HC Deb 20 January 1999 vol 323 cc909-21 3.30 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about the White Paper that the Government are publishing today about reform of the House of Lords. Copies of the White Paper and the Bill are available in the Vote Office.

The White Paper marks another significant and vital step in the Government's overall programme to improve the institutions of this country so that they fulfil their functions in a new century with energy and effectiveness and to create a modern Parliament for a modern Britain. The White Paper makes clear how a revised second Chamber would play an important role in a new constitutional settlement.

The outlines of the Government's proposals on reform of the House of Lords have long been familiar. They are threefold: the removal of the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords; reformed arrangements for the nomination of life peers; and the establishment of a royal commission to consider longer-term reform.

The White Paper confirms that all 750 hereditary peers will cease to have an automatic right to membership of the House of Lords. It also confirms that hereditary peers will be given the right to vote in parliamentary elections and to stand as candidates for election to this House without having to disclaim their peerages.

There will be no change in the position of life peers, who will remain unable to vote in parliamentary elections and unable to disclaim their titles. There will be no change in the position of either the Law Lords or the Church of England bishops.

The White Paper also confirms the undertaking that the Government have given that if, when the Bill reaches the House of Lords, there is a consensus in favour of an amendment to allow continued transitional membership of that House to some hereditary peers, the Government are minded to support such an amendment. I must make it clear that whether the Government are able to support such an amendment depends a great deal on the extent to which normal conventions relating to the Government's legislative programme are being observed.

The Government have always made it clear that we prefer to proceed by consensus. In that spirit we are prepared to accept the proposal if, indeed, it enables reform to proceed in that way. It is not a concession to be extracted by pitched battle; indeed, pitched battle will jeopardise the proposal.

The White Paper proposes an historic change—a change that has been discussed throughout the 20th century. Today, the Bill to abolish the right of hereditary peers to be Members of Parliament—a reform first suggested in 1911—has finally been introduced by the Government so that a fundamental anachronism can be removed as we begin a new millennium.

The presence of the hereditary peerage has weakened the legitimacy and effectiveness of our second Chamber for two main reasons—because the principle is wrong and because the results are unbalanced. First, with regard to the principle, it is wrong for anyone to have an automatic right to a seat in Parliament solely on the record of his forebears. Secondly, with regard to the results, the hereditary peerage gives one of the two major political parties in this country a 3:1 built-in majority in the House of Lords over the other. No votes by the electorate at a general election change that—the Conservative majority in that House continues untouched and untouchable.

The hereditary peerage, taken as a whole, is unrepresentative of today's Britain. It is unrepresentative economically, socially and by gender and ethnic origin. Consequently, because of the majority's predominance, the House of Lords suffers disproportionately from a political and social imbalance. That, too, is no longer acceptable.

Once the hereditary peerage is removed, the Government will move to rapid, full-scale reform of the House of Lords. There will be a period of transition, with which the White Paper deals in detail.

There have been many wild—frankly, ridiculous—assertions about the character of the transitional House. The most often reported assertion is that the House will be one created exclusively by this Government, and dependent on patronage by this Prime Minister.

The fact is that approximately 500 life peers will remain. Those life peers were appointed by eight Prime Ministers, over 40 years. Even without a single hereditary peer, there would still be a Conservative majority over the Labour party. None the less, this Government and this Prime Minister intend to reduce the Prime Minister's powers of appointment.

For the first time ever, the Prime Minister has publicly pledged himself not to interfere in the detail of nominations from other party leaders, provided that the nominations have been given a clean bill of health on propriety grounds. Moreover, for the first time ever, the Prime Minister will relinquish entirely his power to make recommendations for Cross-Bench peers. The power will be passed to an independent appointments commission.

The appointments commission will be encouraged to seek nominations from many sources, including members of the public. It will extend the range of interests and types of people represented in the House. The appointments commission will consist of members of the three main political parties and of independent members—who will form the majority, and one of whom will act as chairman.

The Government have always made it clear in our manifesto that no political party should seek to have a majority in the House of Lords. Therefore, far from seeking numbers—as we should be entitled to do without inconsistency with our manifesto—that are 40 per cent. in excess of those of the Conservative party, we plan to move only towards broad parity with the Conservative party.

We shall also ensure a fair representation of all other parties, and of the Cross Benches. The principles of broad parity and proportionate creations for the other political parties and Cross Benches should be maintained throughout the period of the transitional House.

Taken together, the proposals significantly reduce the Prime Minister's powers of patronage compared with those of all his predecessors. The result will be a better House that is more representative than the current one and better equipped to play its part in the constitution.

I should like, finally, to say a little about the longer term. The Government announced, on 14 October, that we would establish a royal commission to consider options for longer-term reform. I am now pleased to be able to tell the House that Lord Wakeham has accepted the Prime Minister's invitation to be chairman of the royal commission. It is obviously important also that there is senior representation on the commission from this House. I am therefore pleased to tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) also has agreed to serve on the commission. The remaining members will be announced in due course.

The commission's terms of reference, as stated in the White Paper, are: Having regard to the need to maintain the position of the House of Commons as the pre-eminent chamber of Parliament and taking particular account of the present nature of the constitutional settlement, including the newly devolved institutions, the impact of the Human Rights Act and developing relations with the European Union, to consider and make recommendations on the role and functions of a second chamber; and to make recommendations on the method or combination of methods of composition required to constitute a second chamber fit for that role and for those functions. To report by 31 December 1999. Those terms of reference are deliberately non-prescriptive. They are intended to stimulate public debate, as well as giving the royal commission its remit.

The Government have not indicated their own preference in the White Paper, but the two final chapters set out a number of issues which the Government think the royal commission will find it useful to address. It might be useful to highlight three points. First, the terms of reference defeat the accusation that the Government's proposals for constitutional reform are piecemeal. Secondly, the terms of reference ask the royal commission to consider the role and functions of the second Chamber as a preliminary to considering its composition. Despite assertions to the contrary, the Government have always felt that wide-ranging reform of composition cannot be decided in isolation.

Thirdly, the royal commission has been given a demanding timetable. That is evidence of the Government's stated wish to maintain the momentum of reform of the second Chamber. We believe that the timetable is achievable; after all, the debate has been taking place for most of this century. There is no need to undertake extensive gathering of evidence before any work can be done on analysis of the issues. Analysis and judgment are the most important requirements. However, I make it clear that the timetable does not provide an excuse for delaying stage one reform until the commission has reported.

The Government believe that we can make no long-term progress until the hereditary peers have gone. We are keen to maintain the momentum of reform, but for momentum to be maintained the process must begin now.

The package of measures announced in the White Paper sets out the Government's approach to this radical reform, which is nevertheless a careful and considered approach, starting with the most immediate and urgent reform of the rights of the hereditary peerage while identifying the path to longer-term reform.

In May 1997, our manifesto set out in the clearest possible terms our intention to legislate to complete the long-overdue reform to remove the right to sit and vote in our legislature by inheritance. Today, we take the historic first steps to give effect to that pledge.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. I welcome the establishment of a royal commission on this matter, and welcome the choice of Lord Wakeham as the chairman, and the inclusion of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The independence of the chairman is not at all in doubt: Conservative Members remember him as one of the finest of Lady Thatcher's Chief Whips. We will make our own submission, based on the findings of Lord Mackay's commission, which was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition, when we realized—some time before the Government—that a full-scale review of the subject was required.

Let me make it quite clear that we do not question the legitimacy of the Government carrying out their manifesto commitment to remove the voting rights of hereditary peers. We have always said that we welcome reform, if it results in the better governance of the United Kingdom, but we question the wisdom of the Government's approach and their motives. The unnecessarily bullying language of the right hon. Lady does little to assist the debate.

The Government tell us that this is a matter of urgency, and they have set a deadline of December 1999. Why, then, was a royal commission not set up 20 months ago, when the Government took office? We could now be discussing the results of a royal commission and moving to single-stage reform by consensus. We also hear today that, beyond the royal commission, there is to be yet another stage—a Joint Committee of both Houses. Perhaps the right hon. Lady can tell us how long the Government propose that that will last. It was bad enough when we had to say, "No stage one without stage two." We were not counting on stages three and four, and whatever else may follow.

The Government's clear intention seems to be to kick the whole subject into the long grass. We will go into the next general election without knowing what Parliament will look like on the other side of that election. I must congratulate Ministers on protecting themselves from the spectacle of being unable to agree among themselves on the subject, as happened on proportional representation.

Any wise reform would have allowed the royal commission genuinely to examine all the relationships within and outwith Parliament—the relationship with the Executive and with the judiciary; the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament and the balancing of their powers; and our relationship with the new bodies—and how we scrutinise legislation.

The Government's intention, revealed in the White Paper, is not to examine Parliament as a whole, but is tilted towards de facto single-chamber Government. Their methods contradict their stated aims and will bolster the Executive in the House of Commons. It is out with ermine and in with straitjackets.

The combination of the delay and the restrictive terms of reference provide the Government with what they want most: an absence of real scrutiny or an effective check on the Executive. Despite their smokescreen, the Government will create a compliant halfway house of yes men, which they hope will last as long as possible. The Prime Minister will give up his right to appoint Cross Benchers—wow! So what?—but who will appoint the appointments commission? Perhaps the right hon. Lady can tell us.

We want a Parliament that keeps the Government in check, and we want Parliament to make our laws, not the Executive, judges or Europe. We want to strengthen the United Kingdom and ensure that power rests with the public, not with politicians. We shall work to make that come about.

In thanking the right hon. Lady for her statement, I should like to make one more comment—I hope that she does not take offence. The statement should have been made by the Prime Minister. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Previous Prime Ministers made statements on reforms of Parliament as a matter of principle. This Prime Minister has neither understanding of, nor interest in, the House of Commons. His silence, more than anything else, tells us about the Government's motives and their contempt for the parliamentary process.

Mrs. Beckett

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the proposals—I am glad that he was not unhappy with them. If I may begin where he ended, I am afraid that he is straightforwardly wrong. The most recent precedent on this matter was when a White Paper was presented to the House in November 1968—for some mysterious reason, the Conservative party never got round to presenting a statement on these matters while it was in power—and that statement was made by the then Leader of the House, Richard Crossman. There is a string of precedents, none of which, in the latter part of this century at any rate, suggest that a precedent has been set for the Prime Minister to make this statement.

In justice to the hon. Gentleman, it was clear that his remarks were drawn up before he read the statement—and before he realised that what the Conservative party has been spouting about the Government' s intentions is complete nonsense. Most of his criticisms of the Government's proposals were clearly unfounded. He asked one serious question, which was about the appointments commission. The appointments commission will be what one might call a "Nolanised" body, which will go through the proper process governing public appointments that is now in train for non-departmental public bodies, following what was thought necessary in the previous Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman said many other things, most of which were either inaccurate or unhelpful, but I would single out one of his remarks as symbolising the nature of his response on behalf of the Conservative party. He said that he suspected the Government's motives and that the Opposition's motives were to keep the Government in check. I am sorry, but what came through with absolute clarity from the hon. Gentleman's comments was that the Opposition's motive is to try to keep a system that gives them a 3:1 majority in the other House.

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

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's historic and long-overdue reform and commend her on the second stage? Important as the first stage—the abolition of hereditary peers—is, the second stage, with an independent element that may include references from the public, shows that the Labour party is committed to the sort of radical reform for which this country was famous in previous centuries but not, unfortunately, in the first part of this century.

Mrs. Beckett

I am more than grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to say that this is an important step for this House and this Parliament. As the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, we want something better. Even the transitional House that we propose will be infinitely superior to what we have now.

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

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, may I give an unqualified welcome to the Government's proposals? In a modern democracy, the accident of inheritance should not entitle a person to sit in Parliament. However, a wholly appointed upper House cannot be an attractive, long-term solution. I particularly welcome the Government's indications of speed in moving towards the second stage of reform to establish the House of Lords on a democratic basis.

I also welcome the appointment of Lord Wakeham, not only because of his qualities, but because it shows the Government's continuing commitment to cross-party discussions and participation in the reform of the constitution. That is proper and helpful. Do the Government accept that, without diminishing the legislative primacy of the House of Commons, a predominantly elected second Chamber could complement and not displace the role of this House, and could strengthen the effectiveness of Parliament's oversight of the exercise of power by government?

Do the Government also accept that a democratic second Chamber could be the best place to ensure that the special, particular, different interests of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom are properly represented in Westminster?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome of his party for the way in which the Government are handling this matter, and for his recognition that we are seeking to do so on as consensual a basis as possible. He tempted me to venture into territory into which I do not intend to venture: that is, to consider what may happen in stage two and what may be discussed in the royal commission. I am not prepared to do that, because we take the view that a discussion of the functions of the second Chamber should preclude discussions of its composition and how that is arrived at.

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point that a different Chamber would be able to take account of different interests. As he will recognise, that is one of the factors that we have drawn to the royal commission's attention.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 350 years ago this year the Commonwealth Parliament abolished the House of Lords in a one-clause Bill that said, "The House of Lords shall not sit here or purport to sit anywhere else." Compared with that, the ingenious piece of constitutional modernisation that has been announced today must have tested the ability of philosophers of the third way, spin doctors and focus groups, and of such notable intellectuals as Lord Cranborne and the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. They have produced a scheme whereby, in the short term, hereditary peers will elect each other and will rub shoulders with people's peers, appointed and cleared of cronyism, who will have a job for life.

It is time that the Government made it clear that we are entitled to have an elected Parliament. We have an elected House of Commons, an elected Scottish Parliament, an elected Welsh Assembly, an elected Northern Ireland Assembly and an elected European Parliament. There are no grounds for fiddling with appointment panels to deal with cronyism or whatever. As the proposal that my right hon. Friend has announced was not put to the electorate or to the Labour conference, and was not discussed with Labour Members of Parliament, there must be a free vote at every stage during the passage of the legislation.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to have to say that although I had hoped readily to agree with my right hon. Friend on this matter, I cannot do so. He is incorrect: no one will get a job for life, at least not in this legislature. That is the point of our proposals.

In common with the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), my right hon. Friend attempted to lead me into a discussion about what should happen in stage two. I have much respect for my right hon. Friend, especially for his excellent analogy which completely undermined the case made in the past by Conservative Members about the hereditary principle. He said that if one went to the airport and was told that the pilot did not have a licence but his grandfather did, one would not get on the plane. That is an admirably clear and succinct demolition of the hereditary principle.

I must tell my right hon. Friend, however, that if one factor has maintained the existence of the hereditary principle in our legislature throughout this century—certainly for the last 87 years—it is the frequency of the occasions on which all who wished for change became bogged down in the form that such change should take, rather than dealing with first principles first. The Government have every intention of doing that, and I hope and expect that every Labour Member will support us.

Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)

When the Government give evidence to the Wakeham commission, what view will they express on the delicate constitutional balance between the House of Commons and the second Chamber? Will they want the powers of the second Chamber to be increased or decreased relative to those of this House, or left the same—or have the Government not made up their mind? Are they embarking on one stage of constitutional reform without thinking their way to the next?

Mrs. Beckett

With respect, I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that his was yet another intervention bearing all the hallmarks of having been prepared with no prior study of what the Government propose.

The Government, as such, do not intend to give evidence to the commission, although the political parties are free to do so, and perhaps they will. As for the powers of the replacement Chamber, they would be a matter for the commission to consider. The right hon. Gentleman may, however, recall what I said in my statement, which I hope will be welcomed literally on all sides of the House. I said that, according to the Government's view and the remit of the royal commission, the House of Commons will be the pre-eminent Chamber of our legislature.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

My right hon. Friend is right to deal with the powers as well as the composition of the House of Lords. Is she aware that the more defensible the composition of the House of Lords is, the more it will wish to use the powers that it already has, let alone any increased powers that may be given to it? What proposals has my right hon. Friend to limit its powers during the first stage of the operation, which may last some time?

Mrs. Beckett

We do not propose to change the de facto powers that currently exist, but we have made it plain, as my right hon. Friend recognises—I am grateful to him for his welcome—that the royal commission and, indeed, the House of Commons will have to consider what the balance of power should be. We are clear about the fact that this Chamber must be pre-eminent, and that must underlie all the issues that are considered.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

Will the right hon. Lady admit that what she has said reveals that the Government embarked on the matter with no policy at all on the second Chamber, still have no policy at all and are trying to make a virtue of the fact? They think that a royal commission might come up with a policy, but not so quickly as to interfere with their legislative timetable for the remainder of the current Parliament.

Will the right hon. Lady turn her attention to what has already been said by her right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) about the position of this Parliament, to which we have all been elected, and the scrutiny to which this Government will be subjected? If I have understood correctly, the Blair Government are likely to remain subject to scrutiny by perhaps 91 hereditary peers—if they do not double-cross my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Cranborne—by certain life peers, who may or may not be peers for life when my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Wakeham has reported, by the Lords spiritual and the Law Lords, and by whatever new people the Prime Minister still intends to appoint to swell the ranks of his supporters in the other place? That is not even equivalent to "no policy"; it is unacceptable.

As the Government are in this situation, will they now introduce a Bill defining the powers of the second Chamber as subordinate to this Chamber, and reflecting what both the right hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) said about the need for the large elected element that we all know it will have to have? Will they allow the lightest whipping, and enable Parliament to decide as rapidly as possible what scrutiny there should be in the second Chamber? The Government propose to establish no sensible scrutiny at all.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that that intervention does not do justice to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's reputation in the House. Like those of many others, his questions bear all the signs of having been baked in advance. He accused the Government of having no policy at all. That is plainly nonsense. He fell into the same trap as the hon. Member for Woodspring.

The Conservative party does not seem to be able to make up its mind whether the Government are going too fast or too slowly on the matter. When it did not know that we were going to set a term date of a year for the royal commission, it accused us of dragging out that procedure. Incidentally, what a ridiculous accusation Conservative Members made that we were kicking the matter into the long grass. In fact, we are proceeding much more quickly in studying how we proceed towards stage two than most hon. Members had anticipated. It is evident that that was not anticipated by Conservative Members and it makes most of their contributions more than a little irrelevant.

On the issue of new appointments and so on, again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is stuck in the mindset of the Conservative party in assuming that we would try to distort placements to that House in the way that has been done in the past. I remind him that there will still be 500 Members of another place, which seems an entirely adequate size of House to provide scrutiny.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that the Government proposal is totally unacceptable. I will tell him what is totally unacceptable. What is totally unacceptable is that, in this day and age, the House of Lords should have in it about 1,300 Members, 750 of whom can be there without having done anything worthy of note and give his party a 3:1 majority. We are not going to allow that arrangement to continue.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Lloyd George would have found amusing the enthusiasm of Conservative Front Benchers for reform, after 100 years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should guard against the second Chamber, or senate, becoming a retirement home for politicians who are no longer active politicians—even those who might be appointed at an early age, but who get jobs for life, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said? Would she be sympathetic to having a fixed term for those appointments, or a retirement age, to prevent that danger?

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's point about the enthusiasm of the Conservative party. Today, it is showing exactly the same enthusiasm for House of Lords reform that it has shown in the past. It would like to talk about it. We have been talking about it for 87 years precisely because the Conservative party has never managed to think of anything that would suit it better than the current arrangement.

My hon. Friend asks me whether we should consider a fixed term of appointment. I make the following comment genuinely, not to curtail debate: there will be plenty of opportunity for debate on that matter and on any alternatives that may come forward in stage two. However, I counsel my right hon. and hon. Friends and, indeed, the House not to get bogged down in what happens in stage two.

Dr. Fox

That gives the game away.

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, it does give the game away as to the tactics of the Conservative party. It has been discussing stage two for 87 years. It is time to get rid of stage one.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

As the right hon. Lady said, the last statement on Lords reform by a Leader of the House was made by Mr. Crossman, so she might care to recall what happened to him and to that statement. She talks about this House being the pre-eminent Chamber and about the recommendations on the role and functions of a second Chamber.

This House can be pre-eminent although considerable powers—much greater powers than the second Chamber has at the moment; powers perhaps to clip the wings of the Prime Minister—may be recommended for that second Chamber. Is the right hon. Lady saying that those powers would be acceptable to the Government if they were recommended? We do not want that to be subject to a wager, although the chairman of the commission is, I believe, chairman of the Tote.

Mrs. Beckett

I am, indeed, mindful of what happened to Richard Crossman: he got bogged down in stage two. Consequently, stage one was never achieved. It is not a precedent that I have any intention of following.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman—again, he tempts me on to precisely this territory—talks about the second Chamber's role and functions, bearing in mind that the House of Commons must remain pre-eminent, and he then goes on to talk about whether the Government will consider things that will, in his words, "clip the wings" of the Prime Minister. I simply say that the issue of role and functions—and, yes, that includes the powers—is one that the royal commission will consider, on which it will recommend and on which, ultimately, the House will take a view. One of the most noticeable things throughout the exchange so far has been that, despite all the absolute nonsense, and the very unpleasant nonsense, that has been said—not by the right hon. Gentleman but by others on the Opposition Benches—about the Prime Minister's unfettered use of patronage and power, not one Opposition Member has felt able to accept or to welcome the fact that this Prime Minister, unprecedentedly, is diminishing the Prime Minister's power of patronage. That is something that no Tory Prime Minister in history has ever even contemplated.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As the late Dick Crossman's much put upon and much abused Parliamentary Private Secretary, I wish my right hon. Friend tons of luck, because she will need every ounce of it in this minefield. Is the appointments commission likely to show the same wisdom as the panel brought into being by the Labour party in choosing candidates for the Holyrood Parliament?

Mrs. Beckett

It is, of course, an article of faith that all panels set up by the Labour party in government, or as a matter party machinery, show wisdom.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) referred to 350 years ago. It might be wise for this Parliament to bear in mind that we may propose changes that ultimately the people will regret. I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the fact that she refers to three main parties and forgets that there are other parties in the House, some of which have no representation in the regions, and particularly in Northern Ireland. None of the three main parties is prepared to stand for election there. Surely a large majority Government should not be afraid of minority representation.

Mrs. Beckett

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He will have noticed, I hope, that although I referred to representatives from the three main parties, on a number of occasions in the statement I also mentioned that it is the Government's intention to bear in mind the wish to see fair representation for all parties in Britain.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed from the exchanges that have taken place already, especially the contributions of Opposition Members, that if they are given an inch, they want a mile? My right hon. Friend, mistakenly in my view, has given them the chairmanship of the royal commission, and to a man who has a string of jobs already, yet the Tories are still as mad as a hatter. Why does not she think in terms of the third way? We have a Parliament for Scotland, we will have a Welsh Assembly and another one in Northern Ireland, and, in a few years' time, there will be one in every region in England. Why on earth do we need a second Chamber at all? Adopt the third way and get rid of it.

Mrs. Beckett

I have no doubt that, should my hon. Friend catch your eye, Madam Speaker, he will have the opportunity to pursue that idea at some length. With regard to Lord Wakeham taking the chair of the royal commission, I simply say that he has a long and distinguished career, including as one of my predecessors in the House, although it came as a slight surprise to hear the hon. Member for Woodspring say that he showed—what was it?—independence as Chief Whip. A variety of qualities are qualifications for the role of Chief Whip, but I am not sure that that has ever been regarded as one of them. However, I take it on board.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman identifies our case accurately. The House of Lords is uniquely undemocratic, unrepresentative and unaccountable. Even in the transitional stage, what replaces it will be better.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a good day for democracy, reaffirming to anyone who may have been in doubt that this is a radical Government? She is right to adopt a two-stage process and not to be tempted by those from either side of the House who want to get involved in the minutiae of what is to follow. There will be a spring in my step—I am sure that many of my hon. Friends share my feelings—when I walk through the Lobby to vote for the Bill.

Mrs. Beckett

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that his view will be shared.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

May we start from the premise that no rational person would defend hereditary seats in the House of Lords? [Interruption.] I said no rational person. Does the Leader of the House accept that the imbalanced proposals for the transitional phase look like a pig's breakfast? Will the royal commission properly consider the option of no second Chamber and the adoption of pre-legislative scrutiny in the procedures of this Chamber? That is how the Scottish Parliament will work, without the need for a second Chamber. Will the Leader of the House accept as a fundamental principle that if there is to be a second Chamber, the only way for it to be representative is for it to be elected? Finally, what self-respecting, elected, full-time Member of the Scottish Parliament would consider coming down to London on day trips if the second Chamber were still nominated and full of 500 cronies?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman suggests that there should be no second Chamber. That is not the Government's view. He appears to be suggesting that, whether it is a transitional House or a different form of second Chamber, no one from the Scottish National party would wish to serve in the upper House. That is a matter for his party. He also talked about the nature of the transitional House. It is my strong view that we would probably never get to the transitional House if we spent all our time wrangling about its ideal form. We hope and intend that the transitional House will not last for long, so the issue is less important. It will certainly be better than what precedes it, but it is not so important if it is not in what might be considered an ideal form. I cannot repeat too often that the reason why we still have a second Chamber numbering 1,300 or more Members when the issue has been under discussion for 87 years is that those who believe that the current situation is unacceptable have always been more interested in talking about what we should ideally have in its place rather than embarking on the process of reform. We shall never have a proper debate about how a reformed second Chamber should be until we begin to take steps on the existing Chamber.

Jacqui Smith (Redditch)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the many disadvantages of the hereditary principle is that it has created a significant gender imbalance in the second Chamber, where only 8 per cent. of peers are women? I do not want to get involved in the minutiae of the second phase. The removal of the hereditary peers alone will go some way towards righting that gender imbalance, but it is also important that the appointments commission and the royal commission consider ways of ensuring gender balance in the second Chamber.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right. That brings us back to the effects of having a hereditary qualification for a seat in the legislature. The system has no regard for talent. It is not even the most interested or the most qualified member of an eligible family who is entitled to a seat, but in most cases it is the first-born male. My hon. Friend is right that that results in a House that is out of touch with today's world. I have no doubt that that will be taken into account.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

How can the right hon. Lady argue that the Government's approach to constitutional reform is anything other than piecemeal, given that she has just said that the position of the Law Lords and the Church of England bishops will not be considered in the reform? If the Government truly are looking at the constitution as a whole, why does the royal commission not have the power to consider the position of the Law Lords and the Church of England bishops?

Mrs. Beckett

That is not a matter that will be dealt with in stage one. The difficulty is that Conservative Members have certain lines that they like to use, irrespective of whether they have become irrelevant. It is clear that, although we are proceeding step by step and piece by piece, the reform is not piecemeal: it is an overarching programme of reform in which one part can intermesh with others.

The issue of the existence and the role of the Law Lords is, at least in part, also a matter for the judiciary and the judicial system. It was not thought sensible, even in the transitional House, to take steps to change that role. Similarly, we do not propose any change in the role of bishops in the transitional House. I have no doubt that if Conservative Members think that changes should be made in the transitional House, they will say so. However, we believe that it is a matter for stage two.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. We must now move on to the main business. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] We shall be returning to the matter many times over the next few months. Fear not—I shall remember those hon. Members who have not had an opportunity to ask a question today.