House of Lords Reform

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 7th February 2007.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal 12:31 pm, 7th February 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on reform of the House of Lords. Accompanying this statement is a detailed White Paper, which is available in the Vote Office. The White Paper has been informed by the excellent report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, which the other place and this House debated and approved on 16 and 17 January respectively.

The White Paper's publication follows nine months of intensive discussion within Government and with the other parties. I have chaired cross-party talks—the first such Government-led talks to be held, I am told, for nearly 40 years. The cross-party group has met eight times since June. I am very grateful to those on the group for their work and constructive approach to this complex issue.

The starting point for the cross-party talks was that each of the three main parties was committed by its 2005 manifesto to seeking reform of the Lords. My party, as well as pledging, without qualification, to remove "the remaining hereditary peers", said that a

"reformed upper chamber must be effective, legitimate and more representative without challenging the primacy of the House of Commons".

The Conservatives promised

"to seek a cross-party consensus for a substantially elected House of Lords" and the Liberal Democrats to "replace" the Lords with a "predominantly elected second chamber".

In the cross-party talks, a significant degree of consensus has been found on several, but not all, the important issues. Where the Government have not agreed with the Opposition or the Liberal Democrats, they have done their best in the White Paper accurately to reflect the areas of disagreement.

All members of the group were of one mind on the fundamental primacy of the Commons and on the fact that the House of Lords should be a complement to this place, not a rival to it. There was agreement that a reformed House should be partly appointed, partly elected—a hybrid—consisting of at least 20 per cent. of non party political members, and that it was essential that no political party should have a majority of the whole House of Lords. It was agreed that membership of the reformed House should reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom and its people and the range of religious opinion in the country. It was also agreed that the special arrangements for membership of the upper House of a limited number of hereditary peers should come to an end.

The group decided that introducing reform over a long transitional period would be essential. But with opinion divided in all three parties, and each party committed to a free vote, we did not come to a view on the proportion of elected and appointed members, or on the precise method and timing of any elections, although all parties agreed that any elected element should be by a form of direct election.

It is palpable that Lords reform has been unfinished business for at least 100 years. This is not a criticism of the work of the Members of the other place, many of whom give the nation great service and the benefit of their expertise and experience, but it is our judgment—shared by the other parties, as their manifestos show—that the status quo is no longer an option. However, we all accept that moving forward is difficult. Great passion is aroused on this issue in both Houses and all parties.

Given that, the White Paper is self-evidently and unapologetically a compromise, both in terms of destination and of transition. I believe that the choice that we have is either to make progress on a scale and to a time scale of the kind indicated in the White Paper, or to see the whole exercise aborted altogether, in which case there would be no further progress on this matter for a generation.

Time and again, fundamental reform of the House of Lords has failed because, for some, the best has become the enemy of the good. Deadlock this time round would be easy to achieve. The prize of progress means moving forward gradually and by consensus. The basis for consensus on a hybrid House already exists. All recent inquiries into the future of the Lords—including the royal commission, chaired by the noble Lord Wakeham, the Public Administration Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Dr. Wright, and the cross-party Breaking the Deadlock group—have come to this conclusion.

The Government have used the White Paper to illustrate how a hybrid House might work, using a model in which 50 per cent. of the House is elected, and 50 per cent. is appointed: 30 per cent. from the political parties and 20 per cent. from those with no party political affiliation. In my view, this model would provide the most effective balance between election and appointment in a reformed House. However, there are myriad other views, and the free vote—including by Ministers—will enable those views properly to be expressed.

The White Paper proposes that the size of the House should be reduced to 540 Members. Elections would be held at the same time as elections to the European Parliament, and would use the same constituencies, but a different electoral system: that of the partially open list. One third would be elected at each election. The Church of England Bishops would continue to be represented.

Should Parliament opt for a system in which appointments to the second Chamber continue, all appointments would be made by a new statutory appointments commission, assessing both suitability and propriety. The commission would be independent and report directly to Parliament. The right of the Prime Minister of the day to make appointments would end.

The proposals in the White Paper would also break the link between the peerage and seats in Parliament. Members, including current Members of the House of Lords, would be able to resign their seats. Disqualification provisions for any Member of the Lords convicted of an offence would be brought into line with those in the Commons. All Members would be able to vote in general elections. The position of peers currently sitting in the House has been an important consideration, and we propose that no existing life peer should be forced to leave.

Let me now turn to the procedure that the Government propose for the free vote in this House. The whole House will recall that when the free votes took place four years ago, there were eight options before it: five of them—ranging from abolition through 100 per cent. appointed to 100 per cent. elected—were put to Divisions. Every single option was voted down.

Our system of voting in this House is well tried, and works to give a clear-cut decision on any straight yes/no choice. It is plainly essential that we use this system when it comes to determining the content of law. But the system is no good—it does not work—for indicating preferences. In mathematical terms, a binary system is not designed to elicit preferences and cannot do this job properly. Instead, the Government propose a system specifically designed to enable those voting in this House to come to a decision on the issue. Members will be invited to rank preferences in numerical order— [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Members must allow the Leader of the House to make his statement. Of course, I will allow hon. Members to ask questions, and they can disagree with the Leader of the House then, if they so wish.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The successful preference will be the one that gains at least half of all votes, after the successive elimination of the least successful choices. The Government propose three substantive votes, the first two of which will be held in the normal way. The first will be on whether there should be a second Chamber at all, and if the House decides that there should be a second Chamber, the second will be on whether there should be any further reform. If, and only if, there is an affirmative answer in both of those votes, the House will move to an alternative vote on preferences.

The detailed arrangements for the alternative vote ballot would come under your direction, Mr Speaker. It is for the other place to decide what procedure it adopts. Although the alternative vote procedure is an unusual method of voting, a broadly similar approach has already been agreed by this House and the other place for choosing the Speaker of each House. I am aware that, as will no doubt be reflected in the questions, the doctrine of the dangerous precedent says that nothing should ever be done for the first time, but every one of the traditions that we cherish in this House was once an innovation. To allow the House proper time to consider the procedure, a resolution to give it effect will be put to the House a week before the substantive debate on composition. It is intended that the debate on composition, in which there will be free votes, will last for two days.

I believe that, following the cross-party talks and the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, the White Paper represents the best opportunity to make progress that we have had for many decades. As our manifesto says, there are many reasons why we should move ahead with reform of the House of Lords—to increase its effectiveness, to make it more representative of the United Kingdom and to increase its legitimacy—but there is a wider issue, too. Through the process, we seek to strengthen Parliament by enhancing the way in which the Lords complement the work of the primary Chamber, and by doing that, our democracy as a whole will be better served. I commend the White Paper to the House.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

May I begin by thanking the Leader of the House for giving me significant advance sight of his statement? Opposition Members approached discussions in the cross-party working group constructively, looking for consensus. We have always made it clear that we would support reforms that create an upper Chamber that is capable of challenging and revising legislation, that is democratic and accountable, and that is expert and independent. I note that in his list of reasons for reform, the Leader of the House did not mention democracy and independence.

The upper House has been a thorn in the Government's side, in protecting ancient liberties such as the right to trial by jury. It is crucial that any change leaves it even more capable of acting as a check on the power of the Executive. Opposition Members want reform that strengthens Parliament, but the proposal does not do that. It puts political parties even more in control of the upper House, which risks losing the independence that has seen it defeat this Government 415 times. The right hon. Gentleman entered cross-party discussions looking for consensus. He has not achieved that, but will he confirm that, not for the first time, there is not even consensus in the Cabinet, and does he not agree that that loss of collective responsibility is a reflection of the Prime Minister's lost authority?

The proposal is for a hybrid House, but when the House last voted on Lords reform, the Prime Minister said:

"a hybrid between the two is wrong and will not work." —[ Hansard, 29 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 877.]

What has made the Prime Minister change his mind, and what makes the Leader of the House think it will work this time?

The Government propose that the political parties nominate 30 per cent. of the upper House, and that 50 per cent. be elected using a list system. Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that a list system would encourage expert and independent candidates? With 80 per cent. of the House effectively appointed by the political parties, will the reforms not leave the House of Lords less independent and more under the control of political parties than it is today? Does not party patronage simply mean party control?

The Leader of the House said that the reforms would need a long transitional period—long, indeed. On these proposals, reform will not be complete until 2050—quite an admission, given that the last White Paper was called "Completing the Reform".

Talking of long transitions, since 1997, on 21 separate Divisions on Lords reform, the Chancellor has never voted. Will the Leader of the House reassure us that the Chancellor's coronation will not be yet another block to reforming the other place?

It is not just the reforms themselves that raise important constitutional questions, but the process of voting on them. The right hon. Gentleman recommends preferential voting. Why has he not referred this unprecedented proposal to the Procedure Committee or the Modernisation Committee? In his statement he said that a broadly similar approach had nevertheless been agreed for choosing the Speakers of both Houses. It has not. In the House the next Speaker will be elected by exhaustive ballots.

Introducing a preferential voting system will create a dangerous precedent. Are Ministers willing to accept preferential votes on matters like tax rates or the replacement of Trident? Will Members' individual preferential votes be published? If, after the ballot, the House passes an option without a majority of first preferences, should there not be a confirmatory vote, otherwise how could the Government claim that the proposals reflected the will of the House? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in such circumstances, the Government would not be justified in resorting to the Parliament Act?

This proposal does not— [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I tell Mr. Bryant that he should be quiet. I asked Opposition Members to be quiet when the Leader of the House was speaking, and that courtesy should go to the shadow Leader of the House as well.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

This proposal does not strengthen Parliament. We want a House of Lords elected by the many. The House as proposed would be selected by the few. Far from making the Lords more independent, the proposal puts it in the gift of political parties. Far from strengthening Parliament, it risks losing the present benefits of the Lords. Far from removing cronyism, it perpetuates it. It is a lowest common denominator solution that will satisfy no one.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I can sum up the right hon. Lady's comments by saying that she wants consensus and she wants reform, but not yet. She has no conceivable proposals for securing that reform. I said in my statement that the issue was difficult and complex, and that if the House wants reform, it will require compromise and it will take time. I am not suggesting that the proposals made in the White Paper are the last word on the matter—certainly not. It will be the subject of a free vote by all parties.

My suggestion—it is just my suggestion, and because the Cabinet has a free vote as well, it is not endorsed by the Cabinet and I never suggested that it was—for 50 per cent. is my suggestion, and I am happy to argue it through. However, if we have a preferential vote so that the House can come to a decision, and not end up with a train wreck as we did last time, it may well come to a different decision. On the basis of that different decision, we can introduce legislation which, I hope, can be the subject of the kind of constructive cross-party talks in which the right hon. Lady has happily engaged, although there was little reflection of that in the course of her comments.

The right hon. Lady said that I did not mention democracy, but I did. One of the difficulties about the Lords at the moment is that, although it does a reasonable job, it is difficult for it to claim any kind of democratic mandate.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

It cannot claim any democratic mandate at all. We must take account of where the public are on the issue. An opinion poll published yesterday by the Hansard Society with a very large sample suggested that just 6 per cent. of the public support a wholly appointed Chamber and that more than 90 per cent. support an elected or partially elected Chamber. Even allowing for the normal margins of error, that poll suggests that the public are in one place, while some Members of this House and the other place are somewhere else.

I do not accept for a second that the consequences of the suggestions that we make in our paper for a partially open list system will lead to what the right hon. Lady described as "cronyism". One of the reasons why I happen to support a partially elected, partially appointed—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I am not suggesting a closed list system; we have listened and moved on. I can see the objections to a closed list system, which is why we have not suggested it. The shadow Chief Whip should at least accept that concession with good grace.

I believe that more than 20 per cent. of Members should be appointed and that some of those appointments should be party political appointments, because all parties contain people of great expertise who are not part of the party machines, but who, subject to consideration as to both suitability and propriety, could make a good contribution in the other place.

There will be a full debate on the voting proposal. [ Interruption. ] This is a Government proposal, because the Government are responsible for ensuring good order in this House. The simple fact is that because the House was invited to say yes or no on seven choices last time, the House ended up looking very stupid and the matter ended in a train wreck. [ Interruption. ] I realise that views are held with great passion on both sides of the House, which is fine. Those who oppose any change will have the opportunity to vote for no change. [ Interruption. ] However, they are not entitled to vote for an electoral system that will wreck the possibility of reaching a decision. [Interruption.]

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The right hon. Lady said that we have agreed to change the system for electing the Speaker, and I am glad that she accepts that. She also said that we will have a series of exhaustive ballots, which means that she does not understand our proposal. By the way, if the House wants exhaustive ballots where over time—it will probably take three or four hours—we reduce the number of preferences from seven or eight to two before having a final vote, it is fine by me, but hon. Members must be willing to sit in their places for three or four hours while the process is conducted. By endorsing the new system for electing the Speaker, the right hon. Lady has accepted that the old system, by which hon. Members were invited to say yes or no to a number of choices, was highly defective.

Finally, the right hon. Lady asked me to rule out the use of the Parliament Act. The issue of the Parliament Act does not arise in respect of these debates, because we are talking about the House indicating where the centre of gravity lies on reform of the Lords. Once we know that, we will be able to do something that I thought that she was in favour of, which is to implement not only our manifesto and the Liberal Democrat's manifesto, but her manifesto.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will succeed with these proposals, but I know that he deserves to. He has listened to the arguments; he has altered his position; and he has sought to produce a package that is designed to maximise agreement. It is now up to the House to decide whether we respond to that package. I particularly welcome the proposal that we finally separate out service in the second Chamber from the receipt of honours. If we had done that a long time ago, we would not be experiencing some of our present difficulties.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the consultations that I have had with him and for the important report, which influenced me, by the Select Committee that he chaired. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House who say that they are committed to reform reflect on that report, which was published a couple of years ago.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Unlike the rather grudging response from the Conservative party, which is trying to pretend to be modernised and new, Liberal Democrat Members, as I hope that the Government know, welcome this serious attempt to complete a process of reform that began nearly 100 years ago—nobody can say that the completion of the task is not seriously overdue. We welcome the constructive and serious talks and the way in which the Leader of the House has sought to engage all those with an interest at all stages in proceedings.

Liberal Democrats have always been committed to a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

That is the way in which we will vote. Perhaps there are one or two unreconstructed colleagues, and I anticipate that their views will be reflected in contributions by Members from other parties later today.

In a modern democracy in the 21st century, both Houses of Parliament must have elected people. The only position that we think is justifiable is that both Houses must have predominantly elected people—Members should all be elected in this House, and at least 80 per cent. of Members should be elected in the second Chamber.

We have been willing to compromise in the interests of reaching an agreement. I think that we agree that there should be a two-Chamber Parliament, that there should be a stronger House of Commons and a strong House of Lords, that we must legislate and scrutinise better and that the primacy of the Commons will never be challenged by the Lords. That is where Governments stand and fall. We pay tribute to the fact that the House of Lords has done a good job up to now, but reform does not mean that it will do any less well—we believe that it will do better.

I have some brief questions for the Leader of the House. Does the Leader of the House accept that the proposal to have three in 10 of the new Members of the House of Lords as party political nominees flies in the face of current public opinion, which is that we should reduce patronage and not increase it? Does he accept that the proposal to keep prime ministerial nominations absolutely flies in the face of recent views about the rights of Prime Ministers? It would be better if that patronage were removed, so that everybody goes through the same appointment process. Labour's commitment to get rid of hereditary peers should be stuck to, because the existence of hereditary peers after we have had elections would be a clear anomaly. Finally, when we have elections—as we will—everybody should be entitled to express a preference anywhere in the United Kingdom for the candidate of their choice in the place of their choice. The list system is not a way to enhance democracy, but a way to reduce it.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comment about the cross-party talks. People outside this House might be forgiven for thinking that there were two sets of cross-party talks, but there was only one in which Mrs. May and her colleagues participated constructively and in which we were clear about where there is agreement and where there is disagreement. The Conservative party needs to make up its mind about whether it was serious at the last election in committing itself to a substantially elected second Chamber and reform of the Lords. It needs to embrace this process or something like it, if it wants to move forward. Otherwise the public will conclude that this is a charade, because the Conservative party is so divided that it does not have the bottle to move forward.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Fifty-fifty is not substantially elected.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The right hon. Lady says that 50:50 is not substantially elected. This is only my view, not necessarily that of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I want to be able to have a system whereby their views can be expressed and have some effect. What was profoundly unfair about the last system was that although it looked as though there was a greater level of support for an 80 per cent. or a 100 per cent. elected Chamber than for the alternatives, that bit the dust along with all the other proposals, including those which were the direct opposite. That was a result of the absurdity of using that system.

On the question of whether there is to be any appointed party element, we have all agreed that there should be a transition period, although there is a debate about how long it should be. There are likely to be some appointments of a party nature during that transition period, so we have to accept that there will be such appointments. The important thing is that they should take place in a manner that commands public confidence. That is why we have agreed with the Wakeham commission proposal that the statutory appointments commission should determine issues of suitability as well as those of propriety. Of course the Prime Minister would have the right to make nominations, but without any guarantee that they would be accepted by the commission.

The hon. Gentleman's most important point concerned strengthening our democracy and strengthening Parliament. There are those who argue for no change on the grounds that any increase in activity or assertiveness by the other place is bound to diminish the activity, assertiveness and powers of this place. I do not buy that. The longer I am in government, the more I believe in a strong Parliament. We have strong government in this country and across the western world. Strong government is better government the more that Parliament—both Chambers—can exercise proper scrutiny over what the Government are doing.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

May I remind my right hon. Friend that when the manifesto on which he and I were elected to this House two years ago said

"we will ... allow a free vote on the composition of the House", it did not go on to say that we will impose a three-line Whip to force Labour Members to accept an option that they do not wish to accept. Will he give me a categorical assurance that when this matter comes before the House of Commons, Labour Members will not have to choose, by voting for the manifesto, to vote against the Whip?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The manifesto was clear in saying that

"we will ... allow a free vote on the composition of the House" but it was silent on the issue of procedure. Given the farce—the train wreck—that was produced on the last occasion, it is the duty of a Government commanding a majority in this House to ensure that a procedure by which it can come to a decision is achieved. That is the sole purpose of the alternative vote procedure. It is used inside the Labour party; I gather that it is even used inside the Conservative party for selecting candidates.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The right hon. Lady is shaking her head; we can exchange billets-doux about that. Certainly, the exhaustive ballot is used. If the House wants an exhaustive ballot, we can have cross-party talks about that and achieve it, but it would take a very long time and produce almost an identical result to an alternative vote, because, for those who understand these systems, an alternative vote is simply a compressed version of an exhaustive ballot.

One of the documents that very much informed me was the report of the royal commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord Wakeham. My right hon. Friend, who played a distinguished part in that, will know that recommendation 69 proposed, to different degrees, a hybrid House.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Speaking for the largest cross-party group in both Houses, which includes a sizeable number of Liberal Democrats from the upper House and Liberal Democrats from this House, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that what he proposes is a constitutional outrage? Will he think again about his answer to Sir Gerald Kaufman, and, given that we are to have a free vote on everything else, will he give all Labour Members a free vote on this monstrous proposal for a football coupon ballot?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I think that the hon. Gentleman is saying, in traditionally extravagant language, and as he said in the papers today, that he regards my proposal as a dangerous precedent. It may not have occurred to him, but this House is about change—that is what we are here for. [Interruption.] Well, not all the time, but what is the purpose of laws if not sometimes to change things? I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the Cambridge philosopher said about the principle of the dangerous precedent:

"you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one."

He goes on to say:

"Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time."

I note that none of those who have raised objections to the use of the alternative vote are raising objections as regards its merits—all they are saying is that they do not like it because it is something new and/or it could lead to the House making a decision. However, all three parties are committed to the House coming to a decision, and there will be not one but two opportunities, on the Divisions that will be put before the House, for the hon. Gentleman and his friends on both sides of the House to exercise their choice, through a straight yes/no ballot, on whether there should be any reform at all. He can vote yes or no, and if he wins, that is the end of the matter. If the vote were in favour of reform, then, yes, we would proceed to an alternative vote. At the top of the ballot, as is shown in the appendix to the White Paper, is the option of an all-appointed Chamber. I think that that is the hon. Gentleman's opinion. If he wins, that is what we will do; if he loses, that is called democracy.

Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams Labour, Swansea West

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Leader of the House knows from previous exchanges that I oppose a fully elected House of Lords because I believe that at some stage it will inevitably flex its democratic muscles and challenge this House. However, that leads us into a quandary, because it is exactly what the Government have recognised but are not willing to say. They have therefore retreated into hybridity. Hybridity may be the start of a process but it is not sustainable in itself. Whatever the mix at the start—20 per cent., 50 per cent. or 80 per cent.—at some time, and then again, the elected majority in that House will be defeated by the votes of the non-elected, and inevitably the pressure will then be on to take the next step. Hybridity means a fully elected House of Lords, but not just yet.

Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams Labour, Swansea West

I am sorry—I have only one more point to make.

I welcome the Leader of the House's suggested change in the appointments system, but I find it utterly bizarre that he can put to the House as a fait accompli this strange new voting system. Voting is a decision for the House of Commons, and if one is going to introduce a precedent in decision making—the election of the Speaker is not a suitable precedent—then it should be on a free vote of the House of Commons.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

On the last point, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to reflect on what is proposed in the time between now and the main vote. This system is proposed because we had a train wreck last time. I do not think that my right hon. Friend was one of those who was trying to secure that, but there were certainly some who were trying to ensure that no decision whatsoever was made, and they got what they wanted. That is not what this House is for; nor did it enhance its reputation one iota. All that is proposed is a system with which all of us are familiar in other circumstances, whereby we are offered options and list them in order of preference. That is because we must not find ourselves in a situation whereby the best becomes the enemy of the good. We could have an eliminating ballot but that would take hours.

Is not it better for us to indicate our preference? We opt for our first preference and, if that does not command a majority, we go for our second preference and so on. After all, the old system sought to achieve that but it was profoundly unfair—indeed, it was fixed so that people could not exercise a second or third preference properly because gamesmanship applied. The order in which the ballots were put determined the outcome of the result. That is unfair and all hon. Members should reflect on whether they wish to produce a farce like that again.

I understand my right hon. Friend's concern. All those of us who have been in the House for a long time do not move away from established procedures except with care. However, I believe that, in this very specific and particular circumstance, we must adopt the system that I have outlined or something remarkably similar.

My right hon. Friend objects to a fully elected House—I, too, am not in favour of that. However, he claimed that a hybrid House would automatically lead to a fully elected House over time. I do not accept that. Powers are central to the issue. Chapter 5, page 22 of the White Paper provides much information about international comparisons, which show that there is no necessary connection between the composition of a House and the powers that it exercises. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats cited the Canadian Senate this morning. The Canadian Senate is all-appointed but very powerful. Equally, there are all-elected Chambers that lack power. Mr. Clarke said that we could legislate to cement the powers over, for example, money, supply and taxation at the same time as we changed composition.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee)

May I congratulate the Leader of the House on having the courage to take up the subject again and giving the House the opportunity of resolving the matter at last? However, will he ensure that the Government do not pull the plug on the whole exercise again if a majority, on a free vote, votes for some detail of which the Prime Minister or the Government do not approve? Does he accept that we need to resolve the matter in this Parliament if possible? Does he also accept that, in any other European democracy, it would be regarded as absurd that a substantial number of legislators in the upper House of a Parliament were there through appointment by the Prime Minister, appointment by political parties, sale by political parties or anybody else, or appointment by an establishment quango secretly discussing who is suitable? Does he agree that the British are ready for more democracy in their political system?

P

The British are long over due for some democracy.

The UK used to be democratic but now it is more of a dictatorship. We no longer have a voice and when we are allowed to comment we are ignored!

How can the UK be a democracy when our laws are made by an undemocratic and unelected body in the EU?

Britain is fed up of all the lies and spin. Please let us have our democracy back.. Pull out of the EU!

Submitted by Penelope Giles

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The answer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question is yes. I am grateful for his support and his recognition that the exercise is tricky. Its purpose is to enable the House to reach a conclusion, after which the Government can legislate. I say to other Conservative Members that I would have thought that it was wise for them to recognise that the exercise is an important opportunity for the Conservative party, if it wishes to get into government, to get the matter out of the way.

Photo of Mike Hall Mike Hall Labour, Weaver Vale

I think that my right hon. Friend has got the matter the wrong way round. We should examine the functions of the House of Lords and then determine its composition. He has produced a breakfast at which even my dog Max would balk.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

We have had the debate about functions and composition. Some Labour Members—perhaps my hon. Friend is one—believe that we should end up in a logical trap, whereby we cannot discuss composition until we have discussed powers and we cannot discuss powers until we have discussed composition. We are acting in the manner that our manifesto laid down.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

I welcome and encourage the Leader of the House's resistance to the siren voices—whether old Conservative, old Labour or even old Liberal Democrat—that say, "Don't do anything because the House of Lords might acquire some greater moral authority." Is he aware that I meet few—if any—people who are worried about the House of Lords becoming more powerful, but many who are worried that the Executive are already powerful and may become more so? They welcome a second Chamber that forces the House of Commons to think again about issues such as civil liberty and personal freedom.

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There are very few occaisions I find myself in agreement with you, but this happens to be one of them. The lies and spin which issue forth from politicians at the moment is frightening, the fact that they cannot be stopped is appaling. This Gov't has literally sold out this country to the highest bidder and even though they've broken the codes of conduct, lied to...

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. I have said previously that although, when I was Home Secretary and sponsored a large amount of legislation, I was irritated by the other place rejecting my proposals, the result of that process was, on the whole, improved legislation.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will the Leader of the House explain why we have such an incredibly long run-in period to any improved version of the House of Lords? Why cannot we simply move to a fully democratically elected second Chamber, if that is what we are to have, instead of the dog's breakfast of appointments, bishops and election on a party list system?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

This is an opportunity to do what my hon. Friend suggests. I hope that he will support the process that enables us to reach a conclusion. He will then have the opportunity to vote for a House that is 100 per cent. elected. When legislation is introduced, he can push for a much quicker transition period.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I fully share the views of the Father of the House and Sir Gerald Kaufman. The Leader of the House was unconstitutional when he said that the Government must order the procedures of the House. It is not up to the Government to do that—it is up to the House of Commons. I hope that he agrees that the abominable procedure for voting that he proposes should be put to the Procedure Committee or even the Modernisation Committee, which he chairs. It would better go to the Procedure Committee so that the matter can be properly considered. Is not he presenting a proposal to manipulate the House of Commons to achieve a Government objective?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

Far from it. A manipulation of the defective system led to the train wreck last time. I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I note that none of the criticisms of the proposal has included a serious objection to its method.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise that the House must make a decision. Would not we fail in our duty as a House if we did not agree a procedure that ensured that we reached a decision? If we do not do that, will not we play into the hands of those who posture about being in favour of radical reform but secretly want no change?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), Leader, Scottish National Party

The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru have recently taken a close interest in the complexion of the House of Lords. Is the Leader of the House aware that the television game show, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" has a 50:50 option? With all the assembled talents of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties, how can the Leader of the House believe that he has reached consensus on such a concoction of nonsense? Will he answer a few simple questions about the hybrid House that he proposes? Why call it the House of Lords? Will the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 still apply to nominated Members? Why is there a guaranteed place for Church of England bishops as opposed to people of any other denomination or religion? At any point in the discussions, did anybody present the intellectually rigorous arguments for a fully elected House of Lords or, indeed, for its abolition?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

There will be a free vote by three of the parties. I hope that the SNP and Plaid will also have a free vote. We can then reach a decision.

We have decided, since we will not know the composition of the House unless and until we reach a decision about that, to leave the name until we know the nature of the House.

We propose that there should be a greater facility for wider representation of religious and faith groups. If there is a movement for the disestablishment of the Church of England, that is fine. I do not regard that as a priority. Meanwhile, we should accept that it is a second-order issue. If those of us who believe in reform reach the stage that I have outlined, we will have gone a long way.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

The Leader of the House pointed out that, on the last occasion when we considered the matter, an unholy alliance formed between those who felt that their perfect options had not been accepted and therefore voted against all others, and those who wanted no change, which delivered no result. I perceive the development of another unholy alliance. Mrs. May claims that the proposal does not fulfil her demand for greater democracy, and my hon. Friends who do not want an elected House of Lords claim that it does not meet their demands. Will he try to demonstrate that the proposal is the only mechanism whereby we can achieve the result that most Members of this House want? It will enable us to achieve the reform, which successive Governments of all parties since 1908, have failed to deliver.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I will do my best, and I would be grateful for my hon. Friend's support. It is entirely legitimate for those who want no change at all to vote for that. It is unacceptable, however, for those in that position to seek to use a wholly defective voting system to ensure that those who want some change are denied the opportunity to come to a decision.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

As the Leader of the House knows, I am generally regarded as a standard bearer for reform and in the white heat of modernisation. It is a mark of good government, however, to know when to leave things alone. There is absolutely no demand for this change or reform anywhere in the country. The House of Lords fulfils its tasks extremely well. What is the point of proceeding with this arrant nonsense?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The point of proceeding with it is that the British public are not in quite the same position as the hon. Gentleman. More to the point, his party does not share his view either; he stood at the last election on a manifesto proposal that happens to be even more radical than ours.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I welcome the White Paper, and congratulate my right hon. Friend on its terms, which need to be debated in the House. After the appalling introduction to that report by Her Majesty's official Opposition, may I plead for the House to have a reasonable time to debate the issues? My right hon. Friend talked about finding the centre of gravity, which everyone recognises is incredibly important. We will only be able to do that, however, if we have proper and effective debate before coming to a decision.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

Yes; I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. There will be a day to determine and come to a vote on the procedure, and about a week later a two-day debate will take place on the reform and composition of the House of Lords.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

The preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 held out a better prospect than anything offered by the Leader of the House today— [Interruption.] I am just anticipating a situation that will come about. My point is that the demand for primacy of the Commons does not wash if the House of Lords is elected. The central proposition of a democratic system is that those who make the laws should be accountable to those who bear the laws. His proposals, and his extraordinary voting system, defeat that. Some Members of this House will welcome another House that can bring to check the dreams and ambitions of the Crown in Downing street and the Executive here.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I was not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in favour of or against a fully elected Chamber. That is his opinion, however, and he is fully entitled to exercise it and, under the voting system suggested by the Government, gain the maximum support. The House would then come to a decision.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on his clear set of proposals but on having the courage to recommend a way of taking the decision that will lead to a clear outcome. Does he agree that opposition to a preferential vote is a disguised way of blocking reform and lacks candour, given that all parties in the House select their candidates and leaders through various forms of preferential voting?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I agree entirely. Were the Conservative party really committed to reform, it would have no alternative but to back the system of voting that I propose.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Liberal Democrat, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross

May I welcome in general the progress made by the Leader of the House? My preference has always been for a wholly or predominantly elected House, but I would accept a lesser number of elected to make progress. Does he agree that the critical issue is to get the mechanics of the election right, and particularly to have regionally-biased constituencies to complement the population bias of this House?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I look forward to getting to those sunlit uplands where we can have a serious debate about the electoral system. As I said to the Opposition Chief Whip, however, I have sought to show flexibility, and let us hope that that can continue.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Labour, Liverpool, Wavertree

I hesitate to contradict my right hon. and dear Friend, but the House is entitled to reject all the options, which was what happened last time. It was not a train wreck or an unholy alliance. The fact is that there was not a majority for any one of the proposals made. Trying to change the voting procedure to bring about a decision smacks of not liking the original set of decisions taken by the House. He knows that I have the highest regard for him, but could he please divert his prodigious talents and enormous energies to some other subject?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

My right hon. and dear Friend—the admiration is mutual—is right in some respects, particularly towards the end of her remarks. If she wants to vote against all the options, however, there will be an opportunity, on a traditional yes/no vote, to vote for no change. The voting system is entirely different from last time. If the House wants change, however, it must indicate which preference commands a majority. There are only two ways of doing that: through an exhaustive ballot, which I do not mind but which would take far too long; or through its equivalent, which is the alternative vote.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

As someone who has been in favour of a directly elected Chamber for about a decade, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he accepts that basing that on a change of functions and different constituencies is legitimate, but that going for a system that is intrinsically undemocratic—not only in the procedure adopted for voting in this House but in the party list system to which he has referred with respect to voting outside—is not legitimate and fatally undermines his case?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I think that the hon. Gentleman is agreeing in part with the proposals, but exercising some disagreement about the electoral system. Incidentally, I congratulate him on not mentioning Europe in his question for the first time in a very long while. I look forward to his support for the process that we propose, as he can then exercise his vote and, say, support 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. elected.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

Out of affection for Mr. Cash, I will mention Europe. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that although 48 of the 67 second chambers in the world are largely or wholly elected, including in advanced democracies such as Australia, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland and the Netherlands, their powers are almost wholly subordinate to those of the primary chambers concerned? Does not history and experience expose the flaws in the argument that a more democratic House of Lords, as promised in our and other parties' manifestos, would automatically challenge the primacy of the Commons?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Does the Leader of the House agree that there is no point in having clones of MPs in the other place: people who climb the greasy pole in order to become Under-Secretary for paperclips, and never vote against their own party? I know that he does not agree with me on elected Members, but does he at least agree that there is some merit in making those people like congressmen—not MPs—who serve in a kind of senate, cannot become Ministers and therefore maintain their independence of spirit?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I agree with almost all that the hon. Gentleman said. The cross-party group has agreed to reflect the recommendations of the Wakeham commission precisely to ensure that new Members, whether elected or appointed, do not become "clones of MPs", that they are elected for a single term that runs for a long time—we suggest 15 years—and that there is a quarantine period after the expiry of their normal 15-year term of, say, five years, before such individuals could stand for election to this place. By that time, I think, their ambition will have been exhausted.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

May I caution my right hon. Friend against turning the voting procedure into "the issue"? He seems to be suggesting that a vote against what he is proposing is a vote against any form of reform. He should put an option for a voting procedure to the House.

There is one issue on which there is unanimity among Labour Members, and that is that the remaining hereditary peers should be removed. Any procedure that my right hon. Friend puts to the House must allow a separate vote on that issue.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I will certainly take that into account. I will talk to my hon. Friend about whether we should have a specific vote on the removal of hereditaries, and then another vote on further reform.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

I welcome what I perceive to be a genuine attempt by the Leader of the House to unblock the logjam and give the House an opportunity to resolve the issue one way or another quite soon. Will he confirm that when we last discussed it, the proposal that commanded the least support was for a wholly appointed Chamber, which is where we are now? If the views of this House are to have primacy, it must be right for us to consider that again.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, and I am grateful to him. Just 245 Members voted for a 100 per cent. appointed House of Lords, compared with the 281 who voted for an 80 per cent. elected House.

Several hon. Members:

rose—