HC Deb 13 May 2002 vol 385 cc516-33 4.21 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government's proposals for taking forward reform of the House of Lords.

The Government began the process of Lords reform with the removal of the great majority of hereditary peers in 1999. We are committed to further reform of the House of Lords, to remove the remaining hereditary peers and to provide Parliament with a modern, effective second Chamber.

We have listened carefully to the wide range of views expressed in the recent debates on Lords reform in both Houses of Parliament, and to the responses to the White Paper. We have taken account of the report of the Public Administration Select Committee. We have also considered statements from all parties that this issue should be considered further by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I hope, therefore, that the way forward that I am announcing today will be welcomed and supported on both sides of the House.

On this vital constitutional issue, which concerns not only the composition of the House of Lords but also the role of Parliament as a whole and the relations between the two Houses, we have decided that it would be right to invite the two Houses to establish a Joint Committee, in the hope that we can forge the broadest possible parliamentary consensus on the way forward. We hope that the Houses will be able to proceed with the establishment of the Joint Committee as soon as possible.

We have noted the recent joint statement of the two main Opposition parties that such a Joint Committee would help reconcile differences and seek a principled consensus on the way forward. We look forward to their co-operation in setting up the Joint Committee as soon as possible and making a success of its work.

Reform of the second Chamber has implications for the future of Parliament as a whole, and in particular for the relations between the two Chambers. It is right that Parliament itself should record its views on the composition of the second Chamber. For this we believe that a Joint Committee alone is insufficient. We therefore intend to ask the Joint Committee, as the first phase of its work, to report on options for the composition and powers of the House of Lords once reform has been completed. This will define options for composition, to include a fully nominated or a fully elected House, and intermediate options. Both Houses will then be asked to record their views on these options in free votes.

In the second phase of its work, on which the Committee will report, it will define in greater detail the proposed composition, role and powers of the reformed second Chamber, taking account of the opinions expressed by the two Houses. It should also recommend the transitional strategy for transforming the existing House of Lords into its fully reformed state, which will be particularly important if the recommendation were for a significantly smaller House. The Government's intention would then be to introduce legislation in the light of the report of the Joint Committee and the opinions of both Houses expressed in those free votes. As both the royal commission, chaired by the noble Lord Wakeham, and the Government's White Paper made clear, any proposals on the powers and composition of the House of Lords must flow from a clear understanding of its role and functions.

The issues to be considered by the Joint Committee therefore will include, first, the role and authority intended for the second Chamber within the context of Parliament as a whole. 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 seek to veto, legislation.

The second issue to be considered is the impact of that role and authority on the existing supremacy of the House of Commons and relations with the Executive. 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. The third issue to be considered is the composition and powers of the second Chamber best suited to give effect to the role and authority intended for that House. That consideration should include the implications of a House composed of more than one "class" of Member and also the experience and expertise which the House of Lords in its present form brings to its function as a revising Chamber.

It will also be necessary to consider the most appropriate and effective legal and constitutional means to give effect to any new parliamentary settlement, including any mechanisms required for resolving conflicts between the two Houses. To inform the Joint Committee's deliberations, the Government are today publishing the full results of the consultation on their White Paper. We received over 1,000 responses, and the full analysis is now available in the Vote Office and on the Lord Chancellor's Department website.

The Government have a major record of constitutional reform. Since 1997, we have created a Scottish Parliament and Assemblies for Wales and Northern Ireland. We passed the first House of Lords Act 1999, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We have given the Bank of England independence in the setting of interest rates. Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister set out our plans to allow the creation of regional assemblies in those regions of England that vote for them. We have enhanced the role of the Select Committees, including the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that he will be the first Prime Minister ever to appear before the Liaison Committee. We are modernising the working practices of both Chambers. Taken together, that is the most substantial programme of constitutional reform for over a century and will stand as one of the Government's historic achievements.

Today's announcement is another step towards ensuring that reform of the House of Lords ranks alongside those achievements. We must not allow a repeat of history in which reform has been delayed because those who wanted it could not agree and therefore left the field to those who opposed it. Our objective is to secure a second Chamber that is broadly representative of Britain today; a Chamber that will complement the Commons by reinforcing Parliament's ability to conduct scrutiny and hold the Executive to account, thereby increasing the respect of the public for Parliament. The way forward that I have outlined puts responsibility in the hands of Parliament itself in free votes. I urge Members on both sides of the House to respond not as party politicians but as parliamentarians committed to a strong Parliament within a modern democracy.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I thank the Leader of the House for the generous notice that he gave me of his statement which, however, I can only characterise as Laurel and Hardy or perhaps Robin and Derry—"A fine mess you've got us into now". Or, if we wanted a one-word title for the statement, it would have to be "mañana". In April 1997, the Labour party published a manifesto.

It put forward a number of proposals to reform the House of Lords. Among those, it stated: This"— the expulsion of all hereditary peers— will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The 1997 manifesto went on: A committee of both Houses of Parliament will be appointed to undertake a wide-ranging review of possible further change and then to bring forward proposals for reform. Things moved on, and Labour's 2001 general election manifesto announced: We are committed to completing House of Lords reform, including removal of the remaining hereditary peers, to make it more representative and democratic, while maintaining the House of Commons' traditional primacy. We have given our support to the report and conclusions of the Wakeham Commission, and will seek to implement them in the most effective way possible. Then, in "Completing the Reform", the White Paper of November 2001, the Prime Minister wrote in his foreword: The Government is determined to proceed with this wider reform of the House of Lords. The Royal Commission offered an excellent way forward and the Government has a clear electoral mandate to undertake it … A reformed second chamber has an indispensable role to play, and this White Paper prepares the way for its introduction. In other words, we have waited five years since the original Labour party manifesto pledge, one year since Labour's second manifesto pledge and six months since the Prime Minister's pledge of action. We now we have indefinite postponement.

Nevertheless, I welcome the establishment of the Joint Committee, not least because in January, in response to the consultation, my noble Friend Lord Strathclyde and I stated: We therefore call on the government … to establish a Joint Committee of both Houses to review further change, including the question of composition, and then bring forward proposals for reform. My noble Friend said in another place in the debate on the Queen's Speech in June 2001: There are huge issues which need to be debated and resolved as we move to create a stronger House: for example, issues relating to the size of the House; what limits to set on that size; how long Peers should stay; how we all get here and so on."—[0fficial Report, House of Lords, 21 June 2001; Vol. 626, c. 51.] We saw clearly some time ago that a joint parliamentary approach would be needed. We therefore welcome the statement from the Leader of the House, however belatedly it has been made. I pledge that we will play our full and positive part in the deliberations of the Joint Committee.

May I ask the Leader two rather obvious questions? First, he has outlined what he chooses to call phase 1, which will be a broad look at composition and powers. Will he give me some idea of the time scale for that? For example, will it go well into 2003? Then there is to be consultation of both Houses of Parliament, followed by phase 2, in which there will be detailed examination of the results of the parliamentary deliberations.

Does the Leader of the House envisage that we might run out of parliamentary time in this Parliament before anything further can be done, or can he give me an undertaking now, which will hold more water than the previous undertakings, that the Government believe that they will be in a position to bring forward proposals during this Parliament? It is important that we understand that at this stage of the process.

Secondly, speaking of the consultation of both Houses that is to be undertaken and which I welcome, and the Government's commitment to free votes on the matter, can the Leader tell me what he believes will happen if the two Houses find themselves in conflict? Supposing the House of Commons concluded that there should be a large element of elected Members in the new upper House, and that the House of Lords reached the opposite conclusion—that there should be a small element or no element at all of elected Members. How does the Leader imagine that that would be resolved? Will we go through the loop again? Will it be a "Groundhog Day" procedure, whereby we revisit the issue indefinitely for the rest of our parliamentary lifetime?

Having belatedly announced a Joint Committee, the Leader owes it to us to give a much clearer idea of what is in the Government's mind in terms of time scale and commitment, so that we are not led up yet another garden path to something that lies beyond, but we know not what. So I can only refer to what the Leader of the House said and quote his own words back to him: We must not allow a repeat of history in which reform has been delayed because those who wanted it could not agree and therefore left the field to those who opposed it." Amen to that.

Mr. Cook

The House will recall that, in the last sentence of my statement, I invited hon. Members in all parts of the House to respond as parliamentarians and not as party politicians. The right hon. Gentleman's opening observations fell some way short of that invitation and of the response of the Conservative party in the House of Lords. This afternoon, its Lords spokesman welcomed the statement as an "historic statement" that was "clearly welcome" and a "statesmanlike step". I fear that before right hon. Gentleman speaks about conflict between the two Houses, he should consider the conflict between the Conservative Front Benches in this Chamber and the other place.

The right hon. Gentleman recounted some of the history. Of course, that includes 18 years when his party was in power but never made a proposal for a single elected Member of the second Chamber. It also includes four years in which the Conservatives opposed every single proposal that we made for reform of the second Chamber. Indeed, he said at the Dispatch Box that he had no difficulty in defending the hereditary principle for the second Chamber.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

He makes that comment, but now he wants us to believe that he is committed to ensuring that 80 per cent. of Members of the second Chamber are elected—a point for which I observe he does not have unanimous support on his Back Benches.

As recently as in the past two weeks, the Conservative party announced in a joint statement made with the Liberal Democrats that a Joint Committee is clearly "the best way forward".

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

The statement was signed by his leader in the House of Lords. I do not expect to be thanked for agreeing to what had been called for, but neither do I expect to be savaged for doing so.

The timetable will be primarily in the hands of the members of the Joint Committee, as it should be. There is nothing new to be said about composition. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman, I and others in the House try to find something new to say about it, but the task is very challenging. I see no reason why a Joint Committee that was appointed now could not quickly move to a decision on the options on which the House should vote.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I want to see legislation in this Parliament. I believe that what I have spelt out provides us with a route map to secure that objective.

On conflict between the two Houses, the first step is to try to find a way forward and to avoid such conflict. In the event of a disagreement in the vote, it will in the first instance be for the Joint Committee to consider the implications. I am inclined to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I anticipate far less conflict between the Labour Benches in this Chamber and in the House of Lords than I envisage between the Conservative Benches in the Commons and those in the Lords. I remind him that he has a long way to go before he will get Conservative peers to agree to Conservative party policy of 80 per cent. of Members of the House of Lords being elected. In the two days of debate on reform in January, more than half the Tory peers who spoke wanted no elected peers at all. In those circumstances, it is not we who should be worrying about conflict with the House of Lords, but the Conservative party.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

It would be churlish not to congratulate the Leader of the House on his victory in Cabinet against the odds, although I refuse to identify who the odds are. My hon. Friends and I genuinely congratulate him and believe that he is right in saying—he has done so on a number of occasions since the publication of the Select Committee report—that there is a centre of gravity for reform. We believe that it is possible rapidly to make progress in the Joint Committee. I remind him that the suggestion of a Joint Committee goes back to the discussions between his party and mine before the 1997 election, to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred. The idea is not new; it is just rather late in coming.

Will the Leader of the House give us a more precise indication of what timetable the Government would like? Does he recognise that this is already the longest-running Whitehall farce in more than 90 years, and that it is time we wrote the final act? Does he accept that there should be a sunset clause? The Joint Committee should be given a limited life, then disbanded if it is not making progress.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, once the two Houses have had a free vote on phase 1, it should be possible to put a draft Bill before the Joint Committee so as to make as much progress as possible on a consensual basis?

The right hon. Gentleman said that he intends to try to achieve the reforms in time for the next general election. Will he take this opportunity to dispel the mischievous rumour that the Government believe that it is impossible to take both legislation on House of Lords reform and an anti-hunting Bill through both Houses? That could be a major problem.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that even if the Joint Committee is permitted to consider transitional arrangements—he says that it will be—it will be extremely important to prevent a hiatus, because otherwise Parliament's job of scrutinising the work of the Government could fall by the wayside?

Finally, there is a dilemma in having a small and manageable Joint Committee and having one that is truly representative. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it must be of sufficient size to enable parties that are split down the middle—the Conservative party in the other place—to be fully represented?

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Tyler

And perhaps in this House, too. A minimum of 18 members will be necessary to encompass all those differing views.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his more generous welcome for our proposals, and look forward to his co-operation in taking forward our strategy.

On a timetable, it would be wrong for us to predetermine a specified date by which the Joint Committee has to respond. However, this is plainly not an open-ended commitment, and we will watch and work with the Joint Committee to enable it to come to a speedy conclusion. Part of that co-operation may well include presenting it with a draft Bill. We have by no means ruled out that possibility, and look forward with interest to hearing what its members may wish to say about it during the first stage of their work.

I assure the House that the decision that I announced has nothing whatsoever to do with the Hunting Bill. If we should find it necessary to introduce both the Hunting Bill and the House of Lords reform Bill in the same Session, so be it—we will seek as business managers to see what we can do to ensure that we secure both those objectives.

On the size of the Committee, the hon. Gentleman touches on an issue that is, as he knows, difficult for the House. By definition, any Joint Committee has to be divided equally between the two Chambers, and only half the membership comes from here. When we set up the Joint Committee on the Communications Bill, we discovered that that left us with such a small group that it was difficult fairly to reflect the political balance in this Chamber. I therefore said at the time that any future Joint Committee was likely to be larger, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I anticipate that its size will be of the order that he suggested.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. It shows, especially in the light of last week's statement on regional government, that the Government's appetite for constitutional reform remains keen and has not become jaded. I hope that progress can be made as quickly as possible.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the results of the consultation on the White Paper. Will he confirm that it showed that a majority of people favoured either a wholly or substantially elected upper House?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's comments on the Government's programme of constitutional reform. It is within that context of a programme of measures to modernise our democracy that we should view this commitment to seek a parliamentary solution to ensuring that we have a second Chamber that can work as our ally, thereby enhancing respect for Parliament.

I share my right hon. Friend's wish to make progress as rapidly as possible. Indeed, in my statement I committed the Government to setting up the Joint Committee as soon as possible.

The consultation paper is available to hon. Members in the Vote Office. As I have said before in answer to oral questions, it showed that a substantial majority support a substantially elected second Chamber. I can confirm that of those commenting on composition, 89 per cent. favoured a majority elected second Chamber.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the announcement. Does he agree that, in constitutional matters, festina lente is not a bad motto? Will he say something about the composition of the Committee? Will it be chosen through the usual channels by the usual channels? Will there be a proper opportunity for Members with a robust view, such as my friend the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and me, to serve? Will he assure the House that he will not be the Chairman, and might he consider inviting the hon. Member for Bolsover or me to chair the Committee?

Mr. Cook

To do justice to the last point, I would have to reflect on it rather than give an off-the-cuff answer. However, I can confirm that I have no wish to chair the Committee, and I think that it would be wrong for any Minister to chair it.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Such self-sacrifice!

Mr. Cook

I can bear to live with such a sacrifice.

I am grateful for the congratulations of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) on what I have announced. His Latin tag, make haste slowly, can be applied in several circumstances, but I must depart from him on this occasion. We have waited long enough for reform. In the debate in January, I read to the House the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911, which said that the arrangement was only a holding operation until provision could be made for a more representative and democratic Chamber. I have no intention that we should wait another 90 years or 90 months but hope that we can make progress in 90 days.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his extremely positive statement, which clears the blockages in the way of the reform process. I direct him to annexe A to the report on House of Lords reform that the Public Administration Committee issued in February, in which it gave a detailed month-by-month and year-by-year timetable for the way in which reform might proceed. Under "May 2002", it said: Negotiations begin for establishment of Joint Parliamentary Committee.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the chronology that we have outlined, which leads, eventually, to the first elections in June 2005 for a predominantly elected second Chamber, is the chronology that he is working to, and that from today the blockage to reform comes not from the Government but the House of Commons? From today, it is up to the House to decide whether it really wants to reform the second Chamber.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. He speaks with authority as the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, which issued a valuable report and showed that it was possible for people who wanted reform of the House of Lords but who came to the task with different perspectives to find a consensus. The task now is to ensure that we find that centre of gravity among the wider Parliament. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that the matter is now in the hands of Parliament. The speed and radicalism with which we move is very much down to the way in which Members of Parliament proceed and subsequently vote.

I cannot promise that we will keep to the timetable outlined in the report at all intermediate stages, but I share my hon. Friend's view that reform should be implemented in time for a general election in 2005, should there be one, so that elections can take place in the same year.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I ask for brief, single questions, in order that I may call as many Members as possible?

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

This is very long grass indeed. The right hon. Gentleman's comments confirm what many of us have always feared—that the Government were not serious about reform of the second Chamber but instead wanted to abolish the hereditary peers and replace them with the Prime Minister's cronies. They have achieved their objective.

Mr. Cook

I am not sure how I can do justice to the right hon. Gentleman's question without going back and reading my statement from the top. I am not sure that he has listened to anything that has happened in the House since he came in. I have said that it will be the decision of the House—it can vote on the options. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to vote for an all-appointed second Chamber, he will be free to do so, but I doubt that many people will be in his Lobby.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

I should like to draw to my right hon. Friend's attention early-day motions 1275 and 1276, which appear on the Order Paper for the first time today.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that the Joint Committee will be able to consider a fully nominated second Chamber. Does he agree that the revising, scrutinising and deliberative Chamber that he has described would be able to carry out its duties most efficiently if it was made up of people who were experienced and well qualified to do so? Does he also agree that direct elections would not necessarily result in such an outcome?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his endorsement. It will not only be for the Joint Committee to consider the option of a fully appointed second Chamber; my hon. Friend and all his colleagues will also be able to argue and vote for that option when we debate the options in this Chamber. I have only one reservation about what he said. While he is perfectly right to say that any legislature must comprise well-qualified and experienced people who can bring judgment and integrity to their decisions, as Leader of the House I must say that we can find those qualities among elected Members of the House of Commons as well as among those who are appointed to the other place.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that his statement this afternoon is a most eloquent admission that the Government did not have a clue where they were going when they started reforming the House of Lords, and that, even now, after a further general election, they still have no clue about how they want to go forward? Does he also accept that their handling of this matter has been characterised by vandalism against the constitution and by vacillation in completely failing to come forward with any set plan for the future, and that he is not modernising but trying to muddle through, causing further delay without any resolution?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on having responded to this matter not as a parliamentarian but as a single-minded party politician. I was not necessarily persuaded that my last sentence would convince her to respond to this as a parliamentarian. It is perfectly plain that she is unwilling to consider reform; she is still fighting a rearguard action against the abolition of the hereditary principle. For the avoidance of doubt, I should point out that no Labour Member believes that the hereditary principle has any place in a modern democracy.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My right hon. Friend deserves a medal. He is a great reforming parliamentarian. May I ask him how one gets on to this Joint Committee? I think that I may have something to contribute to it. [Horn. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] My hon. Friends agree with me.

I want to return to the question posed by the shadow Leader of the House and other colleagues about the possibility of gridlock between the two Houses. The consultation document shows that all those who responded were in favour—to one extent or another—of an elected second Chamber, except the peers. They were the only group who preferred a House with a less than 50 per cent. elected membership. The issue of gridlock is one that must be addressed.

Mr. Cook

I shall, of course, take note of my hon. Friend's bid for membership of the Joint Committee. expect that I shall get a number of competing approaches from other hon. Members. I am not sure quite how big the Committee will be, and I cannot, therefore, guarantee that all who wish to be on it will be able to be on it.

It will not necessarily be a disaster or a surprise if the two Chambers vote in different ways. After all, this is a democracy, and we pride ourselves on the fact that the two Chambers can come to independent conclusions. We should not regard it with dismay if they did so. I would suggest that the best thing that we can all do in the next two months is to ensure that we find a way forward that establishes a centre of gravity that can be supported in both Chambers. If we find that there is a difference in the other Chamber, the Joint Committee can consider the implications. We can also consider it ourselves if we wish to do so when we consider the measure to bring these measures into being, which will start in this Chamber.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

We are all used to Secretaries of State coming to the House and kicking for touch, but this one has gone right out of the stadium. Presumably the Leader of the House is hoping that nobody will find it and throw it back before the next election.

After five years of a Labour Government, they are clearly showing their inability to agree on what they want to do. The Prime Minister wants a minimal number of elected peers, while all his Back Benchers want the maximum number, so forgive me if I cannot take this Joint Committee very seriously. The idea that the Government have suddenly woken up to the idea of consulting this House on important issues is a novelty to which it is difficult to give any degree of credibility; it is all part of their playing for time.

We all know what the conclusions of the Joint Committee will be. A large number of people will want a high number of elected Members—like most of the Labour party—whereas others will want none or only a minimal number, and the ball is going to end up back in the Government's court. Would it not be better if the Government decided now what they wanted to do, and put that proposal to Parliament?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman condemns us for having committed the issue to the long grass, but the statement made less than two weeks ago by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders in the House of Lords says: An early move to establish a Joint Committee … would be the best way forward. There is no point in senior Conservative party figures inviting us to take a course as the best way forward, only for the Conservative party to denounce it when we agree with their advice. Far from committing this to the long grass, I have just said to the House that I want to make progress in this Parliament, and I want to make progress for implementation by the next general election. Frankly, it is not credible for anyone to expect a timetable clearer or shorter than that, but of course, if we had had the Conservative party's 18 years in government we might not be having this argument five years later.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Has my right hon. Friend warned the Conservative peers in particular that if they vote against the abolition of foxhunting there will be scores if not hundreds of Labour MPs in this Chamber who will vote for the third way—namely, to abolish the House of Lords altogether? Will he bear it in mind that if we are not able to achieve that, the important thing to remember in respect of gridlock is that we have to cut the teeth of that second Chamber? They should not be allowed to filibuster ad nauseam. We should make sure that they have a guillotine, as we have in this House, and that this House reigns supreme over any policy issue.

Mr. Cook

The White Paper and my statement today make it perfectly plain that the Government are firmly committed to the principle that the House of Commons must remain the pre-eminent Chamber, and I have not heard anybody in the Chamber argue with what I believe is a universal point of consensus here. I did not become Leader of the House of Commons to give away the standing of the House of Commons relative to the other Chamber.

My hon. Friend suggests a definition of the third way that I am not sure will command that same universal consensus, but I note his interest in abolition. Whether the motions can be tabled in such a way that he can make such an amendment is, of course, a matter for consideration.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Could we not make progress on this very complex issue if the Government and Opposition Front Benchers accepted that having elected peers might undermine our democracy, and more so than at present? Will the Leader of the House bear in mind the fact that the public are fed up with the number of elections, and they are going on strike? Is he not aware that only a quarter voted in the European elections? Even in Rochford, where we had the highest swing to the Conservative party in England, only 29 per cent. voted? Is he not aware of the danger that having even more elections will make the public fed up to the back teeth and undermine democracy further?

Mr. Cook

Although I fully understand the immense trauma undergone by the Conservatives at the last two general elections, I urge them, but not on the basis of that, not to give up supporting elections. If they go to the nation saying that they have lost all faith in elections, they will get a very loud raspberry from the electorate, who will be inclined to give them another landslide defeat third time round.

David Hamilton (Midlothian)

May I try to help the Leader of the House? I appreciate that there is to be a free vote, but it may be best not to have a Committee, and the best way to do that is not to have a second Chamber. I am one who believes that we should vote against any second Chamber. That is the right way forward. He asks us to put our point of view as individuals. The vast majority of people out there do not agree that we should have two Chambers, and they think that there is an issue of over-governance. When the Committee goes ahead, as I suppose it will, will it consider regional government as proposed for England? When England gets that, it will find, as we find in Scotland, that a second Chamber is not needed.

Mr. Skinner

I have two tellers.

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the advance that he is making from a minimalist base.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) that I fully understand that some people hold the view that we do not require a second Chamber, but I would not want that to be confused with the concept of over-governance. The second Chamber is not in itself part of the Government. It is a mechanism—a forum—by which the Government can be held to account.

The powers and role that we set out for the second Chamber in the White Paper included the scrutiny and revision of Government legislation, the ability to hold the Executive to account, and the opportunity to float novel ideas and new policy initiatives that the Executive can take on board. It is not a question of Government, but accountability of Government, and for that we need a modern second Chamber that has the legitimacy of being appointed or elected on a basis that commands consensus support.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Joint Committee be nominated by the Committee of Nomination?

Mr. Cook

To be frank, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an answer until I know how the House votes tomorrow. I will commend the Committee of Nomination to the House to ensure that we have fair and appropriate appointments to the Select Committees. The Committee of Nomination is primarily designed for the Select Committees of this House, but I believe that it will be possible for us to find a way forward in which we can ensure that those appointed from this Chamber to the Joint Committee are representative of this House and command the confidence of their parties. That is why we will have to have a rather larger Joint Committee.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will not future generations find it difficult to understand how hereditary peers lasted throughout the 20th century, and would have lasted even longer had we not been returned to office? Does my right hon. Friend accept that many Labour Members have reservations about a fully elected second Chamber? Opinion seems to be going towards a second Chamber with nominated and elected peers, which would safeguard this House to a large extent. A fully elected second Chamber, which may not he popular among Labour Members at the moment, would in many respects pose a danger to the supremacy of the House of Commons.

Mr. Cook

I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. He may recall that, when we debated this matter in January, much of my speech was taken up with spelling out the risks to the Commons of a fully elected second Chamber. I urge him not to be too defeatist about the degree of support for our perspective. If he looks at the table in the report of the Select Committee on Public Administration, he will see that the largest body of opinion among MPs is for a mainly elected second Chamber. That number was greater than the number of those who support a wholly elected second Chamber.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

Unfortunately, the prospect of abolition does not seem to be on the table. In trying to find a role for a revised House of Lords, will the right hon. Gentleman give us a guarantee that any revising function in relation to Scotland and Wales will relate to matters reserved to this House only, and no attempt will be made to extend the powers of the House of Lords to revise Acts of the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales?

Mr. Cook

I have no difficulty whatever giving the hon. Gentleman that assurance. Indeed, it would be ultra vires and illegal for either House to attempt to revise legislation on which we have devolved administration to the Scottish Parliament. We are talking only about reserved matters, and those are the only matters that either House is competent to consider.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Can the Leader of the House please assure us that he will shortly announce the membership of the Select Committee? When does he think that may happen? That may reassure those people who are unfairly denigrating this proposal as a kick into the long grass. Will he also assure us that, if the Joint Committee comes up with a timely analysis of the options on composition, which as he said have been extensively rehearsed and do not need a great deal of thinking about, he will make time for this House to reach a decision about its view on composition before the summer recess?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for wishing us to make all possible speed. It is important that we maintain the momentum for reform that we have established in the past two years. A number of decisions must be reached before we can appoint the Joint Committee. We must reach agreement on the size of the Committee and on whether the Chair should come from this Chamber or from the other Chamber, and we must identify those who should be appointed to it. That cannot be done overnight, but I assure my hon. Friend that I want to make all possible speed, which is why I said in my statement that the Committee should be established as soon as possible. A vote before the summer recess is certainly possible if the Joint Committee gets down to work quickly, and presents us with the options in good time. It is difficult to see what new matter needs to be examined, and I hope that the Joint Committee will co-operate with us in making that speed.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

I broadly welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement, not least because it gives us a chance to reflect further on what is currently proposed by the vast majority in the Chamber. Is it not the case that this is the elected Chamber and that we do not need yet more elected politicians, especially following the announcement about regional government last Thursday? Is it not the case that, if the Lords becomes an elected House, that will drive out those who are not attracted to the hustings but who have genuine extensive experience to add to our legislative processes?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman identifies one of the strengths of the present House of Lords: there is a route of entry to it through the process of independent appointment for people who are distinguished in science, the arts, business and community life. For that reason, we propose to have an independent statutory body to choose the independent peers, without any political interference. The case for a mixed solution, in which there is room for that means of entry to the second Chamber, does not preclude others in that Chamber from being elected. If those who are appointed to that Chamber are to be Members of a Chamber with authority, it is important that the Chamber have legitimacy. In the modern world, it is very difficult to identify a more legitimate approach than the democratic ballot in order to provide elected Members of the second Chamber. Whether all hon. Members wish to live in that modern world is something I cannot help them with, but if we want to be legitimate we have to accept democracy.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the statement, which will enable us to make a decision before the next general election. Can he confirm that, given the primacy of this House and the view already expressed that a substantial number of those in the upper House should be elected, if a mediaeval minority seek to block the proposal, the modernising majority of the House of Commons will prevail?

Mr. Cook

I am always in favour of the modern age triumphing over the mediaeval age.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

Historically, the only criteria any Ulster Unionist uses in judging constitutional reform are: does it strengthen or weaken the Union, and does it make Government more or less accountable? On the make-up of the Joint Committee, although the Labour party has considerable representation in England, Scotland and Wales, it has none in Northern Ireland, and the Conservative party is almost non-existent in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in terms of Members of the House. Can he ensure that the minority parties, including the Ulster Unionists and Welsh and Scots nationalists, have some representation on the Joint Committee because it will affect the future of the Union?

Mr. Cook

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. He will be aware that we have sought to be as helpful as we can to the minority parties to ensure that there is fair representation. I think that the new arrangements are working rather better in that respect. A Committee that drew so large a membership from the Commons that it provided for a pro rata place for the minority parties would result in a very large Joint Committee indeed. One would be looking at a membership of more than 30 when one aggregated those nominated from the House of Lords. I cannot promise a Committee that large. With a smaller Committee, some painful and difficult choices will have to be made.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's efforts to find a way forward but seek an assurance that in balancing the membership of the Joint Committee, he will find space for the sceptical views on the Labour Benches as well—those people who are sceptical about a directly elected second Chamber and the need for more elections.

Mr. Cook

I have no difficulty in giving my hon. Friend that assurance. It is important that the representation from this Chamber is balanced, and that the minority view that he describes should be represented both from the Labour Benches and no doubt from other Benches. At the same time, we must ensure that the majority view is also well represented on a proportional basis.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and commend him for his bravery in allowing the House to come to a conclusion on this very important issue, but some valuable work has been done already by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee in locating a centre of gravity of the opinions of the House. Does my right hon. Friend not consider that that presents an ideal opportunity for the Joint Committee, when appointed, to move forward with some speed?

Mr. Cook

I have already said that I welcome the report of the Public Administration Committee as a valuable contribution to the debate. I very much hope that the Joint Committee will take account of its recommendations when it comes to its decisions. I also hope that some of those on the Select Committee may themselves be members of the Joint Committee. I would not want to pre-empt the options that may be recommended by the Joint Committee but, plainly, the consensus that was established in the Select Committee at around 60 per cent. is an issue that will have to weigh with it.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that even a substantially elected component of the House of Lords would place considerable pressure on the primacy of this House? That is precisely the reason for the damascene conversion of the Conservative party, which knows that it will not hold the reins of power in Parliament for many years to come.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend may be right about the motivation of Conservative Front Benchers, although I note that, as yet, they have not achieved the same conversion among many of their Back Benchers. However, I do not agree with his premise: we cannot hope to maintain the supremacy of this Chamber on the basis of keeping the second Chamber illegitimate. If we are serious about maintaining our own pre-eminence, we must do so with confidence. We must not be afraid of providing for a legitimate second Chamber, which cannot act as a rival to us but can act as an ally in making sure that we have modern and effective means of scrutiny.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, particularly his decision to have a Joint Committee of both Houses and a free vote in both Houses. Surely the constitution is a matter on which we, as parliamentarians, ought to try to transcend our partisanship and seek consensus. If there turns out to be disagreement between this House and the other House, will my right hon. Friend recall the point that he made earlier; that, in both Houses, there seems near unanimity that this House ought to have primacy? If there is a disagreement, logically we ought to have primacy in finding a decision.

Mr. Cook

It is certainly the case that there is broad agreement across a range of issues and the debates on composition—understandable, necessary and central—should not divert us from the fact that there is broad agreement outside that one narrow case. My hon. Friend referred to some of the party political responses and urged colleagues, as I have done, to respond as parliamentarians. I have been in this House long enough to know that it loves a cockpit of debate and rough and frank exchanges. It was necessary for us to go through the catharsis of this statement and the response to it. I hope that, having got that off their chest, the Opposition will now get down to work with us to find a way forward, because it is in the interests of this place and the whole of Parliament that we find the best consensus on that way forward.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Given that all that the Joint Committee has to consider is the option of an appointed House, a fully elected House or the intermediate version, does my right hon. Friend agree that if it were meeting right now, it could have the options ready for consideration by about seven o'clock this evening and the House could be ready to vote on them? In other words, there is no need for the delay. There could be one meeting and we could have a vote before the summer. There should be no problem with that whatsoever.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has spoken with great wisdom and authority. Were I to be locked in my room for five minutes, I could probably produce the options rather more quickly than by seven o'clock tonight. But it is the nature of democracy that we have to take other people with us and fully explore other perspectives. The Joint Committee will need to do that. I agree with my hon. Friend that even while doing that, there is no need for undue delay in coming back to the House with the options.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

As one of the 304 Back-Bench Members of this House who supports a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber, I wholeheartedly welcome everything that the Leader of the House has said, particularly the idea that we shall hold a free vote. It is strange; one waits for a free vote for months, and then three come in a row.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Like the number 24 bus.

Mr. Bryant

Indeed. It is very exciting.

I urge my right hon. Friend not to allow any bishops to sit on the Joint Committee. There should not be any bishops in the House of Lords and there should not be any on the Joint Committee either.

Mr. Cook

Because of my hon. Friend's previous profession, he speaks with unusual authority about bishops, and when we have discussions with them, I think that I shall recommend that he speak on behalf of Labour Members.

This is a classic case in which it is right to proceed by a free vote. Different views exist on both sides of the Chamber, so it would be wrong to try to proceed on a party political basis, with the Whip applied. It is right that both sides be able to cast their votes freely, so that we can establish where the centre of gravity lies.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I, too, would like to offer a warm welcome to my right hon. Friend's statement, which constitutes a great step forward. I particularly welcome the free vote, given that the matter is one for Parliament. I also ask what some of my hon. Friends have asked: is there any reason why the Joint Committee should not be set up immediately, and why the options—we already know what they are likely to be—cannot be reported to the House immediately, so that we can get this part of the process over before the summer recess?

Mr. Cook

I agree that we need to proceed with the Joint Committee with all possible speed. As I have pointed out, specific questions need to be addressed and we need first to reach agreement on them, but I hope that they will not become obstacles to progress. Hon. Members have taken the opportunity in the past hour to air their own prejudices on the matter of composition, and it is already clear that the battle lines are well-established. The cases for and against a substantially elected second House have been well argued and aired, and I agree with my hon. Friend that the Joint Committee need not spend too long on the first phase of its work, although there will be much to be addressed in the second phase.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will my right hon. Friend forgive the almost universally sour response from Opposition Members? The Conservatives find it difficult to cope with two features of his statement that are entirely alien to them: its precise response to the consultation process, and his offering a free vote in this House on an issue of substance—something that never happened in 18 years of Conservative Government. When consideration is given to who will chair the Joint Committee, will my right hon. Friend look to my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who live in the 21st century, rather than the self-nominated Members of the Opposition, whose spiritual home is the 17th century? Is it not right that this generation of parliamentarians anticipates with relish the undertaking of reforms during this Parliament which are centuries overdue?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations, and it is certainly true that I do not recall a response to consultation during 18 years of Conservative Government that accepted the need for a fresh approach. Indeed, I do not recall much consultation at all during those years. If there had been, we might have been spared the poll tax, for a start.

My hon. Friend mentions the fact that I have not commanded universal support from those on the Conservative Benches. I fear that I have had to carry that burden through most of my years in this House, and doubtless I will have to continue to do so. However, I am comforted by the warm and unanimous support that my statement has received from those on the Government Benches.