House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:01 pm on 10th January 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Carnegy of Lour Baroness Carnegy of Lour Conservative 8:01 pm, 10th January 2002

My Lords, I have just noticed that there are not too many girls in the debate today. I am not sure what conclusion to draw from that, but I am rather glad I am taking part today rather than yesterday.

At the start of his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Evans, speculated upon why the White Paper is getting a bad press. Whatever the reason may be, over the last day or two the effect of the heightened discussion and a better understanding of the White Paper, combined with the Government's continuing reluctance to seek consensus across Parliament, seems to be producing a somewhat unexpected situation—that is, there appears to be a possibility that either the Government will be stuck with the status quo and fail to implement what, to them, are key commitments, or we shall move to a wholly elected second Chamber, which would only work in our kind of Parliament, with our kind of carefully worded and detailed legislation, if the House of Commons reformed itself too.

My noble friend Lord King and others referred to the anti-terrorism Bill. It must have been clear for all to see—not only those in this House—during the passage of that Bill that as long as it is possible in this country for a government with a big majority to force a dangerously flawed Bill through the House of Commons after scant scrutiny there, the second Chamber needs among its Members legal expertise, legislative experience, experience of the subject matter of a Bill, the independence of committed Cross-Benchers, and political people able to act as free spirits, if the necessary job is to be done and the Government and the House of Commons persuaded. That kind of expertise and ability is, by definition, unlikely to exist in sufficient quantity in an all-elected House. For such a second Chamber to work, the House of Commons will have to be very considerably reformed.

Awkward alternatives are looming for the Government—that is, the status quo or a massive change to both Houses—and Ministers want neither. They have my sympathy.

As to the White Paper, most of the arguments have been deployed already and I shall be very brief. Two points have not been much discussed, both of which can apply whatever the composition of the House may be. The first point concerns the breaking of the historic link between the membership of the second Chamber and the peerage. The time has come when that is absolutely right. It is right for the Monarchy and right for the second Chamber, whatever form it takes. But, in passing, why go on calling it the House of Lords when it will not be a house of Lords. I believe that "Senate" would be a better name and that its members should be "Senators".

The second point concerns the power of the second Chamber in relation to secondary legislation. The White Paper contains an extremely good idea which began in the committee of this House—one of which I am now a member but of which I was not a member when the committee made the recommendation—and was accepted by the Wakeham commission; that is, that the second Chamber should have the power to delay secondary legislation and require the House of Commons to think again. With secondary legislation being used, inevitably, more and more, it would seem wise to make it possible to discuss orders much more fully, rather than simply accepting or rejecting them. It is an extremely good idea.

But the White Paper also suggests abolishing the second Chamber's ability to reject orders. That would be extraordinarily unwise. One could quote other examples of the dangers, but again the anti-terrorism Bill is the most recent. Noble Lords will remember that, in that Bill, the Government proposed the establishment of new crimes and new penalties in this country—some of which would involve prison sentences for our citizens—simply by putting orders through Parliament. Those particular crimes would have been negotiated between our Home Secretary and the other justice ministers in Europe and would have been unscrutinised by the European Parliament at any time.

But if a reasonable, responsible government such as this one could propose for their own convenience something so undemocratic, what might a less responsible government do? The power to reject secondary legislation must be retained by the second Chamber, and powers to amend such legislation, to delay it and to refer it back to the Commons for further discussion should be added to it. Those changes could be made whatever the composition of the House.

Those are not small points, but they are briefly made because your Lordships know the issues. I hope that when the Leader of the House replies to the debate he will be able— among all the other matters on which he has to reply—to comment on the possibility of keeping the power to reject orders.