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It is a pleasure to follow my former boss my noble friend Lord Taylor, who in previous Parliaments generously allowed extra time for discussion on such a Bill. I believe I am the only noble Lord, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who has sat through every single minute of previous discussions of his Bills in the past four and a half years. This was not a voluntary decision; I did so in my capacity as government spokesman on the Bill, a job discharged today by my noble friend Lord Howe, clutching a folder that bears my fingerprints. But I am now liberated to express my own view, rather than the Government’s—and when I did that, I confess to stretching to its limits collective ministerial responsibility by toning down some of the passages hostile to the Bill in my brief.
First, to those who criticise the Government for not being more supportive of the Bill, I refer to Hansard of
“I do not believe it can be argued that the Bill could be considered to meet the terms of that pledge.”—[Official Report, 30/11/07; col. 1479.]
It would be tactless for me to say that the Government Chief Whip at that time, who would have had a decisive say on the Government’s attitude to the Bill, was none other than the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Having just wound him up, I support his Bill but the decision is a balanced one. It is unsurprising that Conservative Peers attach more weight to the pledge given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, than Labour Peers. It was a commitment sought by our former leader, Viscount Cranborne, and reluctantly conceded via the Weatherill amendment by the then Labour Government. It actually means more to us than it did to them and we have more to lose.
Secondly, by-elections in my party are unlike by-elections in the other parties, particularly the Lib Dems, which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, likes to use to reinforce his case. The recent Lib Dem by-election was indeed something straight from “Iolanthe” but in my party’s case the by-elections are serious, with many strong candidates. Those who win tend to do more heavy lifting in your Lordships’ House than the life Peers—a point made by my noble friend Lord Taylor. As with the original 92, these are noble Lords who want to be here to work and they have to convince an electorate that they will do so.
However, I find the reasons the other way more compelling. The Irvine pledge was meant to be a short-term fix before the second stage of Lords reform. I remember being reassured, when I was shadow leader in the other place, that the first round of elections for a reformed second Chamber would take place by 2001. What was meant to be a short-term fix has become a long-term anomaly. The position is also clearly discriminatory against women and has no place in a modern legislature. Finally, I believe the House does itself no favours by using ingenious methods to obstruct the clear will of the majority. I was frankly embarrassed at having to listen to some of the arguments adduced by my noble friends and, in fairness to them, I suspect that they were embarrassed as well. We should have no more delaying tactics this time; the Bill has been examined ad nauseam. This is an incremental reform, like other Private Members’ Bills, which does not preclude other reforms should the time come for them. I support the Bill, and we should get on with it.