HC Deb 07 November 2001 vol 374 cc239-55 3.31 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

With permission, I shall make a statement on further reform of the House of Lords.

In the previous Parliament we began to reform the House of Lords with an historic step that ended the dominant vote of hereditary peers. I freely acknowledge the generous help of Viscount Cranborne in making that step easier. However, we were always clear that that step was only the first phase of reform. There remains much more that requires reform.

There remain 92 hereditary peers, and there is no place in Parliament for those who owe their presence there solely to privilege of birth. The largest single party in the House of Lords has twice been voted into opposition in the House of Commons, and the second Chamber should more fairly represent how Britain votes. No Member of the House of Lords has been elected by the public to represent them there.

Today the Government launch the second phase of reform of the House of Lords with the publication of a White Paper, "The House of Lords—Completing the Reform", copies of which are available in the Vote Office. We ask for comments on all or any of the proposals, especially the overall composition of the new House of Lords, by the end of January.

At the outset, I recognise the major contribution of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor in overseeing today's White Paper. It builds on the report of the Wakeham Commission, and its central principle is that reform of the House of Lords should preserve the present balance of power between the two Chambers. We do not need a second Chamber that merely mirrors the House of Commons; nor do we want a House of Lords that could challenge the right of this House to be the representative body of the British people.

The House of Commons will remain the pre-eminent Chamber, with the sole right to pass legislation on taxation and the final right to decide on all other legislation. The right to form a Government of the United Kingdom will continue to depend on whether that Government can command a majority in the House of Commons.

The House of Lords will remain a Chamber of revision, of scrutiny and of deliberation. It will retain the power to delay, but not to block, Government legislation. It should continue to be bound by the convention that it does not oppose the Government on a manifesto commitment for which the party in office has an election mandate. Its powers over secondary legislation will be changed from one of veto to one of delay to put that on the same footing as primary legislation.

The Government accept the conclusion of the Wakeham Commission that our two objectives of promoting reform of the House of Lords while preserving the pre-eminence of the House of Commons will be best achieved by a mixed membership of elected and appointed Members of the second Chamber. The White Paper invites comments on the overall balance between independent Members, elected Members and appointed party Members.

The retention of independent Members who can speak from a range of expertise and authority is important if the House of Lords is to continue its distinctive contribution to national debate. We therefore propose to put on a statutory basis an Appointments Commission to nominate independent Members, who will constitute a fifth of the reformed Chamber.

The Appointments Commission will be independent of Government and accountable to Parliament, not to Ministers. It will be under a statutory duty to ensure that all new appointments contain a minimum of 30 per cent. of both women and men and a fair representation of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom and its ethnic communities. Those requirements will also apply to all future party nominations. This will ensure a second Chamber that is representative of United Kingdom society as it is today. not as it was yesterday.

The Wakeham Commission recommended that there should be elected Members to provide a direct voice for the nations and regions of the United Kingdom in the House of Lords. A majority of the royal commission supported option B, which provided for 87 elected Members. The White Paper proposes that that number be increased to 120. This is the first time that any Government have made proposals for the introduction of elected Members to the second Chamber.

The White Paper invites views on whether the elected Members should be returned on polling day for the European Parliament, on general election day or on polling day for the devolved and regional bodies in those parts of the United Kingdom where they are established.

The Government believe that the proportion of appointed party Members should broadly match the distribution of votes between the parties at the most recent general election. We will empower the Appointments Commission to validate those proportions independently. That will remove from the Government of the day the right to determine for themselves the political balance of new appointments. Never again will it be possible for a Government to use political appointments to give themselves a secure majority in the House of Lords, as the Conservative party did throughout the 1980s and 1990s, nor will a Government ever again be able to dominate voting in the second Chamber.

Our proposals for independent Members chosen by an Appointments Commission and for elected Members returned by proportional representation will guarantee that no party, including a sitting Government, will ever have a majority of the votes in the new second Chamber. That will ensure that the reformed Chamber will be a more effective check and balance on the Government than was possible during the years that the Conservative party was in government.

All new appointed Members will be appointed for a fixed term. That will end the practice of someone being appointed to Parliament for life. The royal commission recommended that the term of appointment be 15 years. That would be a long period—longer than for any other public appointment in the UK. The White Paper therefore invites comments on whether the term of appointment to the reformed Chamber should be 15, five or 10 years. No new Member of the reformed second Chamber will become a member of the peerage by virtue of their membership. The link between a title and a seat in Parliament will finally be severed.

We propose that the reformed Chamber be capped at 600 Members, after a transitional period of 10 years. In line with the conclusion of the Wakeham Commission, we propose to reduce the number of bishops sitting in the House of Lords from 26 to 16. The Law Lords will continue to be Members of the Chamber.

The White Paper invites comments on two other issues. First, we invite views on whether to retain the present system of daily expenses for Members of the House of Lords or to move to a more formal system of payment in view of the new requirement for elected Members from all parts of the UK. Secondly, we invite views on the circumstances in which a Member should be removed from membership of the second Chamber, such as the expulsion of any Member sentenced to imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.

"Completing the Reform" contains the Government's proposals for a House of Lords for the future, but Parliament belongs to the British people. It is right that we should now consult the British people on the design of the second Chamber of their Parliament.

Those proposals will produce far-reaching reform of the House of Lords. They will remove the last of the hereditary peers from Parliament. They will introduce the first ever elected Members to the House of Lords. They will put the appointment of independent Members outside political patronage. They will ensure that the British electorate voting in a general election, not the Government of the day, decide the proportions in which party appointments are made. They will give Britain a modern second Chamber, which will be able to complement the Commons, but unable to compete with it for power. I commend them to the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I thank the Leader of the House for letting me have an advance copy of the statement and the White Paper.

The Leader of the House has recently been posturing, not least in the press, as a democrat and a great parliamentary reformer. That leads immediately to the question whether he is content with the 20 per cent. elected element in the proposals that he has put before the House. When the hereditary peers were eliminated we were told that they were an affront to democracy, so the question arises as to whether the Leader of the House and the Government are content that their proposed format for the upper House is any less of an affront.

Is the statement exactly the same as the one being given in another place? It would be instructive to know of any variation. Is the statement the work of the autocrat at the other end of the building, the Lord Chancellor, or the democrat and reformer, the Leader of the House? It strikes me that the White Paper comes as neither one thing nor another—it is a fudge.

The Government have generously—not—allowed us until 31 January 2002 for consultation on this very complex and important matter. Does the Leader of the House seriously suggest that from now until the end of January gives sufficient time for all the varied and legitimate interests to make their considered views known to the Government? That is surely an insult and an absurdity.

In that context, what happened to the Joint Committee of both Houses that was supposed to consider these matters? We have heard nothing of it today, and I am not surprised. The Government made a commitment to it in July 2000; they renewed that commitment in March 2001, but it has now been quietly dropped. Why? Surely the answer is that the abbreviated and truncated period of so-called consultation is presumably designed to replace an approach by a Joint Committee that would at least allow the possibility of cross-party agreement, which the Government have always said that they want to achieve. Indeed, they repeat that in the White Paper.

What support does the Leader of the House think his proposals will attract in the parliamentary Labour party? He will no doubt be aware, as we all are, of early-day motion 226, which at the last count had 149 signatures, most from Members of his party. They seem to want a wholly, or at least largely, elected upper House. How will he satisfy his parliamentary colleagues with the contents of the White Paper? I think that we should know.

The Government suggest an upper House with an eventual limit of 600, with 120 elected and 120 Cross Benchers plus the Law Lords and the bishops. That leaves about 300 others, although currently there are about 560 in the remaining category. That leads to an interesting question, which I do not think is answered in the White Paper: when the 600 limit is finally implemented, will new Members be appointed only on the demise of existing Members? That will obviously have an important effect on all the mechanisms outlined in the White Paper.

The White Paper suggests at one and the same time that there will be 600 Members, that that total will come into force after 10 years, that during the 10-year transition period there will be a maximum of 750 Members and that there must always be a lead for the governing party over the main opposition party in membership of the upper House, although current life peers will retain their membership for life. However, there could easily be at least two general elections during the 10-year transition period. The White Paper also asserts that the potential membership must reflect party balance at each previous election

For the life of me; I cannot see—perhaps the Leader of the House will explain—how on earth one can fulfil all those requirements without them conflicting and undermining one another. They strike me as completely and utterly inconsistent

The Leader of the House made great play of the Appointments Commission and the key role that it will play in the process, but how will the initial Appointments Commission be appointed? Will it be appointed by the House of Lords as currently constituted? Will that be done by a motion of that House? Will that House be able to vote on or amend that motion? Even if one were to accept the intention to create the permanent Appointments Commission, of which great play is made in the White Paper, if not the reality of that—a great deal of further scrutiny is required—the initial Appointments Commission will be crucial and we must know more about it.

A minor question that arises from page 25 of the White Paper is the intriguing statement that the Appointments Commission will ensure that at least 30 per cent. of new appointees are women and 30 per cent. are men". The mind boggles as to what the rest will be, but I am sure that the Leader of the House will be able to satisfy us on that matter with his usual facility.

We would not have started where the Government started in this process—that is clear. We thought phase 1 ill-conceived, but we gave the Government the benefit of the doubt and believed that phase 2 would be taken seriously and done properly. We all share an interest in having the most effective upper House possible, but what has been proposed today falls far short of that. It satisfies no criteria that even the Government set out. It satisfies few criteria set out by the Wakeham Commission. All in all, it is an enormous disappointment.

There is a danger that the proposal will provide a fig leaf of democracy over what continues to be a largely unrepresentative appointed body. At worst, we shall have a continuation and indeed an institutionalisation of Tony's cronies. The Government should either withdraw the White Paper or at the very least refer it to a Joint Committee of both Houses, which was always intended to be the vehicle by which this reform would proceed.

Mr. Cook

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his thanks for making the document available to him. I start by trying to build on the narrow basis of consensus between us.

On the question of the consultation ending on 31 January, that date is three months away, but no one is starting out with a fresh sheet of paper as though they had only just started thinking about these matters. The debate has been going on for four years and it is three years since the royal commission was set up. By now, the Opposition should at least have some idea of what they want to say by 31 January. We are putting the White Paper out for consultation, but it would not be satisfactory for that consultation to be confined to a Joint Committee of Members of both Houses. I want to extend it to the public and want civil society, the devolved bodies and local authorities to take part.

It is important that we cap the upper House at 600; the number should not indefinitely expand with each election. The cap will impose a discipline, and we have accepted that discipline. Even though we are in our fifth year in office, we have still not matched the number of Conservative peers in the House of Lords. We have accepted that as a restraint on us and we will recognise it until we ensure that we have the numbers available in the House of Lords to be replaced by those who will provide a balance that reflects the way in which the nation voted in the general election.

I did not imagine that the right hon. Gentleman would like the reference to a minimum of 30 per cent. women and I was right, but everyone on the Labour Benches, and many on the Opposition Benches, support a statutory requirement that there should be fair play so that both genders are adequately represented in the House of Lords. If some hon. Members find that an offensive principle, I look forward to the debates in Committee.

As for the rest of what the right hon. Gentleman said, I can only say that I genuinely admire his brass neck. It is a new departure for the Conservatives to say that they want a more robust and effective Opposition in the House of Lords. In office, they so packed it with their placemen and, occasionally, placewomen that they received total support and even managed to get the poll tax through without a murmur.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, in opposition the Conservatives have resisted every Government attempt to remove the hereditary peers. They so much disliked what Viscount Cranborne did that they sacked him for it. They voted against Second Reading and Third Reading of the House of Lords Act 1999, which gave effect to reform, and the right hon. Gentleman was one of those who voted against.

In 18 years, the Conservatives never once proposed that there should be a single elected Member of the House of Lords and never once made a single proposal for reform. Now we are invited to believe that they want a more democratic House of Lords than that proposed. If that is the case, the right hon. Gentleman must answer a simple question, or perhaps one of his colleagues who takes part in these exchanges will do so: what proportion of elected Members would they support?

I know that the Conservatives find that question difficult, because we heard the Leader of the Opposition in House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, say this morning that they cannot agree on what proportion should be elected.

Mr. Forth

indicated dissent.

Mr. Cook

Lord Strathclyde did indeed say precisely that. He said that the Conservatives have not agreed what proportion should be elected.

I tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have three months for consultation. I want to build a cross-party consensus. I look forward to discussing with the Opposition their plans for a democratic House of Lords, when they have plans to discuss. I hope that they can produce them in the next three months.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

I welcome the statement made by the Leader of the House. This is a very exciting day, because many of us have campaigned for such reform for years and it is wonderful to see how it is being conducted. I congratulate him on the way in which he is carrying out the consultation, because bringing the rest of the country with us and showing how we want to change the House of Lords is crucial.

May I express my astonishment at the position of the shadow Leader of the House on the 30 per cent. quota? His comments show his complete misunderstanding of equality of opportunity and gender. He does not understand the issue at all. May I ask the Leader of the House about his comment on breaking the link between being a Member of the House of Lords and a member of the peerage? Everyone will welcome that, but how does he propose to deal with the title of the House of Lords? I believe, and many people agree, that it is wrong that individuals should be called your lordship, baroness or whatever. Perhaps that is going a bit far, but should not we consider changing the title of the House of Lords? Is that part of the consultation? Are we inviting comment?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady's question is too long.

Mr. Cook

I would have been happy had my hon. Friend been able to continue, Mr. Speaker.

First, I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming the consultation and I share her view that the broad majority of the people of Britain will welcome the commitment to gender equality. On the title, we say in the White Paper that the honours system will continue, but it will do so independently of the House of Lords. We have not made any proposal in the White Paper on the title of the House of Lords. The Wakeham Commission said that the title of the second Chamber should be allowed freely and naturally to evolve. I would not wish rapidly to cut short that process of free evolution, but I am sure that during the consultation views will be expressed, which we can include in our response.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I welcome the White Paper and the statement and thank the Leader of the House for giving us copies in advance. I particularly welcome the White Paper's emphasis on what the body should do, rather than who should do it. I shall no doubt return to that.

Does the Leader of the House recall the explicit promise he made in 1997 to produce

a democratic and representative second chamber".

I am sure that the House recognises that the rats have got at it since then, but I should not like to say at which end of the building they have been gnawing away. However, the White Paper now refers to making it more representative and democratic".

It could hardly be less.

Does the Leader of the House accept that that is not the promise given in the 1997 manifesto and in the agreement made with the Liberal Democrats? Does he accept that the formula proposed—120, less than a fifth of the total of 750 at the beginning of the process—meets neither the 1997 manifesto commitment nor that in the 2001 manifesto, on which Labour Members stood for election by the public just a few months ago? Does he subscribe to the ludicrous view, expounded this morning on the "Today" programme by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), that elections are somehow undemocratic because turnout is so low in safe seats? Does he really want to continue to appoint Archers and Ashcrofts to that body or is he prepared to accept that direct democracy is a more preferable way to ensure that the second Chamber is a true part of a parliamentary democracy?

Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept that it will be ridiculous if the parameters for consultation on the composition of the second Chamber are set just above or below 120? Surely the consultation must provide an opportunity for hon. Members on both sides of the House—especially, perhaps, those on the Labour Benches—to show that many of us believe that that is totally inadequate. The fact that the Conservatives cannot come up with a figure is an additional reason for the rest of us to consider establishing a more democratic House.

While accepting, as we all do, that the pre-eminence of this House is important, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the White Paper is absurdly cautious in finding ways to guarantee it? There are other options. Disentangling appointments from general elections would clearly make it much easier for this House to be demonstrably the first House.

Does the right hon. Gentleman also recognise that an element of indirect election from the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London Authority and the English regional authorities, which we hope will be created soon, would ensure greater democratic legitimacy?

In short, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, for the health of Parliament, we must go further than this timid step? Otherwise, we will have to return again and again to what is unfinished business. Does he realise that he is perpetuating instability at the heart of our parliamentary democracy by going only so far?

Mr. Cook

Let me respond first to the hon. Gentleman's specific points before concentrating on his central thesis. The Wakeham Commission took evidence on indirect elections to the House of Lords and found no enthusiasm for it, although the devolved bodies had just been set up. We refer to that in the White Paper. It is open to devolved bodies and other regional bodies to respond to the consultation. Obviously, if they are interested in pursuing that indirect route we can reflect on that when we formulate our response. It is a brute fact—a reality—that the great majority of England does not have a regional body or elections to such a body, which inhibits the extent to which we can go down that road.

I read our manifesto with great care and we said that we would seek to implement the Wakeham report in the most effective way possible. That is what we are trying to do this afternoon.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on his central point. Although he did not use these words, in effect he wants a House of Lords that is wholly democratically elected. Many in his party would agree, and many would not. It is a legitimate view and I respect the sincerity of those who hold it, but they should be honest with themselves and the House.

I cannot conceive of a wholly elected House of Lords that would not regard itself as having a legitimacy equal to that of the House of Commons. It is impossible to think of such a Chamber accepting that it could not legislate on taxation or that it could only delay legislation, not throw it out. A significant change in the balance between the two Chambers would be involved. I do not regard my role as Leader of the House of Commons as presiding over such an historic shift in its powers.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I note that the White Paper's title is "Completing the Reform", but we have three months to discuss the completion. What will the Leader of the House do if the overwhelming response to his consultation is that he should go further, to at least the top level suggested in the Wakeham report for the proportion of elected Members?

Mr. Cook

It would be very unhealthy to begin to speculate about the hypothetical response to the hypothetical expression of a view in the consultation. I can only say to my hon. Friend that we are genuine about the consultation. That is why we published the White Paper, and said at the start of it that all its proposals will be put out for consultation. At the end of the White Paper there are six separate, specific questions on issues on which we want advice and views. One of the questions asks, "Is the proportion right between independent Members, elected Members and the party appointments?" I am sure that my hon. Friend will have an answer to that and that she will encourage others to express their views, as she has done in her early-day motion. We will certainly take those views into account in our response.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

As one of the very few Members left in the House who voted for the Bill on the renunciation of peerages that enabled Tony Benn, Alec Douglas-Home and Quintin Hogg to return to this Chamber, and who subsequently voted for the introduction of life peers, I regard the constitutional proposals as wholly unsatisfactory. They do not go nearly far enough down the democratic path. [Laughter.] I have been arguing this case for 40 years.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me of any other major democratic country in which the second Chamber is not overwhelmingly in numbers elected? Does he not understand that the fundamental flaw in the proposals is that the various categories of Member will speak and vote in the House of Lords with different degrees of authority, and that any elected Member of the second Chamber will inevitably tend to be dismissive of criticisms made by placemen?

Mr. Cook

A large number of second Chambers around the world have a mixed membership.

Sir Peter Tapsell

The majority? Name one.

Mr. Cook

I said a large number. I do not dispute that the majority are elected, either wholly or in part, although many of the elections are indirect. However, there are many with a mixed membership, and there is no evidence of such membership resulting in a distinction or invidious division between the Members.

I have a great respect for the antiquity and experience with which the hon. Gentleman speaks to the House, but he should, in fairness, acknowledge that during the great many years on which he sat on this side of the Chamber, under a Conservative Government, he never successfully persuaded them to introduce the reforms that we propose. I suggest, therefore, that those who were unable to take action when they had the opportunity to do so should be a little humble before they dismiss our proposals.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that I have been considering this matter for some time? In fact, it dates back to October 1976, when he, I and many others at the Labour party conference voted by 6 million to 6,000—this was in the days of the wonderful block vote—to abolish the House of Lords. I am not in favour of the elected system or of a system in which the chattering classes will reproduce themselves in the House of Lords. I believe in the third way: get rid of it, and try this out in a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Mr. Cook

I blame myself for not bringing this statement to the House on Monday, when my hon. Friend could have put forward the Guy Fawkes option, which he plainly favours. I understand full well why he and so many others want to see change at the other end of the Corridor. Unlike my hon. Friend, most of those who have followed the debate agree that there is a case for a second Chamber as a place of revision, and its disappearance, without anything to replace it, would put an added burden on this Chamber. We make these proposals to try to ensure that we have a second Chamber that works as a complement, not a competitor, to the Commons.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that those of us who believe in accountable government are deeply disappointed by his statement? Does he not understand that at a time when we have a presidential system of government, not a parliamentary system, the powers of Parliament should be enhanced, not cut? Does he not understand that the only proper basis for political authority these days is election? Finally, does he not understand that when he talks about the primacy of this House, in reality he means the primacy of the Government of the day? What we want—I have made this argument since the first day I entered Parliament in 1979—is a greatly enhanced second Chamber, wholly or largely elected and with greatly extended political powers.

Mr. Cook

I only ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman why he never understood his own questions in all the long years that he was in government.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, especially the fact that he has made it clear that the future of the second Chamber lies in its being a revising Chamber that acts as a check and balance in our system, not a rival to this House. I also welcome the quota for women Members. May I take this opportunity to urge him to consider the deficits in the representation of ethnic minority communities, as well as the lack of proper regional representation? Finally, does he agree that it is wholly pointless for Members to bleat about the absence of a Joint Committee when they have spent the past four years sabotaging any prospect of such a Committee being established?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend's final point is correct: we proposed the establishment of a Joint Committee in the last Parliament but were unable to reach agreement with the other parties on its terms of reference.

I fully endorse my hon. Friend's remarks about the progress that the reform will achieve in terms of the representation within Parliament of ethnic communities across Britain. We have made good progress on that with House of Lords appointments in recent years, but we remain some way short of a membership of the second Chamber that is fully representative of the ethnic communities. At this tense international moment, we all understand how valuable it would be to have them fully represented.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problem of voter apathy would be made far worse if the system of election were to be the wholly discredited party list system? If that system were adopted, would we face the ridiculous situation that exists in the European Parliament, whereby entitlement under the party lists enables someone who changes party allegiance to continue to sit as a Member?

Mr. Cook

To be honest, I do not know what response to make to that question. Some issues will have to be explored in Committee, but I would not be inclined to oppose that as a system that we would find acceptable. Yes, a list system will be used. We do not say in the White Paper whether the lists should he open or closed and we look forward to consultation and discussion on that very point. However, it would not be helpful to any of us if Members of the second Chamber were elected as we are, from a fixed specific constituency, because that would open up the greatest competition between Members of the second Chamber and Members of the House of Commons.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

Some of us regret the lack of progress that the Government have made in bringing devolution to the English regions, but, as my right hon. Friend said, they are now finalising their views. Will the Government think imaginatively about ways of accommodating within the arrangements that they make for regional devolution in England the representation of people from those regional bodies in a newly composed House of Lords? Does he agree that we need creativity and more joined-up thinking in carrying through constitutional reform if we are to achieve the new politics and the reinvigoration of our political institutions that so many of us want?

Mr. Cook

Like my right hon. Friend, I fully support the development of a regional dimension to United Kingdom politics. We have already done that through the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, and the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and an elected assembly in London. That work must continue, and a White Paper on regional assemblies will come before the House shortly.

On the question of representation in the House of Lords, there are two ways in which the regional dimension is relevant. The first is whether we should use elections to those regional devolved bodies as the basis on which elections for the elected Members of the House of Lords take place; that is one of the questions that we submitted for consultation. The second was the issue of indirect election from those bodies to the second Chamber. As I said earlier, that is a route for which the Wakeham Commission found no support, but the proposals are now hack out for consultation. If the devolved bodies and the existing regional bodies are interested in that involvement and route to election to the House of Lords, they have three months in which to express that view; it is down to them and my right hon. Friend to express it.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

The Leader of the House will be aware that, at present, there is an independent Appointments Commission. Members from Northern Ireland welcome the statement that there will be fair representation of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. Is the Leader of the House aware of the disappointment in Northern Ireland at the fact that Northern Ireland was not represented in the first batch of independent appointments to the House of Lords, despite the fact that a number of eminent members of the community in Northern Ireland applied to the independent commission? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore take steps to ensure that when we say that there will be fair representation of the regions, measures will be introduced to ensure that that is reflected in appointments?

Mr. Cook

I take note of the hon. Gentleman's comments but, in fairness, the Stevenson Commission, which made those appointments, was operating on a non-statutory basis. Our proposal in the White Paper is not only that the Appointments Commissions will become statutory but that the obligations that I have outlined will become statutory and therefore mandatory for the commission.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I congratulate the Government on tackling the second stage of Lords reform. I welcome the ending of the hereditary principle, the possibility of removing titles and, in particular, the requirement of a minimum of 30 per cent. women. I also welcome the consultation, as I hope that there will be movement during that period on the number of elected Members.

Why is the percentage of elected Members so low—only 20 per cent? That is lower than the highest recommendation in the Wakeham report of 35 per cent., or 195 elected members. We have already covered issues relating to what my right hon. Friend thinks about a link to regional governments in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and possibly regional governments in England. Does he see this as the end of the process, or does he see further stages ahead in which we can move to a fully democratic House of Lords?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for aspects of the statement. Totting them up, I think that she gave me a pass mark. I understand what she says about the percentage of those who are elected. From listening to the exchanges today, I believe that it is broadly agreed by almost all present that there should be some elected Members. Many hon. Members—most, I think—would recognise that a wholly elected second Chamber would have severe implications for the House of Commons. The question is where to strike the balance between "some" and "all". We proposed one balance in the White Paper and invited comments on it; I hope that the process of consultation will help us to find a consensus on judging the balance between elected, appointed and party Members.

No Government—and, for that matter, no House of Commons—can settle matters for all time, but if we are to proceed with legislation I hope that it will stand the test of some time.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The House will have noted that the Leader of the House did not answer the interesting questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about whether the various imperatives on membership can be reconciled. However, I wish to make a different point. Throughout debate on the second Chamber, the Government have said that they are anxious to achieve a consensus. If it becomes clear that a consensus is more likely to be achieved at a higher level of elected representatives than currently proposed, will they obstruct the securing of that consensus?

Mr. Cook

The point of consultation is to try to reach consensus. We must respect whatever consensus emerges from it.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about the disadvantages of a wholly elected second Chamber, but I regret that I cannot give him a pass mark. His announcement today represents the worst of all worlds: part patronage, part appointment by a committee that will doubtless choose people who resemble its members, and part election, with the danger of the clash of mandates to which he referred. Will he consider an indirectly elected Chamber, with representatives from business, trade unions, regional and local government and religious organisations? It would contain the expertise and experience to scrutinise and improve legislation.

Mr. Cook

I recognise the force of the case for indirect elections, although, from listening to hon. Members, I am not sure whether my hon. Friend struck the note of consensus for which we are searching. So far, only a minority of the United Kingdom is covered by an elected regional body. Many inside and outside the House would be reluctant to support indirect election by unelected bodies.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Does not the Leader of the House believe that the current reformed Chamber is working well—indeed, according to many observers, better than ever? Can he give one example of a way in which it does not work? Today's proposals are a dog's breakfast. We should keep the House of Lords as it is, or hold full-scale elections for the second Chamber.

Mr. Cook

I refer the hon. Gentleman to Bernard Shaw's observation that a Government consisting of the hundred tallest people in Britain might work well, but that does not mean that it would be a good system. In my opening statement, I pointed out the flaws in the current House of Lords: hereditary peers are still there; no Member is elected, and its membership does not reflect the balance of the way in which the nation voted. The proposals will rectify that; those issues of principle are worth tackling.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My right hon. Friend said that the proposals would create a "modern second Chamber". They may do many things, but they will not achieve that. Legitimacy comes only from election. Many Labour Members—and I am sure, many Labour party members, if they were properly consulted—would call for an elected second Chamber. My fear, which has been echoed by Opposition Members, is that the proposals are so inherently complex that they cannot satisfy all our expectations. I ask my right hon. Friend to put on his influential Labour party hat as a member of the national policy forum and tell us whether there will be proper consultation in the party by 31 January to ascertain its members' views of the proposals.

Mr. Cook

Of course, the Labour party, like every party, will be consulted. I hope that consultation will enable us to build cross-party consensus. I understand the force of my hon. Friend's argument, but I cannot understand how we can have a wholly elected second Chamber without breeding conflict and competition. If my hon. Friend wants us to cede power to the second Chamber, he must be honest with himself and others. I note that some Conservative Members are nodding at the idea of ceding power to the second Chamber. I do not want to take through a measure that will result in the undermining of the powers and prerogatives of the House of Commons.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

I add my welcome to the White Paper on Lords reform. I commend to the Leader of the House the inclusion of a provision to allow existing life peers to retire. I raised the matter on Second Reading of the House of Lords Act 1999 in the other place and said that, at present, the only way out was in a box.

The combination of reducing the powers on secondary legislation and the low numbers that are proposed for election leaves the second Chamber as neither fish nor fowl. Are not the proposals a small step for democracy and a giant leap for complacency?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for an escape hatch that does not involve a box. It remains to be seen how many life peers might be interested in that process of retirement, but it would be important in enabling us to meet the cap of 600 to which other hon. Members have referred.

I do not have a problem with making a proposal that involves mixed membership of the House of Lords. Indeed, as I said earlier, mixed membership is essential to ensure that the House of Lords complements, rather than competes with, this Chamber. It is a matter of judgment—and a matter for valid debate on that judgment—as to what should be the basis for, and proportion of, that mixture. That is why we are producing the White Paper and putting it out for consultation.

Mr. Calum MacDonald (Western Isles)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there can sometimes be a conflict between having a fully democratic Chamber and one that is fully representative in the sense of reflecting the wider society? Given that this Chamber is a democratic Chamber, does it not make sense to have one that is more representative, that reflects society outside, and that has more women and ethnic minorities and, hopefully, fewer lawyers?

Mr. Cook

We have not drafted any statutory provision to control the number of lawyers appointed but, obviously, I shall try to absorb the feeling of the House on that point in any proposals that we introduce after consultation.

My hon. Friend has a point. Ethnic minority communities are now better represented in the second Chamber than they are here. I hope that, in the course of achieving the progress that we want to make on the second Chamber, we shall achieve a reasonable balance between the genders more quickly than it looks as though we shall here. There are ways in which representation can be achieved other than through the ballot box. That is an important element, which is why we are proposing an element of elected members.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

I congratulate the Leader of the House on the inclusion in his proposals of what might be called a Kagan clause. I also congratulate him on his desire to achieve fair representation of nations and regions in the upper House. Is he aware that, of the 267 persons elevated to the peerage since 1 May 1997, three come from the east midlands, five from the north-east, seven from Wales and seven from Northern Ireland? I shall not go on, except to say that 117 appointees come from London. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that, in making the new, balanced range of appointments, the Appointments Commission and the political parties are asked to correct that deplorable imbalance achieved by his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister?

Mr. Cook

I am not immediately persuaded that Lord Kagan was the name in most people's minds when I read that passage of my speech. On the hon. Gentleman's other point, it is our objective to try to achieve fairer representation by region and by nation in the United Kingdom. That will be a statutory requirement, and it will be binding not only on the Appointments Commission but on the parties.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

I warmly welcome the abolition of the absurd anachronism of hereditary peers. On the assumption that almost anything must be an improvement, may I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, if only on the ground that the proposed bizarre hotchpotch might at least be a stage on the road to a democratically elected second Chamber with powers limited by statute?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome, as far as it went. I agree that this represents progress. Parliamentary reform, in either Chamber, takes the form of evolution rather than revolution, and I encourage him to accept this as a step forward. If he wishes, during the consultation, to encourage us to go further, that is his prerogative.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

I commend the Leader of the House for his proposal to reduce the number of bishops in the second Chamber from 26 to 16. May I suggest that his proposals would be greatly improved if that figure were to be reduced by a further 16? Surely, in the 21st century, we should have representation from all faiths and denominations or from none at all.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman and I both come from a country that went to war to get rid of bishops; I should place that interest on the table before I respond. The Wakeham Commission examined this point with considerable care and attention, and came to the conclusion that it was right that there should be representatives of faiths in the second Chamber, but that that should not rest solely with the 26 bishops. That is why it proposed a reduction in their numbers. It suggested that, for balance, a fixed number should be appointed from other faiths, and we have wrestled with that proposal for some time. However, it is impossible to reduce the many other faiths in Britain to a pro rata formula, which is why we shall invite the Appointments Commission to ensure that those faiths are properly represented and that, where appropriate, their leaders can be included on the Cross Benches.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his announcement that hereditary peers, who sit in the House of Lords because of what their ancestors did—which, in many cases, was neither worthy nor creditable—are now to go? I hope that, during the consultation period, we consider two priorities: accountability and improved legislation. I know that my right hon. Friend is keen to see improved legislation, and the second Chamber should play a role in that. It should therefore be composed of people with the expertise to look at legislation constructively and positively so that, ultimately, Parliament produces a better form of legislation.

Mr. Cook

I have no idea whether what my ancestors were doing five centuries ago was creditable or otherwise, but I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that that should not be the basis on which I or anybody else has a seat in Parliament. It should be on the basis of what we can contribute and represent.

I agree with my hon. Friend that, if we want intelligent legislation, particularly legislation that reflects the rapidly changing society and technology in the world outside, we need to give people who have an expertise that we do not necessarily have access to Parliament. Standing for election is an unusual activity, which will always be attractive only to a small minority of the population. It is right that there should be another route by which those who have something to offer but do not wish to stand for election can take part in debates and legislation.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

I welcome the reform of the House of Lords. I am particularly pleased that it is not a fully elected second Chamber.

May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to part of his statement: The Government believe that the proportion of appointed party Members should broadly match the distribution of votes between the parties at the most recent general election As he knows, at the last general election five Sinn Fein members were returned from Northern Ireland. They have not represented their constituents in the House because they failed to take the Oath of Allegiance. What measures do the Government intend to take to persuade Sinn Fein members to take up their position within the House of Lords?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Lady will be aware that the White Paper provides that the threshold for membership of the House of Lords be varied in regions where parties stand only in those regions. That means that we shall not apply the percentage figure across the UK for parties that stand only in a part of the UK. That point is of importance to Scotland and Wales, as well as to Northern Ireland.

On the position of Sinn Fein, it is more a matter of whether Sinn Fein wishes to take part in this Chamber. I doubt whether we shall appoint Sinn Fein Members to the second Chamber until such time as they may wish to take part in this Chamber.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

May I welcome the Government's conversion to the principle of a mixed-membership second Chamber, which ensures that we have a Chamber that is neither a rival to, nor a replica of, this House and that we have enough election to secure legitimacy, but enough appointment to secure expertise and independence?

In making its proposals, the Wakeham Commission was sensitive to the charge that any new House would be seen as a House of patronage, which is why its central and most radical recommendation was that all appointments should be made by an independent Appointments Commission. Why do the Government seem to have rejected that recommendation?

Mr. Cook

I agree that we must ensure that there is a channel through which people with expertise and independence of mind can take part in parliamentary debates. He is correct about what the royal commission recommended: that the independent Appointments Commission appoint not only Cross Benchers but party representatives. We have not accepted that argument for the simple and straightforward reason that we cannot conceive of a major political party submitting to a situation in which its representatives were chosen by people who were not members of that party, and I doubt whether the official Opposition would submit to it either.

I notice that Lord Wakeham himself seems to be resiling from that recommendation. In this week's The House Magazine, he is quoted as saying: I have always envisaged that the overwhelming bulk of the political nominees would come by nomination of their party leaders. That is precisely what is before the House in this White Paper.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

I welcome the broad thrust of today's proposals, particularly those on measures to ensure the continued primacy of this Chamber. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that the new second Chamber is to be a working Chamber, and that there should be at least a minimum level of attendance and participation, particularly for appointed Members, on which continued membership of the Chamber depends?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We shall seek to construct a second Chamber that will be a functioning second Chamber capable of providing added value to our debates on legislation and scrutiny of the Executive. It is important that those who take their place there maintain a reasonable attendance record. People will be chosen not only for what they have to offer but for their willingness to ensure that they do contribute to those debates.