Nick responds to the Justice Secretary's statement on House of Lords Reform
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con):
I thank the Justice Secretary for early sight of his statement and the final White Paper. I commend him on the way in which he has handled discussions in the cross-party group for many months and attempted to steer a course of reform.
We welcome the White Paper and recognise it as a step forward. As the Justice Secretary said, it is a Government document. Many of the proposals reflect areas of consensus in the cross-party talks, but there are areas of disagreement. Will he accept that the question of the electoral system for any reformed second Chamber is far from settled? We believe that that system should mirror that for this House: a first-past-the-post system based on recognisable constituencies of our historic cities and counties. We would strongly resist any move to introduce an electoral system based on proportional representation. Would not simultaneous elections to both Houses involving two different electoral systems be a recipe for confusion?
At a time of increasing public disquiet about politicians' use of taxpayers' funds, the cost of the second Chamber is bound to be an issue. What plans does the Justice Secretary have to set out the pay, pensions and responsibilities of members of a reformed second Chamber, and the costs of reform as a whole?
The Justice Secretary says that a reformed second Chamber should be significantly smaller than the existing House of Lords, but is not 400 members too large? We have argued for a second Chamber of between 250 and 300 members, which would be a similar size to the upper houses of France, Italy and Spain. The United States Senate has only 100 members for a population of 300 million people, albeit in a federal system.
On the subject of a senate, the White Paper notes that the working group reached a "strong consensus" that a reformed second Chamber should be known as the "Senate", yet the Government's proposals do not use that name. Will the Justice Secretary tell us why the Government appear reticent to adopt a name that was agreed by the cross-party group?
The issue of transition could be highly contentious. The White Paper suggests that life peers could remain members of a reformed second Chamber even after transition was complete. How could reform possibly be considered complete while life peers remained in a second Chamber, perhaps for decades? The White Paper also suggests that the remaining hereditary peers would go at the completion of transition. Does not the Justice Secretary accept that given that the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, gave an undertaking that the elected hereditary peers would remain until stage 2 of reform had taken place, it would be invidious and inequitable to remove those remaining hereditary peers sitting in the other place as long as the 400 life peers created under Labour continued to sit? While the largest number of Members of this House voted last year for a 100 per cent. elected second Chamber-I was one of them-is it not the case, in view of the contrary position taken by the Lords themselves, that retaining an appointed minority would provide the best hope of consensus?
We welcome the special place that the Government intend to reserve for the Church of England bishops in a mainly elected, reformed second Chamber. However, does the Justice Secretary agree that retired justices of the supreme court, who would not be appointed to the second Chamber automatically, would make every bit as valuable a contribution to its work as the Lords Spiritual?
Reform should not be supported unless it strengthens the authority of the second Chamber in holding Governments to account. However, a reformed second Chamber should not seek to compete with this House, which must continue to have primacy. Is it not the case that both Houses of Parliament need strengthening to hold the Executive to account? Does the Justice Secretary agree that the next reform of the Lords should be a democratic one and that we should be wary of any proposals that might cement the current arrangements, especially by allowing an entire second Chamber to be appointed by an unelected quango?
The White Paper represents the next step after last year's votes in the House for a mainly or wholly elected second Chamber, but is it not clear that the change envisaged is a radical one? It is not so much the reform of the House of Lords as the creation of a new second Chamber. Reform of the Lords has been proposed and attempted for the past 100 years. Will the Secretary of State for Justice indicate when he thinks the proposals will be translated into a Bill? It is right that Members in this House should reflect on and debate the issues carefully. We Opposition Members will continue to seek consensus on a way forward.