that is now not only Conservative party policy but Government policy: the holding of a referendum on the European issue, in that case on the Maastricht treaty. The whipping in of people from all over the country was despicable and the result bore no relevance whatever to the national interest. I am glad that a referendum, after a tremendous fight by many of us, is now established as a principle of both the Government and the Opposition. I would not indulge too much in praise of the independence of the House of Lords as it has been.

I believe that a significant proportion of the House of Lords to come should be elected: in round figures, about two thirds or 75 per cent. There are problems with an elected second Chamber because there could be competition between two Chambers that claimed a direct mandate from the people. There are ways around that. There are people who could, and should, be nominated to the second Chamber for service to the nation. They have much to contribute and 1 see no objection to that in a second Chamber, provided that they are in a distinct minority.

Alarming statistics show that the people who have been appointed to the Lords—not always people with the merit that one might have expected, looking back over the generations—do not always attend. We attend our House. It would not be extraordinary if they were expected to attend rather more often than they do. If the reforms are to take place, they would emphatically be expected to attend. Figures in the White Paper show that, in 1997–98, only 40 per cent. of life peers attended two thirds of sittings and 34 per cent. attended less than one third. To say the least, any new nominated or appointed element would be expected to attend much more often than that.

The other way to avoid competition between a largely elected second Chamber and the House of Commons would be clear definition of functions. It is often said that the House of Commons has sole control over taxation. While I will not go into the constitutional ins and outs, there has been significant erosion of that principle, especially in relation to local government expenditure. If we want, as the Government claim to want, the House of Commons to be the pre-eminent Chamber, it should be categorically stated that the Commons should be exclusively concerned with matters relating to taxation and borrowing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) suggested. That is another fundamental question that would delineate the functions of this House and prevent competition if there were a largely elected element in the House of Lords.

As one who voted 47 times against the Maastricht treaty when it went through on a three-line Whip—something that I would do again several times if I had the opportunity—I am perhaps rash to suggest it, but there is far too much whipping in both Houses. If we want the House of Lords to have the independence that it deserves, its Standing Orders should restrict whipping, if there is to be any at all. If we want an independent second Chamber, as the Government claim to want, and we want this Chamber to be pre-eminent, there are ways and means to achieve it. One is to allow true independence and have a constitutional Chamber with the capacity, if necessary, to give this House a bloody nose. That should be on the basis of independence and democracy, not the hereditary principle, or the nominated cronyism that is the alternative.

The European dimension is, necessarily, part of the terms of reference of the royal commission. There is a role for the House of Lords. I have been a member of this House's Select Committee on European Legislation for nearly 15 years. This House performs a more useful role than many people suggest. In the House of Lords scrutiny process, Committees examine matters in a more considered manner than we are allowed to. Our Standing Orders should be changed to allow us to do that. I shall return to the point, which I have made in other debates, that there is a strong case, given the overarching character of the European legislative process, for a Joint Select Committee embodying the functions of the Lords and the Commons to represent the United Kingdom Parliament as a whole with respect to European legislation.

Without exploring the ins and outs of the issue, let me say that it is perfectly apparent to hon. Members that, increasingly and incessantly, power is being taken not only from this House but from Parliament as a whole. If we are to begin those reforms and engage constructively with respect to the European Union, we must consider the matter carefully. For example, the Court of Auditors report has just come before the European Select Committee. That matter should have been considered on the Floor of the House, but that has not happened. I believe that issues of that kind should be considered by not only the House but Parliament as a whole. Reform of the House of Lords should include a means of integrating the functions of both Houses in order to ensure that there is a proper democratic alternative to the views being expressed elsewhere in Europe that impinge upon our constituents.

In summary, we want the House to be pre-eminent, but it must also have proper regard to the functions of the House of Lords, which I believe should be largely elected. The two Houses must come together on the European issue and say that we are not prepared to be rail-roaded by legislation that is not in the interests of our constituents.

8.2 pm

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

The reform of the House of Lords involves three major planks: removal of the right of hereditary peers to vote and sit in the House; reformed arrangements for nominations of life peers; and a royal commission to consider long-term reform. This Bill addresses the first of those three reforms in a disarmingly elegant one-line clause, which states: No-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage. In replying to my interventions, every Opposition Back Bencher has stated clearly that he or she supports clause 1 and abolition of the hereditary principle. That makes the position of Conservative Front Benchers even more confusing, as they have steadfastly refused to clarify whether they support clause 1.

Last night, I watched the second instalment of a three-part drama called "The Scarlet Pimpernel", which is set at the time of the French revolution. It features a British aristocrat who undertakes daring rescues of French aristocrats during a rather more bloody 18th-century version of democratic modernisation. I was going to congratulate the BBC on screening the series at such an opportune moment, as we might draw some useful parallels. However, I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister makes an unlikely latterday Robespierre and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House makes an even less likely Madame Le Guillotine.

That parallel was completely collapsed in this debate when it came to casting the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) as Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel. The drama portrays that figure as a useless fop by day and an intelligent, resourceful rescuer by night. Regretfully, we appear to have seen only the hon. Gentleman's day-time persona in this Chamber. If the hereditary Lords are hoping that rescue will come from the Opposition, they will have to think again as convincing arguments to support their existence will, like the Pimpernel, remain ever elusive.

Mr. Peter Bradley

It was said of the Scarlet Pimpernel: "They seek him here, they seek him there, but cannot find him anywhere." Does my hon. Friend accept that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) fulfils at least that characteristic?

Mr. Hope

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. What is more, few Liberal Democrats have been present for the debate and we have sighted not a single member of the minority parties. I think that that fact is worth highlighting for the benefit of the wider public.

My research about peers in and around my constituency has revealed some interesting facts. There are six peers registered as living in Northamptonshire: three life peers and three hereditary peers. Interestingly, one might expect the Duke of Buccleuch to register as living in the county, as he owns half of it. However, he is registered in Scotland, because he owns half of that as well. The phrase "absentee landlord" has a particular resonance for those of us who live in Northamptonshire.

Hon. Members may be wondering where I gathered those facts. They can discover how many peers live in their constituencies by contacting their local electoral registry office, which publishes Lords reports about all members of the House of Lords who live in an area and cannot vote. That is interesting because clause 2—which has received no attention in the debate so far—gives hereditary peers the right to vote and to stand for election to the House of Commons. Under the Bill, those hereditary peers registered as living in Northamptonshire could stand for election and earn the right to sit in Parliament, based on merit rather than accident of birth. I look forward to seeing the names of Earl Spencer, Lord Brassey of Apethorpe and Viscount Addison of Cotterstock on the ballot paper at the next general election—if they wish to retain their right to sit in Parliament.

The central question posed directly by the Bill—one that every Opposition Member has avoided debating—is: why keep the hereditary peers? What is the case for retaining the hereditary principle? Are the Opposition arguing to allow members of the House of Lords who are there by accident of birth to maintain their voting power because they are so representative of the country, because of their track record in promoting democratic rights or because they keep a balanced check on the powers of the House of Commons? Let us have a look. If the Opposition believe that the hereditary peers are representative of the country, it would be reasonable to expect to see something approaching a gender balance. However, of the 635 hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords, only 16 are women and only two come from minority ethnic groups.

If the Opposition are arguing that the hereditary peers represent the country, we might expect to see them come from all walks of life. Yet 45 per cent. of hereditary peers went to one school: Eton. Some 60 per cent. of them describe themselves as "landowners or farmers" and, perhaps most revealingly, only 1.4 per cent. describe themselves as "workers".

Despite being completely out of touch with the real world, perhaps the Opposition can justify retaining the hereditary peers on the basis of their activities in the Lords. When in government, the Conservatives used the hereditary peers to force through deeply unpopular measures, such as the poll tax and rail privatisation. More recently, in the last parliamentary Session, they used the hereditary peers to oppose Government measures and to defeat the Government 33 times. Even worse, the House of Commons knows that, if certain measures—such as the legislation to ban fox hunting—were to be sent to the Lords while the hereditary peers were in place, the same land-owning Lords would abuse parliamentary procedure without a second thought and prevent the passage of any such Bills through Parliament and delay any legislation that accompanied them. Here we see the hereditary peers, who are unelected and unaccountable, in the worst light: frustrating the democratic process with unspoken threats, in the certain knowledge that they can hold the House of Commons to ransom. That is totally unacceptable.

Mrs. Laing

I agree that most hereditary peers are unaccountable—but they are also unaccountable to any political party because they were not put there by a political party. That is why the hon. Gentleman's argument falls. Although many hereditary peers support the Conservative party at any given time, they remain independent. Several hundred of them could decide tomorrow to support any other party. When we discussed this subject a few weeks ago, some of them did just that.

Mr. Hope

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Someone once told me that members of the House of Lords sit independently, debate independently and then vote Conservative independently. Despite their unrepresentative nature and their appalling track record, can the hereditary peerage be defended on the basis that it offers a balanced check on the House of Commons and the Executive? The problem here is the word "balanced". The figures have been well rehearsed in this Chamber: the Conservatives outnumber Labour in the House of Lords by three to one. In government, the Conservatives forced through unpopular measures relying on the support of the hereditary peers. In effect, the presence of the hereditary peerage means that, regardless of who wins the general election, the Tories stay in power in one House of Parliament. A Labour Government get only the legislation that the Conservative hereditary peers allow them to have.

Mr. Cash

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's script, but may I ask why the Government do not propose that the 91 hereditary peers be converted into life peers? Given everything that he has said and his repeated questions about the hereditary principle, why are the Government maintaining the notion that hereditary peers should remain?

Mr. Hope

I am addressing the central issue, the one that Conservative Members appear not to want to address. Why have hereditary peers? I have not yet heard a single argument from an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman to justify the Conservatives' opposition to hereditary peers' rights being abolished. I am looking forward to hearing the Opposition spokesman who winds up the debate explain, in detail, whether the Conservatives will support the hereditary principle.

The Conservatives cannot defend the hereditary principle, so they argue that we should take a big-bang approach, whereby we do everything at once, or nothing at all. To pick up the theme introduced by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), the Conservatives' position on reform appears to be that of saying that they would have some fish, but only if there were chips with it; they cannot have fish on its own. The Opposition's proposals make no sense, unless they are hungry for change.

The reform is long overdue. On occasion, we in this House are guilty of overstatement, but I can say fairly that the removal of the right of hereditary peers to vote is momentous and historic. There can be no better way of marking our march into the new millennium.

8.11 pm
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Being in the interesting position of following the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) enables me to deal with the question that he repeatedly asked of nearly every one of my hon. Friends who has spoken in the debate. To save him the trouble of intervening on me, let me tell him that he will be clear as to my answer once he has listened to my whole speech. From having looked him up, I see that the hon. Gentleman was, for several years before becoming a Member of Parliament, a secondary school teacher: may I suggest that, had a third former, as it used to be, or a pupil in year nine, as it now is, repeatedly asked a question in the same childish way as he has done this evening, he as a teacher would have become distinctly fed up with that child.

I would describe the hon. Gentleman's speech as the paradigm, the very epitome, of what new Labour is about in the Bill and the debate. From the start of the debate and in the opening speech from the Leader of the House, we have heard the politics of envy, red in tooth and claw—that is what new Labour is all about. I strongly object to so much of what comes from the Labour Government because of their obsession with the words "modern" and "new". If anything in the United Kingdom is traditional, they are against it: a priori, by definition, if it is not modern, it is bad—that is new Labour's thinking. That thread was started by the Leader of the House and it has shot through every single Labour Member's speech.

I stand here to expose the smokescreen that has been thrown up. With this Bill, the new Labour Government are trying to bring old and new Labour together by telling those who rebel against them on matters such as lone parent benefit or nuclear deterrence that they are at least getting rid of the hereditary peers. The Bill is designed to muzzle the left and enable the Government to say, "We're throwing you a bone, we're giving you a sop—we're going to get rid of the hereditary peers' voting rights for you." That is what it is really about: class prejudice of the old and worst kind. In making it clear that, when the Bill goes to the upper House, he will accept 91 hereditary peers carrying on, the Prime Minister has accepted the hereditary principle. The left of new Labour and the extreme left of old Labour do not like that, but they are muzzled.

As a distinguished commentator speaking in a Radio 4 documentary said recently, there is a lot of republicanism on new Labour's Benches. This very afternoon, when one of my hon. Friends pointed out that the logic of Labour's position suggested that Royal Assent should be abolished, there were a lot of "Hear, hears" from Labour Back Benchers. However, the Prime Minister does not want to do anything that smacks of disloyalty to the monarchy, so again he muzzles his Back Benchers on the subject of the hereditary principle.

Mr. Rammell

We have heard that bogus point about the relationship of the hereditary principle to the House of Lords and the monarchy before. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a pamphlet published by the Tory Reform Group, which argues: Those that think, if the hereditary peerage goes, the monarchy will be next have no clear grasp of the clear distinction between the role of legislators, who make laws, and the role of a sovereign, who acts on advice"? If he cannot convince members of his own party, does he really expect to convince us?

Mr. Hawkins

There are several possible responses to that question, but the first is to remind the hon. Gentleman of the point I was making when he intervened. When it was said that the logic of the Labour party's position was that Royal Assent should be abolished, there were a lot of "Hear, hears". As the presenter of the Radio 4 documentary said, when surveys are sent out to Labour Members asking whether they would abolish the monarchy, many hon. Members respond in the affirmative. However, they are not allowed to say so in public or to be honest about it in the Chamber, because their party leadership would not be happy were they to do so. That is what is really happening: Labour Members are being muzzled to prevent them from saying anything inconvenient, but that undermines the logic of their position and the class prejudice displayed in the Bill.

When we consider the role of the second Chamber in a bicameral legislature, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) said, the important point is the scrutiny of legislation. I am especially concerned about the scrutiny of secondary legislation. My hon. Friend was right to say that a vast amount of legislation takes the form of delegated legislation, and I want any reformed second Chamber to be able to scrutinise properly European directives and secondary legislation. That is vital, so we must press, by means of detailed reasoned amendments to the Bill both here and in the other place, to ensure that any reformed second Chamber is able to provide that proper scrutiny. It is crucial that our legislature, in both Houses of Parliament, should be able to hold the Executive to account. The large amount of secondary legislation that passes through the House, especially that which originally emanates from Europe, needs detailed scrutiny and the electorate require both Houses of Parliament to give it that scrutiny.

As on so many issues, of which the Bill is merely one example, the Labour party has let the genie out of the constitutional bottle, with no idea of where it will go. We can already see the grand project coming to grief with the creation of the Scottish Parliament. It was announced that the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar) who is currently known as the Secretary of State for Scotland, would be Scotland's First Minister, but the polls now suggest that he will not, and that the First Minister of the first Scottish Parliament will be the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), because Labour will lose the election in Scotland as a result of letting the genie out of the bottle. Only last night, I heard about polls showing that, in the Welsh Assembly elections, there will be huge gains for Plaid Cymru at the expense of Labour. Again, the Labour Government have let the genie out of the bottle and they must now reap the consequences.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman say which polls show that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) appears likely to become First Minister of Scotland? Every poll that I have seen recently suggests the opposite.

Mr. Hawkins

Time will tell—we shall see when the voters go to the polls. Conservative Members have been warning that the great danger posed to the Labour party by letting the genie out of the constitutional bottle is that, when the Scottish people have a chance to vote, Labour will find that it is not in charge.

Mr. Savidge

I repeat my question: which poll suggests anything other than that the Labour party is expected to be the largest party in the Scottish Parliament? I have not seen one recently that says that.

Mr. Hawkins

I repeat my answer: we shall see. The poll that matters is the poll when votes are cast. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the courage and courtesy to apologise to me if I am proved right when the Scottish Parliament is elected. Several polls that I have seen forecast Labour losing ground and the Scottish National party gaining. The hon. Gentleman cannot deny that.

Mr. Wareing

In view of the hon. Gentleman's recent remarks and his answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge), is the hon. Gentleman now conceding that his party will be defeated in the Scottish Parliament elections?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. We have had quite enough of that. Let us return to the subject of the House of Lords.

Mr. Hawkins

On that point, I shall say only, of course not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was pointing out that the Labour Government have let the genie out of the bottle and will reap the consequences. The same is true of the Bill.

Dr. Starkey

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins

No, I have given way several times and I must now make progress.

One of my particular concerns is whether there is another smokescreen in the Bill. Has yet another deal been done between the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) to guarantee to the Liberal Democrats that there will be a second Chamber elected by proportional representation? Is that part of the Cabinet Committee's consideration of those issues? Is that an issue on which the Government have not shared the truth with the British people? Many people would be concerned if there had been deals that the Labour Front Bench had not informed Back Benchers about.

Every time something is revealed, we find that Labour Back Benchers have been kept in the dark. They seem to me like mushrooms in that they are kept in the dark and have tons of ordure piled on them, particularly when it comes to secret deals between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats.

Before I finish my speech—

Fiona Mactaggart

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins

I shall certainly give way to the hon. Lady, whose inherited wealth could buy and sell most of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Fiona Mactaggart

I suppose that gives the lie to the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks about class hatred on the part of Labour Members. He began his speech by complaining about the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) and saying that he would not answer it immediately but would do so later in his speech. The 10 minutes that is allocated for each Back Bencher's speech is about to end and he has not yet answered that question. Will he take the opportunity, in his concluding remarks, to tell us whether he supports clause 1?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is no time limit on speeches.

Mr. Hawkins

If the hon. Lady had been listening to what I said, she would know that I suggested that the hon. Member for Corby listened to the whole of my speech, as we are supposed to listen to one another in the Chamber, and then drew his conclusions. I ask the hon. Lady now to do the same.

I shall quote the words of a former Labour Cabinet Minister to answer some of the points made by the hon. Member for Corby when he poked fun at the upper Chamber. That distinguished former Minister said of the upper Chamber: We think of ourselves as the best here. We're far more intellectual, in fact we're altogether far better, than that lot down there. If you had an elected house, what would you end up with? Second-raters, people who couldn't get into the Commons, MEPs but worse. I am sure that the hon. Member for Corby will want to discuss that matter with Lord Longford because that is the answer to much of what he was saying.

The Leader of the House said in her opening remarks that this Prime Minister was the first voluntarily to give up part of his patronage. However, we appreciate that giving up the power to appoint Cross-Bench peers is yet another tiny sop, yet another bone tossed into the air. The real use of patronage to fill the upper House with Tony's cronies is in the underlying subtext, which says, "We are going to move towards parity in the upper Chamber." That is what academic commentators are concerned about.

Mr. Hope

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins

No, I have given way a great deal and I must now make progress because others want to speak.

I shall quote one or two non-Conservative, independent commentators. Anthony Barnett, the former director of Charter 88, said: Surely Labour should first decide how it will replace the Lords with a democratic chamber? Otherwise it will create an Upper House that is so pliant and illegitimate that it will expose the government to the charge of dictatorship". That quote is from his very good book, "This Time", which was published in 1997.

The professor of politics at Oxford university, Vernon Bogdanor, said in his book, which was also published in that year: It is by no means obvious why the ability to defer to the wishes of one's party leader constitutes a better title to a place in a legislative chamber than the claims of heredity. Labour's proposal for a purely nominated chamber would involve a quite unacceptable increase in prime ministerial patronage. The professor of law at Manchester university, Rodney Brazier, said: a wholly nominated House would constitute an enormous, ermine-clad quango. He was referring to the Conservative jibe. He continued: There is substance to that observation, and such a nominated House would be the more objectionable if the methods for finding new peers remained unaltered, and if the goal of an elected second chamber were not, in fact, achieved". It is not only Conservatives who are suspicious of what the Government are up to. I warn Labour Back Benchers and those on the left of the party that they will not like what they are getting from the Government.

This is a bad Bill. It should have allowed those who are doing the work in the upper Chamber, including hereditary peers, to stay on. I do not defend those who never turn up, but it should not matter whether those who do the work and who are able and qualified by experience are hereditary peers or appointed life peers. Those who show that they do the work should be able to stay on. There is no reason not to accept that principle. I hope that, in due course, the British people and Labour Back Benchers will realise what the Government are really up to.

8.26 pm
Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

I thought that we were here to debate the principle of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, not whether we should do away with the electoral principle in the House of Commons. The previous speaker was a walking advertisement for that proposition. I suggest that the Conservatives currently have problems in Surrey.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, most Conservative Members have ignored your instructions to be brief and have strayed a long way from the subject of the Bill. I shall try to be brief, not because I want to go to the Lords but because I want to visit the gentlemen's before long.

I am pleased to be able to participate in the debate because we are literally making history. The Bill will put the past behind us, where it belongs, and allow us to embrace the future. I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) will forgive me for saying that the Bill demonstrates that we are a modern, forward-looking society. We are not intimidated by our history. We are not frightened to make change, particularly when that change is for better government, which is the simple proposition of the Bill.

This is an historic Bill. In barely six lines it consigns seven centuries of privilege to posterity. That is a simple proposition. What is remarkable is that it has taken the world's oldest parliamentary democracy so long to accept that power should not be handed down from generation to generation as if it were a family heirloom; and that no man or woman or class of men and women should, as a matter of right, be able to hold or inherit the power to govern the people of this country.

Tory Members can huff and puff, but they cannot hold the House up and they cannot justify the hereditary principle. It is absurd; it is an anachronism; it is an anomaly. It makes us a laughing stock that political power remains in the hands of 750 families whose forebears—some good men, some not so good—won it or bought it from a monarch—sometimes a good monarch, sometimes a bad monarch—over 1,000 years of history. It is indefensible that power can become a dynastic birthright to be exercised by the few, all too often against the interests of the many.

Such power is enjoyed nowhere else in the world. If this were the Government of Iraq, we would condemn it as corrupt. If this were a regime in Africa or South America, we would be sending Inter-Parliamentary Union delegations. We would make our aid contingent on the development of modern democratic institutions.

That is why stage 1 on its own is justified. It abolishes the rights of hereditary peers to sit and to vote. It may not take us far into the 21st century, but it will at least rescue us from the 13th century. I might add that once we are reforming the House of Lords, it is not too late to consider reforming this House as well. Other hon. Members have elaborated their views of how this House should be reformed. If we are to about to charge headlong into the 21st century, it would be a good idea to draw the House of Commons at least into the 19th century before we leave the 20th.

We are not engaged, as has been suggested, in an act of class war or vengeance. The Bill confers on hereditary peers new rights to join the human race—to vote in elections and to stand in elections. It legitimises, improves and modernises government so that it serves our people better. That simple proposition captures the spirit of the age. People want aspiration, opportunity and achievement in place of privilege and patronage.

Over the weekend we polled 50 of my constituents and asked them their views of the Government's plans for the reform of the Lords: 64 per cent. of them said that they wanted the reform of the House of Lords, and only 15 per cent. opposed the plans. My constituents in The Wrekin want to embrace the future, without being handcuffed by history.

Mr. Grieve

I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's figures. What exactly was the question asked—whether there was a need for total Lords reform, or for the abolition of the hereditary peerage without knowing what the total reform will be?

Mr. Bradley

My constituents have a great deal more sense than Opposition Members. We asked them whether they support the Government's plans to reform the House of Lords. They gave us a resounding yes, just as people have done throughout the country when asked the same question. People want a Parliament that is representative, democratic and accountable. The Lords as currently constituted are none of those things.

My colleagues have made much of the statistics, and they bear repeating. Of 635 hereditary peers eligible to attend the House of Lords, 304 take the Conservative Whip; 60 per cent. are landowners; 45 per cent. went to Eton; only 16 are women. The Conservative election guide of 1997, with which I am sure Opposition Members are only too familiar, stated: It's important to defend the hereditary principle in its own right. I shall be fascinated to hear hon. Members on the Conservative Front Bench uphold that principle.

The Conservative election guide went on to state that hereditary peers were "an asset to democracy". It continued: Hereditary peers bring colour, tradition, youth and a wealth of experience to Parliament. Colour—two black hereditary Members of the House of Lords. Tradition—oh yes, there is tradition. It is the tradition of a 3:1 Conservative majority. Youth—54 per cent. of peers are old-age pensioners, and 24 per cent. are over the age of 75. That contrasts strikingly with the composition of the House of Commons, where 6 per cent. of Members are over pensionable age and only 0.5 per cent. are over the age of 75.

Mr. Grieve

That is a bad point, is it not? On that basis, old-age pensioners are badly represented in Parliament, so the balance is redressed by the other House.

Mr. Bradley

The hon. Gentleman misses the point. The point is that in your election guide in 1997, your party made great play of the fact—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should use the correct form of address. He is addressing me at the moment.

Mr. Bradley

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The conventions of this House require attention, like the conventions of the other House.

The Conservatives' election document stated that hereditary peers bring colour, tradition, youth and a wealth of experience to Parliament. If that is what they value in the upper House, they are failing to meet that objective. What commends the hereditary principle to Conservative Members of Parliament is the undeniable fact that the hereditary peers in the upper House are male, from privileged backgrounds, and Conservatives.

The Conservative party has lost its grip on government, it has been ejected from council chambers throughout the country, and it has virtually been banished from Scotland and Wales. It has lost the argument, it has lost its credibility, and it has lost the plot. No wonder it is clinging to the only institution where it does not have to fear elections; where it has a majority without a mandate; and where it can defy the Government and the people who elected it—and it does.

In 1997–98, 33 Government defeats were sustained in the House of Lords and the margin of defeat was smaller than the number of Conservative hereditary peers who voted for it. In 1974–79, when Labour was last in government, 85 per cent. of the Divisions led to Government defeats. In the past 30 years, since the beginning of the 1970s, there have been on average eight Conservative Government defeats in the Lords per Session, compared with 63 Labour defeats.

I notice that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is again absent from his seat. I wonder what he meant when he told Charter 88 in a recent interview: we won't be ditching our core values". Those are the core values of privilege, power and the right to abuse that power. Would Conservative Members defend the hereditary principle if Labour had a majority of three to one in the House of Lords? I very much doubt it. It is time for hereditary peers to go, for they have neither legitimacy nor credibility. We can no longer allow this most democratic and respected—indeed, imitated—of Houses of Parliament to remain shackled to that most ridiculous one.

It is not just a question of tidying up the history books; it is part of a radical programme of reform and enfranchisement. Devolution to Scotland and Wales has been mentioned. Once again we are to have a democratic metropolitan authority in our capital city; and there is a move to regional development agencies and chambers, and ultimately to the assemblies that go with them. We are modernising local government and experimenting with proportional representation. We are building a consensus on important constitutional issues with the Liberal Democrats, which I welcome. We have incorporated the European convention on human rights in our legislation, and I hope that there will shortly be a Bill on freedom of information.

All those measures extend and strengthen the rights of individuals to have a voice in their government. Decentralisation empowers individual citizens and transfers government from the few to the many. There are no victims of those reforms. The Lords can return to their stately homes and grouse moors, and if they wish they can prepare for government. They can stand for election and, if the people choose them, they can have their say in this Chamber. If they have a contribution to make and have talent at their disposal, some will doubtless come here.

The royal commission has an historic task—to develop proposals for an upper House with peers who are equal rather than privileged. A House of Lords that will enhance our democratic process must replace a House that is an anomaly, an embarrassment and an affront. The Bill is about modernising Britain and strengthening people's rights. No political party with a future would oppose it.

8.38 pm
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I came here some 21 months ago with absolutely no appetite for constitutional change of any kind, but the experience of the past 21 months has given me an appetite for radical constitutional change. Of one thing I am absolutely certain: as they are set up, the Houses of Parliament are not working effectively. Our system is designed for primary legislation, yet 3,200 pieces of secondary legislation go through the Houses of Parliament every year. The vast majority of our laws are statutory instruments or orders. It is a kind of administrative government. We have truly become a bureaucracy rather than a democracy.

I am convinced that that deluge of legislation is not being properly scrutinised and that we should change our parliamentary processes to ensure that it is. I am equally convinced that Members of Parliament are failing in their duty properly to hold the Executive to account, and that this House is very much the Prime Minister's poodle.

I suspect that that process has accelerated, largely under this Government, but I am certain that it did not begin with them. These events have been in train for some time. They require radical reform, so I have become something of an advocate of change and of reform.

It strikes me that the question of reform of the House of Lords opens up a great opportunity for us to address some of these issues, but in order to address them, and in order to ask the House of Lords to take on some of the functions that this House is now unwilling or unable to perform, we would have to change the composition of the House of Lords.

As the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) has pointed out, the House of Lords is undemocratic and unaccountable. If we want it to perform functions, certainly some that I want it to take on—functions that we are no longer capable of carrying out, not always because we are unwilling, but simply because we are incapable of addressing the sheer volume of administrative legislation that goes through the House—and if we want it to play a part in that reform, we must address the issue of its composition to give it some democratic legitimacy.

I can safely say to the hon. Member for Corby—before he rises to ask me the question that he has asked so many other hon. Members—that, although I could support the principle in it, I cannot support clause 1 of the Bill. The reason is simple: any informed discussion of the composition of the other place must first be informed by discussion of what the proper functions of the other place are.

There has been much talk of class hatred and class prejudice from hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I probably have a background similar to that of the hon. Member for Corby. I probably sneakingly share the same resentments—having had to grub for votes to be elected to the House—and perhaps resent those who were born to such a position, but the simple fact is that Conservative Members who share a fondness for the principle in clause 1 are not prepared to accept the principle that we should change our form of government without having any idea of what it is to be changed to.

A Bill, including the provisions of clause 1, that I could vote for would contain a great deal more than this Bill. All this Bill contains is clause 2, which enfranchises the peers who will be thrown out of the House of Lords. I want an informed debate on the proper reform of the House of Lords, and I want the legislation before me, before we change what we have.

8.43 pm
Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

I am pleased to take part in the debate. I have believed in House of Lords reform and the abolition of the hereditary peerage all my political life. I do not believe that this is a matter for fine argument or fine judgment; it is a matter of right and wrong. It is fundamentally wrong that we still have people voting in our system of government simply on the basis of the families into which they were born.

The hereditary peerage, and the element of chance that it introduces to our system, is worse than governing by the luck of the draw. People who become hereditary peers come, by and large, from one background and from one interest group with one set of values, and support one political party. That is why the hereditary peerage is fundamentally objectionable.

The hereditary peerage is also objectionable because of the fundamental and overwhelming political bias, to the Conservative party, that it introduces to our system. It was interesting to see what were almost smiles on the faces of Conservative Members when they attempted to defend—supposedly dispassionately—that party imbalance. It is indefensible; everybody knows that, which is one reason why we have introduced these reforms.

The reforms are long standing and have been put clearly over the years. Three times this century there has been agreement that hereditary peers should no longer vote in the House of Lords. On the last occasion, the House of Lords itself agreed, by a majority of 5:1, that they should go. However, on every occasion that those proposals for sensible reform have been introduced they have been blocked, because of the vested interests of the hereditary peers and of the Conservative party, and because it was argued that the reform package should come in one package, as a whole. That is why the Government have introduced a two-stage reform. History has taught us that if reform is introduced in a single package, it will be blocked by the powers of the vested interests.

If we believe that it is wrong for hereditary peers to have the right to vote in the House of Lords, it is also wrong that they should have the right to determine who their successors should be and how the successor House should be constituted. We explicitly said in our general election manifesto that we would reform the House of Lords in two stages, and that is what people voted for and what we are delivering.

One issue that has not been addressed this evening, but has been discussed in previous debates in the House of Lords, is the Salisbury convention—the constitutional fix that sanitises the indefensible principle of hereditary peers. The Salisbury convention provides that proposals in a political party's manifesto should not be voted against on Second Reading and should not be the subject of wrecking amendments. I maintain that that convention not only does not work, but undermines the current operation of the House of Lords.

The Leader of the Opposition intervened on Lord Cranborne before Christmas. There had been veiled threats from the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Minister responsible for constitutional affairs that this Bill and others would be wrecked, regardless of the fact that this measure was in the Labour manifesto, because the Conservative party disagreed with the Government's proposals on Lords reform.

Lord Kingsland let the cat out of the bag last year in a debate on House of Lords reform, when he said that the abolition of hereditary peers was a solution to a problem that I do not recognise. Therefore, in my submission, the Opposition would be entitled to think most carefully about whether or not the Salisbury Convention applied to the Bill."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 October 1998; Vol. 593, c. 1054.] No matter that this measure was a manifesto commitment and that 13.5 million people voted for it. No matter that that resulted in the biggest election victory for any party this century. His Lordship said that this measure was a solution to a problem that he, in his wisdom, did not recognise. The constitutional fix of the Salisbury convention, which many Conservatives use to defend the indefensible, was blown apart.

I contend that, because of its hereditary make-up, the House of Lords is not an effective revising Chamber. As it lacks democratic authority, it does not have the legitimacy that it should have to challenge the elected Government of the day. Because it is the poodle of a political party, it is not respected by Labour Members when it makes blocking proposals.

Mr. Grieve

I may be leading the hon. Gentleman on, but from his remarks I take it that he believes that the second Chamber should, in future, be elected, so that it has a democratic mandate.

Mr. Rammell

I certainly believe that the second Chamber should be democratically elected in part—not wholly—because this Chamber must remain the supreme governing body within the Houses of Parliament. Conservative Members talk about the independence of the second Chamber, but where was that independence when the poll tax and rail privatisation were pushed through?

During rail privatisation, when the Government were decaying and no longer had a parliamentary majority, they did not even command the respect of their own Back Benchers. Massive opinion poll evidence showed that there was total opposition to rail privatisation. Even in those circumstances, when one would expect a revising Chamber to oppose and block the Government, that did not happen.

Mrs. Laing

The hon. Gentleman is factually wrong. That did happen. The House of Lords significantly amended the Railways Bill, and the Conservative Government accepted the Lords amendments.

Mr. Rammell,

My argument is that, in the circumstances, the Bill was so fundamentally objectionable—and, overwhelmingly, public support was not given to it—that it should have been a matter not of amending, but of blocking the Bill. I bet my bottom dollar that, had a Labour Government been pushing that Bill in those circumstances, they would not have been as reticent.

Mr. Letwin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rammell

No; I want to make some progress.

Let me now discuss, in detail, some of the other Conservative opposition to the Bill. It appears, broadly, to be based on the concept that this Labour Government want a compliant second Chamber packed with what the Conservatives describe as "Tony's cronies". According to them, there will be a huge increase in prime ministerial patronage. If that is so, why are we saying that no political party will command a majority in the transitional Chamber? Why are we only seeking parity with the Conservative party in the House of Lords?

The Conservatives argue that we want the second Chamber to become the Prime Minister's poodle. How can that be, given that, on the basis of the current figures, we would have to create a further 15 Labour life peers out of what would eventually be a total of 529 in order to gain parity in the second Chamber? That hardly justifies the language that we have heard from Conservative Members about Labour's attempts to dominate and swamp the House of Lords.

It is also not true that, just because people are life peers, they are compliant in their attitude to the party that nominated them. I do not think that Lord Hattersley, whose "Endpiece" article in The Guardian I saw this morning, could be described as a compliant poodle of the new Labour project; but he has been nominated by this Prime Minister, under this Government. Lord Shore, who opposes every aspect of the Government's attitude to Europe, has also been nominated by this Prime Minister, in this Parliament, under this Government. I do not think that the Conservatives' case adds up.

Let us now examine the Conservative defence of the hereditary principle. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) has already highlighted the Conservative party's ludicrous attempts, in its 1997 election guide, to justify the retention of hereditary peers, on the ground that they bring colour, tradition, youth and a wealth of experience to the House of Lords. Lord Cranborne tried to take that a stage further when he said: We are well on our way to being a cross-section of society when only 2.5 per cent. of that Chamber are women. We should remember that recently—in the last Parliament—the House of Lords, with its hereditary peers, had an opportunity to rectify matters. It was proposed that the eldest child, whether male or female, should succeed to an hereditary title. The hereditary peers, with the support of the Conservative party in the House of Lords, blocked that proposal to introduce some form of equality.

I think that the real defence advanced by the Conservative party is more subtle. It is, I think, that these matters are complicated; that it is difficult to come up with an alternative; and that the Lords are not actually very political. In June 1996, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), said of the House of Lords: Has it been showing bias over the years, dispensing favour to one party in government and refusing it to another? Not at all. How could anyone reach such a view, looking at the way in which the House of Lords, with the support of the hereditary peers, has blocked legislation proposed by Labour rather than Conservative Governments over the years?

I thought it strange that the former Prime Minister should advance such a view. I think that most Members of the House of Commons consider him to be a decent man in many respects. How can he ignore the facts? My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) put his finger on the nub earlier. However partisan the platform of the Conservatives may be, they believe that their interest always coincides with the national interest. Many Labour Members will have heard Conservative politicians at local level saying, "We are not political. We are just Conservative"—I see nods from Conservative Members. It is that which undermines the case that they make.

If anyone were left in any doubt about the lack of substance in the arguments of the Conservative party, or the offensiveness, in many senses, of those arguments, they need simply read some of the debates in the House of Lords recently and some of the things that Conservative hereditary peers have said. I give two quotations to finish with. Baroness Young said: I believe … it is a constitutional outrage to use a manifesto which was put forward during a general election— to make a major constitutional change."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 October 1998; Vol. 593, c. 943.] Just follow the logic and implication of that statement. The people have absolutely no right to decide matters of the constitution that affect the government of our country. I am sure that she would have gone on to say that they should leave it to their superiors and betters.

The contempt for democracy that is inherent in Conservative party attitudes was best summed up by Lord Cranborne, former Conservative leader in the House of Lords, when he referred to Members of Parliament—Members on both sides of the House—as "myrmidons". Although I have a degree in modern languages and, therefore, some facility with language, that was a word that I had not come across before. I looked it up in the "Oxford English Dictionary" and the definition is "a hired ruffian" or "a base servant".

That speaks volumes about Conservative hereditary peers' attitude towards democracy and Members of the House. It sums up far more eloquently than anything that I could say why the hereditary peerage has to go. We have been trying to do it for almost 100 years. As we approach the 21st century, a testament to the achievement of the new Labour Government will be finally, once and for all, to do away with the hereditary peerage.

Mr. Letwin

Earlier in his speech, the hon. Gentleman said that he was going to tell us about the Government's plans for change of the House of Lords. He has not yet done that. In the last few seconds of his speech, I wonder whether he could tell us what he thinks the Government's plans to change the House of Lords actually are.

Mr. Rammell

The Government have made it absolutely and abundantly clear that they will set up a royal commission. They have set out the framework within which it will operate. As a sign of their good faith, they have appointed a senior Conservative party politician to chair that royal commission. That is not something that the Conservative party ever did in 18 years of government; it never attempted to create a consensus. We are going forward. We are modernising and we are going to end the indefensible: the hereditary peerage in the House of Lords.

8.58 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I oppose the Bill because it is inadequate. It is inadequate because it does not deal with the whole issue.

May I apologise in advance for the fact that, having taken part in the debate, I will not be present for its conclusion tomorrow evening?

I am happy to answer the question of the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope). He has asked it of everyone else, but he has not yet asked it of me. I will save him the trouble by answering it immediately. Personally, I do not oppose the principle of clause 1.

I do not defend the hereditary principle. I have not fought to become a Member of Parliament to defend a principle that, had my family had anything to leave—which, sadly, they did not—it would have gone to my younger brother. Worthy as he is, that is manifestly unfair. I could not possibly put myself forward for election and then defend a principle that is manifestly unfair and undemocratic.

Labour Members seem to be arguing for democracy, but they are arguing for undermining democracy. [Interruption.] I am not surprised that Labour Members express surprise, because they clearly do not understand what they are doing by supporting the Bill. The Bill should address the overall issue of reforming Parliament and the constitution, but it does not.

Today, the Leader of the House seemed to be very pleased that the primary adjective she could use in describing the Government's proposals was "simple". Time and again, she said that the proposals were "simple", as though that were the Bill's best commendation. The Bill is simple only because it addresses only half the issue.

Maria Eagle

Is the hon. Lady aware that, for 88 years, the Conservative party has been saying that we cannot deal with the issue unless we deal with all of it? Consequently, there has been no dealing with the issue, and the hereditary peerage continues to sit and vote in the other place. Does she not realise that the Bill offers a way of getting the job done?

Mrs. Laing

I entirely disagree with the hon. Lady—the Bill is a way of not getting the job done. If the Government were serious about getting the job done, they should have included all their proposals in the Bill so that the House could consider them. Ministers have had 21 months to do so—what have they been waiting for? The situation is exactly opposite to the one that she describes.

Earlier in the debate, the Leader of the House was wrong about the situation. It is easy to say that we should get rid of a certain system or object, but we are not dealing with the real argument if we do not say what should replace that system or object. Ministers have not dealt with the real argument either in today's debate or in the White Paper, but are simply continuing to delay consideration of the real issues. If Labour Members were serious about getting the job done, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) said, they would not support the Bill in tomorrow's Division.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Perhaps the hon. Lady can help me. Several times today, I heard Conservative Members say how much they supported clause 1, but they would not vote for the Bill because it did not go far enough. Perhaps she will tell us how Conservative Members can support clause 1 after the Tory party's 18 years in government, during which they introduced no such provisions? Some of us are a little confused about the depth of their support for clause 1.

Mrs. Laing

It is a matter of priority. [Laughter.] I do not know why Labour Members find that so amusing. In 18 years of Conservative government, we made changes that really made Britain a better place for its people to live in. We did not talk nonsense about modernity or about how the House of Lords Bill would—as the Leader of the House of Commons said today—make for a better Britain. The previous Government's actions in their 18 years in government made for a better Britain. The current Government are simply undermining all those actions and all that is good for the people of Britain.

Labour Members—in the House of Lords Bill, and in their attitude—are undermining democracy itself. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) said that he was surprised at Conservative Members' argument that wider constitutional reform was necessary, and that he and other Liberal Democrats were in favour of constitutional reform and recognised the need for wide reform. If he does not mind my saying it, he is being honest—[Interruption.] He does mind my saying so. Nevertheless, I commend him on recognising the honesty in Conservative Members' position on the issue. Moreover—of necessity—the honesty of our position shows the dishonesty of the Government's position. The Government are dishonest on the issue because of the, piecemeal nature of their constitutional reform.

Mr. Maclennan

As the hon. Lady has been kind enough to refer to me in such flattering terms, perhaps I should say that the message that I was trying to get across was quite simple—that she and her colleagues who are opposing the Bill, and therefore opposing clause 1, are letting the best be the enemy of the good.

Mrs. Laing

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but I consider it my duty to stand for the best, not just the good. That is why I shall not support the Bill. My constituents sent me here not to accept some mediocre little compromise, but to argue for what is right. I am not here to argue for what is popular in the opinion polls or for the old-fashioned, dogmatic principles of Labour Members, who have argued for the abolition of the House of Lords for years and years. Now they want to do it, but there is no point in doing it in such a second-class fashion. I shall take the right hon. Gentleman's advice and continue to argue for what is best.

Labour Members are arguing not on principle, but purely for party advantage.

Mr. Savidge

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing

I cannot give way again because I do not have time.

The need for reform is not determined by the fact—pointed out by so many Labour Members—that there are usually more hereditary peers who support the Conservative party than any other party. That is a nonsensical argument. When I made the point earlier, Labour Members seemed to find it amusing, but peers are by their nature independent. They can choose to be members of the Conservative party, but they did not get there because they were put there by the Conservative party.

That should not be the basis of the argument. We should not be arguing for party advantage, as the Labour party is. We are arguing on matters of principle. If we were arguing merely for party advantage, we would want to keep all the hereditary peers.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

You do.

Mrs. Laing

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We do not propose to keep all the hereditary peers, because we are prepared to argue on principle.

Mr. Paul Clark (Gillingham)

I am confused about which principle the Conservatives are fighting on. The Conservative party's campaign guide in 1997 said: It is important to defend the hereditary principle in its own right. Conservative Members have said that they do not agree with that. What is the Tory party's position?

Mrs. Laing

The principle of any parliamentary reform should be about how the people hold the Government to account. That is the principle on which I argue for reform of Parliament. If we had a principled Government, they would be arguing that, but they are interested only in pressing the right buttons to get the right answers in the opinion polls.

In all the Labour contributions there is a flavour of student debating competitions about whether there should be an upper House and how the country should be run. The difference between Labour's student debating points and the Conservative arguments is that we recognise that this is not just a matter for knockabout arguments; it is a very important issue because it is the basis of our constitutional settlement. The principle is how the people should be able to hold the Government to account. The answer is through a strong Parliament. The Bill weakens Parliament and weakens democracy.

9.9 pm

Mr. Paul Clark (Gillingham)

I shall heed your earlier comments, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and keep my contribution short.

There is confusion among the Conservatives. Most of them, with the exception of those on the Front Bench, have supported clause 1. I have referred to the 1997 campaign guide, which says: It is important to defend the hereditary principle in its own right. Tory Members were asked why the Tory Government did nothing for 18 years, and about what had happened in the previous 88 years. There was confusion in their response—that the Bill will not do anything because it is dealing with a single issue and not the whole thing. We have had the added bonus of smokescreen issues, such as the monarchy, the German constitution, Tony's cronies, predictions about the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and even the evolution of fish.

To help speed up proceedings, I intend to concentrate purely on the Bill. This Chamber was elected by some 31 million people. Those people listened to a political debate and cast their votes, according to their preference, to indicate the leaders whom they thought would bring the necessary help in terms of better schools and health care and improved transport, jobs and prosperity.

I doubt whether many of those people realised when they cast their vote on 1 May 1997 that it would be partly devalued and reduced in importance because of some event or favour granted some 500 or 600 years ago. Some 743 men and 16 women have the privilege of sitting in our Parliament and voting on the policies of a democratically elected Government purely because of one thing—the fact that their parentage gave them that power. They are not there on merit; they are not there because of their own good works. They are not there because my constituents said that they should be there. They are there through the grace and favour of monarchs of centuries past.

Nobody could seriously believe that that can be right for this country, or any country. In fact, one would go a long way to find any country where rights and responsibilities were passed to people purely because of their birth line.

It is worse than that, because there is also the fact of the vast in-built majority—a majority which, as we have heard, never changes. One need not take my word, or those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, for this; the Library contains clear statistics that are available to all. That majority delivers for one political party. It does not matter which party wins the election; the Conservative party always wins in the House of Lords. Some 48 per cent. of hereditary peers take the Tory Whip, compared with under 3 per cent. who take the Labour Whip. Those are the important statistics. Even a fan of "Alice in Wonderland" could not call the second Chamber "representative" or in touch with British society—unless that fan was Viscount Cranborne.

The vast majority of people in this country achieve success and responsibility through their own merits. Some 59 per cent. of hereditary peers are there solely because of parentage. Only 8 per cent. in total are women. The largest political party in the House of Lords is the Conservative party, which stands at 41 per cent. The Labour party stands at 15 per cent. For this Chamber, the electorate gave the Conservatives 30 per cent. of the vote, compared with 43 per cent. for Labour.

All the matters that have been mentioned today mean that the imbalance cannot be right. Hereditary peers have little in common with the men and women who live and work in my constituency—for example, the nurses who work in our hospital, the people who work within the voluntary sector and those who work in the Shelter office. Many of my constituents have served their country in the forces, and in the Chatham dockyard, building ships and refitting nuclear submarines; some of those people, I might add, are still awaiting compensation for related illnesses. However, that is a matter for another debate. It is to those people, whom we were elected to represent, that we owe it to ensure that we have an effective, representative and modern parliamentary system to deliver good government. We can all agree that that should be the outcome.

I do not rely on my personal thoughts or even my party's clear manifesto commitment; I undertook a survey in my constituency. I do not claim that it was scientifically based and I did not apply weighting factors to this group or that. However, it was widespread and the results were overwhelming. People in Gillingham want to see an end to the unfair rights of hereditary peers. They think that we should do it now and do it quickly. They want a second Chamber that represents the real world before the next election. Almost eight of 10 Gillingham people believed in the Government's plans and some 69 per cent. wanted to see the work of the royal commission and the Joint Committee completed before then. When I support the Bill tomorrow, I am confident, therefore, that I shall have the backing of my constituency.

I recognise the real and sometimes valuable contribution that some of the hereditary peers have made. It would be wrong not to do so. I pay tribute to the achievements of their ancestors, who often played a valuable part in making Britain great; we should never forget their legacy. I also recognise that some hereditary peers bring real expertise and compassion to the legislative process. However, they have no direct link to my constituents or other people in this country. Gillingham's history contains several links with the House of Lords, but I will not go into that subject in great detail because we have heard much about the historical aspects of the argument.

Some hereditary peers have helped our parliamentary system, but that does not mean that it operates efficiently or effectively. Only 20 per cent. of hereditary peers attended more than two thirds of the parliamentary Session in 1997–98. More than 200 did not attend at all. The regular attenders, most of whom are life peers, carry out the majority of the business of the House. All those facts show that reform is required.

In our work as Members of the House of Commons we meet many people who excel in their areas of work, in some cases battling against the odds to raise families or achieving business success and creating worthwhile prosperity for our regions. Such people clearly understand the social agenda and challenges of today. They work in their communities to develop harmony and bring together different strands of society. Such people could bring their skills and expertise to a second Chamber to give it legitimacy in its own right. The current House of Lords lacks that legitimacy, because of its anachronistic and unrepresentative composition.

I am sure that most people would agree that this is a simple issue. The Government's proposals are clear and concise, and they honour our commitment to the British people. On 13 July last year, Leader of the Opposition said: the reform of Parliament must be above party politics. Rushed and ill thought-out reform, dreamt up in the heat of party political battle, could threaten the foundations on which our freedoms and liberties are based. Rushed? For 88 years, attempts have been made to reform the House of Lords, every one ending in the sands. As long ago as 1917, an inter-party conference agreed that the House of Lords should not be dominated by one party, that it should contain an independent element and that it should be made up of those with "personal eminence".

The Bill is not ill thought out. The royal commission had a clear task and a definite time scale. I hope that hon. Members will read its terms of reference carefully, as they cover the second Chamber's composition and its roles and functions. It was not always evident from today's debate that everyone had read those terms of reference. With the fullest involvement of all interested parties, we can provide a legitimate and effective second Chamber for a modern and dynamic society.

The only freedoms and liberties that I want to be attacked are those that bear no reference to today's society and to the people whom we represent; by that I mean the freedoms exercised by the hereditary peers when they vote on parliamentary Bills.

Voltaire wrote: Whoever serves his country well has no need for ancestors. We all needed our mums and dads to be here today, but we need a modern, meritocratic system in which people endeavour to do their best, in their chosen fields, for our country.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Can't you shut him down?

Mr. Clark

I am coming to a part that may excite the Opposition.

My constituents regard the hereditary principle as outdated and outmoded. That is why the Tory party's Battle for Britain campaign, launched by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), is doomed to failure. It is a smokescreen, used throughout this debate and the whole campaign, to hide internal divisions in the Conservative party. The Tories claim that Britain's freedoms are under threat from this Government's plans to abolish hereditary peers and that Labour Members do not care about the same things as the British people.

I hope that I have nailed those falsehoods by bringing a clear message from the people of my constituency with whom I have discussed the matter. The Opposition's campaign looks back to the past as the Conservatives try to wrap themselves in the Union Jack. Unfortunately for our democratic process, Her Majesty's official Opposition are wrapped only in a time warp as they fail to look forward or help to create a modern parliamentary system.

The British people expressed their approval of our clear manifesto commitment to an initial, self-contained reform of the hereditary principle. The Government will carry that reform through, and I hope that the Opposition will not try to defend the indefensible.

9.23 pm
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I shall begin by answering the question that seems always to be asked by the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope), who reminds me of a grand inquisitor general examining people for the oath of the Acts of Supremacy, saying, "Will you subscribe to the oath?" I have to say that I certainly do not subscribe to clause 1, as it stands. Before I do, I need to be persuaded, pragmatically, that what is being substituted for the present arrangements will be an improvement on them.

Otherwise, I am open to persuasion across the range of possible options for reform of the upper House, including, as has been remarked already by several hon. Members, its potential abolition. I rule out none of those possibilities, but we must decide whether we shall be better administered and governed as a result.

Labour Members have argued persistently in this debate that we should go for stage 1 before stage 2, and that stage 1 is discrete and separate. That argument would be more valid had not the Government chosen to embark on such a massive raft of constitutional reform, covering almost every aspect of our lives. When hon. Members consider the matter carefully, they may have little difficulty in agreeing that it is very difficult to know what the second Chamber will have to do in five or ten years' time.

Will it be a balancing chamber in a federal constitution? Will it include regional representation? Will it involve a greater emphasis on the affairs of the European Union and, perhaps, on Members of the European Parliament? We are in the dark on all those matters because of the extent of the proposed changes. If ever there were an argument for leaving reform of the other place to the next Parliament—[Horn. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes. It should be left for longer so that we can see how issues such as those work through. To my mind, that would be the best course.

That is not the course that the Government have decided to adopt, so I can only try to do what I have done in other constitutional debates: speak on the options that are available. As I listened to the debate, little chills were struck in my heart when the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) said that he preferred a mixed second Chamber, part-elected and part-appointed. The hon. Gentleman let the cat out of the bag by saying that his reason for that view was that the second Chamber must be subordinate, and must not challenge the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons.

I am not hung up about the democratic legitimacy of the House. It is not democratic as it is: we have parliamentary government. What works in the United Kingdom is that our government is as close to consensus as can usually be achieved.

Dr. Starkey

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve

In a moment.

As a result of that system, we can carry out changes and implement policies without people killing each other in the streets. The UK has been remarkably successful over the past century in achieving that, with the exception of the affairs of Northern Ireland. We should not forget that fact. Every time we tinker around, or every time we go overseas and vaunt some new structure, we should remember what the upper House has contributed towards stability.

Mr. Savidge

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve

I shall try in a moment to give way both to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), but I have little time.

There are three options, and we shall consider them all at a later stage. However, in considering the balance between a second Chamber that is nominated or elected, the idea that gives me most anxiety is that of a mixed second Chamber. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) both argued powerfully for an elected second Chamber, but that would mean comprehensive reform of the structures of the House of Commons. I am not sure that the Government have cottoned on to that fact; if they have, they do not want that reform.

If we are to have a nominated second Chamber, the Prime Minister's exercise of the royal prerogative of nomination will have to be addressed. I am not particularly hung up on the exercise of the prerogative, and there are points to do with it that can be addressed. I do not entirely share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) that we cannot have an independent commission of appointment, and that we should have to go back to square one. These matters are unclear at present, and that is why I cannot support the Bill.

Time is short, so I shall not develop other themes until the Committee stage, but one last matter requires a response from the Minister. The Leader of the House, who behaved a little like a tricoteuse as she deployed venom on the hereditary peers, reminded me—I am a barrister—that even criminals have rights. One of the Bill's oddities is that hereditary peers are currently deprived of the right to vote because, of course, they have the right to represent themselves. We are planning to deprive them of that right half-way through a Parliament, and that troubles me. There are only 759 of them, but it is an odd anomaly. We could allow their subsistence until the end of Parliament, and introduce the reform before the next general election.

I find it hard to square that change with article 2—perhaps 3—of the second protocol of the European convention on human rights, which I have taken pleasure in commending to the House. We should not start a process of what is supposed to be democratic reform by infringing on people's rights under the constitution, but that is what we propose to do. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that matter.

9.30 pm
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

This has been a most interesting debate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, its context is probably the most profound, rapid and wide-ranging constitutional change in the history of the United Kingdom. Whether that change will knit together to produce a coherent whole, our successors will judge; we are not optimistic.

The surprising thing is that the White Paper that accompanies the Bill is almost wholly lacking in long-term radicalism. The terms of reference that it sets for the royal commission begin: Having regard to the need to maintain the position of the House of Commons as the pre-eminent Chamber of Parliament". The problem has been brought out in this debate, but not in the White Paper. My hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) and for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing)—I cannot miss the opportunity to wish her a happy birthday—brought out clearly the fact that the problem is not whether this House is pre-eminent in Parliament, but whether Parliament is pre-eminent in the country. Does Parliament have a serious, effective role in checking the Executive?

Dr. Starkey

I have the six points that your leader set out as the principles of reform—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady intervenes a great deal. She should know by now how to address hon. Members.

Dr. Starkey

I am sorry. The leader of the Conservative party has set out six principles. The last says that the supreme authority of the House of Commons as the focus of democratic accountability in our country must remain intact". Can the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) explain how that equates with what he said about Parliament, rather than the House of Commons, being important?

Mr. Letwin

I am terribly sorry if my phrasing made the hon. Lady incapable of understanding what I was trying to say. Our problem is not the pre-eminence of this House, which we believe should be maintained, but that neither House has anything like the pre-eminence over the Executive required for accountability. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made that proposition clear. He listed some of the areas in which it is above all true.

Laying aside all party politics—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may not wish to, but it is sometimes valuable in discussing the constitution to take it seriously. I would be surprised if Labour Members did not agree that neither House has the ability to stop the Executive, through the Whips, carrying primary legislation. My hon. Friends the Members for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) clearly made my next point. I would be surprised if Labour Members, some with long and distinguished parliamentary careers, thought that either House is seriously capable of checking the Executive's efforts to bring forward secondary legislation. How many hon. Members are even aware of the great bulk of the secondary legislation passed in their name, year by year?

On Europe, several hon. Members mentioned the extraordinary turn of events of the past 30 years. The prerogative power, once thought to have been defeated in the 16th and 17th centuries, can now legislate via Ministers, as long as 14 Ministers from other countries are present.

Mrs. Beckett

Who did that?

Mr. Letwin

Still in debating mode, the right hon. Lady asks me who did it. I admit that it was done by the consent of the whole House, including the previous Government. Alas, it remains the fact, and debating points do not change serious facts. If the Government could get over debating points and get down to the business of constitutional reform as if it were a serious matter, it would be better for the House and the country.

Maria Eagle

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Letwin

I want to make some progress. I have a sneaking suspicion that I know what the hon. Lady wants to ask because she has asked it about 15 times already, but I shall give way later.

The third area is Executive action. The fact is that the Government act not only through legislation—secondary or primary. They act on a huge terrain, with 600,000 or 500,000 civil servants. Does this or the other place seriously have an effective check on those civil servants and their actions or upon the Ministers in whose name that action is taken? My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring referred to judicial activism, which is on the increase and is hugely important.

Beyond that is a point that will surely resonate in the minds of even the most obdurate Labour Members. They must agree that it is an extraordinary state of affairs when, according to our constitution, the Executive can change the constitution perfectly legitimately by the mere device of appropriately whipping the House with no more than a slight delaying power in the other place. That extraordinary situation obtains in no other major democracy. There are serious deficiencies in our present constitution—I do not seek to lay blame; we all share it. They are facts. The problem is that the Bill does nothing to address any of those problems relating to Parliament.

Maria Eagle

I raise a different point. The hon. Gentleman has outlined a compelling case regarding the accountability that should be forthcoming in this place, but which is ebbing away. What did his Government do about that during their 18 years in power?

Mr. Letwin

I am sorry that the hon. Lady has returned to debating points. The honest answer is: not enough—but if she thinks that that is an excuse for her Government to make an enormous number of constitutional changes without addressing the problem, she is much mistaken.

The fact is that, looking to the future, the Bill leaves what my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) called a "void". It is exactly what my hon. Friend called a "south sea bubble prospectus". As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath said, it is a smokescreen. Behind that smokescreen, is de facto unicameralism. The Bill reinforces what the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) described accurately as a presidential system without the checks and balances. That is the problem that we face and the problem that the Bill does not address.

Mr. Maclennan

I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman and I am grateful to him for giving way. However, I think that he is being a little less than fair to the Government in respect of accountability and the discharge of power. In the last Session of Parliament, human rights legislation was enacted—which gave the judiciary the power to protect citizens against abuses of power and of their fundamental rights and freedoms—together with legislation that distributed power to Scotland and Wales and re-established power for London. This is a process, not a written constitution that will deal with all the hon. Gentleman's queries. However, I hope that he will welcome the Bill as a step towards achieving the kind of balance that is clearly needed in a modern constitution.

Mr. Letwin

Unlike some Labour Members, the right hon. Gentleman is engaged seriously in these matters. I take his point entirely: some of the Government's actions, however ill aimed in practice, were well intentioned in that they tried to give more rights to the citizen. Alas, the Government so elevated the judges in some cases and other bodies in other cases, without looking seriously at the need for parliamentary accountability, that they merely created one monster to slay another.

The problem with the Bill is that it does not solve what might be called the "phase 2 problem". Labour Members are not unintelligent: they have an answer, which almost all—there have been some honourable exceptions—have given. Labour Members have said, "This is just phase 1; let's wait for phase 2. In phase 2, everything will be resolved."

Mr. Hope

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Letwin

Dear me, no. However, I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman. The scene resembles the Monty Python sketch in which someone calls out, "No. 9", and then there is a response to the joke. The sad fact that the hon. Gentleman must accept is that we do not oppose clause 1 in principle. We oppose it in this Bill only because of the deficiencies to which I have drawn attention: the legislation does not tell us what will replace that which is being removed. Until we receive a serious and decent answer to that question, no right-minded person can conceivably support clause 1 or any other clause of the Bill.

The question is whether the Government are serious and honest in saying that they are going to come forward with a phase 2 that will solve the problems I have described. I admit that the jury is out and that we shall see the decision in due course, but the evidence is not comforting. As the right hon. Member for Chesterfield said, there is reason to fear that the transitional scheme will be permanent. The reason is partly that we are 20 months late in seeing a royal commission; partly that, after the royal commission, there is to be a Joint Committee; partly that, after the Joint Committee, unless I am much mistaken, there is in all likelihood to be a general election; and partly that there is all the possibility in the world that phase 2 will never occur.

I do not rest my case on that—there is something much worse. It is that, even assuming that phase 2 will occur, the White Paper gives us absolutely no indication of the sort of radical thinking that is necessary to address the problems of Executive power. Page 36 states: The role of the second chamber should continue to complement"— what reassuring, complacent words; they could have come straight out of Bagehot or Dicey in one of his worst moments— rather than duplicate the role of the House of Commons. In effect, we are to have a twin poodle—another Chamber that will, via the Whips, the Prime Minister and the prerogative power, continue to be under the thumb of the Executive.

If the Government and the Labour party were serious about reform, as opposed to abolition, we should have heard about matters in this debate that we have not heard about from Labour Members, but that, reassuringly, we have heard about from Conservative Members. Those matters include pre-legislative scrutiny; the need to provide a serious check on prerogative legislation in Europe, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) clearly pointed out; serious scrutiny of Executive action—[Interruption.] It ill behoves the Leader of the House to be commenting, given that she was not present for a single moment when those remarks were made. The matters also include measures to address growing judicial activism and to make quangos more accountable. We have not heard Labour Members mention any of those matters, even in passing, and the White Paper makes no mention of them at all.

The White Paper reads as though there were no problems to address, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and my hon. Friends the Members for Stone, for Surrey Heath and for Beaconsfield suggested extraordinarily radical approaches to problems that do indeed exist. Some went so far as to suggest that the de facto unicameralism should be transformed into simple unicameralism. I cannot currently join them in that camp, but does not the suggestion indicate a capacity to think through the problem that is, alas, despite all its majestic support, wholly lacking in the White Paper and nowhere present in the extremely thin Bill before the House? What is it that we face?

Dr. Ladyman

Can the hon. Gentleman tell me how many of those serious issues would be addressed by leaving the hereditary peers in place?

Mr. Letwin

I do not say that they would be addressed by leaving the hereditary peers in place; however, I do say that they would be addressed by a Government who were serious in their intent to reform, rather than to abolish. In coming months, because we take the problem seriously and because we accept the position that we, the country and the House are in, the Conservatives will make radical and serious proposals for the reform not only of the House of Lords, but of the constitution of Parliament as a whole, and for the rebalancing of the constitution of this country as a whole, so as to remedy the problems that the Labour Government have partly left untouched and partly greatly exacerbated. I regret that it should fall to the Opposition to fulfil that task, but if needs be, we shall fulfil it.

9.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

As might have been expected, today's debate has been fascinating and, at times, passionate, as strong views were expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We all accept that the reform of Parliament goes to the heart of our constitution, so it is natural that people will hold strong views on the subject.

Despite that, in one important respect, today's debate has followed the pattern of debates on other constitutional measures that have already gone through the House: we have heard two clear, but divergent, approaches. Most Opposition Members hold to the perverse view that, despite having evolved over hundreds of years, the British constitution as it existed on 1 May 1997, was almost perfect and could not be improved upon. No alternative to our proposals has been suggested tonight.

Mr. Letwin


Mr. Howarth

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. He said that the Conservatives intend to state, in due course, what they would do. At this stage, we still do not know their approach to this matter. We know only that they are opposed to our approach. I now give way to the hon. Gentleman, but briefly, because I want to make progress.

Mr. Letwin

I am grateful to the Minister, who is always courteous. I wonder whether he was listening when I said that I thought that there were grave defects in the constitution, admittedly exacerbated by the present Government, but also, alas, inherited by them.

Mr. Howarth

The problem with the hon. Gentleman's approach is that he proposes no solution. He and his hon. Friends oppose every proposal that we make to improve our constitution. Although they may say that there is a case for change, they always oppose specific change.

The hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) also is always courteous, but I take issue with him quoting—correctly—a sentence from paragraph 7 on page 36 of the White Paper, which says: The role of the second chamber should continue to complement rather than duplicate the role of the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman described those words as complacent, but he did not quote the rest of the paragraph, which continues: The House of Lords provides a valuable function of scrutiny without which the burden on the House of Commons would be greater and the quality of government legislation diminished. As has previously been noted, over the past ten years the House of Lords has made nearly 2,000 amendments a year to government legislation. These are most often government amendments, frequently brought forward in response to points made in both Houses. Legislative scrutiny will continue to be an important purpose of a reformed second chamber. The hon. Gentleman should not quote only one sentence from a paragraph. It would be as well for the House to hear the whole paragraph, which, I glad to say, it now has.

By contrast, Labour Members and, to be fair, the Liberal Democrat representative, put forward a very different view. We recognise that there are strengths in our constitutional arrangements, but we intend to build on them and adapt them to the times in which we live rather than the halcyon days of the past. I make no apologies for saying that we want to modernise our constitution so that it more closely reflects the needs of the country as it moves towards a new century, rather than its needs of a century or more ago.

It is time that we got on with making such changes. There could be no better illustration of that than our approach to the reform of the House of Lords. Some backtracking is now occurring, but I am astonished that anybody could stand up and seriously argue that people should have the right to serve as members of a legislature on the basis of nothing but an accident of birth. At least the hon. Member for West Dorset accepted that clause 1 and the first phase were supportable. I shall come on to the flaw in the rest of his argument in a moment.

We have made progress today in that the official Opposition are not prepared, at least not publicly, to defend the right of privilege in the legislative arrangements for hereditary peers. Yet despite that step forward, in 1999, in one of the world's oldest and proudest democracies, the majority of members of one of the Chambers of Parliament is comprised of those who sit there, not by virtue of their own merits, but simply because one of their ancestors may have performed a service, small or large, for a monarch many hundreds of years ago.

That is an absurdity that cannot be allowed to continue. It is not as if hereditary peers are a benign, decorative aberration, as some would like us to believe and as Conservative Members have claimed tonight. In this Parliament alone, we have witnessed at first hand how hereditary peers wilfully and repeatedly sought to overturn the clearly expressed wishes of this democratically elected House.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by that. The simple fact, which probably goes a long way towards explaining the stance taken by Conservative Members on the Bill, is that throughout the past three quarters of a century the House of Lords has regularly inflicted defeats on measures introduced by Labour Governments.

The statistics are striking. I shall quote from research paper 98/104 produced by the Library, from which the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Island quoted earlier. [HON. MEMBERS: "Easter Ross."] I am sorry, I meant the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan). If I stick to the simple formula "Caithness and much else", it will probably serve us well.

The research paper states: From 1970–71 to 1997–98 the average number of Government defeats"— in the House of Lords— per session is 63"— for Labour— compared with 8 for Conservative Governments. That statistic has been independently calculated and is incontrovertible.

The hereditary peers, whose right to sit and vote in the upper House will be removed by the Bill, are not a cross-section of society who, by some accident of birth, express views that are benign and non-partisan. The evidence suggests the opposite.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

The hon. Gentleman is making the point that his right hon. Friend the President of the Council made—that a higher proportion of defeats has been inflicted on Labour Governments than on Conservative Governments. Will he tell the House what serious defeats impeding the mandated programmes of Labour Governments have been inflicted? Is it not the case that Labour Governments, on the whole, have introduced radical legislation, going back to trade union legislation and nationalisation legislation, which was highly controversial at the time and which has mostly been repealed since, those repeals now being accepted by the present Labour Government?

Mr. Howarth

The right hon. and learned Gentleman fails to address the fact that in this Parliament and in previous Parliaments, Labour manifesto commitments were overturned by the House of Lords. In the last Session, the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, which I freely grant that Opposition Members did not like, was a manifesto commitment by the Government. That was sent back no fewer than five times—or was it seven?—by the House of Lords.

Mr. Cash

On the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, I freely admit that under no circumstances would I vote for our position on that, because as far as I was concerned, proportional representation was out of the question, and the House of Lords should never have agreed to it, as a matter of principle.

That is just a minor matter. On the subject of defeats in the House of Lords, before I entered the House I happen to have been involved in the legal process in the House of Lords regarding the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill, which was one of the flagships of the Labour Government of the time. I can tell the Minister, if he does not know, that the Lord Chancellor, the late Lord Elwyn-Jones, was on the Committee that ditched the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill because the House of Lords was prepared to listen to the arguments on hybridity, which I say—some people may recognise this when I say it—may yet return in relation to this Bill.

Mr. Howarth

That was a long intervention. I made the mistake of mentioning the word "Europe", at which point the hon. Gentleman sprang to his feet. My right hon. Friend made it clear that the arrangements in the House of Lords are different from those that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Those who sit in the House of Lords by accident of birth overwhelmingly represent and vote for one political interest. They have shamelessly ensured that the Conservative party has a built-in 3:1 majority over other parties in another place. It does not matter to them how the electorate may have voted or what measures it wants them to support. Even when the Conservative party has been decisively rejected as it was on 1 May 1997, it has still been able to count on its built-in majority in the upper House, and has had neither shame nor compunction about using that majority.

The sorry combination of Conservative Members and hereditary peers makes our case more compellingly than any speech in this Chamber tonight.

Dr. Fox

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

I shall not give way because I have only five minutes left.

I shall now deal with some of the questions that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) asked in his opening speech. He asked whether we would have the chance fully to debate that Weatherill amendment, as it will not be introduced until the Bill reaches the Lords. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) gave the transitional House argument for that. The House will have an opportunity to debate amendments passed in the other place when the Bill returns to the Commons. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said earlier, the Government have made it clear that they are minded to accept such an amendment, but only if it enables matters to proceed by consensus. We will not know whether that is the amendment's effect until the Bill is in the House of Lords.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what guarantees there were that there would be a second stage. We have set the royal commission an extremely demanding timetable, but it is realistic and it guarantees continued momentum. The White Paper made it clear that if we can get a consensus and if the commission meets the timetable, we shall make every effort to ensure that the second stage of reform is approved by Parliament by the next general election.

Several Opposition Members asked why the royal commission had not been set up 20 months ago. The simple answer is that the royal commission's terms of reference are that part of its remit is to take into account the wider context of devolution, human rights and developing relations with the European Union. That simply would not have been possible 20 months ago because all those matters remained to be considered—[Interruption] I presume that the hon. Member for Woodspring would have preferred those matters to have reached the statute book before a royal commission took them into account.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government had ruled out a fully elected second Chamber. We think that it would be wrong to pre-empt the consideration that the royal commission will give. To indicate a preference at this stage would be to clip the royal commission's wings. Frankly, it would be insulting to ask it to consider all those matters having stated what the end of the process should be.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Labour party will give evidence to the royal commission, and whether that evidence will be taken in public. It is a matter for the Labour party, but I should imagine that it will. Certainly, it will be for the royal commission to decide whether it conducts its proceedings in public or otherwise. I am sure that at least some of its proceedings will be in public. He also asks how long the joint Committee will last. That will be a matter for both Houses of Parliament, but the Government have made it clear that the joint Committee will meet after the royal commission has reported. We hope that it will be possible to ensure that the second stage of reform has been approved by the general election.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and one or two others asked why we do not go for what one of my hon. Friends called "the big bang". The obvious answer is that every previous attempt at a single-stage solution has failed, usually because the then Conservative party took the view that, although change was necessary, that particular change was not. While that position is allowed to prevail, we shall never get reform the House of Lords through Parliament.

We seek, first, the abolition of hereditary peers, which everybody apparently now agrees is the right way forward, and, secondly, a second stage that will attract as wide a consensus as possible. Only by consensus can we move forward.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Allen.]

To be resumed tomorrow.