HC Deb 07 January 2003 vol 397 cc19-21
33. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

To ask the President of the Council if he will make a statement about further reform of the House of Lords. [89169]

37. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

To ask the President of the Council if he will make a statement about progress with Government plans for House of Lords Reform. [89174]

The President of the Council (Mr. Robin Cook)

The Government welcome the report from the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform and are gratefuls the work it has done. We look forward to the debates which are to be held later this month in both Houses of Parliament. The way forward on reform will be considered in the light of the outcome of the votes on the options put forward by the Joint Committee and will provide a remit to that Committee to work up a more detailed set of recommendations.

Hugh Bayley

When I speak to Members of Parliament in central and eastern Europe, Africa and developing countries about the merits of democracy, I find it extremely difficult to explain why a Chamber of our Parliament is archaic, only partly reformed and unelected. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the worst possible option is to fail to reach agreement in this House and with the other place, and to fail to complete reform, because the status quo is untenable?

Mr. Cook

I can understand my hon. Friend's difficulties. The House of Lords is about to have a by-election in which the sole qualification for candidates and electors is to be a hereditary peer. That is a rather eccentric version of democracy and reinforces the case for bringing real democracy to the second Chamber. I agree that the worst possible outcome would be the one that we have had too often in the past, in which we end up with no reform because the great majority who want it cannot agree among themselves on what reform to go for.

Joyce Quin

Although I personally have strong views in favour of an elected second Chamber, as a member of the Joint Committee may I stress that its report contains a number of matters on which there is consensus and on which we can build and make rapid progress, not least on the widespread agreement about the powers of the second Chamber? Despite strongly held views, it is possible to agree even on the difficult issues of composition, as the excellent report by our Public Administration Committee showed.

Mr. Cook

Yes, as I have observed to the House before, the Public Administration Committee report was unanimous and showed that it was possible to find a centre of gravity among Members in favour of reform. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the report from the Joint Committee spells out the wide degree of consensus that exists on the remit, powers and scope of a second Chamber. It is now necessary to find that centre of gravity for the options for the composition of a reformed Chamber so that we can proceed with the reforms that so many in this Chamber want.

Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Does the Leader of the House expect to introduce legislation before 17 July this year?

Mr. Cook

I would not expect to introduce legislation in this Session because, as I indicated to the House when I made the announcement committing us to a Joint Committee, the longer the final report of the Joint Committee took to be produced, the more difficult it would be to introduce such legislation in the current Session. I hope that we will make good speed with the debate on the Joint Committee report and with the votes and the options put forward. It is then for the Joint Committee to come forward with a report providing a detailed scheme based on whatever is the majority wish of this House and the other place. I hope that we see that report well before 17 July and that it will enable us to take forward legislation in this Parliament.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Did the right hon. Gentleman hear the Lord Chancellor say this morning on the "Today" programme that the argument was really polarised between a wholly appointed and a wholly elected second Chamber? May I ask whether that represents Government policy? If so, does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the majority of us will go for the wholly elected option?

Mr. Cook

I arose especially early and completed my breakfast in order that I might give the Lord Chancellor my full and undivided attention. [Laughter.] May I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Government's policy is as stated by both the Lord Chancellor and myself, and that both Houses will have a free vote? There will be seven options open to both Houses to vote on—all Members will have a free vote on those seven options, which include an all-appointed and an all-elected House and five variants in between of a mixed House. It is for the House, not the Government, to decide where the settled will is, but I very much hope that those votes will produce a commanding, convincing majority for one option that will restore momentum to reform.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Is not the importance of the Lord Chancellor's broadcast at 7 o'clock this morning the fact that it showed that there is some division in the Government on the issue? Labour Members of Parliament and other radicals in this place want the Leader of the House to tell the Lord Chancellor in unequivocal terms that we wish to see the completion of the upper House reform in this Parliament. It should not be kicked into touch by the Lord Chancellor or by anyone else in that place, as they have done with other legislation that we were committed to when we were elected in 1997.

Mr. Cook

I shall reflect on the precise terms in which I might convey that message to the Lord Chancellor. I put it to my hon. Friend that we have said that this matter must be resolved by Parliament. It is a parliamentary matter; the second Chamber of this Parliament is being reformed. It is therefore right for this House that the other House should have a free vote. That being the case, it would be wrong for the Government to express one single united view among the seven options available. However, it is important that we find a settled will—a centre of gravity—for reform and then all coalesce around that option for reform and make sure that this time we actually carry through the reform that has evaded Parliament for 100 years.