HC Deb 18 September 2003 vol 410 cc1086-104 1.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State fur Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

With permission, I wish to repeat a statement made in the other place today by my noble Friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton about further reforms to the House of Lords, and on the office of Lord Chancellor.

The Government are today publishing two consultation papers on the next steps on House of Lords reform; and on the functions of the Lord Chancellor. Copies of both papers are available in the Vote Office. The papers form another significant part of the present phase of constitutional reform on which the Government embarked last summer, with the creation of a Department for Constitutional Affairs to take overall responsibility for the issues.

May I begin by apologising to the House because a report of the proposals appeared in a Sunday newspaper? I can assure the House that no one in my Department was authorised to speak to the press on the subject. It has always been the Government's intention to ensure that Parliament should hear first about the proposals.

I shall deal first with our proposals for further reform of the House of Lords. Last February, both Houses voted on the range of options for the composition of the second Chamber proposed by the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform. Their lordships voted three to one in favour of an appointed House. In this House, there was no majority for any of the options. The Joint Committee, in its second report published on 9 May, reflected on the outcome of the parliamentary votes and concluded that simply to maintain the status quo in respect of composition was undesirable. The Government agree.

In those circumstances, we intend to make progress where we can. The Government therefore propose further reforms to ensure that we have a stable and sustainable House of Lords. It was never our intention that the remaining hereditary peers should remain members of the House of Lords for ever. When the interim arrangement was reached, as well as the immediate benefit of the agreement, we accepted the argument that the presence of the remaining hereditary peers would act as an incentive to further reform. That has not happened: there is no clear consensus in Parliament on the way forward. So the context for reform has clearly and significantly changed. The circumstances that gave rise to the original arrangement over the remaining hereditary peers no longer apply. The solution, which the remaining hereditary peers were there to help seek, is no longer available. The Government must act, and act decisively, to bring about stability and sustainability.

It is for the Government to act, but it is for Parliament to decide. It will be for Parliament as a whole to decide on the removal of the right of the remaining hereditary peers to sit and to vote. Therefore, the next step of our reform programme will be to introduce legislation, when parliamentary time allows, to remove the right o the remaining 92 hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords, thus completing that element of the reform process on which we embarked in 1997.

In moving on from the current arrangement, the Government wish to pay tribute to the contribution that those 92 peers make to the other place. Many of them are among its most active and effective members. The Government hope that Parliament might continue to benefit from the contribution of at least some of them should they be nominated as life peers in the future.

We shall set up a statutory commission to select and oversee appointments that are made to the House of Lords. It will build on the present non-statutory Appointments Commission, which itself represented a significant voluntary relinquishing by the Prime Minister of his powers of patronage. The statutory commission will be appointed by Her Majesty the Queen in response to an address from Parliament. The three major parties in this House and the Cross-Bench peers will be directly represented on it, together with a number of members selected in accordance with the principles of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in an open selection process. The Government will discuss with the Opposition parties how they might best be involved in the selection process. The Commission's funding and accountability arrangements will maximise its independence from the Government. The consultation document asks for views on various detailed aspects of those arrangements.

We propose that the functions of the commission will be threefold. First, it will decide on the number and timing of new appointments to the House of Lords. This will be a massive—and voluntary—diminution in the Prime Minister's influence over the membership of the Second Chamber. In making its decisions in relation to political appointments, the commission would be subject to two main guidelines. They are that the Government of the day should not have an overall majority in the Lords; and that appointments for the parties should have regard to the outcome of the previous general election. The commission will also be expected to provide that appointments to the Cross Benches should average 20 per cent. of appointments over the lifetime of a Parliament. The Commission's second function would be to nominate the non-party peers, and thirdly, it would vet the nominations for party peers for propriety.

In the meantime, the existing non-statutory Appointments Commission will continue its work, of which the Prime Minister has already expressed the Government's appreciation. The Prime Minister will invite it to make recommendations for new non-party peers until the new statutory commission is in place.

We also propose to bring the rules for disqualification from membership of the House of Lords, in respect of detention following conviction for an offence, into line with those for the House of Commons. We do not believe that the difference of treatment can any longer be justified. We therefore propose that in the future such peers will forfeit their membership of the House of Lords exactly as they would if they were MPs. In addition, they will be deprived of their peerage. The provision will have retrospective effect. Parliament is a privilege, not a possession. Such peers will, of course, be free to seek renewed membership of the second Chamber, by applying to the Appointments Commission or their party, as relevant, for nomination, just as former MPs can seek re-election.

We propose that life peers, like hereditary peers before them, should in future be able to resign their peerages and membership of the House of Lords. That is a fairer and more reasonable arrangement that will allow those who feel they wish to move on and no longer sit in the second Chamber the opportunity to do so.

Nothing in the proposals relates to the powers of the House of Lords. We are not proposing any extension of the role of the second Chamber. For example, the traditional role of the Lords in relation to Finance Bills is clear and works well, its powers being constrained by the Parliament Act 1911 and Commons financial privilege established by resolutions in the 17th century. I am sure their lordships would not seek to extend their powers, for example in respect of Supply. The House of Commons should and must remain pre-eminent in our constitutional arrangements.

On further reform of the House of Lords, we will continue to look for a way forward. We will discuss any possible next steps with the current Joint Committee and how it can contribute.

Taken together, the changes amount to a substantial set of reforms to the House of Lords. When added to our previously announced decisions to set up a separate supreme court, and to remove the office of Lord Chancellor, thus leading to reform of the office of Speaker, they will create a House that is significantly different from that which currently exists.

The Government are also publishing today a consultation paper on the reform of the office of Lord Chancellor. Work to bring to an end the multiple roles of the Lord Chancellor is already well advanced. The Secretary of State is formally inviting views on the Lord Chancellor's ecclesiastical patronage, his visitatorial responsibilities and other functions relating to specific charities, schools and other institutions.

The proposals the Government announce today are part of the programme of constitutional reforms that we have been pursuing since 1997. They will contribute to the further strengthening of Parliament. Alongside our earlier reforms of devolution to Scotland and Wales, the Human Rights Act 1998 and freedom of information, they will take their place in the shaping of our nation, to make the institutions of the state fit and responsive to the demands of our citizens in the modern world.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

I thank the Minister for making that statement, but I regret that it comes a week after its content appeared in The Sunday Times. That blatantly contravenes your continual rulings, Mr. Speaker, that Parliament should be told first. Indeed, I received my advance copy at only 11.45 this morning, and I had to ask for it. That is no way for a so-called Department for Constitutional Affairs to conduct its business. It began its life floundering in a farce and now treats the House with contempt. Anyone would think that the constitution of this country was the personal chattel of the Prime Minister and his cronies.

The statement reeks of dishonesty. It pretends that the Government are still seeking long-term reform and, in the words of the Secretary of State in his foreword, are looking to shape a consensus to make the second chamber more legitimate and more representative of our society. In fact, they are engaged in short-term political gerrymandering and cynical political arithmetic. No one believes what the Government say anymore. The more people see, the less credible the Government become.

The Government are not interested in delivering genuine reform. They have ignored the royal commission and pre-empted the Joint Committee of both Houses. It appears that the Joint Committee was not even consulted. The future of hereditary peers is not the issue. That was dealt with by Act of Parliament in 1999. No one has the right to sit in the House of Lords by virtue of hereditary peerage alone. It is absurd for the Secretary of State to call for consensus in his foreword to the consultation paper, when the Minister in his statement just now stated that there was "clearly no consensus" in Parliament.

The fundamental question facing Parliament is indeed the future of the House of Lords, its authority and the authority of the House as a whole. The Government's objective in the Labour party submission was intended to ensure that the House of Lords remains a distinctive, representative and independent chamber". That is not what this consultation paper is about. No legislation can be introduced affecting the other place without opening questions that go further than the framework of that Bill. In this House we will face a choice.

The issue is the accountability of the Government to Parliament, and whether the Prime Minister will gain further control over the constitution, adding to his disgraceful refusal to give the British people a referendum on the European constitution. The Minister and the Secretary of State in the other place have said that Parliament must decide about the measures before it. We need to know from the Minister whether the Government will give the House of Commons a free vote on the Bill that they propose to introduce following this statement, and whether they will come clean on whether their real intention is to remove enough peers who would take the Government to the Parliament Act on an amendment for a referendum on the European constitution. That is the arithmetic.

After all, the Prime Minister has said that, for him, the European constitution is even more important than Iraq. This is a political statement, made by one party for one party. It is not constitutional reform. Principle has been abandoned. The Cook-Maclennan talks have been betrayed. This is not a step towards democracy but a fundamental shift away from it.

The Opposition have made our position clear in favour of more democracy and an elected House of Lords. The proposal for 80:20 was lost in the House by a mere three votes. These proposed reforms treat that vote with contempt.

As regards the other place, its legitimate expectations in 1999—when many of its Members agreed to withdraw, on the basis that 92 hereditary peers would remain under a parliamentary concession and not by hereditary right—have been disgracefully dishonoured.

Opposition Members do not believe that the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs—who deals in so many ways with how we are governed—should be in the other place. He should be in this House, not merely represented in the House of Commons by a junior bag-carrier who will simply do the bidding of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.

Why has the matter suddenly become so important? Most people in the country probably think that the other place works well. Is that not because the other place has shown its independence and won respect and authority, for example over issues such as trial by jury, media ownership, the snoopers charter and the fair conduct of justice?

Is it perhaps that the Prime Minister wants to remove 20 per cent. of the non-governmental peers? Is the Prime Minister arguing that the proper and legitimate amendments from the other place are regarded as abnormal obstruction of the Government's legislative programme? If so, I challenge the Secretary of State and the Minister to say so.

The Prime Minister is as dangerous as he is arrogant, and his Secretary of State is implementing this dishonest plan in defiance of principle. It is a cynical move by the Prime Minister, when he is in deep trouble, to draw attention away from his difficulties. The Government treat the issue of constitutional reform and their loss of votes in the other place as though Parliament had no right to interfere in their Bills or their plans. I remind the House that in 40 per cent. of the Divisions that they have lost this year in the other place, less than half of the Government's own peers supported them. The Government simply failed to convince the House. Indeed, the Government have lost 51 Divisions this year—the highest number since the 1970s. However, they would have lost only 10 if the hereditary peers were removed. That is the real reason for the policy.

What of the statutory appointments commission? We welcome it in principle, but we have heard about it for six years. When precisely will it be enacted? The Government no longer talk of broad parity with the main Opposition party but now only of not having an overall majority in the House". Does that not mean that the Government will have a majority over the two main Opposition parties combined?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

That is the plan.

Mr. Cash

Indeed, that is the plan. It is the Prime Minister's plan as well.

As to the reform of the office of the Lord Chancellor, we discussed the matter when the previous statement was made, and we will debate it in future. However, one thing is clear. As the consultation paper states, the Lord Chancellor is after the Prime Minister the principle source of Ministerial advice to the Queen. He serves the same function in respect of the Cabinet on all matters of constitutional importance. The removal of the office of the Lord Chancellor removes from the Cabinet historical and constitutional weight and authority when it comes to advice on constitutional affairs and maintaining the independence of the judiciary. The office has a degree of independence that the Prime Minister clearly finds impossible to reconcile with his obsession with his own power and control.

This Government have lost credibility. The Prime Minister does not want a democratic House of Lords but an appointed House of Lords that he can ignore. He dare not say so, but that is what these proposals mean. Constitutional reform should be in the long-term national interest, not what these proposals represent—a short-term fix. We shall oppose them for the shoddy manoeuvre that they represent.

Mr. Leslie

It is now clear that the Opposition support keeping hereditary peers in the second Chamber. That is disgraceful, and does no credit to the House of Lords. It is about time that we took steps to remove the remaining 92 peers who are there by virtue of their birth, and that is exactly what we intend to do.

Clearly, we have to respond to the situation caused by the votes in February, when no consensus emerged from Parliament. The Conservative majority in the other place voted by three to one in favour of an appointed second Chamber. No consensus emerged in the House of Commons. We need to move forward, where we can, to put the other place on a stable and sustainable footing. We can do that by removing the hereditaries, because the status quo is not desirable.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific matters, and I shall investigate the amount of notice that he was given of the statement. It is entirely laudable that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should seek to relinquish many of the powers of patronage that his office traditionally has held, in terms of the timing and numbers of appointments to the House of Lords, and in terms of the establishment of a statutory appointments commission. I am glad that the Opposition welcomed that element of the statement, but the hon. Gentleman then said that they will oppose the legislation that we intend to bring forward when parliamentary time allows.

The hon. Gentleman took all of three minutes to turn the issue into a European conspiracy; he feels that it is all to do with some European constitutional referendum, which reflects interestingly on the current state of the Conservative party. Abolishing the hereditary peerage is the right thing to do. Ensuring that the House of Commons has pre-eminence is the right thing to do. In the face of the lack of consensus, we need to make progress, and that is exactly what the Government will do.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The statement and the consultation paper are economical with the truth. The Minister has just said that there was clearly no consensus in Parliament on the way forward. That is only partly true; there is a consensus in this House, although there may not be consensus between the two Houses.

The Minister has just said that this House must remain pre-eminent. There is a majority in the Chamber for a reformed second Chamber to be elected—[HON. MEMBERS: "No, there isn't."] There is.

The announcement is a double betrayal. First, it breaks the manifesto promises on which Labour Members were elected on two occasions and, secondly, it tears up the agreement that the hereditary peers would be removed only when the full reform package was in place. Liberal Democrats will thus support the removal of the remaining hereditary peers only when the full package is put before this House, and when it is accompanied by the promised introduction of elected Members to make the second Chamber "more democratic and representative"—words that every Labour Member signed up to.

The Prime Minister clearly regards the votes of Members of this House as unimportant. On 4 February, the majority of Members of the House—332, or more than half—voted for a majority of Members of the other place to be elected. They did not all go into the same Lobby at once, but that was their view.

The Minister is not listening to me as his colleagues are whispering to him, but he is an honourable man and he will remember that he supported the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor in voting for an all-appointed House. That option was substantially rejected—by 78 votes—so does he still think that the votes of the House of Commons should be pre-eminent? If so, the option that he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are currently proposing directly negates what the House voted for.

Every Labour Member, at two elections, supported a manifesto commitment to create a more democratic and representative second Chamber. If they vote for the Bill that is being suggested for the next Session, they will both be reneging on that promise to the electorate and deliberately ignoring the votes of this House on 4 February.

The Minister has just said that he wants stability and sustainability. Pull the other one! There is nothing sustainable about his proposition.

We now refer to the Department for Constitutional Affairs as "DECAF". It is living up to its name. The real radical reform originally intended by Labour Members and their Government has been sucked out of it and neither House will accept this unpalatable mess.

Mr. Leslie

What interesting mathematics the hon. Gentleman proposes. He says that, supposedly, there is consensus in this Chamber for an elected second Chamber. I do not know which version of Hansard he has been reading, but my tally of the votes suggests that only 272 hon. Members were in favour while 289 were against, which means that the House rejected the option of an elected second Chamber. It is clear that there was no consensus in this House on the way forward.

In the face of Parliament's decisions, what should the Government do? We need to make progress where we can. For the Liberal Democrats, of all parties, to find themselves in the ridiculous situation of supporting the retention of hereditary peers in the second Chamber is an outrage. I do not understand how they can call themselves Liberal Democrats. We need to abolish the remaining hereditary peers. That is what most ordinary people would demand.

It is important to underline the fact that the Government are taking steps to fulfil our manifesto commitments. We want a more legitimate and representative second Chamber. We need to move forward where we can. We are also proposing a statutory appointments commission. Those are steps forward. Of course, the door remains open for further reform, but we need to take opportunities, while we can, to remove undesirable elements of the status quo.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston)

My hon. Friend is a fair-minded man, so he will confirm that all the Government's previous proposals for reform of the Lords involved the abolition of hereditary peers. He will also admit that what distinguishes the package that he has just announced is that it is the first time that the Government have presented proposals for reform that do not include provision for any Member of the second Chamber to be elected by the British public.

May I warn my hon. Friend against the delusion that an independent commission will make appointments popular? During the two years when I was Leader of the House, we begged the Appointments Commission not to come up with any more names because when it did there was a public relations disaster. Does he understand that the reason for that unpopularity is that the British people find it offensive that they have no say on who sits in a Chamber that is passing laws on them?

On my hon. Friend's arithmetic, as he is a fair-minded man, will he also accept that the proposal for an all-appointed House got 235 votes and was rejected by 323 votes? That was a somewhat larger majority than I heard him mention a minute ago. Is not it the case that the all-appointed option received the fewest votes in the House and had the biggest majority against it? I confess that I am rather confused, so can my hon. Friend remind me why we consulted the House of Commons if we intended to go ahead with the measure that was least popular among Members of Parliament?

Mr. Leslie

My right hon. Friend was intimately involved in the decisions leading up to the votes last February. Although, as he is aware, no consensus emerged for an all-appointed second Chamber, an all-elected second Chamber or, indeed, any element of election in the second Chamber, it is clear that we must have regard to where we are now and what we can do next. We could leave the hereditaries in the second Chamber in perpetuity or we can take steps to remove that anomaly—that anachronism—and I believe that that is the right thing to do.

My right hon. Friend is correct to suggest that, at present, we do not propose to make changes in composition. The Government are not saying that this is the final stage of reform, but we must be conscious of the fact that progress has to be made and that is what we want to do. Appointments will need to be a feature for the time being, so the statutory appointments commission is a step towards greater legitimacy for those who sit in the second Chamber. That proposal was in our manifesto and my right hon. Friend was involved in its authorship.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I accept that there was no consensus on Lords reform in this Chamber in February, but was that not largely due to the decision of the Prime Minister and some members of the Cabinet to abrogate all their previous commitments for a more democratic upper House? Has not that long-standing Labour commitment formally come to an end today? That commitment had lived on—there was even a commitment to the Wakeham report in the last Labour manifesto—but has not it come to a formal end with the words of the Leader of the House a few days ago that there would be a democratic method of appointment? Will the Minister tell his right hon. Friend that we have a word in the English language for "democratic method of appointment"? It is "elections". In the absence of elections to the upper House, will not we be left with a weaker upper Chamber in a weaker Parliament? In those circumstances, is not it ludicrous to speak of an overall reduction in the influence of the Prime Minister of the day?

Mr. Leslie

The right hon. Gentleman seeks to imply that the result of the vote in February was all the Prime Minister's doing. However, as he knows, there was a free vote. He suggests that we should have an all-elected or partially elected second Chamber. In that case, why did the Conservatives in the other House vote by an overwhelming majority for a fully appointed second Chamber? How does he propose to reach a consensus, to find a result, when members of his party in the other House are voting for appointment? We must have regard to the outcome of those votes and ensure that we can take steps forward. For the Conservatives to suggest that they want an elected element when their colleagues in the other place would prevent that very thing is to look in both directions.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

Is what my hon. Friend now proposes intended as an interim proposal? If so, how long will the interim period be? If it is only an interim proposal, what steps is he taking to put in hand the further reforms that he refers to and what machinery does he intend to invent for that purpose? May I ask him about a specific point? Almost everyone who has commented on Lords reform, from the royal commission onwards, has said that, even if we are just doing some tidying up, one thing that we need to do is to break the link between service in a second legislative chamber and the honours system. Will the proposals that he now offers us break that link?

Mr. Leslie

On the last point that my hon. Friend makes, the consultation document raises the issue of the link between the peerage and membership of the second Chamber, and we feel that that issue would perhaps merit investigation, but not until we find a consensus about composition. Indeed, that is precisely the point of his first question. We feel that it will eventually be possible to find some way through on the question of composition. We cannot say how long that will take, not least because of the muddled results that we had when Parliament voted on this issue. We want to create a stable second Chamber for the time being and to discuss with the Joint Committee the next steps that might lie ahead, and I look forward to those discussions.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Can the Minister confirm whether a direct consequence of the Bill that he has proposed today is that the Government will find it easier to get contentious legislation through the second Chamber? If that is the case, how could he tell the House in his statement that the proposals will contribute to the further strengthening of Parliament?

Mr. Leslie

The right hon. Gentleman was a Secretary of State in an Administration who had an overall majority in both Houses of Parliament for 18 years, so for the consultation document to say that we no longer feel that it is right for any Government to have an overall majority in the second Chamber is the right way forward. We feel that that is the best way to progress, to ensure that we have balance and a fair system in the second Chamber. This is certainly nothing about ensuring that we have our business pushed through in any different way. The right hon. Gentleman should realise that, if that were the case, we would copy the previous Conservative Administration, but we reject the approach that they enjoyed for such a long time.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

As someone who served on the royal commission for a year, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on a statement that fulfils the Labour party manifesto commitment on the Wakeham report? What my hon. Friend has announced is fulfilment of the spirit and a large part of the letter of the report—namely, the establishment of a statutory appointments commission that is required to take account of the votes cast at the previous general election and the removal of patronage from the Prime Minister, plus the abolition of the 92 hereditaries. It is an extremely sensible statement; the Government deserve credit for it; and it is not in the least surprising that, when the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was rejected at the last election, the Government's commitment in beating him is now being carried out.

Mr. Leslie

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and, indeed, Opposition Members for their role on the royal commission? He is right to say that we are taking steps to implement our manifesto commitments. Of course, it is a shame that we could not reach consensus in the House of Commons on the question of composition, but it is right to remove the hereditaries from the second Chamber and to establish a statutory appointments commission. How interesting it is to hear the disappointing response from Opposition Members, who will apparently oppose removing the hereditary principle from the second Chamber.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Why does not the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs understand that constitutions—even our unwritten one—have checks and balances, and that, when they are changed, the checks and balances have to be either maintained or replaced? He has already ignored the views of the judges that his proposals provide no means at Cabinet level to assert judicial independence. He now proposes to ignore the views of all the people in the country who have seen the Lords act as a check on an over-powerful Government and do not want the House of Lords to be changed, unless it is changed in a way that maintains that authority and that ability to challenge the Government.

Mr. Leslie

I do not quite know which document the right hon. Gentleman has been reading. The Government wish to see not only a second Chamber with no overall Government majority, but an appointments commission that will determine the timing and number of those appointed in that manner. The document also spells out the fact that the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs should have a role in protecting judicial independence. It is not true that the Government somehow want to blur the lines between the different branches of the constitution. Quite the contrary— we seek the proper separation of powers between the judiciary, the Executive and the legislature.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

May I direct the House's attention to the constitutional reform document in relation to the office of the Lord Chancellor, and say, as Second Church Estates Commissioner, that the Church welcomes the consultation document in relation to ecclesiastical appointments, parochial appointments, the Royal Peculiars and other ecclesiastical functions? The Church welcomes the proposals in relation to a disengagement of the Church from the state, rather than disestablishment, but may I ask the Minister to confirm that what we seek in relation to Church appointments is to give back to the Church what rightly belongs to it and to maintain for the state that which it is appropriate for the state to maintain?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the consultation document on the office of the Lord Chancellor contains no proposals on disestablishment, but there are interesting tracts on ecclesiastical patronage, visitatorial rights, the Royal Peculiars and the chapels royal, which I know all hon. Members will want to look at in much more detail. There are questions about whether Ministers or perhaps the Church of England would be best placed to undertake some of those functions, and we will not allow some of those details to go without proper scrutiny and proper attention.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

May I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that, contrary to what he said at the outset of his answers, there is not a Conservative majority in the other place? Will he tell us what he proposes to do beyond reciting the apology that he gave at the beginning of his statement? Does he intend to look into how that statement came to be published in the newspapers some days ago? Has he considered whether the element of retrospection is complicit with the European Convention? How will the proposals improve Parliament's ability to hold the Executive to account?

Mr. Leslie

I do not know where the hon. and learned Gentleman's arithmetic comes from. If he looks back at the numbers in the different parties, he will see that the Conservative party is by far the most overwhelming party in the second Chamber.

As for the question about the reports in Sunday newspapers, as I said in my statement, they were certainly not authorised and we are investigating that matter. However, as with many issues, particularly those that are as large as this, it is not surprising that things leak out, but I deplore such leaks and I certainly hope that we can continue to make statements to Parliament first.

It is right that we have the proper separation of powers and proper scrutiny of legislation, and I believe that the proposed measures will aid that in many different ways.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

May I urge my hon. Friend to open wider the door to further reform, given not only that an all-appointed House was the least popular option in this House, but that the results of the earlier consultation showed strong public support for a greater elected element? May I also ask my hon. Friend, given the divisions on this issue that undoubtedly exist across the House, whether there will be a free vote?

Mr. Leslie

We do not intend to introduce legislation that includes matters on composition precisely because we had the free votes that took place last February, when no consensus emerged. We had two choices to make: to do nothing and continue with the status quo, or to take steps to continue to make progress on reform, to remove the hereditaries and to introduce a statutory appointments commission. That is indeed what the legislation will propose.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does the Minister accept that documents that suggest that the Anglican Church existed before the Reformation hardly fill one with confidence about the accuracy of their contents? Can he name any second Chamber anywhere in the world that has more accumulated expertise, experience or ability to hold the Government to account than the House of Lords? As he said that the new House of Lords will be significantly different, how can it be significantly better?

Mr. Leslie

It can be significantly better if 92 of its Members are not there by virtue of their birthright. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that if we remove those people who were there by virtue of that automatic ticket of inheritance, we somehow reduce the expertise or independence of mind of the second Chamber. He is mistaken in that. I believe that we can have a contemporary chamber that is legitimate and that can be more representative. If he scrutinises the proposals in the document with more care, perhaps he will find himself agreeing with it.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

My hon. Friend the Minister said that the Government intend to create a stable and sustainable upper House. By that, I take it that they intend to make stable and sustainable an all-appointed House, which, as has already been observed, was the least popular option. I stood on a manifesto that called for the upper House not only to be more representative but more democratic. I for one do not approach manifestos on a pick-and-mix basis. Will he therefore tell me what opportunity I will have, as a Labour Member of Parliament, to vote for a more democratic upper House if I am to be denied the chance this time to vote for any form of election?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend must realise that the votes that took place last February changed the landscape significantly in a number of different ways. I believe that it is still possible, however, to move towards greater legitimacy for the second Chamber. The abolition of the hereditaries, an independent statutory appointments commission and making sure that those appointments reflect the shares of the votes cast of the previous general election, are a step towards a more democratic second Chamber. We do not close the door to future considerations on composition. It is just the next stage, not the final stage, but we must make progress while we can. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that we live in the real world and that we must be pragmatic about the progress that we can make, particularly given the lack of consensus that emerged in those February votes.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

Does the Minister accept that this document does nothing to make the House of Lords more democratic?

Mr. Leslie

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), I believe that there are a number of ways in which greater legitimacy can be achieved for the second Chamber if we evolve from a hereditary to a more contemporary chamber. That is a step towards a more democratic House of Lords. If we remove hereditaries, we create a more legitimate Chamber. If the statutory appointments commission can reflect the shares of the votes cast or seats won at the previous general election, that, too, is a step towards a more democratic second Chamber. I accept, however, that hon. Members will have different views about it. It is precisely because there was no resolution in the votes in the House of Commons on this matter that we are where we are. I therefore believe that we must make those steps forward where we can.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

Can my hon. Friend explain why he thinks that he can make progress with the proposals put to us today for the reform of the House of Lords when his proposal is the one that was most heavily defeated in this House?

Mr. Leslie

I hope that I have been clear in expressing the Government's views on future considerations on composition. We do not close the door to future decisions on how the Second Chamber should be composed. Indeed, we will discuss with the Joint Committee whether we can find a consensus and perhaps move forward. However, it was evident back in February, as all hon. Members will recall, that there was no consensus, and we hear arguments on both sides. Are we to do nothing, or are we to remove the hereditary peers and create a statutory appointments commission while we can, and try to reach a final stage at a later date?

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

Everybody knows that things did not pan out in February quite as had been intended, including those who may have opposed or supported an all-elected Chamber. That was partly because there were so many votes on offer, and a good number of people for whom this is not the most important issue in the world got somewhat confused between all the options. What the Government now propose is a take-it-or-leave-it single option. Why do the Government not offer three or four options—such as an all-elected, largely elected or all-appointed Chamber—and put it to the vote? The Minister and the Government will thereby see that there is overwhelming support in this Chamber for a largely elected House. If the Government do not do that, will not the public be able to see that that side of the Chamber, or at least the Government seeking to lead that side of the Chamber, has now concluded that it does not want any kind of democracy in the second Chamber, and that this side of the Chamber offers the only way in which the public, who want it, can get it?

Mr. Leslie

I do not wish to give a history lesson to the hon. Gentleman, but back in February, the Joint Committee proposed seven options. Indeed, there was also an option on a unicameral second Chamber, which was defeated. An all-appointed second Chamber was defeated, an all-elected chamber was defeated, 20 per cent. elected was defeated, 80 per cent. elected was defeated, 40 per cent. elected was defeated, 60 per cent. elected was defeated and 50 per cent. elected was defeated. There was therefore no consensus at that time. Those options were chosen by the Joint Committee, members of which come both from this House and the second Chamber. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for the Government to respond in some way to that situation, bringing forward those reforms that are necessary and that can be achieved.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

May I congratulate my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] May I congratulate him on coming up with a solution that maintains the primacy of this elected House of Commons and gets rid of the last vestiges of power of the descendants of robber barons? Will he give me two assurances? First, will the statutory appointments commission be required to take account of geographical representation, particularly Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Secondly—[Interruption.] I am happy to stay here. Notwithstanding the great improvement in the composition of the second Chamber, will he assure me that we will not give it any more powers to scrutinise Finance Bills?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend is clearly very popular in the Chamber, and I am glad that he provoked such a welcome to his question. I agree, as do both sides of the House—at least there is some consensus on this point—that the House of Commons should be supreme and that the elected Chamber should have primacy. When it comes to composition, however, we still have no consensus. On the statutory appointments commission and whether it would have regard to the make-up of society, the consultation paper proposes that one option could be for it to consider not just issues such as the balance of men and women, ethnicity and so forth but the geographic representation of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. On his second point, I reaffirm the important principle that the House of Commons should have supremacy on financial matters. The privileges that we have had are well and long established, and I know that the other place will not wish to interfere with those important principles.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

Is the Minister aware that for a great many of us who are genuinely and fully committed to reform of the other place, this proposal is a fudge that is the worst of all worlds? The core question is the legitimacy of the other place. As long as we can say that it is unelected and therefore illegitimate, it will simply not work. Will he not understand that there is only one valid appointments commission, and that is the people, through the ballot box?

Mr. Leslie

I think that the hon. Gentleman is in the unique position of having served in both Houses, so he knows a certain amount but not, clearly, everything that needs to be known about these questions. He expresses his view, and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber express different views. Some prefer the composition to be more elected and some prefer it to be more appointed. His view did not prevail, however, in the votes that we had in the House of Commons—[HON. MEMBERS: "Yours didn't."] Nor did my personal view prevail, and I am quite prepared to accept that. What should we do? Should we move forward or continue to have hereditary peers in the second Chamber? I do not believe that that is acceptable and I hope that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will agree.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

As the Government are in a mess over House of Lords reform and the Commons has rejected seven different options and given no steer on what should happen, is the Minister on the lookout for alternative ideas? Tony Benn wrote a pamphlet in the late 1950s, when he was known as Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, in which he suggested that the Privy Council should become the second Chamber. That would have the distinct advantage of sending all the right honourables along the Corridor and leaving the rest of us here to get on with some serious business.

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend seems to be bidding for a place on the Joint Committee. As I said, we are happy to discuss any proposals that come forward with the Joint Committee. I am not sure whether the former right hon. Member for Chesterfield would be best placed to devise a consensus across both sides of the House. The Government are not in a mess, as my hon. Friend suggested. The House of Commons remains divided, so we must make progress as we can.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that it is the Minister's misfortune to present the hypocritical sophistry that passes for Government policy on this matter, and in the light of his failure effectively to respond to the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) or the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), will he have a last stab at explaining to the House how it can be democratic to proceed with the less popular option of appointment rather than the more popular option of election?

Mr. Leslie

By the time that the hon. Gentleman got to his question, he had raised a specific point on how we can step towards a more democratic second Chamber. Yet, we found ourselves in a situation in which neither the House of Lords nor this House would support such a move. We must ask whether the retention of hereditary peers would mean that the second Chamber would be more or less democratic. I believe that retaining hereditary peers, who are there by virtue of their birth, would be less democratic and that they should go.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

My hon. Friend will be glad to hear that I shall support the Bill on the ground that I do not want to go back to my constituents or local Labour party to tell them that I voted to keep hereditary peers. In February, I voted for a 100 per cent. democratically elected Chamber and a 100 per cent. appointed Chamber because I do not believe in the hybrid system. I went to hear the statement in the other place and Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the Conservatives, threatened to use hereditary peers to interrupt Government business because he did not agree with the policy. Does my hon. Friend agree that the killer comment came from Lord Marsh, who sits on the Cross Benches? He reminded the other place that the Conservative party had a majority in this House and the other House for 18 years yet did nothing about reforming the House of Lords, so we should take no lessons in democracy from Conservatives.

Mr. Leslie

It is interesting that Opposition parties have made not one proposal to try to rectify the balance of the political composition in the second Chamber or to suggest that there should be more Labour peers, who are in a small minority in the second Chamber. I heard Lord Strathclyde's comments and I trust that I should not interpret them as meaning that he would obstruct parliamentary business, because that would be inappropriate. It is possible to take steps toward a final stage and, especially, a consideration of composition, but for the time being, we must recognise that we are where we are and that we need to get rid of the hereditary peers. I am glad to have my hon. Friend's support.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

As one of those who has adamantly opposed any form of election to the second Chamber and is therefore intrinsically more sympathetic to the central thrust of what the Minister has said than many of his Back-Bench colleagues, may I tell him that I am not happy about the idea of the appointments commission either? Why would it be intrinsically better for the power of appointment to be taken away from the Prime Minister, who is democratically accountable, and given instead to a unaccountable and unelected commission that is currently composed of a building society grandee, a governor of the BBC and an activist from Islington?

Mr. Leslie

We want to create a new statutory appointments commission. One of our proposals is that the commission should make its appointments free from the Prime Minister's patronage or interference and that the number of appointments that it makes should reflect the numbers of seats won or votes cast in a previous general election. That would represent a step toward a more legitimate appointments process. I urge the hon. Gentleman to investigate the proposal more closely because, of course, it is supported by the Conservative Front Benchers.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Why can we not be honest and remind people that the Prime Minister made his position clear a week before the crucial February vote? He wanted a wholly appointed second Chamber, which is something that I repudiate. If there were a vote in the Labour party outside the Chamber, the overwhelming majority of people would vote for—

Mr. Foulkes


Mr. Prentice

If the party did not vote for abolition, it would vote for a wholly elected second Chamber.

Mr. Foulkes


Mr. Prentice

May I ask my right hon. Friend to let me finish? On the theme of honesty, I have in my hand the Labour party national policy forum consultation document on democracy and citizenship. It says, "We believe"—that includes people such as myself—that individuals should govern their society effectively through democratic institutions. How can a wholly appointed second Chamber be squared with that aspiration to bring democracy to our institutions?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend expresses his frustrations, which I think are largely channelled toward the lack of consensus last February, because if his opinion had prevailed, progress could perhaps have been made. All hon. Members expressed their views—he expressed his. I expressed mine and the Prime Minister expressed his—but a majority was not achieved for any of the options proposed at the time. We therefore face the question of whether to keep or reject the hereditary peers. I believe that it is right to remove them.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough)

I respect the Minister's attempts to argue his case, but Opposition Members and, especially, Labour Members, have pointedly made it clear time after time that it is to be welcomed if we take it for granted that we should get rid of the hereditaries. The argument then shifts to what we should do. Those of us who voted for an elected Chamber in February want another chance to have that vote. Why should I and other hon. Members not be given the chance to go for that option before the next general election? I have not heard a single argument this afternoon that has convinced me that I should be denied that right.

Mr. Leslie

With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, we had a lengthy and detailed opportunity to resolve some of the questions in February this year and the House declined to resolve the matter. Should we spend our time constantly revisiting the issue, perhaps at the expense of other priorities? Our constituents want to us to consider public services and other constitutional matters too. We must have regard to the decisions that Parliament took on 4 February yet make progress on disqualifying Members of the House of Lords who are convicted of serious offences, on setting up the statutory appointments commission and on removing hereditaries from the second Chamber. Many of those commitments were in our manifesto, so we must be realistic about making progress when we can.

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth)

We are losing sight of the moves that we have already made to reform the second Chamber, on which the Government should be congratulated. I take on board the comments that have been made about this House's desire for a proportion, if not all, of the second Chamber to be directly elected, but I take issue with my hon. Friend's points about composition. He agreed with the comment in the Joint Committee's report that the status quo of the composition of the House of Lords was undesirable. Maintaining that composition should not be an option rather than merely being "undesirable" because this House's will is that the status quo should not be an option.

Secondly, the extended activities of the second Chamber have been mentioned and it has been stressed that the pre-eminence of this House must be uppermost in people's minds. Will my hon. Friend give another assurance that there will be no such extension in respect of financial matters, such as the Finance Bill, and that we will resist all calls from the second Chamber to extend its role in that way?

Mr. Leslie

I confirm that the Government oppose any diminution of our rights and privileges to constrain the second Chamber in respect of financial privilege. My hon. Friend quotes the Joint Committee report as saying that the status quo is undesirable. We agree with that. Of course, the hereditary element is a significant part of that composition, which is why we want to remove it.

My hon. Friend is right to say that we should recognise the great progress that has been made. We have already got rid of more than 600 hereditary peers, and my colleagues have had a significant role in achieving that. We have proposed a new Supreme Court, abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor and the establishment of a new independent judicial appointments commission. We have also given devolution to the nations and regions. Our constitutional programme is significant, but we still need to move forward. That is exactly what the proposals suggest.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

Delighted as I would be to see the back of the hereditary peers, and intrigued as I am at the prospect of Jeffrey Archer not only being removed from the House of Lords but applying to return to it—that really would be a work of fiction—is there not an enormous irony? Not only are the 92 hereditary peers the only elected Members of the second Chamber, but my hon. Friend's proposal is the least popular option in the House, the country and the parliamentary Labour party. Is he still open to proposals to improve this measly measure so that, for instance, we can get rid of the equally illegitimate bishops, who should no longer sit in the House of Lords, and provide for a third stage of House of Lords reform?

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend is eager for more reform and we intend to provide it in our proposals. I underline that we do not close the door to future consideration of composition. We will continue to listen and respond to proposals and to discuss the deliberations of the Joint Committee with it to discover whether a consensus can emerge. This is not the final stage, but we have to accept that the decisions of the February votes provide us with a need to achieve a stable and sustainable House of Lords for the time being. That is basically what the proposals in our documents do.