HC Deb 15 January 2002 vol 378 cc149-51
44. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

If he will invite the House of Lords Appointments Commission to discuss with people's peers their experience of their membership of the Lords with a view to informing its future recommendations. [25059]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

The first round of appointments made by the Appointments Commission included the chief executive of Centrepoint, the chief executive of Childline, and a trustee of Oxfam. The appointments also brought a welcome balance to the membership of the Lords. [Interruption.] I shall get to the question, if Members will be patient. Almost a third of the new members belong to ethnic communities and a similar proportion are women. They have brought their experience and authority to proceedings in the Lords on immigration, child poverty, equal opportunity and public services. I cannot speak for the Appointments Commission but I am sure that both my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and I would listen with respect if its members wished to comment on their experience.

Mr. Prentice

if appointed peers are expected to make a contribution in the House of Lords, is the chair of the Appointments Commission setting a good example by having spoken twice in the two and a half years since he was ennobled in 1999?

Mr. Cook

I do not think that it is any part of my remit or that of the Government to encourage even more people to speak in debates in the House of Lords.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

In addition to taking advice from the Appointments Commission and the people's peers, will the Leader of the House say what his proposals are for a further consultation period beyond the end of this month? He will be aware of the gathering consensus that the White Paper represents nobody except the Lord Chancellor, and that he is in a minority of one. What steps will the Leader of the House take to ensure that the House and the other place have a proper opportunity—without the Whips and on a free vote—to discuss the issues, and when does he expect us to be given that opportunity? Does he accept that there is one thing on which there is a unanimous view—that doing nothing is unacceptable?

Mr. Cook

I wholly endorse the last sentence of the hon. Gentleman's question, and since it is the only part of his question that I can wholly endorse, I shall seize upon it. It is important that we continue the process of reform of the House of Lords to create a modern second Chamber. As I warned last week, we must not let divisions among those who want reform to prevent there from being any reform. We had a full opportunity for the House to express itself last week and, as someone who sat through the entire debate, I can say that the House expressed itself robustly. The views expressed last week are being reflected upon. The consultation process goes on until 31 January. It is perhaps premature now to announce any further consultation. It is important that we reflect on the views expressed in the House and in the country and, as I said last week, seek to find the centre of gravity that will enable reform to proceed with support.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If only the Government had kept to the 1976 policy and abolished the House of Lords, they would not be suffering all this heartache at the present time. It is sad that nobody knows what the new proposal will be at the end, despite all the consultation that is taking place. In the knowledge that there are not enough Members like myself who want to abolish the House of Lords completely, irrespective of the percentage who are elected, my right hon. Friend must remember one thing—do not give it very much power.

Mr. Cook

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that I am in no danger of forgetting that very important maxim. It is precisely because of that that I sought to warn the House last week of the danger of a wholly elected second Chamber. I find it hard to see how we could preserve the present supremacy of the House of Commons and the present balance of power between us against a second Chamber that would claim an equally valid democratic mandate.

With regard to my hon. Friend's first point, I do not wish to rehearse the debates of 1966.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Cook

1976. I have enough difficulty rehearsing the debates of last week. However, it has been the case in the past, particularly in the 1966 Parliament, that what stopped reform was division among the reformers. We must not let that be the case now.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

Before the Leader of the House has any discussions with the Appointments Commission, will he confirm that his own proposals for reform of the Lords, which were criticised in every quarter of this House last week, are in effect now a dead duck? Will he seek to use his influence with the Prime Minister—however great or small that might be—to ensure that the correct way forward is to propose a House of Lords where the majority of the membership is elected, not where the majority in the House are Tony's cronies?

Mr. Cook

Without getting engaged in a discussion about the extent of my influence with the Prime Minister, I suspect that, such as it is, it would be sharply diminished if I announced to the House in advance what my advice would be.

The right hon. Gentleman has to take on board the fact that Conservative Members must also face up to problems with their proposals, as some Labour Members have pointed out. The Conservative party has supported the hereditary principle for a century, so it is entirely welcome that it has finally recognised that that principle is indefensible, and has been so throughout the century that the Conservative party has defended it.

I welcome the Conservative party's move towards democracy, but its proposals show that it believes that democracy means providing in the second Chamber the same representation for Surrey as for London. That shows that Conservatives have some way to go before they understand democracy as it is understood in Britain, and certainly as it is understood in London.