House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 10th January 2002.

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Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative 3:48 pm, 10th January 2002

My Lords, I am not at all sure that there is a negative effect on our ability to persuade the other place. If we were established as a largely elected Chamber, the confrontation would be more violent and more direct and conciliation would be less easy. It is the Government's insight as originally set out that the present balance, imprecise as it may be, gives us our influence and impact and leaves the final decision to the other place. I do not believe that that would be altered for the good by accepting the implication of the noble Earl's question.

The other reason was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf; that is, that we need to have people here who are truly independent and are not dependent on the wishes of party masters and who, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, pointed out, should have no reason either to fear dismissal or to hope for reappointment.

Years ago, Christopher Hollis—some will remember him as the Member for Devizes; he was a very distinguished figure in the days when my noble friend Lord Renton first entered the House of Commons—pointed out in a rather dramatic phrase that:

"If the House of Commons is the House table d'hote, it is all the more important that the Lords should be the House a la carte".

That degree of independence, difference and distinction was very important.

The opposite case was argued most eloquently by yet another Welshman, the noble Lord, Lord Richard. He asked: if democracy is legitimate elsewhere, why not here? He pointed out that independence and membership of political parties are not necessarily incompatible. Well, they are not necessarily incompatible but such membership effects a powerful restraint on independence, as he must have found out frequently. I am not saying that that is illegitimate, but it is inconsistent with the distinctive nature of this distinct place, which has a different role, to have a similar pattern of choice for the people who will sit in it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, put the matter in a different way. She said that if you do not like patronage, the only alternative is election. That plainly is not so. My noble friend Lord Wakeham and the commission over which he presided with such distinction identified and spelt out two alternatives—either nomination by the commission that they described or election on the basis that they described. Those are legitimate ways of trying to achieve a different structure for this House, although I do not agree with them.

The thought that the Royal Commission put into the matter was spelt out and elaborated not only by my noble friend Lord Wakeham but also by my noble friend Lord Hurd and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. If that approach is adopted, it is of the utmost importance that the qualifications and conditions that were spelt out have to be followed in absolutely every respect; perhaps more so.

One matter seems to loom as an island of unanimity in the debate so far. Of all of the possibilities, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde pointed out, the closed list is a democratic monstrosity. Our experience of the European elections shows how numbingly the procedure is—it seems to compel would-be candidates to compete for what they perceive as their party's centre of gravity and it operates as a charter for conformity of the narrowest kind. Indeed, it is a charter for the deceit of those whose preferences one is seeking.

I think that it was Disraeli who described the Reform Act 1867 as "a leap in the dark". By comparison, a move towards the closed-list system for this House would be not a leap in the dark but the clearest brightly illuminated step in entirely the wrong direction. We have the experience of the European elections to underline that.

I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, is looking at me. He will recall his patron saint, Aneurin Bevan, saying many times, "Why read the crystal when you can read the book?". So far as closed lists are concerned, we can read the book all too clearly. I hope that we all agree on that.

My closing theme is that I do not believe that the country will be served by reproducing in this House what we now see at work in the other House. I say that with great regret, as someone who had the privilege of leading the other place for at least 12 months. I come back to my brutal, ill-mannered summary—the last thing that people want to see here are clones of the clowns in the Commons.