HC Deb 09 June 2004 vol 422 cc291-6 1.25 pm
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a fully appointed House of Lords. On 4 February 2003, when the House voted on this matter, 245 hon. Members voted aye—among them me, the Prime Minister and 10 of his Cabinet colleagues. Since then, the Government have got into a terrible mess. Proposals for legislation appeared in the Queen's Speech, then the legislation was to be introduced the next day, and then it was abandoned, apparently because of some drafting error. Still later, a Bill was to be brought in some time in the middle of March, and then Lord Falconer told the "Today" programme that he did not intend to bother either House with the matter during this Parliament.

We have therefore gone full circle on this matter. However, in a spirit of cross-party co-operation, I thought that I would try to help the Government by introducing a Bill to enable the Prime Minister to have his way. My Bill uses exactly tin same words as the motion voted on in February 2003. I employed this tactic a few months ago in respect of the European Union (Referendum) Bill, and that became Labour party policy about three weeks later. I hope that the same will happen this time. If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) opposes this Bill as he did my previous Bill, he is likely to upset the Prime Minister twice in one Session.

I also want to help the Prime Minister, as his Cabinet colleagues seem to be in the process of accelerating his move down the Corridor to the House of Lords. I am sure that he would want to make sure that that does not become an elected Chamber before he gets there.

There are two or three fundamental points to be made about what reform of the House of Lords should be put in place. I believe that an elected House of Lords would be wrong, as it would challenge this House's authority. An elected House of Lords would have democratic legitimacy and so would not feel constrained by the conventions under which it operates at present—that it does not oppose Government business that appeared in the Government's manifesto and that, in the final analysis, it does not prevent the Government from getting their business through. I believe that those conventions would lapse.

Moreover, I believe that an elected House of Lords would seek to overcome the constraints imposed by the Parliament Acts, and that it would eventually succeed in doing so. An election for the House of Lords might be fought on exactly that issue, and I believe that it would bring about a very fundamental change in our constitutional arrangements.

In addition, the democratic legitimacy of the House of Lords might on occasion be greater than that of the House of Commons. That could happen at the fag end of an unpopular Government, if that Government tried to introduce unpopular legislation In such a case, the House of Lords might feel a greater legitimacy in opposing that legislation.

I am also concerned about the people who would seek election to the House of Lords. They could include people who cannot get elected to this House, or selected by a party management committee. The hurdle for getting into this place is not exactly of Olympic proportions, so what on earth sort of people would manage to get elected to the House of Lords?

If elections to the Lords were conducted according to the first-past-the-post system, there would be no point to them, as the House of Lords would then become simply a replica of this place, but with rather less able Members, on the whole. On the other hand, if a proportional representation system were used in the elections, we would get a bunch of party hacks.

One thing that we want in the House of Lords is independence. A party list is guaranteed to remove and exclude the mavericks and independents. There are a few such people in this House, who have somehow slipped through the system, and quite a number in the other place. However, there will be none if elections are by proportional representation of party lists.

Elected Members of the House of Lords will want salaries, staff and offices, and they will ask parliamentary questions and write letters to Ministers. My guess is that, as a result, the cost of running Parliament, and the amount of bureaucracy involved, will more than double.

The Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament that considered the issue set out five criteria, which were that the new format should have legitimacy, not be dominated by one party, be representative, be independent and possess expertise. However, those criteria are mutually incompatible. If the new format were not to be dominated by one party, it would have to be elected through proportional representation, which would mean no independence and little expertise. A first-past-the-post system would lead to one-party dominance at least some of the time.

We do not have much legitimacy or representativeness in the House of Lords, but we do have much expertise and independence. Those are the qualities that we lack here. Why should we try to replicate this place? Let us have a House of Lords that provides some of the factors that do not exist in this Chamber.

We cannot have a House that is partly elected and partly appointed. It must be one or the other, because we cannot have two classes of Members. My solution would be to give life peerages to all the remaining 90 or so hereditary peers. No more hereditary peerages would be created—or, at least, none that carried the right to attend the House of Lords—and we would continue with the present system of appointing life peers. That would be in the best tradition of British constitutional reform: it would be minimal and evolutionary.

Why have the Government got into such a mess on this and so many other constitutional issues? They have done so because they have embarked on programmes of fundamental change for superficial reasons and discovered the complexities too late. We saw that with the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor. The Prime Minister wanted to have the House of Lords presided over by someone in a suit, not a wig and silk stockings, and to get rid of Lord Irvine. The Prime Minister thought that if he abolished the office of Lord Chancellor, he would not have to get too tough with Derry and would be able to get rid of the wigs. Then he found that the office of Lord Chancellor is so deeply embedded in our constitutional arrangements that he could not abolish it, but the consequences were an afterthought.

It is as though the Government think that history began on 1 May 1997. Some Minister or apparatchik came up with the fatuous phrase about Britain being a young country. Britain is many things, but it is not a young country. However, the phrase betrayed the Government's thinking on so many issues. The foundations of our society have been built up over centuries of evolutionary change, and they include the supremacy of Parliament, the common law, the great universities, independent judges and the civil service. The value of those institutions is in their independence, but the Government have attacked them all in the name of modernisation.

One of the pillars of our society has been the existence of a second Chamber. Its powers were severely reduced in 1911 and there have been endless debates over the past nearly 100 years on what should replace it. However, the Government seem completely unaware of that debate. They lack an understanding of or feeling for history—how and why those institutions have evolved. Those who have no understanding of the past can have no vision of the future. They are condemned to live in the present, which is the most illusory tense of all. This Government live only in the present. They ask how their actions will play with the public, the media and the Labour party today or—if they are looking really long term—at the weekend. That leads to ill-thought-through initiatives and an obsession with headlines. The Government should remember that today's headlines wrap tomorrow's fish. Too many of this Government's fish stink.

The next Government, which I hope will be a Conservative Government, will not have to pick up where this Government leave off—as most do—but where they started, because they will have achieved practically nothing of lasting value in the constitutional arena. I used to wonder what this Government's epitaph would be, but I have concluded that they will not have one—just another day's headlines announcing their passing.

1.33 pm
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

It is ironic that we face a ten-minute Bill from the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) suggesting that people should not have the right to vote, because his last one called for people to have the right to vote in a referendum. He had some success in persuading the Government that we should have a referendum on the European constitution—although I suspect that the decision was not directly related to his ten-minute Bill on the subject. He will not have as much success with this Bill.

It is also ironic that the hon. Gentleman suggests that people should not have the right to vote the day before we have elections for the European Parliament and local councils around the country. I am sure that people will notice the reactionary note that he has struck today and will reject his party convincingly tomorrow. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the 245 Members who voted with him in favour of a wholly appointed House of Lords. Ironically, that was the least popular option in this Chamber by a considerable margin. It is also the least popular option in the country. The people of Britain do not want people appointed for life to decide how others can live their lives, if they are not prepared to put themselves up for election.

The hon. Gentleman advanced the two arguments that can be made for an appointed second Chamber. The first is that appointment is the only way to ensure that the right people become Members and the second is that it is the only way to ensure the primacy of the House of Commons. However, both arguments are fundamentally flawed. On the first argument, the truth is that the second Chamber is at present wholly unrepresentative of the country in which I live. The Lords is full of elderly generals and a bunch of other people who would not be recognised by the wider country.

An appointments system for the second Chamber will always reflect the generation just gone by. It will always appoint people who used to be politicians and captains of industry. The end result will always be a reactionary second Chamber. It is not surprising that the occasions since 1911 on which the Parliament Act has had to be used have all been to counter reactionary moves. The first time was the opposition to the Welsh Church Disestablishment Bill in 1914, and the second was the opposition to the change in the age of consent. Now the Lords want to ensure that we do not use the Parliament Acts to push through a ban on hunting.

We know that the second Chamber will always be reactionary while it is staffed solely by people who have been appointed. It is also largely representative of the south-east of England and London, rather than the whole of the United Kingdom. That is what happens when the great and the good appoint the great and the good. They know each other because they live in the same streets in Hampstead and Islington—[Interruption.]

It is also wrong to appoint people for life. We used to have a society in which people were appointed for life as professors in universities or as clergy, but surely we have now realised that the whole idea of patronage for life is not only undemocratic but wrong. The words of Isabella in "Measure for Measure" come to mind:

But man, proud man,

Drest in a little brief authority". [Laughter.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. The House must come to order.

Chris Bryant

I am glad that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) is close to apoplexy. Those words of Isabella's should apply to all politicians, and we should not have ermine for life.

Debates in the House of Lords, which I urge other hon. Members to attend, are always the last refuge—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

Chris Bryant

Debates in the House of Lords are always the last refuge of the vested interest. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said earlier that the great advantage of the House of Lords is that it is independent and full of expertise and mavericks. However, 60 per cent. of those appointed in recent years have taken a party Whip. That end of the Palace is no more independent than this.

The second reason given for keeping an appointment system for the House of Lords is to sustain the primacy of the Commons. That is simply untrue. How does it best serve the interests of Parliament to continue to ensure that part of it is illegitimate?

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said that it would be best to retain that illegitimate situation as it does not challenge the powers of this House, but the truth is that the House of Lords has substantial powers. Because of the way that the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts were drafted, the powers of the House of Lords increase exponentially in the second half of a Parliament and wreak havoc not merely with individual Bills but with the whole programme of an elected Government. That means we have stop-go government and that is unacceptable.

If we want to make sure that the primacy of the House of Commons is maintained, instead of everything being governed by convention, with gentlemen's agreements that were signed in some gentlemen's club back in 1915, we should codify the relationship between this House and the other House. Instead of the 10-minute Bill proposed today, we should have a proper Bill to bring in a new Parliament Act, which would codify the relations between this House and the other Chamber, establish the primacy of the House of Commons and give us proper powers over the second Chamber.

Secondly, such a Bill should establish a proper conciliation process between the two Chambers. We are the only country in the world with a bicameral system that has no proper means of reconciling disagreements between the two Chambers. The current ping-pong arrangements bring the parliamentary system into disrepute.

Thirdly, a new Parliament Act should bring in what the 1911 Act promised:

it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but— the Act noted with some irony—

such substitution cannot immediately be brought into operation. Of course, we need a second Chamber based on a popular system of election—whether direct or indirect election, or wholly or substantially elected. Many Members may disagree, but the whole idea of having an appointed second Chamber must be something for the history books.

I have two further points. First, it is curious that membership of the legislature is still associated with the peerage. Surely, we should be taking titles away from members of the second Chamber. It seems bizarre that we are still living in a country where lords and ladies, barons, dukes and earls still carry titles as they go into meetings as Ministers of the Crown. We should have a more egalitarian system in our second Chamber. The days of 1066 and all that are over.

Finally, many countries in Europe are relatively new to voting. Spain, Portugal, Greece and the eastern bloc have all returned to democracy from dictatorships of the left or the right during my lifetime—many of them during the last 10 years. Few countries in Europe have a constitution that is more than 60 years old. Surely, it is time that we, who have perhaps grown a little flabby in our constitutional arrangements and have got rather over-used to voting, should finally decide for ourselves that we want a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 ( Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and negatived.