HC Deb 29 June 2004 vol 423 cc147-9
19. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con)

If he will make a statement on the future of reform of the House of Lords. [180753]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The Government remain committed to reform of the House of Lords, but to proceed now in the face of current opposition in the Lords could jeopardise the wider legislative programme. However, the Government are determined to take this matter forward and to find a consensus that defends the Commons supremacy and the proper revising role of the second Chamber.

Mr. Burns

Does the Minister accept that, just as no one has been able to find a solution to the West Lothian problem, there is growing concern that a similar problem will arise with reform of the House of Lords, because no one can come up with a credible solution to altering the balance of power between the two Chambers, and to the consequent problems? In order to provide a solution once and for all, why do the Government not support the Prime Minister in his preferred option and just continue appointing Members of the House of Lords?

Mr. Leslie

I am not quite sure that that is the Prime Minister's total view, but I always support him in all eventualities, as all Members are well aware by now. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point in part, in that it is possible to square the issues of improved legitimacy for the second Chamber and maintaining Commons supremacy. There is a consensus that we want this House of Commons to be the final decision maker. At the same time, it is important that we find a way to improve connection with the public so far as the second Chamber's composition is concerned, while ensuring that it continues in its revising role.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab)

There is a view in some quarters that it would be better to have a half-baked scheme than no scheme at all. Will my hon. Friend resist that view and remember that it has taken us nearly a century to come up with House of Lords reform that has some chance of working? It would be better to get it right in a form that can command widespread support.

Mr. Leslie

That was a cryptic question from my hon. Friend, but I shall not demur from answering it. He is correct to say that it is better to get a solution that works well. As I said earlier, it is possible to square Commons supremacy with improved legitimacy for the second Chamber, and we will continue to press ahead in looking for a consensus on that point.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

Does the hon. Gentleman understand that many of us are very concerned about the influence and power of the Whips in this House and therefore want to extend the powers of the second Chamber? Does he also understand that in order to do that, he has to give greater political legitimacy to the second Chamber? That would involve either a complete or very substantial election process by a direct franchise from the people.

Mr. Leslie

Of course, the whipping system already exists in the second Chamber. The right hon. and learned Gentleman comments on the situation whereby those who are elected might be more prone to the persuasions of the whipping system than others, but I am not convinced. Each individual takes a decision according to their own conscience—just as the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not always necessarily obey the Whip when it was waved under his nose.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab)

May I urge my hon. Friend to continue his search for a consensus and a scheme for the reform of the second Chamber? It would be unacceptable to go into the next election without a clear manifesto commitment from our party on that question. I therefore urge him to meet, if he has not already met, Mr. Billy Bragg, who proposes one form of a scheme that may command a consensus. Will he undertake to meet Billy Bragg and many others who have views on how best to take a step forward with this knotty problem?

Mr. Leslie

I have already met Mr. Billy Bragg and hon. Members who advocate the secondary mandate scheme, as they term it. That proposal is designed to improve the legitimacy of the second Chamber without direct election. My hon. Friend's point about our manifesto is correct. I believe that we should develop proposals and he should wait and see what appears in the manifesto.