HC Deb 17 June 2002 vol 387 cc125-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

9.5 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

One of the more enduring legacies among many that the Government will pass on to future generations will be their constitutional reform programme, which has achieved a great deal to date and is an evolving process that continues apace. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly have been considerable successes in their own way. There have been significant teething difficulties in some respects, but by and large the great majority of people who live in those parts of the United Kingdom believe them to be considerable successes. The roll-out of regional democracy looks set to continue in England, both through new mayoral elections and the introduction, I hope, of regional assemblies.

At a different level of government, there is a need to reform the House of Lords, and that, too, is moving ahead apace. I want to stress why House of Lords reform must take place in a way that is complementary to, not competitive with, the roll-out of regional assemblies and subsidiarity across the United Kingdom. A couple of months ago, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House took part in a conference in London on that subject organised by the Scottish Forum for Modern Government. The matter has been the subject of some discussion, but I want to air one or two points that I fear otherwise might not see the light of day.

The first of those points is timing. Notwithstanding the work of the Joint Committee of both Houses that will be formed this week, we seem to be moving towards a timetable for Lords reform that suggests that the new-look Chamber could be in place at the time of the next general election, if not before. That would mean a Bill passing through this House in 2003 or 2004. If it is decided that the second Chamber should have a directly elected element of as much as 50 per cent., and assuming that the Lords Chamber is around the same size as this one, about 300 newly elected Members of the Lords would take their seats following an election in 2005 or 2006. That timetable would run virtually concurrently with the roll-out of regional assemblies, where regions chose to have them. It could therefore reasonably be assumed that the two processes would influence each other—positively or negatively, depending on how they are carried out.

It is important to bear in mind the fact that the level of representation on putative regional assemblies, if they were to operate at about the same level as the Greater London Assembly, could be lower than the level that each region would provide to a reformed House of Lords through elected Members under a 50 per cent. election plan. It can be predicted that some political and media interests will campaign for a no vote, presenting new political jobs as a jamboree for the regional political classes. In view of that, there is a fairly strong risk that the creation of 30 or 40 new political jobs in each region will have a seriously detrimental effect on the results of referendums on regional assemblies that would probably be taking place at around the same time.

It is worth considering two points in more detail. It is likely that payments for new, elected Members of the Lords will be lower than for full-time Members of Parliament. The Government and the Public Administration Committee have presented arguments on that. However reimbursement, remuneration or payment is structured, it will probably be more attractive than that for a councillor. It may even compete with being a member of a regional assembly when and if assemblies are established in different parts of the country.

The Public Administration Committee suggested that, in view of greater journey times and distances and the possible higher administrative costs of travelling from Scotland or the north-east, the total package for a Scottish Member of the second Chamber could exceed £30,000. I believe that the figure would be more, given that flights would cost approximately £10,000 for a weekly attender.

It will be hard to argue that the new appointments are meaningful and valuable but to pay a daily rate that is substantially lower than that of non-departmental public bodies. That problem must be solved. The Senior Salaries Review Body would probably recommend a sum that approached that offered by non-departmental public bodies: perhaps £200 or £300 a day. Perhaps the figure would be half that, but it would still be significant.

Regardless of the rate and the costs of the current system, the fact that £1 million per annum or more has been committed to a new layer of regional party politicians would make winning a referendum on a new regional assembly harder work than it would otherwise be. That is possibly a fatal blow to assemblies, for which polling suggests a tight result. The problem would be exacerbated by the almost inevitable compensation that would have to be paid to current life peers who would have to leave the Chamber to keep the numbers manageable under a plan to elect 50 per cent. or more. I presume that the public would prefer that money to be spent on public services such as health and education.

I have not heard the second point that I want to stress in a debate on reforming the Lords until now. It is the function of the other Chamber. I have read the Government's comments and those of the Public Administration Committee. I have also read previous debates. Perhaps hon. Members will make similar comments later about clearly defining powers. One could say that the other Chamber is primarily for revision and scrutiny. That is all very well, but unintended and unforeseen consequences may ensue from immediately having a substantially elected element of new Members of another Chamber. I want to illustrate that through my experience and that of my colleagues in the context of otherwise successful devolution in Scotland.

Some list Members of the Scottish Parliament have taken on roles as shadow constituency MSPs in ways that people did not foresee when the Scotland Act 1998 was passed. I suspect that some of the same practices would operate in a Lords or a senate, or whatever the second Chamber happened to be called. I believe that many practices would be imported. Let me refer to a couple that happen regularly in Scotland and perhaps in Wales and Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, a d'Hondt system was used to provide proportionality in the legislature. Hon. Members were elected through that system to provide fairness when passing legislation; they did not have a constituency role. Indeed, many who were elected as list Members stood unsuccessfully for constituencies. In almost all cases, list MSPs have set themselves up as shadow constituency MSPs. When I conduct my weekly surgeries, I see posters for "your local MSP". They do not refer to the local constituency MSP, but the list MSP who is working the patch. Indeed, Opposition list Members divide up each region according to their own party's political interests and work that patch. I suspect that that activity was not foreseen, and it could easily be replicated by a substantially elected membership of the other place, if such there were to be.

People sometimes say to me that there would be a limit to what people could do if they were elected to the other Chamber, because they would have a clearly delineated function, and if they stepped outside that they would be slapped down. In fact, it is not as simple as that. For example, I have a large Child Support Agency office in my constituency, which looks after the north and Scotland. I recently paid a visit to the parliamentary questions section of the agency, and was told that quite a high proportion of the work that is referred to it came from MPs. I said, "Surely it is all referred by MPs, as it is a reserved area", but I discovered that that is not the case. MSPs can put in cases to the CSA and are treated in the same way as MPs. I presume that there is a good reason for that, and that it has something to do with the fact that a CSA case will often dovetail with issues relating to social services, housing and so on. That might well be the reason for that working practice having developed, but the fact remains that that movement across a boundary was not foreseen.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In such circumstances, he and an MSP might end up pursuing the same case, which could lead to correspondence being duplicated or triplicated, because everyone wants in on the act. I agree that the issue is likely to be compounded by an elected second Chamber.

Mr. Joyce

My hon. Friend is quite right. Of course, the public have a right to go to whichever elected representative they think appropriate. It is then efficient for that representative to point the constituent in the direction of the person who can best help them. People often come to Members of Parliament with housing issues, for example, and it is much more efficient gently to direct them towards the appropriate councillor, and to help whenever possible with any related issues.

In Scotland, that does not always work as efficiently as it might, but I would stress that that is a matter of the whole process bedding in. We must not be depressed about looking towards the future, because the reality is that things are getting tidier, more efficient and more effective all the time. Scotland has learned a great deal in the last couple of years, and I suspect that, when a few more years have passed, these issues will dovetail and work quite well. The question is how quickly that learning process takes place, and how quickly we introduce an element of democratisation—in this case, to the other Chamber.

If there were to be a substantially elected second Chamber, a substantial chunk of its Members would still not be able to ensure proper proportionality for Scotland. That is a reason to commend the idea of an elected component, because it will enable us to ensure that different parts of the country are properly represented. Before the last reform of the House of Lords—the temporary reform, if I may call it that—there was a system that ensured a certain number of Scottish peers. In fact, there were too many, and they held a ballot to see which ones would come down. Under an appointment-only system, we would not be able to guarantee proper representation for the regions, so that commends an element of election. Not all my similar-thinking colleagues agree with that, but it is important to have that relationship with the regions, and it is therefore important to have an elected element. That proportionality remains distinctly important.

I shall conclude my remarks, because one or two of my colleagues might wish to speak. My intention tonight is not to say that the roll-out of devolution in Scotland has been anything other than a considerable success—quite the contrary. My intention is to convey the point that the speed at which we introduce what could be described as democratisation to the Lords is something about which we must be extremely careful. If we get it wrong—if we do it too quickly—that could have an impact on another important element in the roll-out of constitutional reform across the country.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

My hon. Friend mentioned possible duplication. Surely there is a requirement for representation to address different functions, roles and responsibilities. There is no evidence that the public want to pay for duplication of representation.

Has my hon. Friend given any thought to the size of a second Chamber? The White Paper on regional assemblies recommended a standard size of between 25 and 30 members per region.

Mr. Joyce

Those are both important points. I can see that a second Chamber could have a function, although there are a number of alternative models. Regional assemblies, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly would provide scope for a scrutiny function that would not involve a second Chamber. It would be possible to have a unicameral system here that would broadly work.

I agree with the Government that, given our tradition and our constitution, it makes sense to have a revising Chamber here; but, as my hon. Friend says, the case still needs to be justified. If we are not careful, we may end up simply duplicating what goes on elsewhere. We want regional assemblies to have a meaningful function, rather than being merely talking shops.

As for my hon. Friend's second point, I understand that the regional assemblies will have about the same number of members as the Greater London Assembly. My concern about the roll-out of democratisation of the Lords revolves around that. As I said at the outset, there might well be more representatives from a region in a reformed House of Lords than there would be in a regional assembly. There could be competition for appointments between the same types of people. There is a grave danger that if we bring in too many elected peers in the first instance—I think 50 per cent. is too large a proportion; in the first instance there should be about 20 per cent.—we will create a hostile, or at least negative, environment for a referendum. Such hostility might be stoked by a hostile media, or people might simply be fed up with the idea of elections, knowing that there would be elections for the Lords.

I think that the best idea is to adopt the Government's original recommendation of about 20 per cent. for one full term—to "suck it and see", and then decide whether the experiment has been a success and whether further democratisation is needed in the light of the roll-out in the regions. We should evaluate the first four years of the experiment before considering its expansion.

9.23 pm
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) on his choice of subject, and on his interesting speech.

I go further than my hon. Friend in my anxiety about the possible consequences of what could be called the ultra-democrat or deadlock-democrat approach to reform of the House of Lords. I do not think we need two elected Chambers or one elected and one substantially elected Chamber, because we could, by accident, find ourselves with an unworkable political system.

From time to time there have been power struggles between the lower and upper Houses in Germany, because they are elected on a different basis. Eventually it has been difficult to get Budgets through, for example. There have also been power struggles in other countries between first and second Chambers.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the need to consider carefully the implications of the proposals. The Government made various proposals and then we had the Wakeham recommendations, but I do not think that Wakeham seriously considered the best option, with the second Chamber acting as the cement that holds together the United Kingdom. I agree, too, that we must recognise that devolution makes a difference.

My preference would be for a small second Chamber of perhaps a maximum of 100 Members, made up of indirectly elected Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the English counties, initially, or the regions, when that system is established. It would not have to meet continuously, as in the present system, but could assemble on a regular programmed basis to bring together the institutions of the devolved United Kingdom to act as a constitutional safeguard and revising Chamber to air issues of concern to all parts of the country, in conjunction with the driving democratic force of this Chamber. Anything else would be dangerous.

I am a democrat. I believe that we should get rid of all aristocratic influences in politics, whether direct or indirect. I am also against a new aristocracy being established, based on influence and friendship. That is always the danger when people are appointed to any organisation, whatever the motives. We should have a legitimate second Chamber that can question Ministers, but my preference would be for all Ministers to he elected Members of this House, although they could appear before Committees or the plenary session of the upper Chamber, whatever we call it—senate, second Chamber—which would act as a cement to bring together our democratic institutions.

Similarly, no judges or Law Lords should be members of the second Chamber by right, nor should we have any bishops—although I understand that that is controversial. We should have a Chamber that reflects the diversity of the United Kingdom by indirect election from the regions and Parliaments within our UK structure. In that way, we could act as a modern, efficient Parliament and, for the first time in our history, we would be able to say that we live in a real democracy, not a quasi-democracy, which is what we have today.

9.28 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) on securing the debate and giving me an early opportunity to discuss reform of the House of Lords. I thank him for putting his concerns on the record.

It may be helpful if I set the current debate in some historical context. The Government embarked on the process of House of Lords reform in the last Parliament. My hon. Friend was not a Member at that time, but I am sure he recalls that, with the enacting of the House of Lords Act 1999, the Government removed nine tenths of the hereditary peers.

We proceeded with Lords reform in two stages, because experience had shown us that trying to do it in one stage had never worked. We need to finish now what we started then, but we should never forget that the 1999 Act was a historic achievement in its own right.

Our White Paper of November last year followed on from the royal commission report of January 2000, and both exercises prompted widespread discussion—inside this House and beyond. The public consultation on the White Paper received more than 1,000 responses, including 112 written responses from Members of this House. In addition, we received a thoughtful report from the Public Administration Select Committee, the members of which must be congratulated on preparing a significant piece of work in such a short time. All those contributions are valuable and will inform the next stage of reform, as will this evening's contributions.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have decided that the search for consensus can best be pursued through a Joint Committee of both Houses. Its first job will be to prepare options for the Chamber's composition, which will be considered in each House on free votes. The terms of reference for the Joint Committee have already been debated in the other place, and will be debated in this House on Wednesday.

Some people have claimed that the Joint Committee is a way of allowing the momentum for reform to run out, but that is not so. The Government want reform to proceed as quickly as possible. Nobody should pretend that major parliamentary reform is easy, but this Government have a strong record of modernising our democratic institutions, as the Public Administration Committee's report acknowledged.

It has also been suggested that the establishment of the Joint Committee shows that our earlier initiatives have been wasted. I reject that analysis completely. The royal commission, the White Paper and the public debate that they generated are valuable contributions. They provide a baseline of knowledge and discussion that is vital to making progress, and I am sure that they will be an important source for the Joint Committee. Although differences of opinion remain, important agreement on some fundamentals has also emerged from these debates, and I will say a little more about that later. Where disagreement remains, it primarily concerns the composition of the second Chamber.

The Government's proposal for a Joint Committee has been widely welcomed, but in that regard I am left in some difficulty in replying to the debate. The Government have made it clear that we should not seek undue influence over the Joint Committee's deliberations, so it would be inappropriate for me to offer a detailed policy statement on where the Government think the answer might lie. What I can do, however, is to set out some areas in which the general thrust of public comment seems to be in agreement.

Let me start with the question of elected Members. I do not wish to make any statement that could be construed as "steering" the Joint Committee, but I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind my pointing out that, in the light of the debates in this House, the responses to the public consultation, the Public Administration Committee's report and numerous opinion polls, his solutions—if not his concerns—put him in the minority. I remind him that 89 per cent. of respondents to the consultation favoured a largely or wholly elected upper House. More than half the world's second Chambers are wholly elected, and a significant proportion of the rest are largely elected.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) expressed the concern that creating a large number of elected Members of the Lords would undermine the role of this House. However, many who responded to our recent consultation said that such fears are overstated. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said of the second Chamber in his statement of 13 May: There is, we believe, a consensus that its main role should continue to be that of a revising, scrutinising and deliberative assembly, with the power to delay, but not to…veto, legislation. The powers of the second Chamber are already set down in the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, and are strictly limited in statute. There seems to be a general consensus that they are about right as they are. It will of course be up to the Joint Committee to decide whether it concurs with that belief or whether it wants to propose some change, but we must remember that the powers of the second Chamber cannot be altered without the express approval of this House through legislation.

In his statement on 13 May, my right hon. Friend went on: There is, we believe, broad agreement that the Commons should retain its role as the pre-eminent Chamber and that the test for any Government should continue to be whether it can command a majority in the House of Commons."—[Official Report, 13 May 2002; Vol. 388. c. 517.] There has been no suggestion, from any quarter, that that fundamental constitutional principle should change.

I would also draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West to some of the other modern democracies that include significant numbers of elected Members in their second Chambers. In Australia, Japan, South Africa, India, Spain, France, Austria and Ireland, to name but a few, the Government continue to be responsible only to the lower House. Various restrictions apply to the powers of the second Chamber over legislation—from a short delay to a veto power. The choice depends not on whether the Chamber is elected but on the political traditions of that particular country. How we manage such relationships within the British tradition is no doubt something that the Joint Committee will wish to consider.

I believe, as does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, that it is an important principle for the two Houses of this Parliament to remain distinct in order that each can make its own contribution. There are other factors that the Joint Committee may wish to consider to allow that. For example, both the royal commission and the White Paper proposed long terms of office for Members, which would reduce the immediacy of any mandate. That was supported both by the consultation in general and by the Public Administration Committee. Similarly, elections in tranches—so that not all elected Members enter the Chamber at once—would enable the upper House to include a democratically elected element without ever giving it an equal or greater mandate than this place enjoys.

My hon. Friend raised some other specific issues that I shall try to address, with the caveat that they will be matters for the Joint Committee and that it would be rash to make too many assumptions about the timing and the make-up of the Chamber after reform. My hon. Friend mentioned timing and said that he understood the reform would be on the statute book in time for the next general election. The only comment that has been made on the record on that point was when my right hon. Friend said that he hopes that the issue will be dealt with in this Parliament. I am sure that the House and the members of the Joint Committee will have heard what my hon. Friend said about his fears about clashing with the roll-out of regional assemblies. If that might be a problem, I am sure that the Committee would wish to avoid it.

My hon. Friend seemed to assume that the upper House would be about the same size as the House of Lords is now. Few other people think that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South went to the other extreme by suggesting a membership limited to 100. The figure mentioned by the PAC was 350, but a coalition is building around the need for a Chamber smaller than the current one. The roll-out of elected Members—if that is what is decided—would be gradual, because of the need to reduce the overall membership at the same time. The problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West mentioned about competition for money and talent—in Scotland in particular—will therefore not be a problem.

On regional representation and obtaining a good cross-section from Scotland, the PAC report and previous reports all came to the conclusion that large electoral areas, if not regions, would be needed. Scotland might even constitute one electoral region, which would make it possible to obtain a good cross-section from Scotland for any elected element. Those reports are already in the public domain.

In its deliberations, the Joint Committee will also want to bear in mind the risk raised by my hon. Friend of a possible clash between the work of constituency MPs and MSPs and Members of a reformed upper House. I do not think that that is a danger but it is certainly something of which members of the Joint Committee will be cognisant.

The Joint Committee will also want to consider the options for including an appointed element in the new second Chamber. Most Members of the House accept that there are good arguments for including some appointed Members, as that would add expertise to the House and the ability to include Members who are independent of any political party. The inclusion of appointed Members would also be an additional reinforcement of the greater legitimacy and democratic mandate that this place enjoys.

The terms of reference for the Joint Committee which the Lords have proposed to us, and which we shall debate on Wednesday, reflect the importance of the issues raised by my hon. Friend. The Committee is specifically charged to consider the second Chamber and its role and authority within the context of Parliament as a whole, having regard in particular to the impact which any proposed changes would have on the existing preeminence of the House of Commons". My hon. Friends can thus be assured that we share the same objective. I am confident that there are various ways in which their concerns can be addressed, and I think that we all look forward to hearing the Joint Committee's proposals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West has done the House a service in drawing attention to some of the difficult aspects of how best to sustain the proper relationship between this House and a reformed and, we hope, reinvigorated second Chamber. I am sure that when the Joint Committee is appointed, as I hope it will be in the very near future, it, too, will note with interest the points that have been made here tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Ten o'clock.