HC Deb 19 March 2002 vol 382 cc163-5
44. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

What recent discussions he has had on reform of the House of Lords. [41558]

50. Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

If he will make a statement on responses received to the Government's public consultation on reform of the House of Lords. [41564]

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

The Government are giving careful consideration to the responses to their consultation paper. More than 1,000 were received, and the Lord Chancellor has promised that we will publish them.

I also welcome the Public Administration Committee's thoughtful contribution to the debate, which has proved that it is possible to find a centre of gravity on the composition of reform among those who want a reformed second Chamber.

Fiona Mactaggart

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but what discussions—if any—have taken place between Cabinet Ministers since the conclusion of the consultation process? What work is under way to produce within seven weeks a response to the Public Administration Committee's report, and to produce plans for reform of the House of Lords that are acceptable to this House? In a recent speech, the Prime Minister described that as a necessary part of the "third phase" of new Labour.

Mr. Cook

Like my hon. Friend, I read that speech with great care, and I was encouraged by its commitment to House of Lords reform as part of the Government's "third phase". She asks whether members of the Government have discussed this issue, and I can assure her that there are constant discussions between us. I have no doubt that my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is considering when it will be appropriate to bring us together to consider the responses formally.

We have undertaken that we will respond to the Public Administration Committee's report within the normal two-month period. I hope that we can indeed do so, but I ask the House to bear it in mind that that period includes three weeks in which the House is in recess.

Mr. Bryant

It is interesting to learn from my right hon. Friend how many people have replied to the consultation exercise, but it would be particularly interesting to know how many of those respondents prefer an elected element to the second Chamber, especially bearing it in mind that almost half the Members of this House signed an early-day motion calling for a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber. We should also remember that, in giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee, the Lord Chancellor said that a majority of Members oppose a large elected element.

Mr. Cook

A number of Members of Parliament and peers responded to the White Paper, and their views are on the record. As I said, we will publish the responses in full in due course, so the House will understand if I do not go into them in detail. However, my hon. Friend asked me a direct question, and I would be misleading the House if I did not say that the overwhelming majority of respondents favour a substantially elected second Chamber.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House consider that the outcome of this evening's vote on hunting in the other place could affect the time scale for House of Lords reform? Have the discussions to which he referred dealt with the way in which the Parliament Act could be employed in such circumstances?

Mr. Cook

I was rather hoping that our questions might provide a 15-minute interlude in the debate on hunting. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no—I cannot see that that has any bearing on the timetable for House of Lords reform.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

Does not the right hon. Gentleman face a real dilemma, in that a majority of members of the parliamentary Labour party, of the Opposition parties, of the Public Administration Committee and of the public want a largely elected second Chamber, but just one man—the Prime Minister—wants to sustain a House of cronies? Will the right hon. Gentleman properly represent the views that exist in the House by going to Downing street this week and telling the Prime Minister that he has got it wrong on this issue, and that he should back down? Or is he afraid that, if he did that, he might be sent to the other place?

Mr. Cook

I entertain no such apprehensions. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to read with more care, as I am sure that he would wish to, the speeches my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. They are always rewarding, and frequently inspiring. In my right hon. Friend's most recent speech, he will find a very clear commitment to reform.

If a dilemma exists in the House, it rests with the Opposition. How on earth do they square their commitment to having an 80 per cent. elected second Chamber with a lifetime opposition to having any elected Members of that Chamber?

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Should not House of Lords reform aim to give future Members of that House a greater spirit of independence? Would not measures such as long, non-renewable terms, the exclusion of Ministers and the development of an investigative rather than legislative role weaken the grip of Whips, and reduce the often malign influence that they exert, in this House and elsewhere?

Mr. Cook

I cannot hold out any prospect of a second Chamber without Whips, but my hon. Friend touches on what I think is a broad consensus in the debate—that the purpose of the second Chamber should be to revise, deliberate and advise, and not to usurp the role of the first Chamber. That is why it is important that we get the balance right: the second Chamber must be legitimate, in that it represents the British people, but it must not compete with this House in terms of the democratic mandate.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

What is my right hon. Friend's definition of the phrase "in due course" in relation to the response to the consultation? Does he agree that the experience with appointed second Chambers in other countries is that they are as likely as elected second Chambers to flex their muscles and disagree with their lower Houses? Might not the debate taking place in the other House today be a further illustration of that?

Mr. Cook

I do not want to predict the outcome of today's debate in the other place, although I shall follow it with close interest. My right hon. Friend asks about the definition of "in due course", but the House should bear in mind that—quite rightly and properly—we delayed the end of the consultation period so that we could take account of the report from the Select Committee on Public Administration. We have committed ourselves to responding to that report in the course of April. I think that it would be sensible to publish the responses in the same period.