House of Lords Reform, July 2007
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I thank the Lord Chancellor for his statement and for his courtesy in letting me have sight of it in advance. At the outset, may I pay tribute to his considerable efforts to move forwards on the issue of Lords reform and the way in which he is attempting to do so by consensus? It has not always been an easy journey for him and he has gracefully departed from his own preferred option of a hybrid half-elected, half-appointed Lords-or rather, that option departed from him. It is dead. In fact, it was never alive. In March, this House voted for a substantially elected second Chamber. I welcome the Lord High Chancellor to the ranks of those of us-the majority-who voted for the democratic option.
Following the votes in March, does the Lord Chancellor remember saying on the "Today" programme:
"There's now a momentum behind change...Members of Parliament want a wholly or predominantly elected House of Lords. It's now our duty to deliver that."?
But how much momentum is there? Today he said that the Government are determined to complete Lords reform-but when? It seems that his new ambition is to secure a manifesto commitment for reform at the next election, but that election may not be held for another two or three years and the Labour party first had a manifesto commitment on the issue in 1992. Is not the real message in his statement that Lords reform is on ice until after the next election? There will be another White Paper and possibly draft clauses, but can the Lord Chancellor confirm that he has no plans to introduce legislation to deliver a substantially elected upper House in this Parliament?
It is now eight years since Parliament embarked on stage 1 of reform. Does the Lord Chancellor recall that when the Government agreed that 92 hereditary peers would remain in the House of Lords pending further reform, his predecessor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, told the Lords that the retention of those peers reflected
"a compromise negotiated between Privy Councillors on Privy Council terms and binding in honour on all those who have come to give it their assent."?-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 1999; Vol. 599, c. 207.]
As one of those Privy Councillors, will the Lord Chancellor confirm that he remains bound in honour, that the promise made then holds good, and that, although he repeats the Government's commitment to remove the remaining hereditary peers, that will not happen unless and until stage 2 of the reforms is complete?
In 1924, Winston Churchill said:
"if we are to leave the venerable if somewhat crumbled rock on which the House of Lords now stands, there is no safe foothold until we come to an elected chamber."
Will the Lord Chancellor clarify the Government's stance on the Bill introduced by Lord Steel, which will be debated in the other place tomorrow? The Bill would gradually remove hereditary peers, eventually leaving an all-appointed Lords. The Lord Chancellor merely said that "the Bill does not contain the comprehensive reform that is the clear will of this House," but given that the Bill breaches Lord Irvine's undertaking and is clearly incompatible with a predominantly elected Lords, surely the Government should oppose it. If they do not, what conclusion can we draw about their seriousness in taking reform forward?
The whole House will agree with the Lord Chancellor that the Commons must be the primary Chamber and that an elected Lords should complement the Commons and not be a rival to it, but after the Cunningham report on parliamentary conventions, the powers of the upper House are more closely defined than ever before. This House has the purse strings and the Parliament Acts, while the upper House has the power to delay. When the Lord Chancellor says that he wishes to look again at the adequacy of the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses, does he accept that maintaining the primacy of this House should not mean weakening the Lords? It should mean strengthening Parliament as a whole so that the Executive can be held properly to account.
I welcome the Lord Chancellor's comment that the constitution does not belong to any one party and that it should not be used as a party tool. It is important that we move forward on the basis of consensus -[ Interruption. ] Does he understand the profound concern among Conservative Members about the existing White Paper's proposals for electoral systems and constituencies? An electoral system that is based on closed lists and large, artificial, multi-member constituencies would keep power in the hands of party bosses. We cannot accept the removal of the independence and authority of the present Lords unless real democratic accountability is put in its place. Does the Lord Chancellor agree that we should aim for a strong revising second Chamber with democratic legitimacy, not a House of party placemen? [ Interruption. ]
We want to build a second Chamber with legitimacy, authority and the ability to play a full part in holding the Executive to account. We will work constructively with the Government in their search for consensus to that end. However, the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 said:
"it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation".
Does not the Lord Chancellor's statement indicate that far from being able "finally to finish the job", as he said, we remain, nearly a century later, in precisely the same position: intending reform, but still waiting.