Mr Gordon Prentice (Pendle, Labour)
I congratulate Mr. Mackinlay on his perspicacity and timing in securing the debate on people's peers. With a general election four weeks away, I must be slightly measured in my comments. However, we are going into an election with a Labour manifesto that calls for something that I, as a Labour MP, repudiate. The manifesto agrees with the royal commission on the reform of the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Wakeham, which calls for a second Chamber that is largely appointed, with a small elected element. That is simply not my view, nor was it the Prime Minister's view in 1996, when he said that Labour's policy was for a directly elected upper Chamber. Things have changed in that four-year period, and we now find ourselves, as the Government party, going into an election promising that one part of Parliament will be appointed rather than elected.
I believe that legitimacy only comes with election. Appointment fails on many counts, but what Wakeham proposed is absurd with a capital A. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, I believe in secular politics. What we will be asked to endorse--in the next Parliament, presumably--is not a secular second Chamber but a Chamber with people who have been appointed because of their religion. The Bishops Bench will be reduced from 26 to 16, I believe, but we will then have Buddhists, Baptists, Jains and Jews legislating on the laws of the land. I do not believe that that is right. More than that, I do not believe that members of the Labour party believe that that is right.
Mr. Benn talked about the patronage peers and how corrupting that is. Amazingly, over the next few days some of my colleagues in the House will decide that they do not want to stand for election to the new Parliament. They will be rewarded with peerages. That is deeply corrupting, not just for the people going into the House of Lords after the next election, but for those in the House of Commons, and I do not disparage my colleagues, who perhaps aspire to a peerage. It is corrupting and it should not be allowed.
Under the new system, we have the prospect of life peers serving well into the 21st century. I tabled an early-day motion in February 2000. The statisticians in the Library did some number crunching and told me that 49 per cent. of the present House of Lords will die by 2011. The average ages are 70 for male life peers and 64 for female life peers. About half of them will be dead by 2001; 90 per cent. will be dead by 2029, but 10 per cent. of those currently serving as life peers will still be serving in 30 years' time. We need a small, directly-elected second Chamber of no more than 100 to do a job of work. We do not need a bloated, elephantine monstrosity of 1,300, which is what we had before we got rid of most of the hereditary peers.
Will that happen? We had the ridiculous situation a week ago of people being discounted from consideration by Lord Stevenson because they would not feel comfortable in the second Chamber. He said that hairdressers could not cut it. That is a man who is a self-confessed intellectual snob. He should never have been given the job of chair of the Appointments Commission. In recent months, I have tabled many questions about that commission and I just about fell off my chair in January when I got an envelope with a little House of Lords stamp on the back. Inside was a letter from Dennis Stevenson, the noble Lord Stevenson. He wrote saying that over the Christmas period he had been looking at the questions that had been tabled about the work of the Appointments Commission. He noted that I had been very energetic and had tabled many questions and suggested that we talk about it.
I went to see Dennis Stevenson. He is a mover and shaker. He is chair of both the Pearson group, which owns the Financial Times, and the Halifax. That takes up a lot of his time, which probably explains why in the two years since he was appointed to the House of Lords he has spoken only twice. On both occasions he confessed to a feeling of nervousness.