HC Deb 15 February 1999 vol 325 cc615-702 4.18 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 5, leave out 'a member' and insert 'entitled to vote in a division'.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 23, in page 1, line 6, at end add ', except that holders of an hereditary peerage shall enjoy the same rights as any other member of the House of Lords (including the right to speak and vote) during any debate on a Bill containing any provision to extend the maximum duration of a Parliament beyond five years.'.

No. 10, in title, line 1, leave out 'End' and insert `Restrict'.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I thank the President of the Council for so readily accepting that this Bill, perhaps above all others, is one that should be taken in all its stages on the Floor of the House. I am delighted to see her here. Having said that, there is little else on which I can congratulate her. The amendments have one aim in view: to make a bad Bill better.

Now is not the time to repeat all the arguments that were advanced on Second Reading a fortnight ago, but it was clear from that debate that the Government had moved far too hastily and introduced a Bill without giving proper thought to its consequences or any thought whatever to the consequences of stage 2. I recognise that it is not appropriate for us to debate stage 2 in detail, or even at all. I shall, therefore, concentrate my remarks entirely on stage 1. Amendment No. 1 is designed to try to ensure that the interim House of Lords has quality and can still perform as effectively as the present House, and that there is some continuity.

The amendment's aim is not to challenge the Government on the hereditary peers' right to vote, but there is a great deal to be said for allowing hereditary peers to sit in the interim House of Lords and to perform the duties in which many of them have been conspicuously successful over the years. On Second Reading, I pointed out that 40 per cent. of the regular attenders in the House of Lords are hereditary peers. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their hard work, and I was glad that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who wound up the debate on Second Reading, accepted that without equivocation. If that 40 per cent. are not allowed to attend the House after the Bill's passage, there will be a large, consequential burden on life peers.

We have to remember that we are discussing not paid legislators, but those who have a high ideal of public service. The average peer costs the taxpayer some £6,400 a year in allowances. Although we in this place are not paid a king's ransom, we are paid significantly more than that. There is hardly a peer in the other place who draws more than £10,000 in allowances. We are dealing not with full-time legislators, but with people who give their time, talents and expertise, often in specific areas where they have particular knowledge, and do so entirely selflessly.

In recognising that fact, we must recognise the type of Chamber that the other place is. Parliament has two main functions. One is to hold the Executive to account and the other is to scrutinise legislation. Nobody could argue that it is not appropriate that the holding to account should be done particularly in this Chamber, where the elected representatives of the people, day after day in Question Time and other forums, have the opportunity to call Ministers to account.

Equally, one could not argue with any great conviction that our powers of scrutiny are exercised as effectively as they should be. Whole swathes of legislation, particularly secondary legislation, are never adequately debated in this Chamber, but much of that legislation is effectively scrutinised in the other place. In the previous Session, for example, 3,963 amendments were passed in the House of Lords. There were only 179 Divisions in the Lords during the whole Session, of which the Government won 134—about 75 per cent. Those Bills were subjected to a degree of scrutiny and attention that they did not receive here. That scrutiny came not only from life peers, but from hereditary peers, who play a substantial part in the positive work of improving legislation.

It is easy to single out certain hereditary peers as being exemplary, both in their attendance and their achievement. I have no desire to delay the Committee inordinately by going through a catalogue of such peers, because we desire not to hold up the Bill's passage, but to subject it to proper scrutiny.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Did my hon. Friend notice that, when he was paying justified tribute to the selfless public service and excellent scrutiny provided by hereditary peers, the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) was snorting in disapproval? Does my hon. Friend think that, if Government Back Benchers do not want similarly to pay tribute, they ought to explain by what, if not public service, hereditary peers are motivated and whether Labour's game plan is to reduce legitimate scrutiny in future?

Sir Patrick Cormack

I thought that the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) had a rather bad cold, but of course everyone should pay proper tribute to selfless public work—and those who selflessly do it.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and allowing me to clarify my snorting. It was in response to the disingenuousness of Conservative Members, who defend the hereditary principle on the ground of public service, when in fact they are defending their vested party political interests.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Gentleman could not get it more wrong. I have never defended the automatic right of every hereditary peer to sit in the House of Lords or the built-in majority. In 1984, long before the hon. Gentleman came to this place, I sought leave to introduce a private Member's Bill to that effect, under the ten-minute rule. It was opposed by the Leader of the House, among others, and was not allowed to go further. Many Conservative Members have felt for a long time that there is nothing incompatible in saying that we do not defend the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords or an in-built majority for any party, while recognising the very real work that many hereditary peers do. They are not in the House of Lords through their own fault, but they are there: many accept the challenge and opportunity for public service that the House of Lords provides and respond in a truly public-spirited manner.

I was about to offer two examples, and now I shall do so; both involve Cross-Bench peers. Last week, some parliamentary awards were given out: at least one distinguished winner is in the Chamber this afternoon, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Although the Peer of the Year award went to Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who is a life peer, the short list included the Countess of Mar. She is a Cross-Bench hereditary peer and has done as much as anyone in either House to draw attention to certain dangers, including the sheep dip problem, which she has made very much her own. People all over the country have great cause to be thankful to her.

My second example is very different, although it involves another hereditary peer. Lord Freyburg is, at 28, still a very young man, and he was 22 when he took his seat. When he entered the House of Lords, he made it his mission to do something about pensions for war widows. He succeeded in persuading my right hon. and hon. Friends in the then Conservative Government to go along with him—a very notable achievement for a young man.

I could cite many other hereditary peers whose service has been, and is, exemplary.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is missing the point of the debate. No Labour Member would criticise the contribution of any individual hereditary peer: we are critical of the fact that hereditary peers make that contribution with no legitimacy.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I could ask the hon. Lady to define legitimacy, and whether it exists only in this Chamber. However, I shall not be led astray as you would probably rule me out of order Sir Alan. I want merely to develop an argument and to explain why we have tabled the amendment.

An extremely important aspect of the work of the House of Lords is the work done in Select Committees. There are some extremely important Committees in the House of Lords, and perhaps pre-eminent among them are the Select Committee on Science and Technology and the Select Committee on European Communities. Both Committees have done work of incalculable value. On the Science and Technology Committee, there are currently five hereditary peers, and on the European Communities Committee, there are 10, out of 20 members. There are, incidentally, only five Tories between the two Committees.

4.30 pm

During the past Session, the European Communities Committee produced 50 reports, and the Science and Technology Committee produced 16. Those reports ranged over a variety of subjects of real importance. If hon. Members are not familiar with the range of reports, they should try to make themselves so. In a single Session, there were reports of seminal significance on the European ombudsman, the European Union gas directive, EU water policy, Europol, sustainable landfill, aid to shipbuilding, student mobility and airline competition. I could go on and on.

The Science and Technology Committee produced reports that attracted worldwide attention in some cases, including reports on the management of nuclear waste, the scientific and medical evidence on cannabis, digital images as evidence and clinical academic careers.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Is it the point of the hon. Gentleman's argument that those Committees would be unable to do that work if their members were life peers only? In particular, is he suggesting that of the Science and Technology Committee, which relies largely on those of its members who have direct scientific experience?

Sir Patrick Cormack

Some of them, including the chairman, are, of course, hereditary peers. The point is very simple, and I hope that the hon. Lady can grasp it. If we withdraw hereditary peers quickly from those Committees, the Committees will suffer. The burden of work is considerable: the European Communities Committee will meet seven times in 17 days during February. The Committee is carrying a heavy burden, and it would be extremely difficult for the life peers alone to sustain the whole extra burden.

In the amendments, we merely suggest that those who have given distinguished service should be allowed to continue to do so.

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that, after a general election in which someone with expertise has lost his or her seat, he or she should be entitled to retain a seat in the House of Commons, without voting rights, on the basis that we should not want to suffer the loss of expertise?

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

An excellent point!

Sir Patrick Cormack

It is a superficially attractive point, but, when my former colleague, Michael Portillo, lost his seat, he was replaced by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg). We are talking about an interim House in which those who will be obliged to leave the House of Lords will not be replaced. There is no suggestion that there should be an immediate and massive creation of life peers. The Government have not thought through the consequences of their actions.

The amendment relates only to the interim House. We want stage 2 to follow the interim House, and we want that stage to be arrived at by consensus if possible. Until stage 2 occurs, however, there is work to be done and a great burden to be sustained. Those who will be left to sustain that burden will find it extremely difficult to do so.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

If, heaven forbid, the hon. Gentleman's amendment were carried, how would the new Chamber operate for those non-voting hereditary peers? Who would be called to speak? Would those who have a vote be given priority in speaking in debates, or would speeches be made by all corners under the system that operates in the House of Lords at present? There could be an imbalance between those who participated in debates and those who voted.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The House of Lords regulates its own business in, some people would say, a rather more satisfactory way than we do, in that those who wish to speak in a debate put down their names and know that they will be called. Those with a particular knowledge, specialty or expertise put down their names, and the quality of debates in the other place is thus extremely high. Looking through Lords Hansard, I found a particularly good example of that last week in a debate on the arts. Whether the debates are on the armed forces, in which former field marshals can take part; on the arts, in which former performers, great musicians, artists and others can take part; or on commerce, in which many captains of industry can take part, the quality tends to be extremely high. What I am saying to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) is that we are concerned to maintain that quality.

As I said a moment ago, we are talking not about stage 2, but stage 1, or the interim stage. We are fearful that, if many people who have much to contribute, and who have contributed much over the years, are suddenly obliged to withdraw, the quality of work at the other end of the Corridor will not be what it has been hitherto. I cannot emphasise too often or too strongly that we are concerned with phase 1. We are not seeking to anticipate the debates that this Chamber and the other place will rightly have about stage 2.

We have to await the report of the royal commission. Conservative Members are also waiting for the Mackay commission. Lord Hurd is a member of the Mackay commission and is now a member of the royal commission, and will be a useful link between the two. However, we do not know what either body will say.

In the debate a fortnight ago, we heard 37 or 38 Back-Bench speeches, and it was clear that there were 37 or 38—probably 47 or 48—different views about what should emerge in phase 2. That applies equally to both sides of the Chamber. There was not a common thread. There were unicameralists, those who favoured a direct or indirect election, those who favoured a mixture, and those who favoured a nomination system. We shall have the opportunity to debate those alternatives, but we are currently debating what I hope is going to be an orderly transition, and the aim of the amendment is to make it more orderly than it would otherwise be.

We have to have regard to the quality of work done by the other place. Let me turn again to its European Communities Committee. This Chamber does not scrutinise European legislation as effectively as it might. That is no criticism of the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), who puts in a tremendous amount of time and effort to chair our European Scrutiny Committee. He and I have had discussions about it on the Floor of the House and privately, and there is not much difference between us. The massive amount of legislation coming from Europe means that it is difficult for hon. Members adequately to scrutinise it because of the many other pressures on them.

The Committee in the other place, which has various Sub-Committees, produces reports which are reckoned throughout Europe to be exemplary. Indeed, they are frequently held up as the best example of scrutiny of European legislation—better than that provided by the European Parliament itself, although that may not be difficult. Half the members of that Committee are hereditary peers, and all we are saying is that, for the transitional period, they should be able to continue to give of their time, talent and expertise.

In addition, the Committees in another place tend to have a more constant membership than Committees of this place. Hardly a week goes by without one noticing on the Order Paper motions to remove one hon. Member from a Committee and to replace him or her with another. That is fine—we understand why it happens—but the House of Lords tends to appoint its Committees for a whole Parliament, and members who are not experts therefore tend to become specialists.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Mackay commission. When Lord Mackay was at the Scottish Bar, he had a reputation for being a phenomenally fast worker. Out of curiosity, when are his pearls of wisdom expected?

Sir Patrick Cormack

Soon, and I think that that will prove a more accurate "soon" than those that we often get in answers from the Government. I think that the hon. Gentleman will not have to contain his impatience beyond Easter, and that Lord Mackay's report will demand the most careful consideration. I do not know what his commission will recommend. I have no idea whether it will recommend one solution, or give us two or three alternatives to discuss. It would be discourteous, to put it no higher, to come to a definitive conclusion about the shape of the other place in phase 2 until we have seen what that hard-working commission will recommend.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

If an amendment along the same lines as that for which Lord Cranborne got the sack from the Leader of the Opposition is carried in another place, and duly supported by the Government, in allowing 91 hereditary peers to remain, it would surely meet all the hon. Gentleman's arguments. I suspect that he is really saying that he does not want any change.

Sir Patrick Cormack

No. It is unfair of the hon. Gentleman to say that, given my track record on such matters. An amendment similar to that to which he referred is on the amendment paper, has been selected and will be debated later. I must not anticipate that debate. My proposal is in many ways a better alternative. The so-called Cranborne amendment—the Weatherill amendment as we call it—was the product of no deal to which we were party. It was a suggestion that would make a bad Bill better. We will deploy those arguments tomorrow.

I am discussing something that would at a stroke make the Bill very much better and enable us to proceed very speedily if the Government were minded to accept it. If they are not minded to accept it, they stand convincingly charged with constitutional vandalism of a high order. The Leader of the House can smile and scoff, but to destroy something of proven worth without saying what will be put in its place is indeed constitutional vandalism. Our constitution is a finely balanced mechanism like a wonderful clock. If one part of the mechanism is removed, the whole thing stops and is thrown into disarray. We are playing dangerously with a constitution that has evolved over many centuries. It is permissible for Labour Members to say that they wish to get rid of the hereditary peers' voting rights. This amendment does not challenge that; we are saying that there must be an orderly period of transition which recognises what has gone before and the public service, in the best sense of that term.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I do not normally associate the hon. Gentleman with exaggerated rhetoric, but I am at a loss to understand him. The Government say that they are minded to accept an amendment from another place allowing the continuation of a number of hereditary peers during an interim period, and they have set up a royal commission chaired by a Conservative peer. That may be described as constitutional generosity of a high order, but certainly not as constitutional vandalism.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The whole approach of the Government is constitutional vandalism. The Leader of the House made an extraordinary statement on Second Reading. She said that if the so-called Weatherill amendment came before this Chamber, as it will more or less, she would be minded to ask her right hon. and hon Friends to vote against it. If it were tabled in the other place, it would possibly be voted for. When it returned to this place, the right hon. Lady's right hon. and hon. Friends would, presumably, be asked to stand on their heads. That would be an interesting constitutional spectacle. She is using this proposal, which is being held out as a sort of prize, to try to—I choose my words with extreme care—bamboozle, if not blackmail, people into accepting the Bill without adequate and proper scrutiny.

4.45pm

The Chairman

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member but, against his better judgment, he has been led into territory covered by a later amendment that I have selected. I suggest respectfully that he returns to the main core of his argument on this group of amendments.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I stand well rebuked, Sir Alan. I was being led astray, and we shall deal with the amendment to which you referred later.

In the other place, we have a group of men and women who represent 40 per cent. of those who regularly attend on House of Lords affairs, and who make a significant contribution to the legislative process by their attendance. During the transitional period, they should be allowed to continue to attend and to give of their expertise, time and talents, but not to vote. The proposal is very modest.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Is not another feature of hereditary peers that they have not been selected by the political party to which they belong? Indeed, they may not belong to any political party. Therefore, they give a view that is not whipped, corralled or bullied, and what they say in Committees, such as the European Communities Committee, has greater credibility and acceptability to many of the readers of the reports. It would be a very good idea to retain such peers for that reason alone.

Sir Patrick Cormack

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. One of the reasons why I find the elected solution less than entirely persuasive is that it is difficult to envisage the election of Cross Benchers. My fear is that party considerations would become much more dominant in an elected upper Chamber. I must not be led astray, although my hon. Friend's point is good, and certainly supports my arguments.

Amendment No. 23 would allow hereditary peers to speak and vote in the House of Lords whenever it debated a Bill to extend the maximum life of a Parliament beyond five years. That is very important constitutionally. Both the Parliament Act 1911 and the successor Parliament Act 1949 contain a provision which expressly reserves total powers for the House of Lords when dealing with such a Bill. There is no time limit or veto to make such a power temporary. We think that it is entirely proper and expedient that there should be such a provision in this Bill, given the Government's huge majority. If amendment No. 23 is drafted defectively, it is for the President of the Council and her colleagues to point that out. We hope that there can be no serious disagreement on the need for such a safeguard.

I commend both amendments to the Committee and I hope that the Committee will be minded to accept them. I am inclined to divide the Committee on both amendments if the Government are minded not to accept them.

Mr. Hancock

We have heard an interesting attempt to defend the indefensible, or to pull something out of the can at the eleventh hour to save a few friends in another place. I share the view of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) that some Members of the House of Lords do first-class work. As a Member of this House representing this Parliament in the Council of Europe, I work regularly with Members of the House of Lords who work long and hard in the service of that organisation. The likes of Lord Judd, Lord Ponsonby, Lord Grenfell, the Earl of Dundee and Lord Russell-Johnston have all done excellent service, and some of them continue to do so.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire spoke of service, credibility, loyalty and knowledge of the task. The Earl of Dundee is a classic case of the Tories preaching one thing and delivering another. Members of the Council of Europe from the 40-odd nations represented there get to know one other, and few of them would deny that the Earl of Dundee was an active member who was well informed, widely respected and did a great deal of work. One can imagine the surprise of colleagues not only in this House but elsewhere when the Conservative party removed him from the Council of Europe, with no explanation to his colleagues and very little to him.

That was a classic example of a Tory peer who was totally committed to a cause, with a great deal of working knowledge—the very expertise that we are told is invaluable and that we would be foolish to lose—whom his own party was prepared to crucify, probably on the pretext of giving someone a little European experience before that person was proposed as a Commissioner. That is what I would say if I were cynical, because it was rather strange to see the person who succeeded him.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire argued the need for such peers to be in the House of Lords, but he gives no credit to the people who will in fact be there—life peers and those hereditary peers who will gain access to that House again by being created life peers for the duration of the first stage of the reform. The hon. Gentleman underplayed their role in the future governance of this country and in the reform process.

It will be up to the hon. Gentleman's party to select such people to go forward, and it would be a foolish party if it were not careful in that selection. The party should encourage those who will make the selection to select the very people about whom the hon. Gentleman was speaking. I imagine that few of them will not be included among those who are to remain, so that expertise will not be lost.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

The hon. Gentleman is focusing on an important point. He suggests that few Members of the other place would not be among those to be made life peers after the change proposed by the Bill. However, if he considers the list of Members of the House of Lords—Conservative, Labour and Cross—Bencher-who play a role in Committee or in debate that is significant because it relates to their own area of expertise, he will find that that amounts to about 200 hereditary Members of the upper House. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that that many are likely to be created life peers? Does he not recognise that the contribution of all those who are not created life peers will be lost?

Mr. Hancock

The right hon. and learned Gentleman defends the indefensible, as did the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, who failed miserably to convince the Committee. There is no credibility in that argument. If the political system in this place and the other place cannot come up with the right calibre of person who has the relevant expertise and commitment to the job in the period between the first stage being agreed and implemented and the second stage being seen through, that does no credit to the colleagues of the right hon. and learned Gentleman or to any of the other parties.

I am sure that those Members who are selected to continue to serve will be selected from those who have the relevant expertise. However, we cannot always have everyone whom we want, and my mind goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg). Like him, I was somewhat bewildered. I sensed that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire would move on to what happens in this place. I was a Member in the 1980s when I lost my seat by a couple of hundred votes. I was very disappointed. I believed that, during my three years here, I had put together a certain amount of expertise. I would have welcomed the opportunity to be allowed back to say so. However, I rightly accepted that I had to go on to do other things. The expertise that I put together was as much a loss to the House as it was to the constituents who ceased to have me as their Member of Parliament. Nevertheless, we must live with that. That is the harsh reality of political life.

Mr. Wells

The hon. Gentleman's constituents decided that.

Mr. Hancock

The hon. Gentleman says that from a sedentary position but the fact is that the electorate has put me back. The same constituents have re-elected me. The fact that they gave me a 10-year sabbatical might have been for my benefit, to enable me to gain even more expertise to do a better job in the House of Commons. The process certainly led me to believe that the system works. It is a deliverable system. However, I did not like being denied the opportunity to come to this place.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Is it not the position that the hon. Gentleman was sent to the House originally to represent a constituency? He lost the power to represent that constituency by the will of the electors and was removed. However, that is not the situation that pertains in the other place. All those who are there are asked to attend to represent themselves because of a purported status, whether it be hereditary or because of a particular expertise. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's arguments do not work.

Mr. Hancock

That is a very good point. There is this thing about representation. I was convinced that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, who is very good with words, had used the wrong word when he talked about hereditary peers representing people. They have not been representing anyone. It appears that they were not representing a party on most occasions. They were simply representing themselves.

We surely do not believe that there are experts outside this place and the House of Lords who could not help us in some way. Time and again, we find a way to enable that expertise to be used in Select Committees. They happens whenever they meet. They bring outside expertise into the House. They offer experts outside the opportunity to share their expertise with Members of this place and the House of Lords. Having done so, they move on, or return to their role in life outside Parliament.

If we are talking about representation, let us soon have a place that is wholly representative so that the people can feel that they elect Members of this place and of the second Chamber. I am bitterly disappointed that we are going through a staging process, and that is why I hope that the Committee will defeat the amendment.

My mind returns to when the hon. Member for South Staffordshire talked about—

Sir Patrick Cormack

We shall go through the staging process, as the hon. Gentleman calls it, with or without the amendment. We shall not go straight to stage 2. It was always the Conservative party's argument that the Government should decide what it wanted to replace the House of Lords with, should tell the House of Commons and should then get on with it. They have not done that and so we must go through the interim stage. There is no alternative.

Mr. Hancock

I accept that entirely. However, I am disappointed that we must go through a staging process.

I would have much preferred the big bang. I supported the view that was expressed by many hon. Members on Second Reading, and I certainly shared their disappointment. It was not beyond the wit of the House or that of the Government to produce proposals to achieve what we had in mind. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of the British people would have supported that move. However, according to some hon. Members, having to have a staged process is not a reason to deprive Members of the House of Lords, who will not be able to vote, of the opportunity to participate in debates.

Mr. Wells

Is not the hon. Gentleman overlooking a very important point? The amendment is an attempt to improve the interim House which may, like many things in British life, be far from temporary or interim. It may be almost permanent and last 50, 60 or 70 years. Therefore, it is important to have the quality in the interim House to carry us through, if needs be.

5 pm

Mr. Hancock

I hope that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion does not come to fruition. I rather like the glint in the eye of the Leader of the House, which suggests that 50 years might be a tad of an exaggeration for the staging process. Most of us hope that we will resolve those issues in the lifetime of this Parliament and that, certainly by the start of the next Parliament, we will be well on our way to having two democratic, truly representative Houses representing the people of this country. Anything short of that will, in my opinion, be seen as failure. If we are to have a staging process, we have to make the best of what we have.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does my hon. Friend find slightly offensive, as I do, the imputation from certain Conservative Members that quality is a synonym for hereditary peers and that quality can be achieved only by accident of birth? I reject that notion entirely—it is quite unfounded. I suspect that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) would not welcome any person off the street on to his Select Committee, to leaven the discussion and to provide that independence. Why does he apply that principle to hereditary Members of the House of Lords?

Mr. Hancock

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend's intervention; it says a lot in respect of the presentation that we have heard on Second Reading and in Committee. Anyone outside the House who read the amendments would think that some sort of surreal pantomime was taking place here—

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

One is taking place.

Mr. Hancock

Yes, and others might argue that we are beyond satire today. What some hon. Members are trying to perpetuate is unbelievable and script writers outside the House would have been hard pushed to come up with the sort of amendment that we are considering. It represents mind-bogglingly cynical contempt for what the overwhelming majority of the British people want. They want change.

I want to deal with the second amendment and the suggestion that some demon lurking behind a large Government majority would try to prolong—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I want him to elaborate a little on the point that he made a moment ago as if it were uncontentious. He said that the overwhelming majority of the British people want change in this area. What is the basis for that assertion and what evidence does he have? As far as I am aware, the latest opinion poll evidence shows that reform of the House of Lords hardly appears at all on people's list of priorities.

Mr. Hancock

I agree entirely that reform of the House of Lords does not feature high on people's agenda, but when they are asked specifically whether they want change, the overwhelming majority say yes. I am elected to this place to represent people's views. I look at my mailbag, and people are not reluctant to tell me what to vote for and what to vote against. I have not received a single letter suggesting that I should vote against the changes that we are considering, but I have received letters from people who welcome them.

Mr. Forth

How many?

Mr. Hancock

Half a dozen, which, strangely, was the number of Conservative Members who were in the Chamber last week when we were discussing trade union reform. The Conservatives deemed that major Bill, which will give opportunities for representation to millions of people, to be important enough to require only six Conservative Members to attend the debate. Indeed, the Conservatives ran out of participants well before 8 o'clock that night.

The Chairman

Order. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would confine his remarks to the amendment before the Committee.

Mr. Hancock

Of course I will, but that is difficult when I am being given easy leads by Conservative Members.

I return to the amendment and the protection of the nation from a large majority. That is an extremely good point for a Tory party to make nearly two years into a large Labour majority. The Tory party uses the fear factor by saying that these constitutional changes will allow the Government of the day to lengthen a Parliament. I was here in 1984 when Margaret Thatcher had a huge Tory majority. The then Prime Minister made things happen and stopped Conservative Members doing what they knew was right—an example was given earlier of when she prevented the hon. Member for South Staffordshire from moving a private Member's Bill. However, in those three years, I never heard a single Opposition Member suggest that she might embark on a course of action that would prolong the life of a Parliament.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Had Lady Thatcher done so, the Parliament Acts would have allowed the House of Lords to stop it happening. All that we are saying is that that constitutional safeguard should remain on the statute book.

Mr. Hancock

My understanding is that it will not be changed. The group of people representing this nation in the other place will still have the opportunity to exercise that safeguard if anybody here seems to wander in that direction, although I doubt very much whether anybody will, so the Conservative party's argument does not hold water.

I am disappointed that we cannot move swiftly through the Bill. We need to get it on the statute book: get those hereditary peers who will continue in place and make use of their expertise, say goodbye and thank you to those who will go, but for goodness sake get on with it. I shall be bitterly disappointed if we drag out that process by accepting a measure as cynical as the amendment before us.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that his aim was not to challenge the Bill by preserving the right of hereditary peers to speak, on the ground that they do a good job. I join him in paying tribute to the selfless work that many hereditary peers do. However, the amendment would create an entirely anomalous situation. He conceded that hereditary peers should not have the vote, yet argued that they should retain a seat and the right to speak in House of Lords debates—rather like honorary membership of a gentlemen's club. Apart from anything else, that would send confused signals about the Opposition's attitude to the hereditary principle in Parliament. We have already had confused signals about that.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Linton

I must finish making the argument first.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said that he did not oppose the hereditary principle, the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said that he did not oppose clause 1, and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said that he was against the hereditary principle. We are entitled to clarification. Precisely what do Conservative Members mean? They propose an apparently small change by suggesting that hereditary peers should be allowed to continue in the interim, but miss the crux of the Bill, which is to change the basis of membership of the House of Lords.

It is essential that the Bill ends the hereditary principle in Parliament as soon as possible, not just because it is absurd that people should sit in Parliament on account of what their grandfathers or great-grandfathers may have done, but because many of their great-grandfathers should never have been there in the first place. The blunt truth is that, over the centuries, many hereditary peerages were sold by Conservative or Liberal Prime Ministers—indeed, by monarchs—for cash.

During the last Parliament, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) said that this country had an international reputation for the integrity and honour of its public institutions. It must be the only democracy in the world to have sold places in its own legislature.

Mr. Forth

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us his views on the role of the hereditary principle in Parliament—to which he has just referred—with specific regard to the monarchy? He must clarify his position. He is attacking the hereditary principle in relation to the upper House; given the monarch's role in the parliamentary process, perhaps he will elaborate on that.

Mr. Linton

rose

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) did not elaborate. Moreover, his own speech is in danger of becoming a Second Reading speech. Will he please confine his remarks to the amendment?

Mr. Linton

I will gladly take your advice, Mr. Lord. I shall not stray, but will stick to the point of the amendment. The amendment, however, raises the issue of whether its aim is to undermine the principle of the Bill, which is that membership of Parliament should be legitimate, accountable and democratic.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Linton

Yes, as long as the hon. Gentleman does not tempt me away from the point at issue.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I shall not do so. I merely ask the hon. Gentleman to tell me why Lady Jay's position in the House of Lords is more legitimate than that of, say, Lord Cranborne. Lady Jay owes her place to appointment, and, some would say, to the hereditary principle. I should also emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that what we are discussing is an effective transition period.

Mr. Linton

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should make such a slight point. The difference between Baroness Jay and Viscount Cranborne is clear. Baroness Jay is in the House of Lords not on account of her father's achievements, but on account of her own: she is there in her own right. I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman make such an imputation.

Viscount Cranborne may have achieved things of which he should be proud, and it is possible that, were he not an hereditary peer, he would have been made a life peer. It could be said that his writ of acceleration was, in a sense, a recognition of that. But, to the extent that he owes his position in the House of Lords to the hereditary principle—which is the essence of the hon. Gentleman's question—he is there because his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was Robert Cecil, who was an adviser not to Elizabeth II, but to Elizabeth I. To my mind, such a distant connection with Parliament is no claim that we can accept in this day and age.

There may have been a time when the House of Lords had some legitimacy, but to find it we should have to go back to the 14th century, when it consisted of the country's chief landowners, who had to raise armies for the King and therefore had some right to be in Parliament. For at least the past 200 years the House of Lords has been an anachronism, and, indeed, a source of corruption, poisoning our whole constitution.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

The hon. Gentleman speaks of the poisoning of the constitution by peers purchasing their peerages for cash. He cited the Liberal and Conservative parties, but exempted his own party. Is he aware that a significant number of large donors to the Labour party have been appointed to life peerages since May 1997?

Mr. Linton

I will not be tempted to stray from the issue, which is hereditary peerages. To my knowledge, Labour Governments have awarded four or five hereditary peerages in the entire history of the country, most of which were awarded to law officers by the 1930 and 1945 Governments. None of them was in any sense sold. However, the same cannot be said of many current hereditary peerages in the House of Lords.

The point that is fundamental to the debate, and that arises from the amendment, as from the others, is that every other aristocracy in Europe was thrown out of political power centuries ago. By the same token, we should throw ours out of political power by the end of the century—not only the powers of peers in the Lords, but all their other titles and rights. However, I shall not go into that.

5.15 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The hon. Gentleman obviously detests the hereditary principle. If Ministers decide to do a deal in another place whereby 91 hereditary peers are allowed to remain, and that proposal returns to this House, what will he do? Given his declaration of profound principle to the Committee, presumably, he will vote against the amendment proposed by Ministers.

Mr. Linton

rose

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds to that intervention, may I remind him and other Members that that is the subject of the next group of amendments? We should not deal with it at the moment.

Mr. Linton

I am more than happy not to take up that point, but I am sure that many of my hon. Friends will take it up during the debate on the next group of amendments. I seek simply to establish the point that is crucial to our understanding of this amendment, as of the others: the present composition of the House of Lords stems, not overwhelmingly but significantly, from the accumulation of corrupt sales of peerages over the centuries. Such a Parliament is no basis on which to go into the next century and, indeed, next millennium.

Just in case the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), who is just leaving, thinks that I am making wild accusations, let me say that I am more than happy to spell out the sales of peerages that have led to the current membership of the House of Lords. Indeed, the ancestors of a raft of them bought their peerages from Liberal Prime Ministers.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

One.

Mr. Linton

I quote as an example Viscount Devonport. He was a retailer by the name of Hudson Kearton who promised the Liberals £25,000 if he became a peer. I say that, but what he said was not that he was going to buy a peerage, but that, if he became a peer, he would voluntarily give £25,000 to Liberal party funds. Surprise, surprise, a couple of years later, a viscountcy was awarded to him. His descendant—his grandson—is still in the House of Lords and, as a Cross Bencher, exercises his right over our legislation. Lord Vestey paid no taxes, but he paid £20,000 to the Lloyd George fund and became a peer. His descendant is still there exercising his vote and would do so under the amendment.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

With the best will in the world, let me point out that the amendments do not do what the hon. Gentleman says they do. They will ensure, if they are passed, only that a hereditary peer may attend, not vote, except safeguardingly in the circumstances of extending the life of Parliament. That is what the amendments are about. The exegesis by the hon. Gentleman is a waste of the Committee's time. Some of us want to discuss the amendments and would be grateful if he could focus his intellect on them.

Mr. Linton

I will take my instructions from Mr. Lord on that point, but I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would accept that the basis on which people are currently Members of the House of Lords is fundamental to the Bill. The Bill tries to change that basis. The amendment tries to continue the present membership for as long as possible.

With one breath, Conservative Members say that the transitional House might last a long time; indeed, it was part of a forceful speech by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on Second Reading. With the next breath, they say that, just for the transitional phase, we should allow hereditary peers to sit and to speak in debates. They cannot have it both ways. They believe that the transitional phase is likely to last a long time, but the amendment's effect is to perpetuate the hereditary peerage.

The point that I make by those examples is that it is essential to understand the basis of the present House of Lords. We cannot possibly go into the next millennium with a Parliament in which so many seats have been bought—not so much by the achievements of ancestors, but as outright purchases.

Mr. Shepherd

I shall now say something that will be more sympathetic to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton).

Amendments Nos. 1 and 23 are obviously safeguard amendments. There is a concern that the House of Lords could vote for the extension of the life of a Parliament, and I have been asked to weigh that possibility. I have to tell my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench that I do not think that such an extension is a reasonable expectation. If I consult my own history and that of my own country, I recall that I was born during the lifetime of a Parliament that had been extended because of the circumstances of war. The life of Parliament was also extended in the first world war. Other than that, our constitutional history shows that the trend has been to reduce the lifetime of Parliaments, from seven to five years. I do not know whether, in future, we will reduce the lifetime to four years, as that would be consonant with the practice of many other countries. I therefore have to weigh the objectives of Opposition Front Benchers in tabling the amendments.

According to Opposition Front Benchers, clearly we want to preserve the presence of hereditary peers until stage 2 reforms have been implemented. We want also to give them voting and speaking rights if the Government of the day decide to extend Parliament. I should say that I now think of this place as a puppet Chamber which is run by, and follows the will of, Downing street. I have seen that fact demonstrated for over 20 years, and hon. Members who served before this Parliament will know perfectly well where the balance of power lies in such matters.

Do I really think that the House of Lords, even with a hereditary element in it, will vote to extend the life of a Parliament except in the most dire circumstances of a national emergency? Is that a reasonable, legitimate and weighted fear? I ask my hon. Friends to ponder the likelihood of such an extension. I genuinely do not think that it would happen. I do not think that many of us, in truth, think that the purpose of the Labour Government's proposals is merely to extend the life of Parliament. I do not think that many of us are so partisan as to think that that is the Government's objective.

I have the greatest difficulty in taking this group of amendments seriously. The Committee will know from my speech on Second Reading that I believe in an elected second Chamber. I want checks and balances; there is no question about that. Therefore, in trying to weigh up the matter, I ask myself whether I believe that the amendments are amendments of substance. The answer is that I do not. I also do not believe that I want to ensure that Members of the House of Lords should not be entitled to vote in a division but should continue to sit in the second Chamber.

We have heard all the arguments on expertise, but the thrust of the Government's manifesto and position is that the House of Lords is not legitimate. That is what it is about. As I look around the Opposition Benches, I realise that many Opposition Members feel that the legitimacy charge neuters the House of Lords. Consequently—in circumstances in which the broad judgment of a nation is contrary to initiatives from Downing street—there is no check or balance.

Some Opposition Members would be quite happy to be constructive in dealing with that situation, if we can build a democratic second Chamber that is able to check, and to reflect the changing pattern of public opinion. Such a Chamber would be able to confront Governments—the current Government are one of the worst offenders I know—argue its corner, and convert public opinion on what it believes are the issues of substance. I accept that that was a partisan point.

I certainly could not vote for amendment Nos. 1 and 23. I do not see the purpose behind them. I do not believe that the appointees of previous Prime Ministers or of the current Prime Minister would extend the life of a Parliament except in the most dire national circumstances, such as war.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

It was fascinating—a joy—to hear the eloquent remarks of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). In many ways, he put me in mind of an American lawyer whose client is on death row and who is looking to any application to a superior court to extend the fateful day. I am certain that, in the minds of at least some Conservative Members, the amendment is one of those. An idea of the period until the fated day was given by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), who suggested that it may be 50 or 60 years.

Listening to the arguments of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, I was put in mind of the case made in 1910 and 1911 for the retention of the House of Lords. At that time, many of the predecessors of Conservative Members would have deployed similar arguments to those made today. If there is such a wealth of talent and such a fund of experience in the House of Lords, I am a little surprised that the Lords appear to be moving meekly along the road to the abolition of the hereditary principle. If they believe what they say on the temporary or transient period, why not stand foursquare against it?

Mr. Wells

If the hon. Gentleman takes 11 from 99, he will find that it is 88. In 1911, the House of Lords, in its present form, was thought to be a temporary measure.

Mr. Hurst

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that is exactly the nature of my fear about the proposal. The arguments about talent, experience and expertise can go back further than that. The beauty of standing to speak in this Chamber—albeit one of fairly modern origin, architecturally—is that the same arguments were used to defend the rotten borough system in 1832. The argument was that we would not have those talented people in this House if we left it to the vulgarity of the county elections. Indeed, those who represented county constituencies would have been despised because they did not have the talent and learning of the placemen of the great landed families. Eventually, however, we vulgar and coarse people succeeded, and the rotten boroughs were swept away, stage by stage, until they finally disappeared.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire makes a fascinating case. Many years ago, I read a book entitled "The Case for Conservation" by a former Member of this House—and, later, Lord Chancellor—Lord Hailsham. I shall quote from it, although it is not my view. The book put forward all the advantages of birth and talent, and stated that talent should be preferred, as against numbers. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire talked of constitutional vandalism and, of course, the preferred classes regard those who are not of their class as vandals at the gate who are about to pull down—not a watch, the rather delicate analogy that is used—but a great edifice of power that has existed for centuries.

I felt for a moment that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire was about to quote the immortal Conservative lines that appear in the book by Lord Hailsham and also, I believe, in Shakespeare: Take but degree away … And, hark! what discord follows". I believe that the amendment is a delaying tactic on the part of the Conservative Opposition, who are not yet genuine converts to the kind of democracy proposed by the Bill. The amendment is a device and an attempt to delay the will of this House and the people of this country.

Mr. Tyrie

Where in the Bill is a case put forward for genuine democracy for the upper House?

Mr. Hurst

I would hesitate to reply in great detail to that intervention, since I fear that I would move outside the confines of the Committee debate. The Opposition amendments—this is the clearest that they have tabled—are devices to thwart the purpose of the Bill, and I urge the Committee to vote against the amendment.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

I agree very much with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), and I have difficulty in understanding the purpose of the amendments. I cannot understand why those on the Opposition Front Bench cannot grasp the fact that we have conceded—for very good reasons—that the hereditary principle is indefensible, as I said on Second Reading. Having done that, why are we going in for a mish-mash of an amendment, which partly accepts and partly rejects the idea? It is rather like the Abbé Sieyès and his different types of constitutions—some with holes in the middle and some with holes at the bottom, leaking all the way. Why do we not accept the fact that we object to the hereditary principle and convert the 91 hereditary peers—if we accept the proposal to which I thought the Government had committed themselves in their White Paper—into life peers? We all know that there are some incredibly worthy and very distinguished Members of the House of Lords, many of whom are hereditary peers.

5.30 pm
Mr. Grieve

That may be a wise course of action, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful, while we are debating the interim stage, if the Government had the principle and integrity to tell us that they were prepared to accept the Weatherill amendment? That would at least enable us to know where we stand in the discussion.

Mr. Cash

I was somewhat surprised to hear the Leader of the House prevaricating over that the other day. I do not understand the purpose of that, because the White Paper seems pretty clear on the subject. However, that is not the purpose of my remarks.

I do not under stand why we cannot accept that the hereditary principle in the House of Lords is at an end. If we are to preserve 91 current hereditary peers—for good reasons, because some appointment is probably a good idea to prevent competition between the Houses—they should be converted to life peers and should be allowed to continue the distinguished service to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) referred.

Given that the House has accepted the principle of the Bill, I find it difficult to understand how we can move amendments to restrict the hereditary principle in a way that would be inconsistent with the long title, even though there are other amendments to deal with that. The selection of such amendments is a little incongruous, to say that least—although that is a matter for you, Mr. Lord, not for me.

There are some serious questions for us to address. As in many other cases, if we have alighted on a principle, it would not be a bad idea if we stuck to it.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

It is not often that I have the opportunity to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that I seriously disagree with him. We usually find ourselves agreeing on matters European and I find it slightly novel that I should be so in favour of his analysis of our constitutional position in Europe but should not share the conclusions that he reaches on our constitutional arrangements in this country. There must be some lesson to be drawn from that.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) made a persuasive case for the amendment. It was also a persuasive case for the preservation of the hereditary principle. He was approaching the amendment from a conservative point of view, working on the idea that, if something is not broken, there is no particular need to amend it. If something is working, it does not matter if there is some illogicality about it. A product of 700 years of history and constitutional evolution is more likely to be worth while than something dreamed up by a temporary royal commission, however distinguished Lord Wakeham may be in presiding over it. All my hon. Friend's arguments, advanced with his usual charm, eloquence and elegance, could have been made in defence of the hereditary peerage.

The wider arguments and those on the amendment have been bedevilled by the embarrassment that even Conservatives feel about defending the hereditary principle, on the grounds that the upper House is not democratic. I shall be ruder about them in a moment, but I have some sympathy with some of the contributions of Labour Members, who have detected some illogicality in the approach to the subject adopted by some Conservative Members.

We have put ourselves into the position of having to say that we cannot defend the House of Lords, because it is not democratic. Obviously, it is not democratic—although it may be a mechanism for delivering a democratic form of government—but that is not the question that we should be considering. The question is whether the Queen in Parliament—the three estates, working together as a sovereign Parliament—is a democratic institution and delivers democracy.

To say of one Chamber—remember that it could also be said of the monarch, as an exercise in historical logic—that it is not democratic, is as true and, frankly, as ridiculous as saying that, in a motor car, one can blame the engine because it is not the wheels, or that, in a body, one can criticise a hand because it is not a foot. We should be considering the totality of our constitutional arrangements.

The House of Lords, as it is currently constituted—and, to a lesser extent, as it would be constituted if the amendment were made—is a practical mechanism for carrying out certain functions that matter very much to anybody who has a genuine interest in, or understanding of, democracy. It can warn, influence, criticise and, if necessary, embarrass, but it can never win against the democratically elected Government as represented in the House of Commons. I should have thought that any true democrat would say that that was about right.

How can one have an upper House that can warn, counsel, influence and oppose, but not succeed, unless it does not have democratic legitimacy in its own right? The moment that it has such legitimacy, it will assert its right to stand up against the House of Commons.

One solution would be to have a purely random process for filling the upper House: one could ask Ernie to choose Lords as well as premium bond winners, so they would be arbitrary and beyond reproach or pressure; but legislators chosen in that way would not understand for one moment why they were there. The genius of the present system is that those who are there understand why and take their responsibilities seriously.

Dr. Starkey

I am having some difficulty following the hon. Gentleman's argument. Is he saying that the democratic legitimacy of Parliament as a whole is all the stronger because this democratic Chamber is complemented by a completely undemocratic one?

Mr. Nicholls

I see that I should have spoken more slowly. I will try scattering those pearls again. The point that I was making—even some Labour Members seemed able to understand it, although they may not have agreed with it—is that we must consider the totality of Parliament and ask whether it is democratic; it is not enough simply to look at one House of Parliament and ask that question of it. If the hon. Lady talks to her colleagues and reads Hansard tomorrow, she may not agree with my point, but she will perhaps manage to grasp it.

Where are we likely to end up? Conservative Members have advocated an elected upper House, because that would be democratic, have legitimacy and be fine; but it would not be fine at all. A wholly elected upper House would either go the whole way with the Government of the day or it would not; if the upper House had been up for election at the general election, both Houses would be completely controlled by one party. [HON. MEMBERS: "Good."] I thought that that would appeal to some Labour Members, but it would not be an exercise in democracy; it would be the abnegation of democracy.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

The hon. Gentleman's point about elections assumes that they would be held on the same day for both Houses. The difficulties to which he refers could be overcome by having a rolling programme of elections, as with the United States Senate and many other legislatures, so that the Chambers never gain their legitimacy in a snapshot of time; it is also enshrined in our law that the House of Commons is supreme and will prevail. Existing functions of the House of Lords are important, but its constitution is bad. If we have a rolling programme, we can have the best of both worlds.

Mr. Nicholls

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, which was considerably better than the point made by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). The difficulty is that the consequence of what he is saying is that, to avoid having a totalitarian Government in which both Houses of Parliament would be under the control of the same party, there would have to be perpetual conflict in which each Chamber said to the other, "Our credentials are as good as yours." Even if, in due course, we have a cronies' Chamber, in which only 10 per cent. of Members, or perhaps 10 out of 200, are democratically elected, the problem is that those 10 will say to the others, "We have the right to be difficult because we were elected and have greater legitimacy than you."

If the amendment were made, its achievement would be that Members of the second Chamber would still be able to warn, counsel, influence and embarrass. That says something about democracy in a wider sense than simply pointing out that the upper Chamber in itself is not democratic.

My next point puts down a marker for whatever proposals ultimately emerge. There is no doubt that, if the amendment is not made and the only way to enter the upper House is to be democratically elected, the quality of legislation in its totality will decrease dramatically. All sorts of worthy and useful people who currently make a contribution could not be possibly be expected to undergo the electoral process that we undergo. That would be a mistake.

Whether the amendment is defeated today or on another occasion, the process on which we are embarked is constitutional vandalism because we are throwing out a tried and proven system, not according to the argument of legitimacy or because of the spurious idea that one Chamber is undemocratic, but as the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) let slip—although Labour Members no longer use the language of the sans-culottes—because of the absolute detestation that oozes from Labour Members' every pore when they consider a hereditary peerage.

Mr. Linton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Nicholls

In a moment. The irony is that, in this day and age, hereditary peers are in middle-class occupations. They consist of lawyers, farmers, doctors and working actors. Their social composition is about the same as that of the parliamentary Labour party and that at least ought to endear them to Labour Members.

Several hon. Members

rose

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. Has the hon. Gentleman completed his remarks?

Mr. Nicholls

I am sorry, Mr. Lord. I was pausing to collect my thoughts before I gave way to the hon. Member for Battersea.

Mr. Linton

To say that I detest Members of the House of Lords would be a gross distortion of the point that I was making. I merely challenge their right to sit in this country's legislature solely on the grounds that their father or grandfather was made a member of the peerage. I would no more detest somebody for being a Member of Parliament than I would detest my constituents for not being in Parliament, but it is totally different to question peers' right to sit in our legislature.

Mr. Nicholls

I said that the hon. Gentleman loathed the principle of heredity—and, if he considers the circumstances in which some of those hereditary peers of whom he disapproves got into the House and compares them with the present crop of life peers who have entered the House since 1997, he may want to pause and reflect.

Mr. Forth

Some of my colleagues have pointed out the apparent difficulties that we have in reconciling the fact that we are not yet wholeheartedly abandoning the hereditary principle and the fact that many of us are not ready fully to embrace whatever alternative may emerge. The way to resolve that temporary conflict is to emphasise, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) rightly did in moving the amendment, that we are considering, by definition, a transitional arrangement. We are discussing an interim arrangement, somewhere between what we have now, which the Government want to sweep away, as they said in their manifesto, and the position in the future. We are not sure when that time in the future will be. Ministers have said many times that it is not too far away, but they will forgive Conservative Members for being a little uneasy about that, as we have heard it all before. It is precisely because the Government seem so uncertain about what they want to do and where they want to take us in this vital component of our governance and constitution that we are entitled to the degree of unease that we feel.

5.45 pm

That unease is evident in today's debate, and it will remain so. We are trying to hold a constructive and analytical debate about something that is built on shifting sands and about which we cannot be certain. We cannot be sure of the time scale involved, and we certainly do not know about the end-point. That puts us all in great difficulty.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire has suggested that, as part of the transitional or interim arrangement, it would be better to try to hold on to what some of us perceive to be the good, or the best, elements of the present arrangement, even as we try to work out what will happen in the interim and beyond. The debate has focused on the concept of legitimacy as it affects a role in the legislature. All hon. Members readily take it for granted that this Chamber has total legitimacy because it is elected. Yet even that can be subject to some debate, because some hon. Members would say that the degree of legitimacy of an elected Chamber might depend, in some circumstances, on the method by which it was elected.

I stress that it is not for today, but there is a debate to be had about the first-past-the-post system, as opposed to various forms of proportionality. Some of us would argue that many forms of proportionality would reduce or even remove the legitimacy from an elected Chamber—but, as I say, that debate is for another day. I mention it simply in the context of the concept of the legitimacy of Chambers of legislatures, and to introduce the thought that few elements even in that regard are absolute.

We are talking about relative concepts of legitimacy in legislatures in an interim environment. That is the context of the debate, and it is no surprise that there should be a degree of uncertainty among Conservative Members, and of fuzziness of thought among Labour Members, as it is very difficult for us all to relate to the complexity of the issues before us.

So then we must consider the role and legitimacy—or otherwise—of the upper House, and we must take into account its accountability, the degree to which it is representative, the extent of its expertise and its independence. All those factors have a role in the way in which a Chamber in a legislature operates.

Some hon. Members would argue that Members of a Chamber in a legislature who are not elected have no legitimacy. They would say that, although they may have accountability and claim to be representative, those Members may not be independent, given the development of the role of the party and of whipping as we have come to know it in our tradition. So we are already involved in a trade-off: although we may say that elected Members have the pluses of being representative and accountable, we must also accept that they probably fall down seriously with regard to independence. Whether they qualify on the basis of expertise is another matter altogether.

A member of a group of very bright schoolchildren recently asked me what qualifications were needed to become a Member of Parliament. That was a very interesting question. I had to tell the children—I hope with my characteristic honesty—that there were none that I knew of. I said that all one needed was the gall, effrontery and exhibitionism to put oneself forward to one's party and to battle through the selection process. After that, I said, one needed to get lucky on election and to win enough votes, and that that was about the limit of it.

The bright young person who had asked the question seemed a bit surprised, having expected me to talk about A-levels or degrees, or some such. The one thing missing from a Chamber consisting of elected representatives is expertise. Members may have many qualities, but expertise is not necessarily one of them. That depends very much on their background.

However, the upper Chamber, as it has developed over hundreds of years, has advantages which in many ways complement the disadvantages that I suggest are part of a fully elected House. Those disadvantages include a lack of political independence, because of party affiliation and whipping, and a lack of expertise other than that developed during periods spent not in the House.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has told us how he acquired an enormous range of expertise during a previous brief period in the House of Commons. In 1987, his constituents, in a moment of madness, denied us that expertise. The hon. Gentleman has told us how he developed further expertise during his 10-year sabbatical, which sufficiently impressed his voters that they sent him back to share it with us.

The hon. Gentleman's story is reassuring, and I shall cherish it and remember it often during our debate. However, it does not quite give us a definitive answer to the conundrum that faces us—what to do about the upper House during the interim period. The amendment forces us to think about the contribution that the hereditary element has made in the upper House.

That brings us to the peculiarity of the 91. We are being asked to accept that the hereditary element is totally unacceptable to Labour Members, a fact that has been reinforced by several speeches today. Yet, the same Labour Members may be prepared to accept that 91 of those totally unacceptable people should be allowed—nay, encouraged—to continue to operate in an upper Chamber for some as yet unspecified period. That forces us to imagine how we should distinguish between the validity of the contribution that the 91 may continue to make, as opposed to the contribution that the other 600 or 700 will be unable to make.

We have not been told, except by suggestion—we do not yet know what will happen because none of the suggestions is definite—whether that conundrum will be resolved by some electoral process. It seems that people who until now have been unable to vote at all will be given a vote for the first time in their own House. They will, it seems, in some mysterious way, elect from among themselves a representative group. That group need not necessarily be elected according to expertise, but will perhaps be elected on some other form of representation. We are not sure of the basis on which the 91 will be elected, but they will continue to operate in the upper House.

The trouble is that we are in danger of undermining, or losing, some of the valuable contributions to which the amendment relates. Those contributions include the independence that the hereditary element gives to the upper House—an independence that I do not think has yet been stressed enough. They include a balancing of the representativeness and accountability in which the House of Commons takes such pride.

The independence of the hated hereditary element has its own value in our political process, and we must not throw it away without serious consideration. Only the hereditary element gives that independence. Even the patronage of appointment under the life peerage system does not give the same degree of independence. It gives an element of independence, but it cannot give the totality.

The amendment allows us to consider the advantages to be obtained from a continuing input from, and involvement of, the hereditary peers while we consider what lies beyond the interim period.

Mr. Hancock

The right hon. Gentleman argues powerfully against support of amendment No. 2, which relates to the 91 hereditary peers. He has convinced the Committee that he will join those of us who vote against that amendment when we reach it. However, is he advancing the option of having all or none of the hereditary peers, thus supporting the line that I would take?

The Second Deputy Chairman

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has been very careful in the way in which he has referred to the next group of amendments, and I should be grateful if he would maintain that course.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful, Mr. Lord.

I was referring to the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, who outlined the contribution that we have come to expect from the hereditary element in the upper House. My hon. Friend wishes to retain that, at least for the interim period. I cannot overstress the fact that, as long as we are uncertain about the length of the interim period, we owe it to the people of the United Kingdom to be extremely cautious about how we change the upper House before settling the arrangements for its final composition. That point is the key to the amendment.

My hon. Friend's amendment allows us to consider—allowing for the views of Her Majesty's Government, their manifesto commitment and the Second Reading of the Bill—our obligation to ensure that the upper House serves the people in the best way possible during the interim period. My hon. Friend, elegantly, and with typical ingenuity and fairness, has found a way in which to allow us to continue to draw on the contribution made by the hereditary element.

Mr. David Heath

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider how his argument applies to amendment No. 23, which is in the group that we are considering? What unique contribution—above that of any concerned citizen—can disqualified hereditary peers make in determining whether a Parliament should be extended? Why should we not leave that matter to the National Farmers Union, or to the listeners of Jimmy Young, or to the Frome Collegians football club? What uniquely qualifies the hereditary peers to make that contribution?

Mr. Forth

Simply, they are there, and they have an accumulation of experience with which to judge the point. Amendment No. 23 would allow the hereditary peers to stand as a guarantee, a backstop and a safety net against the possibility that a Government with an overwhelmingly large majority and an arrogance and contempt for the parliamentary process would be able to take the final step that some of us fear, of trying to put themselves in power indefinitely.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is yet a further reason why an upper House—including one of the present constitution—should be able to prevent that? When the House of Commons seeks to extend the length of a Parliament, it does not act democratically. The House of Commons is elected for a period of up to five years, and it would be not by the will of the electorate, but by the will of the House and the majority party that it sought to extend the Government's power. That decision would come not from the electorate but from the Government's own majority.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a typically incisive and important point, and I may explore the contents of amendment No. 23 in a moment. We have before us a difficult mixture of convention, unwritten constitution and flexibility in our constitutional arrangements. All that poses certain real problems. Let us imagine that we were faced with a national emergency. Parliament might want to retain the right to alter its electoral arrangements. However, we have the safeguard that Parliament can do that only if it is agreed both by the elected House and by the other place, on which we rely for a degree of independence of thought—independent even of the electoral process—to give us the safety that we have enjoyed over many centuries. That balance is under threat, and that is another reason why my hon. Friend seeks to restore balance through his amendment, and to give us the reassurance that we need in the present changing circumstances.

Let me return to expertise. It is often suggested that the upper House contains a range of expertise. In an earlier exchange, it was pointed out that it contains people from the arts, the military, the business world, the Church, farming and so on. However, that argument is something of a double-edged sword. I have always been slightly uneasy about the idea of people with expertise, as they may also have a narrowness of view that limits the contribution that they are able to make. The whole point is that the people who arrive in this Chamber—by whatever process, and however qualified or unqualified they may seem to be—seek in the best way we can to represent many constituents. It is because we are accountable and have daily to cover a wide range of subjects that we can be beholden to no single group but must take a broad view.

6 pm

One of the dangers is that Members of the upper House are able to take just one view, and that their contribution may in some respects be limited. I submit that that is so in the case of life peers. Funnily enough, that argument does not apply to the hereditaries, who may have a broader view precisely because of their rather odd background and their independence.

Mr. Linton

Why does the fact that someone's great-grandfather was a custard powder manufacturer give that person a broader or more incisive view of events now?

Mr. Forth

Because of the element of independence that I am trying to stress. The peculiarity of the system of life peerages is that such peerages are often—more often than not, I suggest—given because of experience or expertise in one particular sphere. It may be a very worthy and central sphere. Church Members of the upper Chamber have a very particular role to play, but it is in many ways a narrow role. Given the complexity of modern society, it is—many might regret this—an increasingly unrepresentative role, although they are not supposed to be there in a representative capacity.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

No doubt the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) thought that he was being highly amusing by referring to a custard powder manufacturer, but surely the important point is not what the grandfather did then but what the hereditary peer does and knows now. It is his life experience, not that of his grandfather, which is important. The fact that the hon. Gentleman used to be, I understand, a writer for The Guardian has no bearing on his ability as Member of Parliament. If his grandfather had been a custard power manufacturer, what would the editor of The Guardian have made of that?

Mr. Forth

I will not be tempted to follow on from what my hon. and learned Friend has said. If I were, I might digress into a discussion of what some Labour Members did in their earlier life or what some of their predecessors did, and I am not sure that that would be a very productive route to take. My hon. and learned Friend has made his point.

I have tried to emphasise the fact that the amendment raises some very important issues. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on where we as a Parliament want to position ourselves in the vital phase before us and in the face of the uncertainty ahead as we go from where we are to where we might end up. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire for giving us the opportunity to think about the contribution that we want the upper House to make and the way we want it to be made, and to flush out some of the details of the mysterious 91—who they might be and where they might come from—in the context of the contribution that we have rather come to assume from the upper House, and particularly from its hereditary element.

I yield to none in my admiration for the contribution that the hereditary element has made, is making and will, I hope, continue to make. I support the amendment in the expectation that that invaluable contribution can continue until we resolve properly the role of the upper House.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

I agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends who have said that those on our party's Front Bench have tabled a curious amendment, but it is a curious Bill. It has rather more to commend it than some of my colleagues with whom I have agreed have said.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). Once we have embarked on the process of reforming the second Chamber, we must move on to have a wholly elected second Chamber. I cannot believe that any second Chamber will have lasting political legitimacy until we go that far. Indeed, I should go so far as to say that if we put some halfhearted measure in place, the result will be that future generations will regard this Parliament as something of a laughing stock for putting a quango in place, believing that that is the kind of senate that should be created for British democracy in 1999.

Sir Patrick Cormack

rose

Mr. Clarke

I shall give way in a moment. Like me, my hon. Friend appreciates the fact that the Bill is a result of the Government not having a policy to amend the constitution but making ad hoc changes to the constitution and then being driven by events to make it up as they go along. The dog's breakfast that we have before us is designed to create a dog's breakfast of an institution to be known as an interim House of Lords. I share the suspicions of many that the interim period might be quite lengthy. It is in that curious context that we have to consider its composition.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I must point out that I did not say that I was in favour of a wholly elected House of Lords. I said that we had not yet come to a conclusion on that. I also pointed out that it was difficult to envisage an elected House of Lords that would have a Cross-Bench element, which is one of the reasons why I have some misgivings.

Mr. Clarke

My apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire; I had the right part of the country, but it was my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) who expressed the view with which I agree. I am sorry that, on this occasion, I am more radical than my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, but I believe that it should be a wholly elected Chamber. I cannot believe that this House or the Government is going to come to any other conclusion in due course. As we proceed, the sheer absurdity of the details of the interim measure will be made ever more clear.

The amendment addresses the composition of the interim House. We are asked to consider what it is about another place that might be tainted by its continuing to hear within it the voice of hereditary peers without a vote. The moment one considers the composition of the group that will have the task of holding the Government to account for an indefinite period in the second Chamber, it becomes clear that the second Chamber will not be seriously damaged.

Probably the most legitimate members of the interim House will be the life peers, who are largely appointed by recent Prime Ministers on a mixture of political patronage and distinction in their careers. I treat them all with the highest regard—many are my personal friends. Many have held office in this House. When I go to listen to their debates, I see sitting in front of me the House of Commons of 20 years ago. They used to be the country's leading politicians, scientists and artists. They are a sort of council of elders, reminding us of the great and good of a former generation. They are the most legitimate Members whom the upper Chamber will keep in place.

Also in place will be the senior bishops of the established Church. There will, I gather, be a further block of appointments made by the present Government, comprising 50 or so men and women who will be there because they will have undertaken on all occasions to follow the line set out by the press officer of Downing street and to vote in all Divisions to make sure that the Government's position is kept intact. My colleagues and the Liberal party will have the pleasure of appointing a no doubt smaller number of people with a similar instruction.

We are also told that a new quango will be appointed to appoint people who presumably will have to undertake to have no party affiliation, but to be in some way representative of the outside world. In other words, a mixture of patronage and the honours list will provide Members of the House of Lords, which will be the second Chamber indefinitely. It is a ridiculous proposal.

I have forgotten the most important element of all. If future amendments are accepted, or if the Government keep to their word as given to my noble Friends, 91 Members will be hereditary peers. Some may be the grandchildren of custard manufacturers. They will be people who will have been subject to the greatest strictures by Labour Members—

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that that is not relevant to the amendment that we are discussing. Will he please confine his remarks to the amendment?

Mr. Clarke

Subject to your guidance, Mr. Lord, I shall try to make my comments relevant by saying that it is this collection of people into which it is said it would be quite wrong to allow to intrude the voice of other hereditary peers for the interim period. There is no great threat to the proceedings of the truncated remnant of the old House of Lords which will be kept in place under the Bill if we allow hereditary peers to have a voice, if not a vote. They might be considered some guarantee of independence of—perhaps even of modest hostility towards—the present Government. If we are looking to a second House to help hold the Executive to account, I do not think that it would be weakened if we accepted the amendment; on occasions, it might be strengthened.

I cannot see the objections in principle that have been made. The hon. Members for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and for Battersea (Mr. Linton) are still excited about the hereditary principle, but they presumably will accept 91 hereditary peers. The idea that the Bill sweeps away the hereditary principle and replaces it with something more democratic, more legitimate and better is not remotely the case. We are embarked on a foolish course in accepting this as an interim stage in the Government's proposals.

I know that, with the assistance of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and others, my noble Friend Lord Wakeham, who is also a personal friend, is meant to produce a policy. Even then, I understand that the policy is closely guided not towards democracy but towards blocs or groups that are supposed to represent interests in the wider world. Our mediaeval ancestors who created the House did a better job than this quango is likely to do for the 21st century in coming up with anything of that kind.

If we are to have an interim House, which is all that the Bill is about, it is absurdly dogmatic to say that all hereditary peers should be silent. They will lose their legislative power if they lose the right to vote in Divisions, but, in the peculiarly Mickey Mouse institution that we are putting in place for an indefinite period, their voice could on occasion be valuable.

Mr. Garnier

With all due humility, I congratulate those of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have exposed this afternoon the Government's embarrassment and the vacuity of the thought behind their proposed reforms to the other place. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) began to expose their position, which is inept both politically and intellectually. Anyone who heard the speeches of my right hon. and hon. Friends this afternoon could reach only that conclusion.

One of my colleagues has said that he is a great respecter of the hereditary principle and that that was why he did not bet on horses. I occasionally do, and I respect the hereditary principle in the constitution. I accept that the arithmetic of this place nowadays means that the hereditary system in the other place is going, and, some say, the sooner it goes, the better. However, I object to the way in which the Government have made proposals that signally fail to meet their own arguments. That is why I applaud the amendment to allow hereditary peers to speak, even if they are not allowed to vote in Divisions.

For all the reasons so ably put by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), I suggest that clause 1 is a total failure. It fails because the Government did not ask themselves several basic questions. They failed to ask about the purpose of our constitution and of the Houses of Parliament or about the proper relationship between this House and the other. It may be that the logical conclusion of the debate is, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said, to have two elected houses; or, as the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) has said, it may be that we should have only one House of Commons and a unicameral parliamentary system. Whatever the answer, the question is not properly answered by the Bill. The failure is nowhere more evident than in clause 1.

6.15 pm

When one considers the proper role of Parliament or of an upper House or another House, one legitimately comes to the questions that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) drew out. There are some minus points, but the other undemocratic House brings many plus points to our three-legged constitution or governmental system. It does this House and the Government no good to salami-slice away at particular aspects of our constitution, whether on the Union front or the House of Lords front, and produce half-baked, ill-considered solutions. I reject utterly the Government's proposals for an interim second Chamber. I hope that the Committee will be persuaded, if not by my ineloquent arguments, by those of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have stripped bare the Government's ineptitude.

The Government's proposals are confused. They will lead to further trouble and to further dissatisfaction with the way in which Parliament works among the public, who are already becoming increasingly dissatisfied by the way in which this Government and Executive treat this House and Parliament as a whole. Unless amended and exposed to the arguments of my right hon. and hon. Friends, the proposals will continue to damage our constitution. I urge Labour Members to join us in the Lobby, and I hope that I can persuade my hon. Friends the Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Stone (Mr. Cash) to do so as well.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

I, too, am grateful to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) for moving the amendment, not because it is meritorious—it is not—but because it has created space in the debate to allow some free spirits among his colleagues, notably the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Stone (Mr. Cash), to make extraordinarily sensible speeches. They showed that the Conservative party has within its ranks some people who are prepared to be constructive about the future of our constitution. Many of us take heart from that as we look to a cross-party alliance to make sense of an historical anachronism.

I also took some satisfaction from the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). As he spoke before me, he does not have the opportunity to head-butt me as he sometimes has in the past. He recognised that the principle of election is what we are moving to. I do not think that he is very excited by the possibility, but, if he sees that as the way in which we are going, perhaps he should welcome the anomalies that he thinks are created by the way in which the Government have chosen to go. The great good sense of the British people may come into play and make it impossible to propose a nonsensical second Chamber, such as that about which he expressed concern, with any credit to the Government. That would rule out the prospect of a House of mixed groups of representatives of different interests posing in some way as legitimate or representative.

A couple of serious themes that emerged from Opposition Members' speeches should not go unchallenged. One is that hereditary peers are, in some sense, more independent than appointed peers-certainly more independent than Members of the House of Commons. I do not see the logic of, or evidence for, that argument.

Sir Patrick Cormack

indicated dissent.

Mr. Maclennan

I discharge the hon. Member for South Staffordshire from having made that point. I regret that I did not hear him speak, so I cannot pronounce with authority on his speech. I am very sorry about that, but I encountered unfortunate travel problems.

Several other Conservative Members made the point that hereditary peers were peculiarly independent, yet their lordships' voting record does not prove that. The point was deployed extensively on Second Reading that their overwhelming propensity is to support the Conservative party, and, when informed that Rome is burning and in danger, to come from wherever they are and do what they are told by the Conservative Whips.

There is no reason to believe that the survival of hereditary peers would retain any independence that would safeguard any part of our constitution if it became threatened. From the record during the lifetime of the previous Conservative Administration, I do not see any evidence of hereditary peers playing a particularly noteworthy part, even in criticism of some of the, shall we say, incursions into what might have been thought to be sacred constitutional territory.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The right hon. Gentleman is replying to a speech that he did not hear, and was not made. The point made from this Dispatch Box was simply that it would be a practical solution for an interim period to allow that 40 per cent. who play such a prominent part in the Committees and deliberations of the House of Lords to continue to do so, without voting, until the second stage has been agreed. That is the case that has been advanced, but it is not the one to which he is replying.

Mr. Maclennan

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience, as I do, of this House, the debate is not entirely turning on his half-hour contribution at the beginning of it. A number of other interesting speeches have been made from the Conservative Benches, and it is to those in particular that I was addressing my remarks.

When the Conservative Government, under the inspiration of their then leader, Lady Thatcher, decided to wind up the government of London—a move that was a profound constitutional monstrosity—there was very little sign of independence among peers, and no more independence was manifested by hereditary peers than by appointed peers. Once a person becomes a Member of the upper House, regardless of whether that person has been appointed or is there by accident of inheritance, he or she is a free spirit, capable of exercising independence, and does not owe his or her position in that House to the continuing approval of the Whips or the Government. None the less, time and again, their lordships have demonstrated their willingness to step into line behind the lead of the Conservative party. That is a strong argument for rebutting and rejecting the amendments.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Is the right hon. Gentleman being fair to the upper House in saying that it fails to demonstrate independence? Accepting amendment No. 1 would mean that the so-called backwoodsmen could not be trotted out either to support or to defeat individual measures. Does he recollect that, had it not been for a considerable turnout of backwoodsmen—regardless of whether it is right or wrong, although he will certainly have thought it right—the upper House would have defeated proposals for the community charge?

Mr. Maclennan

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has a fair point; I would not quarrel with that. However, I do not think that it invalidates my general case that, time after time, when one might have hoped that some independence would be exercised, it was not.

There is a certain seductiveness in the argument that there should be a check in another place on the possibility of, for example, the Government deciding to extend the life of a Parliament beyond the five allotted years. I am attracted to that view. There is a case for strengthening the power of the upper House over constitutional measures and, indeed, constitutional conventions, which I should like to have embodied in fundamental constitutional law. It would be very healthy if Governments were not able to overrule our international commitment to the European convention on human rights, and if the upper House were empowered to prevent them from doing so, but an appointed or hereditary upper House does not have the constitutional legitimacy to make that an acceptable route down which to march.

Although there is support on the Liberal Democrat Benches for seeking to protect fundamental constitutional provision, such as the determination that Parliament shall not extend its life beyond five years, I very much hope that the Government will look for other means of facilitating the further check on the Executive when they come to think about the reconstitution of the second Chamber beyond the period on which the Bill particularly focuses.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am grateful to be called to speak in these important proceedings. I am a Conservative, and I am proud to be a Conservative. One of the reasons why I am a Conservative is that I believe in conserving that which is good about our country, and I believe that we should change things only if they really need to be changed.

There have been differences of view on the Conservative Benches—only the hon. Members for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and for Battersea (Mr. Linton) have spoken from the Labour Benches—on what might replace the other place. However, this side of the Committee has been absolutely clear on one thing this, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) rightly said, is a dog's breakfast of a Bill. If we were in charge, this measure would not appear, because we do not believe in the Government's proposals.

The Bill should correctly be entitled, "The House of Lords (Destruction of a Thousand Years of British History) Bill". I make no pretence; I believe in the hereditary principle. When we debate the proposed composition of the second Chamber, it might be appropriate to raise the question and role of the monarchy.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) so eloquently suggested, their lordships have something to offer during the proposed interim. The reason why my right hon. and hon. Friends have expressed differing views on a new upper Chamber has been given before. Others have suggested that there should be a wholly elected upper Chamber. I do not believe that that would be right, because it would put that House into conflict with this one. It is precisely because there have been so many such differences that all previous attempts to change the arrangements have failed. That is why I believe that the Government's proposal is fundamentally flawed and why the measure betrays their arrogance. They have decided to bring the Bill before the Committee without suggesting anything in place of the House of Lords.

According to an opinion poll conducted by MORI last November, 68 per cent. of the people—pretty democratic, I would have thought—felt that the Government should not introduce the change without proposing an alternative. In that survey, 68 per cent. of respondents said: Leave things as they are for the moment until all the details of the reform have been decided.

6.30 pm
Mr. Winnick

I wanted to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his opening remarks. He came out with the blunt truth—that he believes the hereditary principle should be retained. Whereas those on the Opposition Front Bench and others of his colleagues are covering up their views in every conceivable way, the hon. Gentleman stated his point of view honestly and fairly. That is basically the point of view of the entire Conservative party, and it is unfortunate that those on the Front Bench did not have the honesty to say what they believe in, as the hon. Gentleman did.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for recognising that I am honest. I am not sure that, it is always advisable or profitable to be honest in politics, but I have the advantage of being on the Back Benches.

My right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out that the Bill will unquestionably go through both Houses of Parliament. They must, therefore, deal with the position after the Bill becomes law. It is entirely fair for them to argue that we must live with the realpolitik and try to improve the Bill, in so far as it is capable of improvement. That is why I support the amendment.

The public made it clear through that opinion poll that they believe that the Government are misguided in their proposal not to suggest alternatives to the current arrangements before abolishing that which already exists.

It is important that we consider the merits of the amendment relating to the role that hereditary peers could play—a non-voting role, but a speaking role. The Committee must understand that the hereditaries play an extremely important part in the daily life of the upper House. Most of those who preside over the proceedings in the House of Lords when the Lord Chancellor is not there are hereditary peers. They do it on the relatively small amount of their daily allowance. They do not have the sort of salaries that even we in this place have.

We should not ignore the active part that hereditary peers play in the activities of the other place, compared with the less active part played by many of those who are appointees, whether appointed by the Conservative party or the Labour party. It is true that the other place has the advantage, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe said, of previous Members of this place—illustrious Members who have guided the destiny of the nation. It would be fair to say that, for some of them, life in the more relaxed atmosphere of the other place is less enchanting than the cut and thrust of formulating policy and driving it through in this place. Therefore, the part that they play in the other place is, so to speak, a retired part.

Other life peers are great captains of industry. I always marvel at the fact that, whenever hon. Members stand up in this place to speak on behalf of a commercial interest in which they have an interest, they are immediately dismissed.

I well remember when Jim Prior, as he then was, spoke in a debate on extending further Government finance to GEC in order to enable the company to develop the winning formula that would ensure that the airborne early warning programme on the Nimrod went ahead. Everybody listened, until someone said, "Is he not chairman of GEC?", at which point everybody fell about laughing, saying, "Of course he would say that, wouldn't he?" If the noble Lord Prior stands up in the other place and speaks in his capacity as chairman of GEC, their lordships flock in to listen attentively because he has something to offer.

It is fair to say that those who are captains of industry do not attend as regularly in the other place as those who are hereditary peers. That is hardly surprising—they have businesses to run, so they tend to come only occasionally, when the debate affects the industry in which they work.

Angela Smith

The crux of the hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be that hereditary peers do a better, more effective job in the House of Lords. How does he square that with his earlier statement that he supports the amendment?

Mr. Howarth

I support the amendment because it will ensure that the hereditary peers will be there. I have tried to make my position clear. Lest the hon. Lady is in any doubt, let me repeat it: I oppose the measure, but I will support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friends because it at least ensures an element of continuity. It will also ensure that, in the other place, there will be those who have something to contribute, and who can spare the time that it is necessary to devote to the other place.

In his persuasive opening address to the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire offered some examples of the way in which hereditary peers make their contribution in the other place. He mentioned the work of its Select Committees, which are taken extremely seriously outside this place. Indeed, I venture to suggest that, in general, the other place is taken more seriously than this place. It is interesting that when one listens to "Today in Parliament" on what I used to call the Home Service—I am a Conservative—

Mr. Mackinlay

On a crystal set?

Hon. Members

On the wireless.

Mr. Howarth

Indeed, on the wireless. One listens to some of the most articulate speakers and wonders, "Who was that? Which Prime Minister appointed him or her?" Then one hears that that was not an appointee, but a young hereditary peer. That is the one thing that the hereditaries have, which the life peers do not: there are a number of young hereditary peers who, I suggest, make an important contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire mentioned Lord Freyberg. I have met him, and I believe that my hon. Friend is absolutely right—Lord Freyberg has made an important contribution, and war widows have him to thank for the interest that he took and the ability that he discharged to ensure that the relevant measure was brought to fruition by the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. Mackinlay

rose

The Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

Oh, Andrew!

Mr. Mackinlay

My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench might not like it, but I remind them that this is the Committee stage, and we Back Benchers will make our contributions, whether they like it or not.

The hon. Gentleman was referring to the benefits attached to the hereditary peerage, and folk coming in at 22 years of age and making a valuable contribution. During the Maastricht debate, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said, and I do not believe that he said it disrespectfully, that the problem was down there in the House of Lords—if the lights were switched off, half of them would die.

That is a difficult and unpalatable truth to accept, but the fact is that, under both hereditary and life peerages, peers go on and on and on. Some peers who were appointed or who received their peerage through the hereditary principle were capable and had all their faculties, but there is no end to their period of service. It is not fair to them, it is an abuse of Parliament, and it needs to be stated, painful though it is, that some of the peers should not now be in Parliament.

Under the democratic principle, of course, it is for the electorate to decide. There is no way of bringing an end to parliamentary service in the other place.

Mr. Swayne

Death.

Mr. Mackinlay

That is inappropriate and it is not fair to those Members—

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. It is not fair that the hon. Gentleman should go on for so long during an intervention.

Mr. Howarth

It is entirely fair that the hon. Gentleman should have his say and not be gagged by those on the Government Front Bench. It is significant that only two Labour Members have spoken on the Government's flagship measure and that only a few Labour Members have intervened. That says much about the Government's belief in democracy and the democratic process. I listened to the hon. Gentleman and I thought that he had an important point to make.

Some of the elderly Members in their lordships' House make some rather interesting contributions, even if they are ones with which I disagree. Lord Longford comes to mind. He is a great character and he should not be prevented from contributing to our national life, even though I do not agree with everything that he says.

Mr. Linton

rose

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. We are dealing with amendments that, by their very nature, are confined. We must confine ourselves to hereditary peers.

Mr. Howarth

As far as I am aware, Mr. Martin, Lord Longford is an hereditary peer.

The First Deputy Chairman

If the hon. Gentleman has not caught on to what I am saying, I am pointing out that other parts of his speech did not relate to the amendment.

Mr. Howarth

I give way to the hon. Member for Battersea.

Mr. Linton

I intervene in a genuine spirit of inquiry. We understand why the hon. Gentleman believes that life peers may have qualifications, whether we think that they are good ones or bad ones. However, does the hon. Gentleman believe that hereditary peers have a valuable role to play because any group of 759 people is bound to throw up a proportion with ability, or does he believe that there is something inherent in the hereditary peerage which entitles such people to sit in the other place? In one instance, there is the great-great-great-great grandson of an 18th century turkey merchant. Does that entitle such people to sit in our legislature or give them special abilities?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman has had much fun during these proceedings making jokes about the origins of some of those who sit in the House of Lords. However, this is a serious matter. We should support the amendment because the hereditaries bring something special. I shall illustrate that with one example. The other day—perhaps I should not mention his name because I did not say that I would be referring to him—I was speaking to an hereditary peer. He told me that he had spent 40 years of his life earning a living and trying to keep his hereditary estate going. He had always said that on reaching the age of 60 or 65, he would devote his time to taking his constitutional place in the upper House.

The hon. Member for Battersea should not belittle the attitude of mind that is displayed by some of those who take extremely seriously their responsibilities as hereditary peers in the governance and affairs of our country. There is something to be gained in having people who, from the first days of their life, have been brought up with the concept that, at some time, they will have to make a contribution to public life. That is precisely what the sovereign does in bringing up his or her children and that is what hereditary peers do when they bring up their children.

I advance the case for the continuation of hereditary peers to sit and speak in the other place because I believe that they have something to offer. Labour Members have offered nothing to put in their place. They have not tabled any amendments to the Bill. They have suggested that, if the other place behaves well—

Mr. Mackinlay

The hon. Gentleman is wrong, is he not?

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. We need worry only about the amendment that is before us. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is talking about the rights of hereditary peers, and about whether Opposition or Government Members have tabled other amendments. That topic is nothing to do with the amendment before us.

Mr. Howarth

I am trying to support the amendment, which is to the effect that the hereditaries should continue to sit and have the right to speak in the other place. I have been advancing that cause, and explaining why they bring something unique to the quality of our national life and to debates in the other House. I believe that the amendment is absolutely right and proper.

6.45 pm
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that it is absolutely clear that many hereditary peers have shown, by their many years of service in the other place, a belief in the tradition of public service, which used to be described as noblesse oblige? That is something that is valuable in our public life and many citizens have come to be grateful for it. Many causes dear to Labour Members have been taken up initially by Members of the other place.

Mr. Howarth

Indeed. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I was attempting to demonstrate that those in the other place approach the assumption of their titles in a way that is hard for us as ordinary citizens to understand.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I ask my hon. Friend to place on record the appreciation that is felt by many Members of this place of Baroness Wharton. There are Labour Members who are staunch supporters of the all-party animal welfare group. They know that as deputy chairman of that group, Baroness Wharton—Ziki Wharton—has put in an enormous amount of work although she is a working lady who has to earn her own living. I ask my hon. Friend to ask Labour Members why they propose to bar somebody like that from taking a seat in the other place and making a contribution that in other walks of life they would support.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about Baroness Wharton. She has undertaken sterling work in the other place. One reason why she is able to do that is that she is not answerable to a constituency. She is a Cross Bencher and she is independent; she is also independent minded. Hereditary peers, in not having constituencies, do not feel constrained to pursue a line that might be in the interests of their constituency, but not necessarily in the interests of the country. Hereditary peers are able to take a broader view in the national interest.

Angela Smith

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

As soon as I have finished my point I shall, of course, give way to the hon. Lady. I am sorry, but she will have to listen to me for just a little longer.

Hereditary peers do not have constituency correspondence. That is a huge advantage. It means that they are not burdened with that aspect of parliamentary life. They are able to devote themselves to whatever cause, like the baroness to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) referred. They can take up the issues that they feel are important.

Angela Smith

Are we to take it that these interesting encomiums of individual Members of the House of Lords indicate that other Members of that place are not held in equally high regard by Conservative Members, or is the debate to be punctuated by our going through the entire 759 Members one by one and recording their individual worth?

Mr. Howarth

The debate could be punctuated by their contributions. That would make for an extremely interesting debate, but I know that you, Mr. Martin, would not particularly approve of that. You might find that that caused the debate to stray.

Mr. Swayne

The hon. Member for Basildon (Ms Smith) can table an amendment.

Mr. Howarth

As my hon. Friend says from a sedentary position, the hon. Lady is perfectly free to table an amendment to that effect. We look forward to seeing it on the amendment paper tomorrow.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) or the hon. Member for Battersea asked what was the difference between hereditary peers and a lottery. If someone comes from the think tank Demos, the answer is not a lot. Demos has proposed that, instead of hereditary peers, we should have a lottery in which ordinary people are picked at random. The remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe were not so wide of the truth. It appears that a lottery is proposed to choose who sits in the Lords.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman again. He is wide of the amendment.

Mr. Howarth

I was making the point that, to a certain extent, the hereditaries are something of a lottery and, therefore, we do not need an alternative proposal.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe said that, if the amendment were passed and hereditaries were able to sit and speak in the other place, there would be no threat to the House of Lords from that. I disagree with him. If the Government were to support the amendment, they would find that the hereditaries who participated, albeit not in a voting fashion, would have something to contribute and would expose the flawed nature of the Government's proposal. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Government will accept the amendment, but they are exposing the flaw in the Bill by opposing it. They are also exposing the spite and animosity that they feel towards people who have, as many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, made a constructive and public-spirited contribution to our national life. I shall support the amendment.

Mr. Benn

I had not intended to speak, but I want to put on record the fact that the debate, and the speeches made by Conservative Members, ought to be made compulsory reading for every schoolchild in this country.

Those arguments have appeared time and again. I read the debate on Second Reading of the Reform Bill; it was warned that parliamentary democracy would disappear if the franchise were extended. I point out to the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), who is the leader or deputy leader or former leader—whatever he is—of the Liberal Democrats, that Mr. Asquith said that parliamentary democracy would be undermined if women got the vote. Today, we have had a complete rerun of the whole history of the argument for making this place democratic. Now, Conservative Members are trying to prevent that in the Lords.

The other aspect of the debate that has interested me very much is the total ignorance of Conservative Members of the real flexibility of the so-called hereditary system. As I said a couple of weeks ago, when the peers were first appointed, they were not hereditary at all. The Salisburys have had a wonderful way of using writs of acceleration: "Get there before you have inherited." I had a very amusing correspondence with Lord Salisbury—"Bobbity", as he was called▀×who wrote me an angry letter about what I was doing. I replied, "Dear Lord Salisbury, I only want a writ of deceleration." The Salisburys could do what they liked.

Someone talked about noblesse oblige; my problem was noblesse obligatoire, which was a slightly different complaint. I have no objection to hereditary peers at all; they are ordinary people, but they happen to be law makers, without any entitlement to be so. On the other question about a hereditary system, I wonder how many Conservative Members know that, in the old days, treason was hereditary for those convicted of it. The corruption of the blood went from generation to generation. I do not know whether Conservative Members are in favour of hereditary traitors, but they existed for a long time, until that was changed.

I share one view with Conservative Members. I am very disappointed that my colleagues have not come up with a simple alternative, which is to elect a second Chamber. Most civilised countries in the world do that. I do not know what would happen if new Labour got its hands on the Senate—heaven knows how the Senate would be appointed in the United States—so I agree with Conservative Members who complain about our opposition to that idea, but please do not try to persuade me that the Lords are the final safeguard against extending Parliament.

I remember when the Lords voted to extend the Parliament. There should have been an election in 1940, but a Tory House of Lords extended the Parliament to 1945. Why? Because everybody said, "We don't want an election in the middle of a war." If we really believe that the final safeguard of democracy in Britain is hereditary peers then, my God, democracy is not very safe. The hereditary peers are not based on democracy, they do not believe in democracy and they do not practise democracy, but we are told by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), a former Attorney-General, that they are our final safeguard against democracy disappearing.

The Committee would be well advised to settle this matter by a vote. We could then discuss the next group of amendments, which is much more interesting. We will be told to vote against Lord Weatherill's amendment, but, when it comes back from the Lords, we will be told to vote for it. We are going through the hoop in a way that no parliamentary party of which I have been a member has ever had to. Let us get on to that amendment, but, please, preserve the debate. It is a supreme example of the Conservative party at its best, and nobody has reflected that better than the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth).

Sir Nicholas Lyell

It is a real pleasure to speak after the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) who has been kind enough to mention me. I recall that, when the great Reform Bill went through in 1832, the Duke of Wellington held back his troops in the House of Lords and prevented them from voting against it. In consequence, it went through. There is another story—about one very fat peer being counted as 10, which also helped to carry the Bill through—but that would prove the right hon. Gentleman's version of democracy too well.

The point about the debate is that it does not concern the question whether the House of Lords should be reformed. Our great complaint, which I share with the right hon. Gentleman, and the country's great complaint against the Labour party, who have had 18 years to think about this, is that the Government have come forward with a proposition that will destroy what we have at present without telling us what they will put in its place. That will hang round the Government's neck at every stage of the consideration of the Bill, but that is not what we are debating.

We are debating what will be put in place at the interim stage. I share the reflective cynicism of some hon. Members. I hope that the interim stage will be extremely brief, that the Leader of the House will be as good as her word and that proposals will be introduced by 2000 so that we can get on with proper reform. However, I have no great confidence in that and we must consider carefully what we shall put in place in the interim.

I have said not that the House of Lords is in itself the foundation of democracy, but that it is our constitutional anchor. It gives the opportunity for the House of Commons to think again. It can hold up proceedings for long enough to force us to think once again about whether a proposal is what we want and what the country wants. That gives the country an opportunity to focus on what is the issue. The House of Lords can develop the argument, sort out the details and generally broaden the public debate. It is essential that that can continue during the interim period.

I support the amendment faute de mieux, although there is mieux available. The next group of amendments contains my own suggestions for what to do in the interim, but the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) is valuable in that it would enable the upper House to continue to contribute. Hereditary peers who contribute in practice would be able to continue to contribute their voices—and, thus, their wisdom—to debate and to influence the peers who will, after all, be almost entirely appointed and left as the substantial rump.

Once one gets into the question of legitimacy, the exact legitimacy of an appointed placeman, as opposed to that of the son of a hereditary placeman, is difficult to identify. I share the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) that at least a significant proportion of the upper House—I do not go so far as to say the whole of it—should be elected. I also share the view of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who provides an example of independence in a sea of conformity, that, in so far as it is elected, the upper House should be elected on a rolling basis. That would provide the constitutional anchor and the stability.

We are deciding whether Members of the House of Lords who, by definition, play an active part because they speak in debates, should be able to continue to speak. I have done a little research, with the assistance of the Library, to find out how often such people speak. We are considering all this in the context of the figure of 91 hereditary peers which has been suggested by the Government, although they will not allow us to push that figure upwards because they fear that they may be defeated in the upper House.

The Library has produced, from the parliamentary on-line information service, a record of how many peers have spoken more than 40 times since 1992–93—my amendment No. 18 suggests that we should go back through speaking records for 10 years—which shows that, in that time, about 90 peers spoke about 40 times. We lose out—this is one of my reasons for thinking that going for a figure of 91 is a bit too trite and much too limited—because some enormously significant contributions have been made by peers who have spoken a good deal less often.

7 pm

I know that it is invidious to mention names, but I have tried to select Cross-Bench peers who are known for particular interests. Lord Selborne, who chaired the royal commission on the environment, and who everybody agrees played an enormously constructive role in the upper House over those years, spoke 32 times. Lord Alexander of Weedon, who is a great banker and was a great lawyer, spoke 28 times. The Labour peer, Lord Wedderburn, a great trade union lawyer and a considerable constitutionalist, spoke 28 times. Lord Runciman, who chaired the royal commission on criminal justice, is an outstanding academic and has played an active role in the House, spoke 12 times. I could take the list on. Lord Gowrie, who used to play a great part in Government and is well recognised as a leader in the arts, spoke six times during that period. All those contributions were valuable.

We are discussing an interim, which the Government—I accept in good faith, although they may not achieve it—say will be relatively short. We need to keep the spirit of the House's diversity alive while we decide what to put in its place.

Mr. Hawkins

Does my right hon. and learned Friend support the concept that those hereditary peers who have played a part in the work of the other place over many years, whether they have spoken often or only on a few occasions, should be given a continuing role? That is what I suggested on Second Reading. My right hon. and learned Friend might be interested to know that I have discussed the matter with a number of newly selected Labour Members. Whatever they may say publicly in the Chamber, informally many of them agree that those who have done the work in the other place should be allowed a continuing role and that the number of those allowed to remain should not be restricted to 91.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. At the risk of immodesty, my amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 18, which are in the next group, propose precisely that. It would be out of order to discuss them now.

As I said, faute de mieux and, because it has genuine merit, I support the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire. It provides an opportunity for those who are active in the House of Lords to continue to play a real role in the interim without threatening the Government' s proposals. The Government's argument that they might be voted down by the trooping out of backwoodsmen might have some force—they grossly overstate the case, as they grossly overstate much of their case—but they cannot oppose the amendment on that ground.

Mr. Benn

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman given any consideration to bishops? When a bishop ceases to have a diocese, he is booted out of the House of Lords. He may be a very wise and experienced bishop. He is allowed to use the Dining Room, but he is not allowed to sit in the House. What makes hereditary peers better than retired bishops? The first Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, who did retire, was made a peer because the Government suddenly realised that, as a retired archbishop, he could do nothing, so they gave him a barony.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman must study what he is talking about. He is speaking as if hereditary peers were better than bishops, but there is no logic in that. I find it fascinating and I shall promote the Hansard of this debate even more actively among my constituents, but it would be helpful if he knew a bit more about the Chamber that he speaks about so fully.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

The right hon. Gentleman, whom I greatly respect and for whom the House has great affection, is obviously intoxicated by his own vision of logic. In commending the example of bishops, he commends corporatism: the bishops represent the Church and the Law Lords represent the law. There is a genuine argument, which the Government are rightly considering, for setting up a partly corporatist upper House. If one is partly corporatist and one is booted out after a time, one disappears. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was opposed to that, but I now see that he has a sneaking affection for it. He has also noted that archbishops—of York as well as of Canterbury—have been appointed life peers at the end of their term.

Let me return to my theme. The merit of the amendment is that it allows us to continue to benefit from the wisdom of Members of the upper House without threatening the Government. The threat to the Government from the upper House has always been grossly overplayed. What we need from an upper House is people of calibre, diversity and independence. That, above all, is what we need for our constitutional anchor while we consider carefully what to put in the place of the existing House.

I do not support the House of Lords' continuance provided that we can put something better in its place. The artificial attempts of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and others to suggest that all Conservative Members are wedded to the principle of hereditary peerage is not just simplistic but self-deluding, because that is an easy windmill at which to tilt. That is what the Government, with all their spin doctors behind them, like to pretend is the view of Conservative Members.

I was proposing constructive reform of the upper House within a year of being elected to this House because I did not want the kind of reform, flooded with nominated peers, that was then being proposed by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is going wide of the amendment.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Yes, Mr. Martin, I was going wide. I accept that.

None the less, we must look at the interim. We do not seek to uphold the hereditary peerage in the last ditch; we want a constitutional anchor in the interim, and the amendment provides one constructive way in which we might get it.

Mr. Swayne

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is no longer in his place, for he appeared to be taking up the role of inquisitor-general that was played by the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) on Second Reading in asking each Conservative Member if he or she were in favour of the hereditary principle and whether he or she maintained that support for it despite its abandonment by Conservative Front-Bench Members.

For the benefit of Labour Members, may I say that I share the affection of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for the hereditary principle. However, it ignores one salient fact that, on 1 May 1997, the Labour party, which had explicitly put in its manifesto a commitment to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers, won that election. Those of us with an affection for the hereditary principle therefore moved on, having lost that battle.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

How many electors does my hon. Friend think voted Labour specifically because of that manifesto pledge?

Mr. Swayne

I have not the remotest idea. However, it does not strike me as a matter of significance because the Labour party has a majority; it has introduced a Bill and can pursue that Bill in accordance with its manifesto. An academic discussion about who voted for what would be profitless.

The amendment is entirely consistent with the principle of the Bill—to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers—but deals with the consequent practical difficulties that arise from giving effect to that manifesto pledge. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said in moving the amendment, the main practical difficulty is that more than half the present occupants of the House of Lords will be dispensed with. That creates an enormous hole in terms of expertise on both procedure and particular issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire mentioned to hereditary peers who have specialised in certain subjects and been of great public service in using their expertise to draw attention to those. Those peers would be unlikely to find themselves saved by amendments that may or may not be passed during the passage of this Bill. Amendment No. 1 is intended to deal with the loss of that expertise.

Having read the amendment, I still cannot muster any great enthusiasm for the proposed arrangement. My misgivings are not addressed by the fact that it is a transitory arrangement, which will fulfil a need during the hopefully short period that will be required before more fundamental reforms make the amendment—and, indeed, the entire settlement proposed in the Bill—unnecessary.

My right hon.and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) was perhaps more charitable than me in saying that, if it took rather longer for final reform to come about, that might not be because of the Government's intention. I regard the amendment as a powerful incentive to the effecting of speedy reform. It has become clear in the debate that Labour Members have a passionate desire for the hereditary principle, in every form, to be dispensed with; let us therefore pass an amendment such as this, which will give them every incentive to maintain pressure on the Executive, and on Ministers in particular, to dispense with it. Unlike my right hon. and learned Friend, I suspect that the Government have every intention of letting the Bill remain as it is for ever, if necessary. It is therefore entirely appropriate for us to insert arrangements to ensure that the transitional period remains a transitional period.

The Government say that the matter is urgent, but that is belied by the fact that they did not establish a royal commission 20 months ago so that we could examine its findings now. Let amendment No. 1 supply the urgency.

Mr. Wells

As you will expect, Mr. Martin, I am anxious to stay in order so that you will not have to make a ruling. I want to ensure that you agree that we are discussing an amendment that will permit hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords until such time as the temporary Chamber is abolished and a new Chamber is introduced. I trust that discussion of the way in which the Chamber will work will be in order, as will discussion of why it is necessary for hereditary peers to remain there to participate in debates. Those are important issues.

I risk inclusion in the distribution of Hansard in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), and being caricatured in the way of which only the right hon. Gentleman is capable. That is indeed a serious disincentive. I shall, however, talk about the way in which the House of Lords operates at present. Hon. Members have made speeches illustrating the fact that hereditary peers bring much quality and experience to their task, not least because many come from old families with a long tradition of public service.

Mr. Hawkins

Noblesse oblige.

Mr. Wells

I must ask my hon. Friend about the difference between noblesse oblige and droit de seigneur: I understand that there is a difference. In any event, hereditary peers have given long service to the House of Lords, as have their parents before them, and that service is still important. I suggest that their background is irrelevant. It does not matter whether they are descended from the lady who serviced Charles II in St. James's park, or come from whatever other background the Labour party would like to sling at them; and it does not matter whether what the Labour party says is true. What is important is their contribution to the House of Lords today, and there is no doubt that the quality and credibility of the House of Lords depend largely on the hereditary element.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wells

I should love to.

7.15 pm
Mrs. Dunwoody

I am listening carefully to the case that the hon. Gentleman is making. Is he aware that the bulk of the work in the other place is done almost exclusively by those who accept no party Whip, that most are created peers, and that the Cross-Bench group is represented in 90 per cent. of votes as being always present and always ready to discuss matters of state?

Mr. Wells

There is a great deal in what the hon. Lady says. I believe that the Cross Benchers fora: the largest single group in the House of Lords—they cannot be called a party—and add enormously to what goes on there. They include life peers, but also many hereditary peers—200, I believe—who participate in the elements of House of Lords activity that the hon. Lady admires. I want to talk about the life peers' contribution as well, but I know that you, will call me to order Mr. Martin, if I start talking about life peers. At present, I must concentrate on the 200 hereditary peers on the Cross Benches.

Together with their life peer friends, those hereditary peers make a major contribution—in Select Committees and on the Floor of the House—to the objectivity and, indeed, the quality of debates for which the House of Lords is much respected, as many of my hon. Friends have pointed out. I pay tribute to the selfless work of many peers.

The amendment seeks to preserve that in the interim House. We want to continue the traditions that have been established; we want the House of Lords to retain its credibility, and to continue its good work in checking what is done in the House of Commons and asking it to consider again when necessary. I especially appreciate the work of the House of Lords on European affairs.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a matter not of academic purity—as Labour Members have suggested—but of pure common sense that, in an interim House, it would benefit the Government as a whole to retain the maximum experience?

Mr. Wells

Indeed. That is why I support the amendment. We are talking about quality, respect and credibility, and about the ability of the House of Lords to constitute a second Chamber of some merit. If the temporary Chamber is not of some merit, it will fall into disrepute, will soon be thought useless, and will therefore disappear. The last temporary arrangements for the House of Lords have lasted for 88 years: until today. There must be a danger that the temporary Chamber will become permanent, and that is one of many reasons for the amendment. The Government want a House of Lords that will be credible, will be able to handle the business and will be a check on the House of Commons, and that is why even they are beginning to support it.

The Government do not truly want a House of Lords that is elected and permanent, because of the timetable. Hon. Members know as well as I do that a royal commission that is given only nine months will do a very superficial job. If it has done a superficial job, how long will it take for a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider a badly drafted and ill-considered report—as this report is almost certain to be, after only nine months?

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying wide of the amendments. I know that he is always keen to keep within the scope of the amendments. I rise to try to assist him.

Mr. Wells

I was hoping that, during my remarks, you would not feel impelled, Mr. Martin, to rebuke me for not keeping the debate closely related to the amendment. If I may demonstrate, it is important to consider what the temporary Chamber with the hereditary peers in it is likely to be like and how long it is likely to last.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman does not need to worry about the temporary Chamber. He needs to worry only about the amendment before us, which gives certain rights to hereditary peers. Other amendments may cover the points that he is trying to make. Obviously, when they come before us, he will be able to catch my eye.

Mr. Wells

If I am not mistaken, the amendment talks about including Members of the House of Lords without the capacity to vote, but with the capacity to speak in the Chamber that the Bill sets up. Therefore, we need to talk about the totality of its make-up and whether it will work as a temporary Chamber, for however long "temporary" may be. It has been undefined in the Bill. It remains undefined by the Government. Therefore, we have to consider seriously how long the temporary Chamber with the hereditary peers—which is what I support: the hereditary element in that temporary Chamber—will last and the quality of that Chamber as a result of the hereditary peers being able to speak.

I strongly support the amendment, as I strongly support the next amendment—I will make other points on that, which I hope you, will find to be in order Mr. Martin—because I believe strongly that we need hereditary peers in the Chamber for the time being. The reason for that is that those are the people who give credibility to the House of Lords and provide quality in its work. I have paid great tribute to many of those who work in that way. I want to see them in the interim Chamber.

If the amendment fails, and I assume that we will be in order if we consider what will happen if the amendment fails, we shall have a House without hereditary peers being able to sit and to speak in the House of Lords. Therefore, we will have a Chamber—as the Bill proposes, before it is amended—simply with life peers. Life peers are appointed by Crown privilege—by the prerogative of the Prime Minister. They often have party allegiances, although some have gone to the Cross Benches, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has said. However, would they be bound by the Salisbury convention?

As I understand it, the convention says that, when legislation reaches the House of Lords from the House of Commons, it must be passed to let the Government have their way. We may have a House of Lords without the hereditary peers being there to speak. Hereditary peers would probably honour the Salisbury convention, but life peers will not do so.

The Government have said that they will appoint at least 55 additional life peers. That will give the Labour party a quality of representation: there will be a balance between Conservative life peers and life peers who have adherence to the Labour party.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. Perhaps I can again assist the hon. Gentleman. He is talking about the structure of the other place. We are considering voting and speaking rights for hereditary peers, so he should stick to the narrow confines of the amendment that is before us.

Mr. Wells

I am sure that you would agree, Mr. Martin, that the Salisbury convention was so named because it was proposed and advocated by a hereditary peer.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. Perhaps there is another occasion when the hon. Gentleman can talk about the Salisbury convention, but he should not do so in the debate on the amendments that are before us. They are too narrow for that.

Mr. Wells

Let me bring myself directly to order. We want hereditary Members of the House of Lords to remain to speak—not to vote, but to speak; that is what the amendment is about. It is that body of peers, the hereditary peers, that will respect the Salisbury convention. I will leave the matter by making the following point if you do not wish me to go on and develop that point still further, Mr. Martin; I understand your need to keep the debate under strict control and I respect that fully: it is the hereditary peers who will respect the Salisbury convention. That is why we need them. Life peers are not likely to do so. I will leave that point to other debates.

Mr. Tyrie

One aspect of the relationship between the clause and the Salisbury convention is that the convention is intended to apply mainly to non-obstruction of Government business that has been in a manifesto: legislation should not be voted down on Second Reading. However, another possibility is that the convention might need to apply to those people who might consider filibustering against Government business. If we passed the clause, might we not have to consider the possibility that peers who are brought in who have the right to speak, but not vote, may yet play a constitutional role by filibustering?

Mr. Wells

Filibustering is a time-honoured convention of this House. I know that those who fill the Chair do not agree with that time-honoured convention and seek to prevent any such thing from taking place, but it is a useful democratic tool in a debating Chamber such as this—an elected one—as it is in the House of Lords. Therefore, hereditary peers would assist the process of delay. As you will know, Mr. Martin, because of the number of years that you sat on the Back Benches, that is practically the only weapon that is available to the Opposition to bring the Government to their senses and to make them listen to some views that they would rather not hear. I know that you are very determined to make certain that all Back Benchers get that opportunity, which I use at the present time.

One of the serious issues is the way in which the Government will use the House of Lords without the hereditary peers in it. Clearly, it will be a major extension of Executive power if the Government totally control the way in which the House of Lords votes. That is what will happen in the House of Lords if it is totally appointed and does not have the element of hereditary peers, even if they do not have votes.

We will talk about hereditary peers with votes in the debate on the next amendment—which I have a lot to say about as well—but here we are looking at a House of Lords with 55 extra Labour Members, who will be able to pass anything that the Prime Minister wishes to have passed. There will be no delaying powers, however long the filibuster. That is why we need the hereditary peers in the interim Chamber. Otherwise, we put the House of Lords in limbo—a limbo position whereby it will be simply the poodle of the elected Government.

7.30 pm
Mrs. Dunwoody

The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that the "limbo" position is horizontal.

Mr. Wells

I know that the hon. Lady has visited the Caribbean. She is of course right to say that, in the Caribbean, limbo dancing is done horizontally, under a flaming bar, to calypso music of the type that is performed so brilliantly in Trinidad and Tobago during carnival, which starts today and leads up to Lent. However, I believe that you would quickly pull me up to order if I followed that thought, Mr. Martin.

Limbo—lying down—is exactly what the elected Government want the other place to do. I believe that we need the hereditary peers to prevent such a Chamber being created.

We have also to question the Government about the peculiar position into which they have got themselves. Although they oppose amendment No. 1, they will support an amendment tabled subsequently in the other place proposing to retain hereditary peers with powers.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he must not speak to subsequent amendments. We must dispose of this group of amendments before dealing with the next one. There is no point in mentioning subsequent amendments now. He will be able to speak to them when we reach them.

Mr. Wells

I should be very interested to know what your Clerk would advise you, Mr. Martin.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. No one advises the occupant of the Chair—who has made a decision and given a ruling.

Mr. Wells

I assure you, Mr. Martin, that I have no doubt that you will always make very positive and proper decisions in the interests of all hon. Members.

The Government are in a peculiar position. In a subsequent amendment, they will be supporting hereditary peers with voting rights, whereas, in amendment No. 1, they will not support peers without voting rights. That seems to be illogical.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. We are considering amendment No. 1 and the amendments grouped with it. We shall consider the next group of amendments when we reach it. Let us speak to this group of amendments before proceeding to the next one.

Mr. Wells

I believe that, if we pass amendment No. 1, we may not have to worry about the next group of amendments. If we pass the amendment, the Clerk may say to you, "The next amendment falls." We could therefore move on even more swiftly—which I know would very much please your heart, Mr. Martin, and the hearts of the Government Whips.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Perhaps I might help my hon. Friend by saying that, if the Government had the good sense to accept amendment No. 1, we might well decide not to move the next group of amendments.

Mr. Wells

That might be a very sensible course of action. If we passed the amendment, we would have a new House of Lords in which we retained all the peers and would not have to choose from among them. They would not have to elect from among themselves, and we would not have to have the peculiarly distorted electoral process described in the next group of amendments, which we shall debate at length.

If we passed amendment No. 1, we would create a House of Lords that is credible and contains all the talents. I should say that I wonder why the hereditary peers give so much time to the work of the House of Lords. They deserve our respect and great gratitude for doing the very hard that work they do.

If we passed amendment No. 1—even if the new second Chamber were temporary for much longer than any of us suspect that it will be—we would have a second Chamber of which the United Kingdom could be proud and that would fulfil a very useful function in our overall parliamentary process.

I therefore commend amendment No. 1 to the Committee.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Martin, for your forbearance in allowing me to try to apply some pertinent points in the argument that we should have hereditary peers—unable to vote, but sitting in the other place.

Mr. Tyrie

I shall be brief. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] I can only assume that that is a reference to one or two other occasions—which hon. Members liked—when I spoke in the House.

The amendment expresses not a new idea but an idea that has been around for a very long time. It was first expressed as a serious proposal, in draft legislative form, by a Labour Government, in 1968. Richard Crossman proposed it. Labour quite happily signed up to the idea then—and it did so after a process of all-party consultation. If there is one salient and appalling aspect of the way in which the current Government have gone about their business in introducing the Bill, it is that there has been no all-party consultation.

On all previous occasions when fundamental reform of the House of Lords has been proposed by a Government—in 1910, 1948 and 1968—there has been prior all-party consultation. There has not been such consultation this time—not a scrap of it; nothing at all. The Government have simply introduced the Bill and told us to vote for it. Today, we have the opportunity at least for a little debate and to point out that Labour itself once supported—even introduced—the proposals made in the group of amendments before us.

After all-party consultation, the proposals were agreed by Conservative Members. Lord Carrington agreed to them. Consequently, they might easily have found their way on to the statute book. Having said all that, however, I cannot say that I am terribly attracted to the idea.

Mr. Wells

I wonder whether my hon. Friend will reflect on the reasons why that Bill was not passed? It was, after all, Mr. Foot and Enoch Powell who opposed it.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman should know better. We are going far too wide of the matters dealt with in amendment No. 1.

Mr. Tyrie

One of the reasons why it was not passed—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. I have made the point. The hon. Gentleman should speak to the amendment. The history of previous Bills is nothing to do with what we are considering now.

Mr. Tyrie

If you will be forbearing for just a moment, Mr. Martin, I promise you that—probably even by the end of the sentence that I was beginning—I shall be able to show that I am speaking exclusively to the amendment.

One of the main reasons why the earlier Bill was not passed is that the proposals in it were very complicated and would have been difficult to administer. A crucial and difficult aspect of the administration of that Bill was the decision to have people sitting alongside one another some of whom would have been able to vote and some of whom would not.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a significant difference between this Bill and the earlier Bill—which was to be a once-and-for-all reform? The situation created by the earlier Bill would have persisted for many years, whereas our proposals deal only with an interim stage.

Mr. Tyrie

My hon. Friend anticipates remarks that I shall make in a few moments. Be not afeard! Tonight, I shall not be a rebel: I shall be back on-side by the time the Division bell goes.

In 1956, a study of the idea was made by an official working party, including Clerks of the House, which has become available under the 30-year rule. On the proposal that is dealt with in amendment No. 1, which was supported by the Labour party in 1968, the report concluded: A second Chamber which contained a large number of peers who were impotent but not speechless would be regarded by many as ludicrous and unrealistic. The working party also said that such an arrangement would be wholly impractical, making the composition and voting structure of the Committee structure of the House of Lords very complicated and almost impossible to run.

In normal circumstances, such a report would have caused me to want to oppose amendment No. 1. We must look at the amendment in the context of the Bill, and I have never seen a more foolish and stupid Bill. It is not even halfway sensible.

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn)

The poll tax?

Mr. Tyrie

The hon. Gentleman mentions the poll tax—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the poll tax, and I have told him to be quiet.

Mr. Tyrie

I am doing my best. You will recall, Mr. Martin, that the last time I was called to order, I completed my sentence to arrive absolutely within order in seconds.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend has pointed out that the report referred to the impracticality of the proposal in the amendment. Does he agree that there is a certain attractiveness in that? If stage 1 were demonstrated to be impractical, would that not hasten the need to move to stage 2?

Several hon. Members

rose

Mr. Tyrie

I am reluctant to give way any more because everyone seems to want to make the few points that I have left for me, which is very distressing. I will do my best to make the points in my own way, and then I will sit down quickly.

We are faced with a Bill that will leave the House of Lords not even halfway workable. It will be a joke of a House of Lords—nothing more than a farce. It will be something for which the public will show no respect and which will command no general consent. That is why anyone with any sense should support the amendment, which would at least provide an element of continuity between where we are now and stage 1. It would enable a few people who know what they are doing to carry on articulating their views and demonstrating the independence that is an essential part of a second Chamber.

It is possible that the amendment would have no effect, and that the House of Lords would look just as bad with or without hereditary peers having speaking rights—1 do not know—but I am sure that it would not make it look worse. I am therefore moved to support the amendment. I am particularly aware of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), because the retention of those peers with speaking, if not voting, rights will increase the pressure on the Government to introduce stage 2 reform. I have always wanted stage 2 reform and believed that we should go straight to it. I have never wanted stage 1. It is essential that we have a second Chamber that works effectively.

It is possible that the proposal will flag up even more saliently the absurdity of the interim House. We have heard tonight that the interim House will be a dog's breakfast or a pig's ear. No language is too strong to describe the disgraceful constitutional gerrymandering that the Government are embarked on. At best, the amendment assuages a tiny bit the damaging impact of that; at worst. it can do no damage. I therefore commend it to the Committee.

Mr. Grieve

One of the features to emerge from the debate—it came as a surprise to me—was the way in which a number of the Government's supporters suggested that the main thrust of the amendments was in some way to prolong into a future Parliament the role of the hereditary peerage. My support for the amendment comes precisely from the desire to see stage 2 implemented—exactly like my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).

I said on Second Reading—I stand by it—that I was unwilling to embark on stage 1 without stage 2. Since the Government have freed the logjam and made that decision for me, I want to move rapidly to a stage 2 that will lead to a radical transformation of the relationship between the two Houses and, above all, of the way in which the upper House operates and is selected. I am increasingly coming to the view that the only way in which that can be done—and the only way in which we can be sure that Governments are brought to account and that there is proper public scrutiny of business—is with an elected second Chamber.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) said that he accepted the Government's assurance that they would try to move to the next stage by 2001. In fact, if one looks at the Government's comments on Second Reading as concerning the length of the interim—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman must concentrate on the amendments, and not on Second Reading or on stage 2. He cannot speak at length on those matters.

7.45 pm
Mr. Grieve

I will do my very best, but I hope that some forbearance will be exercised towards the development of arguments on what I think are relevant points—points centring on the amendments—from Members who may come late to the debate but who have sat through everything, as opposed to the latitude that seemed to be allowed to those who participated earlier.

If we allow hereditary peers to remain as participating, but not voting, Members of the interim Chamber, it will provide a powerful mechanism to ensure that the quality that they have contributed in the past—which Labour Members have acknowledged—is maintained. However, they will not be interfering with the basic premise repeated so often on Second Reading—that the fact that they are there by right of heredity is wrong; that the Government have a mandate to bring about change; and that the Government wish to see an upper House that is more balanced in terms of the proportions of the parties.

None of those matters is interfered with in any way by amendment No. 1, which is targeted at continuing participation by hereditary peers in debate, but not in votes. On 1 February, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) said: The White Paper made it clear that if we can get a consensus and if the commission meets the timetable, we shall make every effort to ensure that the second stage of reform is approved by Parliament by the next general election." — [Official Report, 1 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 696.] That is hardly in accordance with the Government saying the year 2001—and, indeed, as a nebulous promise it takes some beating. At the end of that debate, the Minister said that only by consensus could the Government move forward.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. Once again the hon. Gentleman is going wide of the amendments. I am bound by the rules of the House, and I cannot allow him to do that. It is not good if the Chair keeps intervening, but I must do so if the hon. Gentleman goes wide of the amendments. We cannot have a rerun of the Second Reading debate.

Mr. Grieve

I apologise, but I am referring to the significance of the amendment in terms of the problem pointed to by the Minister of State. There is no consensus. There is no consensus of any kind among Labour Members. What powerful mechanism can therefore be introduced by the amendment to ensure that the Government are shamed into hastening stage 2? I believe that the hereditary peers' continued participation in the upper House will be that powerful mechanism. They will not have a vested interest in voting, but they are the one group with a permanent and vested interest in seeing that the Government honour their commitments on both stage 1 and stage 2 of reform.

I have no faith in the Government's promise; not because I think that the Minister of State tried to deceive the House on Second Reading—or, for that matter, that the Leader of the House has tried to do so—but because of the difficulty of achieving consensus, and therefore of not moving to the second stage.

Amendment No. 23 deals with the question of leaving to the hereditary peers a residual voting right over the extension of the life of the Parliament. The issue goes to the heart of a major flaw in the Bill, to which we shall return on the next group of amendments. No adequate answer was provided by Ministers on Second Reading. I hope that the matter will be fully discussed in Committee. My understanding of a Parliament is that it subsists for a set period. It is started by the issue of a writ of election, followed by the writ of summons to individual peers to attend. We are one body in terms of the constitution and make-up of this House and of the other House. I am the first to accept that we have the power to change that make-up for the future, but I should be interested to know the constitutional basis on which the House can lop off a limb—a part of itself—during the currency of the Parliament.

We shall come back to that on the next group of amendments, because it is critical. I should also like to talk about a European human rights dimension. If we accept the basic premise on amendment No. 23, it becomes even more extraordinary that the hereditary peers should be deprived of their right to vote during the currency of a Parliament to which they have been summoned, and of the chance to debate that Parliament being perpetuated ad infinitum. There is a possibility—albeit a technical one—that that could happen.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) that it is unlikely that the power would be abused by the life peers or that they would not be capable of opposing a wrongful decision of this House to try to extend its life. However, that does not alter the fact that the hereditary peers were summoned to this Parliament for its life. Technically, this Parliament could continue ad infinitum without a fresh Parliament being summoned. That is a major flaw in the legislation, which could be cured by allowing the hereditary peers the right under the constitution to ensure that this Parliament does not have an infinite existence.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Does not that also strengthen the case for excluding the composition of the future House from the remit of the Parliament Acts? It was not excluded from the Parliament Act 1911 because the Act was supposed to be temporary.

Mr. Grieve

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There might well be compelling arguments for so doing, although I accept that this Parliament has the right to settle and regulate how a future Parliament might be constructed. My objection, which I shall return to in the debate on the next set of amendments, centres on our right to do that during the course of this Parliament, rather than leaving it to a future Parliament after the next election. That is why I suggested on Second Reading that we should have been wise to legislate and then defer the changes until after the next election.

I hope that the Minister will consider my point. I shall raise several times in Committee the constitutional propriety of the way in which we are going about our business. I was promised last time that the Government would give some indication of how they view the matter, but they have not yet done so. On that basis, I am happy to bring to a close my contributions on the amendments.

Mr. Hoon

May I belatedly welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martin? You have not had the excruciating, or exquisite, pleasure of sitting here throughout this fascinating and ingenious debate. I say "ingenious" because of Conservative Members' efforts to get across their arguments and—dare I say—their previously prepared speeches while staying within narrowly drawn amendments. As ever more Conservative Members turned up to make their contributions, I wondered whether the real ingenuity was taking place somewhere else in the building, with Conservative Whips encouraging their Members to contribute, but perhaps not always telling them the precise nature of the amendments on which they were expected to speak.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) on setting the style of the debate with the ingenuity of his speech. He used all his considerable eloquence to circle round the central question of why, although he accepts that hereditary peers should not vote on legislation—as I understand that he now does—he believes that they should have the right to attend, sit and speak in the legislature simply as a result of the accident of their birth. The same argument that applies to their right to vote must apply to their right to sit.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great student of history and literature. While listening to his speech, when he demonstrated his considerable enthusiasm for the hereditary peers, I was put in mind of the words of Walter Bagehot, with which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is familiar. He wrote that the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it. Bagehot was writing in very different times, of course, making observations that are no longer strictly relevant. He was writing in the 19th century, calling for a fundamental reform of the second Chamber.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

There is a distinction between the right to vote and the right to speak. I was not able to take part in the earlier exchanges because I was detained on matters concerning defence and foreign affairs, which are my areas of interest and knowledge. If the amendment is not accepted, we shall throw away all the knowledge and expertise that is sitting in another place before we come forward with plans for stage 2 that tell us what the final nature of the Chamber will be.

Mr. Hoon

We have heard some descriptions of the 1968 proposals. The Government have been taken to task because the Labour party then supported the idea of having two sorts of Member. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who is no longer present, did not follow that point through. The 1968 proposals failed because the Conservatives withdrew their support on the grounds that they were too complex and would have produced two sorts of peer. That completely answers the hon. Gentleman's point.

The Government will resist the amendments because we stated categorically in the manifesto on which we were elected that the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords would be ended by statute—not just the right to vote, but the rights to sit and vote. We made it abundantly clear in the manifesto, the White Paper and recent debates that hereditary peers should not be allowed to sit or vote in our Parliament solely on the basis of their birth and without any consideration of their personal qualities and achievements.

Mr. Forth

In that case, how can it be that the Government may be conceding the principle of keeping a certain number of hereditary peers in the interim stage? We do not know whether they will, because the issue has not shuttled back and forward yet, but perhaps—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. That is a matter for the next debate.

Mr. Forth

On the other hand, the Minister is saying that the Government have a manifesto commitment that there can be no hereditaries in the upper House.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. Perhaps it is time to let the Committee know that interventions should be brief. There should not be any lead-ups to a case. Hon. Members should just put their case.

Mr. Hoon

The Bill is designed to ensure that the House of Lords is a modern, capable and effective second Chamber, fit for a Parliament of the next century. There is no place for hereditary peers in such a Chamber. There is no case for them to be allowed to vote, to speak, to sit or to participate.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

If the Bill is meant to do all those wonderful things, why have a White Paper and a stage 2?

8 pm

Mr. Hoon

Because, as Conservative Members have said, we have failed in the past to deliver any reform of the House of Lords. As several Government Members said on Second Reading, successful reform can be achieved by a series of stages. We have set out the stages and a timetable, and we intend to deliver on our manifesto commitment.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

This has been a good debate. Including myself, 20 right hon. and hon. Members have spoken. The Minister quoted Bagehot saying that those who admired the House of Lords need only come to look at it; Conservative Members feel that those who admire parliamentary democracy need only come here to see how badly reforms are needed, not only for the upper Chamber but for the whole Parliament. We need the checks and balances that a properly constituted second Chamber will provide. That is the purpose of the amendments.

We have been told time and again that we are promoting the hereditary principle for the long term or that we want to delay reform and pack the second Chamber with hereditaries. That is not the case. We have already conceded the fact that the second stage House of Lords will have no place for the hereditary principle, but, as yet, we do not know what the second stage will be and we are concentrating on stage 1.

Page 4 of the White Paper breaks with the manifesto commitment to abolish all the hereditary peers. It says that the Government will be minded to accept the Weatherill amendment in another place, so the Government have already conceded that the hereditary principle should be part of the first stage reform. The amendment expands that one step further, suggesting that hereditary peers should have a role in stage 1.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

That is not the point at all.

Mr. Evans

The right hon. Lady may disagree, but page 4 of the White Paper says: Legislation being introduced in this Parliamentary session will create a transitional House of Lords. If, as has been proposed, an amendment to the legislation is supported to allow a small number of hereditary peers to sit temporarily in the transitional House, the Government is minded to accept this proposal at an appropriate stage. The Government have conceded the principle and we have expanded it in the amendment to take heed of the fact that there are so many hereditary peers who could make a contribution—by voice, not vote—in the transitional upper Chamber.

Mr. Hoon

The Government are committed to abolishing the remaining hereditary peers and moving quickly to stage 2. Conservative Members have consistently said that they are suspicious about our determination to get on to stage 2. Surely the fact that there will be a residual number of hereditary peers demonstrates how determined we are to get to stage 2 quickly.

Mr. Evans

Some people, more cynical than myself about accepting what the Minister says, might argue that the Government are holding a pistol to the head of the hereditaries in the upper House to ensure that the legislation passes more smoothly there. The 1911 amendment was a temporary measure, and here we are, 88 years on, considering the same matter.

Mr. Shepherd

I hope that my hon. Friend will be very cautious about the argument that has just been advanced. A White Paper on freedom of information was published well over a year ago, with many promises of a draft Bill, and we are still waiting.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. We cannot go into freedom of information on these amendments.

Mr. Evans

We all accept that 59 per cent. of the House of Lords is hereditary. The Government's rate of peerage creation has been higher than any since 1958, but I fully accept that they are trying to increase the number of peers representing the governing party in the upper Chamber. They have created 105, including the four Law Lords, since the Prime Minister took office.

Of the peers under 39, only two are there by appointment, so 36 are there by succession. We have always argued that it is good to get youth in Parliament and give young people the opportunity to have their say. That is one argument in favour of succession. [Laughter.] Hon. Members mock, but hereditary peerages are one way in which young people can get a say about the governance of this country. [Laughter.] It is amazing that Labour Members can dispute the fact that 36 of the 38 peers under 39 are there by succession.

Mr. Garnier

Would it not be easier to accept the mockery of Government Back Benchers if they had taken the time and trouble to contribute to the debate? I think I am right in saying that only two Labour Back Benchers have spoken this evening, but they now come in giggling and smirking, as though their giggles and smirks were of some intellectual value.

Mr. Evans

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. We know that the Government are not prepared to accept facts.

The amendment would allow the Government to have the benefit of the current wealth of experience—I hope that Labour Members do not dispute the fact that such experience exists in the upper Chamber—without having to whinge constantly about being voted down. The amendment is designed to retain the voice, not the vote. We seek the quality of peers' minds, not the quantity of their votes.

What are the Government worried about? Successive Prime Ministers have used patronage to put people of experience from the House of Commons into the House of Lords to carry on with their role of scrutinising legislation. David Steel, Margaret Thatcher and other politicians have made that transition and, as other hon. Members have said, not only politicians go to the other place.

We are in favour of a transitional House, but we do not know to this date how long the transitional House will last. The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office wrote to me on 9 February: you asked what would happen if the report of the Royal Commission is not to the Government's liking. As you well know, no Government is bound by the conclusions of a Royal Commission. Our aim in setting up a Royal Commission to consider long-term reform of the House of Lords is to enable the widest possible consultation and debate on such a fundamental issue, with the aim of reaching a consensus with all the interested parties, not just the politicians. There are no guarantees. We do not know what the royal commission will propose.

Mr. Tipping

If the hon. Gentleman is so keen to find consensus and a solution, when will we see the former Lord Chancellor's proposals? If we want to make haste, we must see the Conservative proposals.

Mr. Evans

The answer, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is soon. If he and his party had been so serious about second-stage reform, they would have set up the royal commission in May 1997, instead of waiting until a couple of weeks ago to announce it. There is more sincerity on this side of the Committee than has been displayed to date by Labour Members.

I shall pick out some of the points that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that 40 per cent. of regular attenders were hereditary peers. That wealth of experience will be denied to the upper Chamber during what we hope will be a relatively short transition period. The hereditary peers' wealth of experience, in their voices but not their votes, would assist with the 2,000 amendments that the House of Lords passes every year. My hon. Friend mentioned the Countess of Mar and the third Baron Freyburg—the former a senior peer and the latter a new peer—as two examples of a number of peers who have been able to make considerable contributions in the upper Chamber.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), in a short speech, said that he was disappointed by the staging process, but was prepared to accept the fact that there would be two stages. One of the bones of the contention is that he is prepared not to allow hereditary peers to make a contribution to that process.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), in his speech and in an intervention, said that a House of 750 hereditary peers would throw up people of ability. Of course that is the case, and those people of ability should be given the opportunity, at least during the transition period, to contribute to debates. The retention of the voice, but not the vote, of hereditary peers would concentrate the Government's mind in considering the royal commission's proposals and encourage them to make stage 2 proposals to the House as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) talked about the need for checks and balances. They will be needed more than ever because of the ever-growing power of the Executive in Downing street.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) mocked the experience and talent that are available in the upper Chamber, which was rather a shame, given the commitment and dedication shown by peers over many years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was critical of the amendment, but, as I have tried to point out, there is nothing sinister about wanting to retain the hereditary principle during the transition period. Those peers would be there only to give guidance, advice and expertise during the transition. We do not know what the next stage will be—it could be a wholly elected Chamber, as we have heard many hon. Members suggest this evening, or partially elected and partially nominated. Some peers leaving the upper Chamber may want to stand for election. We shall find out when we reach stage 2.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) said that the amendment was a practical mechanism to allow the peers' expertise to be retained in the upper Chamber. That is absolutely right. We must remember that the powers of the upper Chamber are totally different from those of a second Chamber. Nobody is saying that we want the upper House to compete with the lower House, but we want to ensure that there are proper checks and balances.

I could carry on for some considerable time; I am delighted that, as I speak, hon. Members are flooding into the Committee in the anticipation and hope that I will do so, but I must bitterly disappoint them. I shall not have the opportunity to consider many of the points made about the amendments. Needless to say, I hope that those hon. Members who have come in late and were unable to listen to the debate, which has been good and wide ranging, will at least consider that we have the opportunity to support the hereditary peers who have served the House of Lords and parliamentary democracy well for many years.

We can give those peers their voice, but not the vote that the Government have said, time and time again, caused them to introduce the Bill. The Government said that there was a need for legislation because they were continually outvoted in the House of Lords and democracy was eaten away by the fact that the Conservatives had a permanent majority there. The amendment would remove that majority, but it would not remove the commonsense voice of those hereditary peers who have served Parliament well for many years.

Question put, That the amendment be made: —

The Committee divided: Ayes 131, Noes 332.

Division No. 67] [8.15 pm
AYES
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Cran, James
Amess, David Curry, Rt Hon David
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Day, Stephen
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Duncan, Alan
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Evans, Nigel
Baldry, Tony Faber, David
Bercow, John Fabricant, Michael
Beresford, Sir Paul Fallon, Michael
Blunt, Crispin Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Boswell, Tim Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Fox, Dr Liam
Brady, Graham Fraser, Christopher
Brazier, Julian Gale, Roger
Browning, Mrs Angela Garnier, Edward
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Gibb, Nick
Burns, Simon Gill, Christopher
Butterfill, John Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Chapman, Sir Sydney Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair
(Chipping Barnet) Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Chope, Christopher Gray, James
Clappison, James Green, Damian
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth Greenway, John
(Rushcliffe) Grieve, Dominic
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Gummer, Rt Hon John
Colvin, Michael Hammond, Philip
Cormack, Sir Patrick Hawkins, Nick
Hayes, John Paice, James
Heald, Oliver Paterson, Owen
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Prior, David
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Randall, John
Horam, John Redwood, Rt Hon John
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Hunter, Andrew Ruffley, David
Jack, Rt Hon Michael St Aubyn, Nick
Jenkin, Bernard Sayeed, Jonathan
Johnson Smith, Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Key, Robert Spicer, Sir Michael
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Spring, Richard
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Steen, Anthony
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Streeter, Gary
Lansley, Andrew Swayne, Desmond
Letwin, Oliver Syms, Robert
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Lidington, David Taylor, Sir Teddy
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Townend, John
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Trend, Michael
Loughton, Tim Tyrie, Andrew
Luff, Peter Walter, Robert
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Wardle, Charles
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Waterson, Nigel
McIntosh, Miss Anne Wells, Bowen
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Whitney, Sir Raymond
Maclean, Rt Hon David Whittingdale, John
McLoughlin, Patrick Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Madel, Sir David Wilkinson, John
Malins, Humfrey Willetts, David
Maples, John Wilshire, David
Mates, Michael Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Woodward, Shaun
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Yeo, Tim
May, Mrs Theresa Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Moss, Malcolm
Nicholls, Patrick Tellers for the Ayes:
Ottaway, Richard Mr. John M. Taylor and
Page, Richard Mr. Tim Collins.
NOES
Abbott, Ms Diane Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)
Ainger, Nick Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Burden, Richard
Alexander, Douglas Burgon, Colin
Allan, Richard Burnett, John
Allen, Graham Burstow, Paul
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Butler, Mrs Christine
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Ashton, Joe Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)
Austin, John Campbell-Savours, Dale
Baker, Norman Cann, Jamie
Ballard, Jackie Caplin, Ivor
Banks, Tony Casale, Roger
Barnes, Harry Caton, Martin
Barron, Kevin Cawsey, Ian
Bayley, Hugh Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Beard, Nigel Chaytor, David
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Chidgey, David
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Chisholm, Malcolm
Bennett, Andrew F Clapham, Michael
Benton, Joe Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Bermingham, Gerald Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Berry, Roger Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Betts, Clive Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Blears, Ms Hazel Clwyd, Ann
Blizzard, Bob Coaker, Vernon
Boateng, Paul Coffey, Ms Ann
Borrow, David Coleman, Iain
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Colman, Tony
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Connarty, Michael
Breed, Colin Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Brinton, Mrs Helen Cooper, Yvette
Corbett, Robin Hill, Keith
Cotter, Brian Hoey, Kate
Cousins, Jim Home Robertson, John
Cranston, Ross Hood, Jimmy
Crausby, David Hoon, Geoffrey
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Hopkins, Kelvin
Cummings, John Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Howells, Dr Kim
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Dalyell, Tam Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Darvill, Keith Humble, Mrs Joan
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Hurst, Alan
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Hutton, John
Davidson, Ian Iddon, Dr Brian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Illsley, Eric
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jenkins, Brian
Dawson, Hilton Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Dean, Mrs Janet Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Denham, John Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dismore, Andrew Jones, Ms Jenny
Dobbin, Jim (Wolverh'ton SW)
Donohoe, Brian H Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Doran, Frank Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Drew, David Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Drown, Ms Julia Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Keeble, Ms Sally
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Edwards, Huw Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Efford, Clive Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Ellman, Mrs Louise Kidney, David
Ennis, Jeff Kilfoyle, Peter
Etherington, Bill King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Fatchett, Rt Hon Derek Kingham, Ms Tess
Field, Rt Hon Frank Kirkwood, Archy
Fisher, Mark Kumar, Dr Ashok
Fitzpatrick, Jim Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Fitzsimons, Lorna Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Flynn, Paul Laxton, Bob
Follett, Barbara Levitt, Tom
Foster, Don (Bath) Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Foulkes, George Linton, Martin
Fyfe, Maria Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Gapes, Mike Llwyd, Elfyn
George, Andrew (St Ives) Lock, David
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Love, Andrew
Gerrard, Neil McAllion, John
Gibson, Dr Ian McAvoy, Thomas
Gilroy, Mrs Linda McCafferty, Ms Chris
Godman, Dr Norman A McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Godsiff, Roger McDonagh, Siobhain
Golding, Mrs Llin McDonnell, John
Gordon, Mrs Eileen McGuire, Mrs Anne
Gorrie, Donald McIsaac, Shona
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Mackinlay, Andrew
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Mactaggart, Fiona
Grocott, Bruce McWalter, Tony
Grogan, John Mahon, Mrs Alice
Gunnell, John Mallaber, Judy
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Hancock, Mike Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hanson, David Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Martlew, Eric
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Maxton, John
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hepburn, Stephen Meale, Alan
Heppell, John Merron, Gillian
Hesford, Stephen Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Miller, Andrew
Mitchell, Austin Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Moffatt, Laura Smith, Miss Geraldine
Moonie, Dr Lewis (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Morley, Elliot Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Mudie, George Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Mullin, Chris Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Soley, Clive
Naysmith, Dr Doug Southworth, Ms Helen
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Squire, Ms Rachel
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Starkey, Dr Phyllis
O'Hara, Eddie Steinberg, Gerry
Olner, Bill Stevenson, George
O'Neill, Martin Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Palmer, Dr Nick Stinchcombe, Paul
Pearson, Ian Stott, Roger
Pendry, Tom Stringer, Graham
Perham, Ms Linda Stuart, Ms Gisela
Pickthall, Colin Stunell, Andrew
Pike, Peter L Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Plaskitt, James (Dewsbury)
Pollard, Kerry Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Pond, Chris Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Pope, Greg Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Powell, Sir Raymond Temple-Morris, Peter
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Prescott, Rt Hon John Timms, Stephen
Prosser, Gwyn Tipping, Paddy
Purchase, Ken Touhig, Don
Quinn, Lawrie Trickett, Jon
Radice, Giles Truswell, Paul
Rammell, Bill Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Rapson, Syd Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Raynsford, Nick Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Tyler, Paul
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Vaz, Keith
Rendel, David Vis, Dr Rudi
Robertson, Rt Hon George Walley, Ms Joan
(Hamilton S) Wareing, Robert N
Roche, Mrs Barbara Watts, David
Rooker, Jeff Webb, Steve
Rooney, Terry White, Brian
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Whitehead, Dr Alan
Rowlands, Ted Wicks, Malcolm
Ruane, Chris Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Ruddock, Joan Willis, Phil
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Wills, Michael
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Winnick, David
Salter, Martin Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Sanders, Adrian Wise, Audrey
Savidge, Malcolm Wood, Mike
Sawford, Phil Woolas, Phil
Sedgemore, Brian Worthington, Tony
Shaw, Jonathan Wray, James
Sheerman, Barry Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Shipley, Ms Debra Wyatt, Derek
Short, Rt Hon Clare
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Tellers for the Noes:
Skinner, Dennis Mr. David Jamieson and Mr. Jim Dowd.
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)

Question accordingly negatived.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 6, at end add

`except that—

  1. (a) 75 hereditary peers shall be elected as members of the House of Lords in accordance with subsection (2).
  2. (b) 14 hereditary peers shall be elected as members of the House of Lords in accordance with subsection (3).
  3. (c) the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal shall be members of the House of Lords.

(2) The electors for the purposes of subsection (1)(a) shall be the holders of a hereditary peerage.

(3) The electors for the purposes of subsection (1)(b) shall be the members of the House of Lords.

(4) The Secretary of State may by order make such provision about the conduct of the elections under this section as he considers appropriate.

(5) No order under this section shall be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing it has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 6, at end add `, unless he or she is the first holder of a hereditary peerage.'. amendment No. 25, in page 1, line 6, at end insert `and any transitional arrangement enabling certain hereditary peers to continue their membership of that House shall cease to have effect on the expiry of the period of twelve months from the date of publication of the final report of the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament announced in Command Paper No. 4183'. Amendment No. 16, in clause 4, page 1, line 14, leave out from 'force' to end of line and insert `on a date not less than six months after the passing of this Act nominated by the Secretary of State'. Amendment No. 17, in page 1, line 16, leave out `Session' and insert 'date'.

Amendment No. 18, in page 1, line 16, at end insert— '(2A) Prior to nominating a date for the coming into force of this Act the Secretary of State shall make inquiry and lay a report before both Houses of Parliament, setting out the names of all current hereditary peers who have played a significant role in the workings of the House of Lords during the ten years preceding the passing of this Act; and such hereditary peers shall be entitled to remain members of the House of Lords, pending the enactment of proposals for the wider reform of the House of Lords following the report of the Royal Commission and public consultation concerning its proposals.'. New clause 12—Peerage of Scotland`( ) Nothing in this Act shall be taken to prevent sixteen peers from the peerage of Scotland from voting in the House of Lords.'. Amendment No. 10, in title, line 1, leave out 'End' and insert 'Restrict'.

Mrs. Laing

The amendment would allow 91 hereditary peers to remain as Members of the House of Lords during the so-called interim stage. As hon. Members will be well aware, a compromise to that effect was drawn up by Lord Weatherill, his intention being to secure the continued presence of an independent element in the interim House of Lords.

I do not support the hereditary principle. It is time that Labour Members acknowledged that Conservative Members do not seek to amend the Bill to uphold the hereditary rights of peers. We do not: we seek to amend the Bill to uphold democracy itself. For democracy to work, it is essential that Parliament is strong. It is the role of both Houses of Parliament to hold the Government to account. This Government are not concerned about upholding democracy; they are interested only in their own party political advantage and in increasing the power of the Executive by decreasing the power of Parliament.

While appearing to argue that they are acting in the name of democracy, the Government are in fact doing the opposite. Their argument is nothing less than a disgraceful sham. They want to appear to strengthen the democratic process, but the real effect of their proposals to reform the House of Lords will be considerably to weaken our democracy. Removing all independence from the second Chamber will undermine its validity, which will, in turn, weaken its ability to challenge the Government.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

If there is an upper House composed partly of Labour appointees, partly of Conservative appointees and partly of an independent chunk appointed by either party or by other parties, how will the retention of 91 hereditary peers—who will doubtless be mainly Conservative—weaken the democracy of the place? I should have thought that it would enhance it.

8.30 pm
Mrs. Laing

I am talking not about the democracy of the House of Lords, but about the democratic process as a whole. Parliament defends democracy, and it is supposed to hold the Government to account. To do so, both Houses of Parliament must be able to play their own roles in holding the Executive to account. That is why it is important to consider reform of the House of Lords in the context of constitutional reform in general and how Parliament works.

It is all too often forgotten—the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) seems to have forgotten it—that Parliament acts as one entity. I do not suggest that having a seat by appointment or because of who one's father was is democratic in any way. If the second Chamber—whatever form it takes—is strong, the democratic process itself will work better. If it is weak, the democratic process is weakened with it. That idea lies at the heart of what we are discussing.

The Leader of the House would like to appear as the champion of the old socialist ideal, as a revolutionary attacking wealth and privilege. I should be happy to give way to her if she wishes to tell me that I am wrong. The glee with which she announced the clause abolishing the rights of hereditary peers was almost vindictive.

Mr. Letwin

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most remarkable things said by any Leader of the House at any time was the present Leader's remark that nothing could be worse than the existing Chamber?

Mrs. Laing

I agree, of course, with my hon. Friend. The Leader of the House also remarked that the Bill was simple, and that remark, too, was totally wrong. The Bill is simple only in the sense that it addresses only part of the issue. It is up to the Opposition to address the whole issue.

The Leader of the House approached the Bill with a certain vindictive pleasure. None the less, I do not challenge the Government's right to take away the voting rights of hereditary peers. Nor do I challenge the principle of doing so; in fact, I agree with it. However, I must challenge the Government's lack of honesty about what they are doing. The Government's plan, as stated in the Bill, is to have, for an indefinite period which could be years, decades or even longer, a second Chamber composed entirely of people who have been appointed and who, therefore, will owe allegiance to those who appointed them.

Amendment No. 2 would include in the interim second Chamber a number of hereditary peers elected by the Members of the House of Lords. Such a system would strengthen the interim House because it would keep within it the element of independence while adding to the legitimacy of the hereditary peers who would remain because their tenure would depend on a double condition: first, their birth and, secondly, their election by the Members of their own House. I am not claiming that that would create a perfect situation, but it is a much better solution than that proposed in the Bill.

There are as many differing points of view about the eventual composition of the second Chamber as there are people expressing them; but almost no one is arguing in the long term for a second Chamber that is entirely appointed, so why on earth should we settle for an entirely appointed interim Chamber? The Government could do—indeed, are likely to do and, I would argue, certainly will do—an awful lot of harm to our country while only the interim second Chamber, which we are now discussing, is in place to hold them to account.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Does the hon. Lady accept that it was Lord Cranborne who suggested the idea? Is she distancing herself and the rest of the Tory party from Lord Cranborne's idea?

Mrs. Laing

No, far from it. I believe that my colleagues whose names are attached to the amendment and I have the support of the vast majority of the Tory party in this House, in another place and across the country. However, it remains to be seen what will happen if there is a vote.

My point it that there is no reason why we should settle for an interim Chamber that is entirely appointed, when no one wants a long-term Chamber that is entirely appointed. We may have that interim Chamber for a very long time, during which the new Labour Government could do an awful lot of harm, given that only the interim Chamber, as the other half of this Parliament, would be holding the Government to account. It is our duty to make sure that the composition of the interim House makes that House as strong and effective as possible. That is why I am asking hon. Members to support the amendment.

Of course, if the Government had had their way, we would not even be able to discuss the substance of the amendment.

Mr. Swayne

Shame, shame.

Mrs. Laing

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If the Government were honest in their approach to the Bill, and if they were dealing with the Committee straightforwardly, the substance of amendment No. 2 would appear in the Bill, as it should. I appreciate that not every hon. Member will agree with my arguments in favour of the amendment, and that is fair enough. Of course, Labour Members will have a different point of view, but surely there can be no hon. Member who does not believe that we, as the elected representatives of the people, should be discussing this matter. It is not only the right but the duty of the House of Commons to scrutinise the proposal. Had my hon. Friends and I not tabled the amendment, the matter that we are about to discuss would not have come before a Committee of the whole House. We are not alone in that opinion.

Charter 88, which campaigns for democracy, said in its recent brief: The House of Commons is being asked to scrutinise a Bill which every MP knows will come back from the Lords with a substantial amendment. The Commons will only have limited opportunity to debate the Bill in its final form. That is right, except that the tabling of amendment No. 2 has given us the opportunity to scrutinise this part of the Bill this evening.

It would be preposterous if such an important part of the Bill were never scrutinised in Committee by this elected House of Commons. Every week provides more evidence of the Government's attempt to take power away from the House of Commons, and so from the people who elected us, and to give more power to the Executive. That is the Bill's underlying intention and it explains why the Government do not want to allow us to discuss the matter.

Dr. Fox

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not preposterous, but perverse, for the Government to ask Labour Members to reject the amendment in the Chamber that they claim has democratic legitimacy and to tell their supporters to accept it in another place, which they claim has no democratic legitimacy?

Mrs. Laing

It is preposterous, perverse and a string of other things that you would stop me saying if I tried, Mr. Lord. As my hon. Friend said, it is anti-democratic. I have never seen a more blatant disregard for the House of Commons than that which the Government have shown in relation to this amendment.

Paragraph 11 of chapter 5 of the White Paper "Modernising Parliament—Reforming the House of Lords" states: the Government will act immediately to end the hereditary right to be a member of Parliament … But if the cross-bench peers promote an amendment for the interim retention of 1 in 10 of the hereditary peers, 75 out of the existing 750, plus some hereditary office holders, until the second stage of House of Lords reform has taken place, the Government is minded to accept that amendment". Likewise, introducing the White Paper, the Leader of the House said that if there were such an amendment when the Bill was considered in the House of Lords the Government are minded to support such an amendment".—[Official Report, 20 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 909.] The effect of this amendment is precisely the same, so can I look forward to the Leader of the House signalling the Government's intention of accepting it now?

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

She will not look at you.

Mrs. Laing

As my hon. Friend says, the right hon. Lady will not look at me; she merely listens. She has every opportunity to signal her Government's intention of accepting the amendment now; she said only two weeks ago in this House that they had every intention of doing so. Will she answer my point? No, she will not.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not know why the hon. Lady is wasting the Committee's time with this nonsense.

She knows perfectly well what the Government's position is, because I set it out on Second Reading and I shall set it out again when I reply to this amendment.

Mrs. Laing

How dare the right hon. Lady say that I am wasting my time or anyone else's in discussing this vital amendment? I am not wasting the Committee's time. She is wasting it and treating the House of Commons and Parliament with contempt with that answer. I do not know the Government's position, because she has never made it clear.

Dr. Starkey

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing

I shall give way to the hon. Lady later.

It is no surprise that the Leader of the House refuses to take my point. Having said what she said on 20 January, on 1 February in the debate on Second Reading, in reply to questions on this subject from the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), she said: If an amendment is moved in this place, I shall advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against it".— [Official Report, 1 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 610.] The right hon. Lady said a moment ago that I know the Government's position. How can I possibly know the Government's position? How can anyone in this House, or anywhere else, know the Government's position, given that, on 20 January, she said clearly, and on the record, that the Government have every intention of accepting the amendment, but, on 1 February, she said that she would advise her right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against any such amendment? How can she possibly expect anyone to know the Government's position?

8.45 pm

This is a vital constitutional Bill; it is not some little measure which does not matter very much. The Leader of the House still sits, reading her notes, not paying the least attention, after saying, with utter smugness, that we know the Government's position. We do not. Her position, and the way in which she explains what the Government intend to do, may be clever, but it is not consistent and, frankly, it is not honest. But, then, the Government's whole approach to the Bill has been all about expediency, and nothing whatever to do with principle.

During previous speeches on the matter, the Leader of the House explained the relevance of this apparent duplicity to the working of the Parliament Acts, but the purpose of the Parliament Acts has never been to stop this House debating a fundamental change to our constitution; nor has it been to stop Members of Parliament scrutinising a vital part of a Bill. We have the opportunity to do so now only because my hon. Friends and I brought the matter before the Committee. The Government do not want it to be discussed.

It should not be up to me and my hon. Friends to table an amendment of such fundamental effect to a Bill as important as this. We are but humble Opposition Back Benchers, but we know that we were sent here by the people who elected us to represent their interests and to stand up for the democratic process. This Bill is the most significant piece of constitutional reform for well over a century.

Unusually, I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield—not once, but twice, this sitting. First, he pointed out that, during an earlier debate on constitutional reform, Mr. Asquith said that, if women got the vote, it would undermine parliamentary democracy. The right hon. Gentleman said that Mr. Asquith was wrong, and I am very happy to agree with him. Secondly, he said—I think that I noted his words correctly—that Opposition Members should not try to persuade the Committee that hereditary peers are the final safeguard of democracy. In speaking to this amendment, I certainly do not try to persuade hon. Members of any such thing. It is we, the elected Members of the House of Commons, who have a duty to safeguard democracy.

The Government have acted with almost unbelievable arrogance in trying to prevent us from debating this vital amendment to this extremely important constitutional Bill. I hope that all hon. Members with a conscience, who believe in democracy, will stand up against the Government's arrogance and attempt to pervert the democratic process itself by joining my hon. Friends and me in supporting the amendment.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I shall vote against the amendment tonight and I shall vote against it when it comes back from the House of Lords. I hope that my hon. Friends have the guts to stick by the Whips' first instructions and not reverse their vote on the second instructions.

As we are discussing an hereditary issue, I want to consider the parentage of the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who spoke with great passion. When I heard her speak, I knew even more that Asquith was wrong. An Opposition Back-Bench Member has made a Government statement. The parentage of the Bill is a strange one: Baroness Jay and Lord Cranborne. They are not even married, but they have produced a proposal—with the support of Jack Weatherill, the former Speaker—and we are told to oppose it now and come back to it later. That is not acceptable. The Leader of the House will discover from these debates that the House of Commons is waking up to its responsibilities and is not prepared just to be told to go through the hoops.

I am absolutely opposed to the hon. Lady's amendment. I shall tell the House what will happen if it goes through. The Government are very clever; they have all sorts of people advising them. The amendment will be defeated tonight. It will go to the Lords, and they will have to make up their mind whether to lose everything under the Parliament Act or to go along with the Cranborne compromise. They will probably go along with it. Then, the Government will be faced with a situation absolutely contrary to our manifesto, whereby 91 hereditary peers will turn up—not with constituencies like Epping Forest, but with a couple of dukes, two marquesses and the odd viscount who wanted them to stay. How will those 91 peers be allowed to stay? They will be allowed to stay by the Prime Minister making those unelected, unaccountable hereditary peers into life peers. He is going to bless them retrospectively.

Not only that, the Government have the problem of five hereditary peers of the first generation. There is poor old Willie Whitelaw. I had a letter from the Leader of the House—it cannot be a secret that he will be offered a life peerage. Then there is David Eccles—I do not know whether anyone remembers him, but I sat in the House with him. He is to be made a life peer.

The position is astonishing. If the amendment goes through—I hope that it will not—the first example of modernisation for the millennium will be the Prime Minister making 91 hereditary peers into life peers and then, because they will mainly be Tory, he will make 91 more Labour life peers. In the book of Genesis, the Almighty just made Adam and Eve. This is creation on a scale for which there is no parallel in religious or constitutional history. I urge my hon. Friends to obey the Whip tonight. The Whip is absolutely right. However, when they are told to turn tail later, they must not endorse the scheme that will run counter to the manifesto on which we were elected.

We are not discussing alternatives, but I have a very simple idea. It is old fashioned—old Labour. If someone is in Parliament, he or she should be elected. I do not want to say anything controversial, as I might get into trouble, but I was brought up to believe that democracy meant that we elected people and could get rid of them. I am not going along with the Weatherill amendment, and I am not going along with the amendment tonight, but that is for another debate. Tonight we certainly ought not to accept what the hon. Lady put forward with such passion, even though her arguments had a certain charm and compulsion about them, which I shall long remember.

Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) on the way in which she moved the amendment. Her arguments were splendid, and the spirit and passion with which she advanced them were entirely commendable.

I shall make two points in support of what my hon. Friend said, but first I shall make my position clear. I do not defend the hereditary principle either, and never have done. The real problem, as we are discovering and as has been discovered in the past, is what to put in its place.

My first point concerns the attitude of the Government and the Leader of the House. I find her position astonishing, hypocritical and intolerable. I should think that many Labour Back Benchers feel the same. The White Paper is full of phrases about the primacy and supremacy of this Chamber, yet what are the Government proposing to do? They will leave it to the other Chamber to carry through something which, in the same White Paper, they say they would be minded to accept. Frankly, that is treating this House with contempt.

If it were not for my hon. Friends who tabled the amendment, we would not even have debated such a vital issue in the Chamber before the Bill went to the House of Lords. No doubt, when it came back with an amendment that the Government were prepared to accept, we would have had a very limited debate. It is much, much better that it is debated here in the Chamber, where it should be debated.

I shall be interested to hear what the Labour Back Benchers who are present will say in defence of the principle. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is entirely consistent in his arguments. He will vote against any such amendment both times. However, the Government have indicated that they are in favour of the amendment, but will accept it only if it is first put into the Bill in another place. We all know why that is so. It is because the Leader of the House is trying bully-girl tactics, if I may say so, to get the Bill through the other place by allowing the amendment as a concession. That is an astonishing way to treat Labour Back Benchers. They are forced through the Lobby tonight to vote against the amendment but, in the other place, which is regarded as secondary from their point of view in terms of Parliament, the Government will turn round and accept the amendment when it is proposed.

I do not understand why the Leader of the House cannot say from the Dispatch Box, "We shall accept the amendment." The Government may have the odd technical objection to it, but that is not the point. The point is that the spirit and principle of the amendment should be accepted tonight. I cannot understand any reason for not accepting the amendment other than that the right hon. Lady wants to apply a certain amount of pressure on the other place to take the Bill through quickly. That is simply intolerable.

Mr. Winnick

Is it not interesting that the amendment comes from the Opposition Back Benches and not from the Opposition Front Bench? We know about the row that resulted in Lord Cranborne being sacked. I am entirely opposed to a totally elected second Chamber—we shall come to that argument in due course—but in this instance we are dealing with an Opposition Back-Bench amendment.

Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench will make the Opposition's position on the amendment perfectly clear. However, I am delighted that the amendment was proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, because it could not have been better put. I think that all her arguments were superbly well advanced.

I seriously think that the Leader of the House is in an astonishing position and one that she will come to regret. The right hon. Lady has treated the Chamber with contempt.

My other point was simply—

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I know that he is making a series of party points, and that is perfectly legitimate. We do that in the House. However, he has thrown about, with great casualness, accusations of my despising the House and things of that sort. He is surely aware that the proposal put forward by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) is one that she is advancing and one which the House can debate. It is a proposal that may be put in another place by Cross-Bench peers. It is not the Government's proposal, so why should the Government put it forward?

Mr. MacGregor

I am not making party points. I am making a point about the House of Commons, and I shall explain why. The right hon. Lady has made it clear in the White Paper that if such an amendment comes forward in another place the Government will be disposed to accept it. The amendment is before us this evening, so why is she not disposed to accept it—yet if Cross-Bench peers in another place put it forward, she will? It is not that the proposal has changed in any way. It has not. It is a proposal that is identical to the one that we shall expect to come from the other place. The right hon. Lady knows that. She knows also that she will not accept the amendment when it is proposed in the House of Commons, but will accept it when it comes from another place—which is apparently, in the Government's view, secondary in importance to the House of Commons.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

The right hon. Gentleman has told us that it is intolerable, astonishing and hypocritical to reject the Weatherill proposal in the House of Commons but to accept it in the House of Lords. I take it that he is describing his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on the day when he sacked Lord Cranborne.

Mr. MacGregor

I am describing precisely the Government's position on this issue. I would expect all of my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the amendment this evening. I am describing the Government's position, and that is why I find the right hon. Lady's position astonishing. It is astonishing for her to ask Labour Back-Bench Members to vote against the proposal when it is put forward in the House of Commons, but to accept it if it comes from another place.

It is not only that—and this is the answer to the right hon. Lady. She has signalled in advance what she would do in the other place. There is no question of the arguments being different or of her changing her mind. The arguments will be acceptable only if they come from the other place and not from the House of Commons.

Mr. Dalyell

The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that, from our point of view, when we were on the Opposition Benches he was one of the most satisfactory and kind Leaders of the House with whom we ever had to deal. I ask him, therefore, what would he do if he were Leader of the House at this point. I am just curious to know.

Mr. MacGregor

I think that it must be fairly obvious what I would do. I would certainly not produce a White Paper in which I had more or less made it clear that I was minded to accept an amendment, but only if it came from the other place, and then stand at the Dispatch Box refusing to accept such an amendment because it had been tabled in this House. I simply cannot imagine myself ever being in that position, which is why I feel so strongly that the Leader of the House is in a very odd position indeed.

Mr. Letwinr

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an even more extraordinary fact is that the Government appear to think that the proposal would be good for the constitution if their lordships had behaved themselves, but is bad for the constitution if their lordships are not behaving themselves?

Mr. MacGregor

That is why I said that the position of the Leader of the House is hypocritical. It has nothing to do with the merits of the argument, but is purely to do with what I described as bully-girl tactics applied to the other place. That is the reason for her holding such a position tonight: it has nothing to do with the merits or the principle, or the acceptance or otherwise, of the amendment, but is simply to do with tactics. That is clearly bare faced.

Mr. Savidge

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

In a moment. I should have thanked the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) very much for his kind remarks about my tenure in the post that we are discussing.

Mr. Savidge

Might the right hon. Gentleman accept the possibility that, rather than there being bully-boy tactics from this House, we are resisting the possibility of bully-boy tactics in the other House?

Mr. MacGregor

The Government must be in a weak position if they think that they would not be able to get the Bill through the other House unless they applied pure bully-boy tactics.

My second point relates to the substance of the proposal. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, who made it clear that many different views and solutions had been suggested during consideration of the alternatives for reform of the House of Lords. That was also made clear in the debate on Second Reading, which I was able to attend only spasmodically.

My hon. Friend was also right to say that the one solution that no one seemed to favour was an entirely appointed second Chamber, which is what we would have if the amendment were not passed. Having been in the same position as the Leader of the House, and having had to get legislation through the House, my fear is similar to many others that have been expressed: this solution will not be short-term and interim, but it will last for some considerable time.

I disagree with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield on that point. If the situation is not purely interim but longer term—I will come on to that point in a moment—it will not be satisfactory to have a solution in which patronage is concentrated so heavily in the hands of the Prime Minister, or even with the appointments commissioner. We would have no further independent element, so the proposal makes some sense if we are to have an interim House of Lords for some considerable time.

I use the words "some considerable time" because there have been considerable delays with a number of the Government's proposals or in areas on which they want to move. I will not stray out of order, Mr. Lord, because I am giving an example of why the amendment is necessary. The Neill committee, of which I am a member, has introduced proposals on party political funding which have widespread support in the House and which it ought to be possible to take through fairly quickly. We will produce a draft Bill and proposals may be introduced next year.

One could give many other examples of delays, but the reasons for delays with the second Bill, which will deal with full reform of the House of Lords, are likely to be much more formidable. There must be some doubt whether the royal commission can meet the deadline of the end of this year, because many different proposals will have to be argued through.

The Joint Committee of both Houses could take up a considerable amount of time. If the general election is to be brought forward to a year before the end of the full five-year term, as is hinted in some of the newspapers, it is unlikely that we will be able to deal with the second, highly controversial Bill—about which there will be much more argument in this Chamber and in the other Chamber—because there will be many different views about parts of it. It seems very likely that we shall not have the second stage by the end of this Parliament. There is a good reason of substance for supporting the amendment because it would mean that, in the interim—which could be some years—we would have a much more satisfactory second Chamber than we would under the Government's proposals.

I should have thought that the Leader of the House would accept those arguments. For those two reasons, I strongly support the amendment.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

It is difficult to take entirely seriously some of the voices coming from the Opposition Benches, which accuse the Government of contempt and arrogance. It is difficult to understand how the Government could have proceeded in a more conciliatory and bipartisan way. They have relinquished patronage powers to the Appointments Commission; they have said that they will entertain a Cross-Bench proposal to retain a large number of hereditary peers chosen for the transitional duration; and they have established a royal commission chaired by a peer belonging to the Opposition. For a Government who have done all that to be accused of arrogance and contempt is extraordinary.

Mr. Tyrie

Does the hon. Gentleman think that it was ever part of the Labour Government's original plan to have a royal commission? Is there anything conciliatory about deciding to go ahead with such a fundamental reform with no prior all-party consultation, as has always taken place in the past when fundamental reform of the Lords has been considered?

Dr. Wright

The hon. Gentleman gets into territory that he would be well advised not to get into. When the facts of the case are eventually written, he will see that, had the Government been able to secure agreement from the Opposition, they were minded to proceed on a consensual basis. As is well known, there were conversations afoot in the other place designed to bring that about. Unfortunately—I am afraid that the problem lay more in the Commons than with the Opposition in the end—it proved impossible to do that. We could have been considering a joint proposal on an agreed basis, but the Opposition decided to proceed differently, and that is a source of great regret.

If anything is true of this measure, after all this time and all its history, it is that we should have been able to bring about reform of the second Chamber on a reasonably agreed basis. We can argue about all sorts of things, and many complex details can be considered but, in view of everything that we know about the failure of past reforms, to be unable to proceed in a sensible, bipartisan way in the last year of this century is a most extraordinary position to be in. It is a source of great regret that those discussions did not bear fruit.

Had the Government taken what someone earlier called the "big bang approach" and said, "This is what we have decided to do: sweep away the hereditaries and install a new second Chamber," the charges of contempt and arrogance would have had some substance. However, given that they are proceeding in an immensely bipartisan way—to many of my colleagues it is over-generous—it is extraordinary to be confronted with those charges.

Mr. Gale

If the hon. Gentleman consults the Official Report—he is not using notes—he will discover that a few moments ago he said that the Government had generously agreed to accept a Cross-Bench amendment. That amendment is precisely what we are discussing now. Will the hon. Gentleman vote for it tonight or will he do as his Whips want and vote against it? If so, he will be as two-faced as the rest of his colleagues. Labour Members will then wait for the amendment to come back to this House and vote for it. This is the amendment which he says the Government have graciously accepted.

Dr. Wright

Having paid close attention to the conversations that have taken place over the past few months, I concluded that the Conservative Opposition in the House of Commons had disqualified themselves from making any constructive contribution to the debate, and that, if we were to secure a constructive contribution—albeit at a late stage—from Cross-Bench peers, we ought to consider that very carefully. That is what the Government have said they will do.

Mr. Tyrie

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright

I should like to make some progress, but I will give way once more.

Mr. Tyrie

Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that all-party consultation should not involve deals made below stairs or in smoke-filled rooms? At the beginning of a Parliament, the Government should announce that they want to act on the basis of all-party consultation. They should announce a public debate, a public inquiry and a royal commission—if they want one—that will also be public. That is what has always happened in the past. It happened in 1918, in 1948 and in 1968. Why did the Government not do the same on this occasion?

Dr. Wright

The hon. Gentleman is most ill-advised to keep reminding us of the history. Less than two years ago, his party fought a general election defending the rights of hereditary peers and opposing reform of the second Chamber. The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), alluding quite properly to the issue of party funding, failed to mention that, when in government, his party refused to refer the whole issue of party funding to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. There is a history to all this, and I am afraid that, when it comes to be written, the Conservative party in the House of Commons will not come out of it very well.

We know that there is to be a transitional period. Whichever way we play it, the transitional House of Lords is a complex beast. I once spent a long time talking to Marxists, who used to talk constantly about the "problems of the transition"; but the "problems of the transition" are nothing in comparison with the problems of moving from the existing House of Lords to a future House. It is likely to be a protracted and messy business. Even when we have removed the hereditary peers, we shall have about 500 life peers.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright

I must get on.

We are now talking about adding nearly 100 more hereditary peers, to be elected by their own peers. We are talking about a Chamber consisting of 600 Members in the transitional period. Anyone looking at a mature, fully formed new House of Lords will know that it will contain only about 300 Members. We shall therefore experience considerable problems in moving from an interim reformed House to a fully fledged new House.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright

I will give way once more.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Does the hon. Gentleman—who is a constitutional expert—agree with a Weatherill-type amendment to allow a certain number of hereditary peers to continue to serve in the transitional Parliament? Yes or no?

Dr. Wright

I shall be minded to support such an amendment when it comes here from the other place.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright

There is no need to become too agitated. I shall make a few more points, and then sit down.

The Government have said that they are minded to accept such an amendment if it comes from the other place. They do not have to do that, and many of my hon. Friends would prefer that they did not. They would like a clean sweep: they would like the job to be done in one go. I think that this is an act of extraordinary generosity—

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright

Of course.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am extremely grateful.

Is this a good idea, or is it not? If it is a good idea, why does the hon. Gentleman not support it now? If it is a bad idea, why does he not remain resolutely opposed to it, whatever its source? Can he not give a coherent answer to a simple question?

Dr. Wright

I have already explained—I am sorry if I must embarrass the hon. Gentleman by explaining again—why I think that the Conservative Opposition have disqualified themselves from making a constructive contribution to the argument. History will testify to that.

I did not start out by believing that I wanted a transitional stage involving the retention of a certain number of hereditary peers; but, if the real problems of the transition would be eased by our allowing a certain number of hereditary peers to continue for a period, and if that will allow this measure to proceed in a constructive and bipartisan way, I would support it. Moreover, I would urge the hon. Gentleman to follow the same course.

9.15 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that one of the Government's clear strategies is to ensure that we prevent 668 people, nearly all of whom never attend the House of Lords, from being able to legislate for the rest of the country? If, as a result of the Government's moves, we achieve that in quick time—within a year—that is an important part of the process that we are undergoing.

Dr. Wright

I agree. As the Opposition provoke me a little, I say that we have to remind ourselves that we are still dealing with an outrage. We are dealing not with an anachronism, or a bit of tidying up in which we have to engage, but a constitutional and democratic outrage.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright

I will not give way again.

I do not want to detain the Committee with things that I did not want to explore, but the fact is that we are dealing with hereditary peers who, as we heard—

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright

I just said that I was not going to give way.

Never did we have a better exposition of what has sometimes been called the good chaps theory of government than in the speech of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). Those people are good chaps and chapesses, but the point is that they are contaminated by their ancestry and will never escape from that contamination, good chaps though they might be. I call in aid only the first study on the purchase of peerages. It turned on correspondence between the Conservative leader of the time, Lord Salisbury, and the then Conservative Chief Whip, Akers-Douglas. A footnote in that little study says simply: At the request of the Marquess of Salisbury I have suppressed the details of a number of transactions in which political services were bartered for honours, lest their revelation should prove offensive to the surviving children of those concerned. When we have such discussions, we think that we are engaged in just a little tidying up, but we are not. What is extraordinary is that we are having this discussion not in the first year of the century, but in the last, and that we still hear that type of arguments expressed by Conservative Members about why we should not do what any democratic society knows has to be done and should have been done. The question is only whether we can do it in a reasonably civilised, consensual and bipartisan way. That is the Government's approach.

Without digressing, let me say that there are legitimate arguments about the shape of a reformed Chamber. I say to those who simply advance their nostrums as we go through the debate: reflect on the fact that we now have a royal commission and a chance to test some of those arguments.

Some people say, "The second Chamber has to be elected." We have to avoid two evils. One is to create a rival for the House of Commons, but the other to is create a clone of the House of Commons. If, through election and a whipped, rigid party-list system, we created a second Chamber on good democratic principles that was simply a clone of the House of Commons, it would be proper to ask whether we had strengthened the checks and balances in our political system or weakened them.

We are at a moment when we are required to have some serious constitutional imagination. Let us put our nostrums to one side. Let us have a year or more of serious investigation, debate and argument, but, meanwhile, ensure that we establish a transitional House that can function and have a certain amount of legitimacy and confidence. The only proviso that I add—it is the point of the amendment that stands in my name—is that we must not have a transitional House that becomes permanent. We must not invent a system in which a certain number of hereditary peers not only stay for a time—which is necessary to ease the transition—but subsequently become permanent. We have to build the Bill around that constraining framework.

It is quite right—although it is a rather unusual procedure—for the Government to ask us to approve a Bill to which an amendment will be tabled in the other place that the Government will be minded to support. We know that that will happen.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that very point?

Dr. Wright

No; I am almost finished.

It is quite proper that the House, when it sends the Bill to another place, should want to say: "We want to build a framework around the Bill, to ensure that the generous transitional provisions that we are making will not become permanent ones." That would be the honest thing to do. It is what the House should do. I hope that it is what we do.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), in moving amendment No. 2, was in a sense usurping the position of official Opposition Front Benchers. I make no complaint about that, for she moved, her amendment with some passion which commended itself to the Committee. However, it might be thought that an amendment of such importance—if it is to be treated with great seriousness, as it should be—should have been moved by an official Opposition Front Bencher. After the pleas that we have heard today from Conservative Back Benchers for consensus in reform and for cross-party agreement, it would have been appropriate to have had in the Chamber for this debate the Leader of the Opposition.

Let us be quite clear about it: the obstacle to arriving at consensual reform of the upper House has been the Leader of the Opposition and his predecessors as leader of the Conservative party. The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) knows perfectly well that he served in a Government who set their face rigorously against any reform of the upper House. He knows perfectly well also that the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) had no intention at any time in his premiership of even entering into serious discussions on the matter.

I regard it as the utmost hypocrisy for Conservative Members to suggest that, either before or since the general election, there was ever the remotest chance of getting any agreement from the Conservative party on reform of the upper House. Indeed, on the very day that it became public knowledge that Lord Cranborne had entered into some consultation with the Prime Minister and his colleagues, it was clear that the Leader of the Opposition was completely at odds with his party in the upper House and was seeking to stir up those in another place into outright opposition to the Government's proclaimed intentions for reform of the second Chamber.

Sir Patrick Cormack

That is a travesty of what happened. The Leader of the Opposition said only that he would not be party to a deal that would in any way inhibit proper examination and scrutiny of the Bill. We have always made it quite plain that amendment No. 2 would make a very bad Bill marginally better. For that reason, we shall be happy to support it in the Lobby. However, it was not part of a behind-the-stairs deal. The Leader of the Opposition made that plain, and I am happy to make it plain again now.

Mr. Maclennan

I am absolutely clear about what happened on that occasion. It was quite clear that the Leader of the Opposition was making a very unsuccessful attempt to stir up his colleagues in another place, to treat this measure as a battering ram against the Government's overall programme of constitutional reform and to tie up the upper House in dealing not only with this Bill, but with the rest of its business, thereby stopping proper government and legislation.

Mrs. Dunwoody

The right hon. Gentleman seems to be enunciating an interesting theory. Is he saying that Members of the House of Commons should not, in common with their colleagues in another place—and irrespective of party—have the right to delay the passage of legislation?

Mr. Maclennan

No. The power of delay is a well-understood tool of opposition. However, one cannot pretend to be engaged in the proper scrutiny of legislation while making it plain to colleagues in another place that one is intent on destroying the business of the Government. In particular, one cannot pretend to be embarked on an engagement of consensual politics to reform the constitution. No consent was sought, and none would have been given.

Mr. Tyrie

It would be interesting if the Liberal Democrats, for once, could behave according to their principles. They have a bevy of policy documents that show that they have been in favour of an elected second Chamber for decades. However, they are now acting as if they are part of the Government Front Bench and attacking the Conservative Opposition, who are trying to have a serious discussion of stage 2.

Mr. Maclennan

Unlike the Conservative party in opposition, we engaged in dialogue with the Labour party about the reform of the constitution because we took the view that there should be cross-party agreement. Any suggestion that we made on that subject to members of the Conservative party was treated with total contempt. They were not interested in doing business, and they wanted to continue their partisan view that everything in the constitutional garden was as it should be and should be left alone.

The Liberal Democrats want to get rid of the hereditary peers as part of a move towards a proper, legitimate and democratic second House which exercises real powers over the Executive. The Bill is an important step in that direction. The amendment seeks to pick up on a deal that may be struck in another place, and seeks to embarrass members of the Government by putting them through the hoop of voting against it tonight and perhaps voting for it later. It is a perfectly transparent exercise in party politics and has nothing to do with high-minded principles about consent. It is a squalid little partisan deal.

Mr. Letwin

The right hon. Gentleman is known to take the constitution seriously and has thought about it a lot. Is he genuinely advancing to the Committee the proposition that it is appropriate for the Government to make a major change to the constitution, in terms of the interim House, depending on their lordships' compliance with the Government's programme?

Mr. Maclennan

It is entirely open to this Chamber to participate in the debate on the amendment at a later stage if, in the upper House, it becomes apparent that it is an acceptable proposition that will be agreed consensually as a step on the way to full reform of the upper House. That remains to be seen. Nothing has come from the other place yet—nor could it have done, as the matter has not been debated—that gives us any certainty that the so-called deal will stick. It apparently enjoyed the support of Lord Cranborne and a number of his friends. Evidently, it did not enjoy the support of the Leader of the Opposition, who promptly sacked Lord Cranborne for having agreed to the deal.

It must be said that, whether Lord Cranborne's view of these matters or the view of the Leader of the Opposition, as it may now be, prevails in the upper House is something about which we can only speculate. We have no idea of the Leader of the Opposition's view of the merits of the deal, and that is why I say that the amendment should have been moved from the Opposition Front Bench. We would then have known where he stood. He has been running around like a frightened rabbit throughout the debate. Far from giving the country a lead, he has disappeared to the United States to do business with American Republicans.

9.30 pm
Mrs. Laing

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his kind remarks earlier. Is it not for the Prime Minister to give a lead to the country? If the amendment is going to be accepted and become Government policy, should not the amendment have been tabled by the Government and not by me, as an Opposition Back Bencher?

Mr. Maclennan

It could not have been made clearer that this is not the Government's policy. The matter has been set out in transparent language in the White Paper and the Leader of the House has spelt the position out. The proposal cannot become law without being debated on the Floor of the House. If an amendment is carried in another place, it will come back here for our consideration. Any talk of this Chamber being bypassed is wide of the mark.

As for prejudging what may be decided in another place, I do not know what the attitude will be. It is clear from the White Paper that the Government do not regard the amendment as the best policy. It is an incremental change that would remove approximately nine tenths of the hereditaries. The Government regard it as a step towards the fulfilment of their manifesto commitment to remove all the hereditary peers. It is not a satisfactory step and I should not dream of defending it as such. It is a most unfortunate step back from the manifesto commitment and I hope that it may not commend itself in another place as the way ahead, because it will create many anomalies. Perhaps the best advantage of the amendment for those of us who want a truly legitimate upper House is that the situation will be so patently anomalous that the process of bringing forward stage 2 will be accelerated.

Stage 2 is in the Government's mind. That is not hidden from the public; it is set out in the White Paper. They have made it plain that that is why they have asked the royal commission to report early—by the end of this year. They want to bring the measures for the reform of the upper House before the country before the next election.

Mr. Grieve

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is familiar with the Minister's comments on Second Reading that the Government only hoped that proposals might be before this Chamber by the next general election.

Mr. Maclennan

It is not possible at this stage to do more than offer a hope. The Government have generously put the possible shape of the second phase of the reformed House into the hands of a Conservative former Minister, as chairman of the royal commission. I have the greatest respect for him and I am sure that he will do his best, but we cannot do more than hope that his best will be good enough, that the rest of the commission will accept it or that it will produce a consensus around which this Chamber will be prepared to unite.

Those are matters for the future. The amendment has been tabled not to bridge a gulf or to open new lines of communication between the two sides, but to dig deeper trenches. That is an inappropriate way to approach the reform of the upper House. We need to look for common ground and build on it. The Government have signalled that by their willingness to listen to Lord Cranborne's proposal. There is nothing cynical about that approach. It is straightforward and open. For that reason, it should be welcomed.

Dr. Starkey

As I have listened to this debate, I have come to the view that Conservative Members are increasingly losing their grip on reality. We reached the positive nadir—it might be the acme—when the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) declared with passion that it was absolutely vital for our constitution that the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal shall be members of the House of Lords", as the amendment says. If that is not losing grip on the reality outside Parliament, I do not know what is.

Mrs. Laing

Let me correct the impression that the hon. Lady has just given. Of course I did not say that that was vital. I said that it was vital that we should have a chance to discuss the amendment. I know what is in the amendment, and it does not help the argument if she and the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) try to spin it differently from what it actually says.

Dr. Starkey

I have quoted from the amendment, and it is for others to take a view. I want to take the charitable view—that the amendment has some logic behind it and was not tabled simply to play party games. I want to try to dissect that logic.

Through days of listening to Conservative Members on Second Reading and now in Committee, I understand that their argument is that the value of the House of Lords as a revising Chamber resides in its independence and in its representativeness. The latter concept is difficult to sustain, but I will take it as read. The next step of logic is that the hereditary peers are the key contributors to that independence and that representativeness, so the proposed transitional Chamber would be worse than the current Chamber.

Conservative Members argue either that we should stick with the House of Lords as it is or, as in the amendment, that we should have a halfway House between the present arrangements and the transitional Chamber that retains a considerable number, but not all, of those independent and representative hereditary peers. That, as I have divined it, is the logic behind the amendment.

Mr. Swayne

As the hon. Lady describes the amendment, it is clearly remiss in a number of respects and is not very persuasive. Can she tell me, then, whether she will vote for it tonight and whether she will vote for it when it comes back from the Lords?

Dr. Starkey

Let me put the hon. Gentleman out of his misery. I will not vote for it tonight, because I want the House of Lords to be replaced in the first instance by a transitional Chamber, and I hope that, if the Members of the House of Lords are as independent as we have repeatedly been assured by Conservative Members, they will also see the value of the Government's arguments and back us up by going for a transitional Chamber.

If, however, the peers insist on protecting their interests and table another amendment, I and other hon. Members will have to take a pragmatic decision. Frankly, although I would like to go the whole hog, I would prefer, if the choice is between going part way or not at all, to move towards the reform of the House of Lords and go part way. I am astonished that Conservative Members find that such a difficult line to follow, especially when most people outside the Committee would regard it as an intensely sensible and pragmatic way forward.

As I have been so kind as to set out the logic behind the amendment, I will now try to demolish it. The independence argument is clearly ridiculous. The hon. Member for Epping Forest tried on Second Reading to extend the notion even further by saying that peers were made all the more independent by the fact that they were free to change their party allegiance. I have news for the hon. Lady—all Members of this Chamber have the freedom to change their party allegiance. Of course, at the next general election, they would not be selected by the party that originally selected them, but as the hon. Lady knows, at least one Member of this place was elected as a member of one party and is now, very sensibly, sitting as a member of another party. Is he independent or is he now a member of the parliamentary Labour party?

Mrs. Laing

Does the hon. Lady not appreciate the big difference between Members of the House of Lords, who have never given a promise to people who elected them about which party they represent, and Members of the Commons, who go before the electorate as representatives and upholders of the principles of one party or another, and then cross the Floor? There is a difference in duty and in honesty.

Dr. Starkey

Precisely—there is a difference in duty. The hon. Lady has just made my point for me.

The other point about hereditary peers that is always rehearsed is that huge numbers of them are independent, and Conservative peers are somehow included among them. However, most people outside Parliament would understand only Cross-Bench peers to be independent. I concede that there are a considerable number of Cross-Bench peers in the present House of Lords, but the hon. Member for Epping Forest knows perfectly well that at least 23 per cent. of Members of the transitional House will be Cross Benchers. If additional appointments are made, that percentage will be a minimum, not a maximum. Those Cross Benchers will be in the hands of the Appointments Commission, rather than remaining in the hands of the Prime Minister. The hon. Lady's argument that the transitional House will be less independent than the current House is, therefore, entirely fallacious.

The Conservatives appear to be rather recent converts to the notion of preserving the independence of the House of Lords because, even though the previous two Conservative Governments had a considerable majority in the Lords, they obviously did not feel that it was big enough, so they created more Conservative peers than they created Liberal or Labour peers. I shall take no lessons from the hon. Member for Epping Forest and her colleagues about their commitment to independence.

The second part of the Conservatives' logical argument is that the hereditary peers are more representative than other Members of the House of Lords and that removing them would reduce the representative nature of that House. Those arguments have been rehearsed endlessly in the debate, and I shall not repeat the figures, but simply point out that hereditary peers are extraordinarily unrepresentative. They are the most unrepresentative part of the House of Lords. Removing the huge superfluity of people representing the Tory party and land management and farming interests, ipso facto, makes the transitional House more representative. That is not to mention, of course, the hereditary peers' rather large gender imbalance.

I do not want to prolong the debate because it is getting late. I simply reiterate that moving from the House of Lords to a transitional Chamber is an absolutely crucial first step in reforming the Lords and setting up a more democratic structure. It is particularly important that hereditary peers have no part in shaping the final House of Lords, which is why they need to be removed from the transitional Chamber.

Mr. Gale

Earlier, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) said—I paraphrase only slightly—that the debate was about getting rid of 600 deadbeats from the other House. The implication was clearly that the deadbeats are the hereditary peers. A significant number of Members of the other House are relatively inactive for many reasons: some do not live in this country and some are suffering from extreme old age. Some of the elderly Members of the other House are very active, but some are not and most of those are not hereditary peers but life peers. A significant number of hereditary peers play an extremely active role in the life and work of the House of the Lords.

When those men and women are removed from their tasks—and it will be a matter of when, as this measure will be steamrollered through—there will not be enough peers left to do the job and scrutinise the legislation.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Tell them to turn up then.

Mr. Gale

The hon. Gentleman makes a comment from a sedentary position, but his party has complained bitterly that the Government have been defeated on a number of occasions by the upper House. If he looks at the voting record in the upper House, he will find that it is the Labour life peers who have not turned up to vote and who have let his party down. I do not think that he is on very strong ground.

9.45 pm
Mr. Prentice

The Sunday newspapers tell us that the hon. Gentleman's former colleague John Moore, who at one time was a Conservative Secretary of State for Transport, was ennobled in 1992 and has yet to make his maiden speech. How does the hon. Gentleman justify that?

Mr. Gale

The point that the hon. Gentleman has missed is that it is Labour Back Benchers in the other place who have failed to turn up. That is why the Government have been defeated so often in the House of Lords.

Mrs. Beckett

I think that the hon. Gentleman must know—or should know—that he is being extremely unfair, and I shall tell him why. First, even if 100 per cent. of our Members in the House of Lords arrive, the Conservative party need only get out a much smaller percentage of its Members there to defeat us.

Secondly, and most significantly, it is a sad fact that quite a high percentage of our life peers in the House of Lords are in the later stages of their lives, and many are quite frail. We continue to have to try to bring them in, although they are not able to attend as often as they would wish. The reason for that situation is that a succession of Conservative Prime Ministers—especially Lady Thatcher and the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) —absolutely refused to allow the creation of younger Labour life peers to replace those who died. So the hon. Gentleman is making a very unfair point at the expense of people who show great devotion to the House of Lords.

Mr. Gale

The right hon. Lady knows perfectly well that, according to the simple mathematics of the House of Lords, there are enough able Labour life peers to have carried the Government's business on every occasion. However, she has helped me to make my point, which is that it is not the hereditary peers who do not attend the upper House, but the elderly life peers.

I yield to no one in my respect for some of those elderly people. I worked long and hard over a number of years with one gentleman, the late Lord Houghton of Sowerby, a member of the right hon. Lady's party. He made a major contribution to the upper House until late into his 90s, when he was still introducing legislation, so I will take no lessons from the right hon. Lady on that matter. However, the sums make it clear that, had Labour life peers turned up to vote, they could have carried the Government's business—yet they failed to do so.

Once the hereditary peers are abolished, the work of the upper House during the interim period—that is, for the five, 10, 15, 20 or 50 years that it is in place—will have to be done by people appointed. They will either be Tony's cronies, or they will be created along the lines suggested by Lord Weatherill and set out in the amendment.

What we are discussing tonight is how we are to get from where we are now—which works—to an interim arrangement, which must also work. We are also discussing who will do the job in the interim period. When the time comes to vote on the amendment—later tonight, or tomorrow—I shall support it, not because it is particularly good, but because, in the words that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) used earlier, it makes a bad Bill just a little less bad. On Third Reading, I shall oppose the whole sorry charade.

I asked the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) how he was going to vote. Like every other honourable Labour Member, he equivocated, because he knows that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is right. The Bill is a charade and a farce, but the Government Whips will cow their sheep into the No Lobby to vote against this amendment. The Bill will then go to, and be passed by, the other place; when it comes back here, Labour Members will bleat their way through the Aye Lobby. That is what will happen. It is two-faced, and it is dishonourable. The tactic is fundamentally dishonest.

On amendment No. 18, I want to know who will be put in to fill the gaps that we all agree will have to be filled in the interim upper House. Who will be allowed to speak? Labour Members have voted that working hereditary peers may not even speak, never mind vote.

I intervened earlier on an excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), and I referred to Baroness Wharton, the deputy chairman of the all-party animal welfare group and an extremely hard-working Cross-Bench peer. Some Labour Members are members of that all-party group, and they know as well as I do of the work that Baroness Wharton has done in recent years. She worked throughout the summer recess, when others were away, to design a puppy farming Bill that many Labour Members would wish to see pass through the House and through the other place. She worked long and hard, too, to take Lord Houghton's Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997 through the House of Lords before it came to the House of Commons.

Baroness Wharton has to earn a living, yet she finds the time to work on legislation in Parliament as a Cross-Bench peer. She will no longer be allowed to speak because Labour Members voted, about two hours ago, to say that she cannot.

Angela Smith

The hon. Gentleman challenged me on this point earlier, and it is a shame that he was not here for the beginning of the debate when he would have heard points made by some of my hon. Friends. He has spoken of the work that Baroness Wharton has done, and my hon. Friends and I—I am vice-chair of the animal welfare group—have made it clear that the Bill to remove the voting rights of hereditary peers is no slur on the character of any work undertaken by hereditary peers. Rather, it is about the legitimacy of those peers to undertake work at all.

Mr. Gale

It is true that I was not here for the early part of the debate because I was engaged in other parliamentary business. However, one of the advantages of televising the Chamber is that we are able to hear speeches in our rooms. I therefore heard much of what was said earlier, and I waited to see how the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) would vote. Would she allow Baroness Wharton to carry on speaking? She voted no. [Interruption.]

I know that it is uncomfortable to hear about real people and the real work that they do in the real House of Lords. However, let me name a couple more real people. The third Viscount Chelmsford, for example, is a hereditary peer, and the director of the European Informatics Market. He plays an important role in the upper House in pressing the cause for the development of information technology, both in and out of Parliament.

The second Baron Renwick is a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. He is also secretary of the Parliamentary Information Technology committee, and he speaks for the British Dyslexia Association. He, too, is a hereditary peer.

I am glad to see that the Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department—the Lord Chancellor's spokesman on earth—has come to the Committee. I wanted to say something to him earlier, and now I have the chance. The Minister knows those two hereditary peers very well. In a former incarnation, he took a particular interest in information technology, and he knows—if no one else on the Labour Benches does—just how great was the role played by those two working hereditary peers in the parliamentary development of information technology. Yet the Minister has voted, and has recommended to his hon. Friends to vote, to ensure that those peers should not be allowed to speak in the other place. If those people, who work for little or no money, other than an attendance allowance, are not going to be allowed to speak, who is?

Is the Labour party going to do the job properly? Is it going to have the guts to do what the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, with whom I agree, would have it do? Is it going to persuade its turkeys in another place to vote for Christmas, to abolish the House of Lords and vote for a wholly elected upper Chamber, or is it going to continue with this charade, which is nothing short of vandalism of our constitution?

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) speaks with great passion. He talks about the mathematical possibility of the Labour party occasionally being able to carry the day if it bussed in all its hereditary peers. He completely overlooks the fact that the 3:1 Conservative majority in the other place would mean that the Conservatives could simply bus in more than we could. He forgets that 300 hereditary Conservative peers were bussed in to carry the Maastricht treaty, which he now says is wrong. He forgets that we could not pass legislation against fox hunting in this Parliament because of the hereditary peers, and that is a campaign for which he has fought all his political life.

In the few moments that remain before 10 pm, I want to refer briefly to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I have been a member of the Labour party for a very long time. In 1987, I attempted to stand for Parliament. I can remember members of the Labour party, who were then very much its leaders and spokespeople, telling us about the policies that Labour was espousing. They included the notion of getting rid of hereditary peerages. I remember being told that the only way we would get that legislation through the House of Lords was by creating 3,000 new Labour peers, that the Conservatives would put every obstacle in our way, and that the House of Lords would not allow itself to be abolished. Now, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield tells me that the Prime Minister is going to be profligate in creating just 91 in order to succeed in doing what he—for it was he—said could be done only with 3,000.

Mr. Benn

It was not 3,000, but 1,000. The difference is that the 1,000 would have abolished the House of Lords; the Prime Minister's appointments will be for a "transitional" stage, which I believe will last for a generation or more.

Dr. Ladyman

My right hon. Friend and I must agree to differ. Time will tell which of us is right. I believe that the Prime Minister is contemplating the creation of just 91 peers in order to accomplish the abolition of hereditary peerages. I predict that it will be done before this Parliament is out. I am committed to that, as are my right hon. and hon. Friends and our Front-Bench colleagues. It is small compromise that will succeed in getting through legislation that this party never believed it could get through. We have succeeded where others have failed.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I want to make one point in the minute that remains—[Interruption.] In the minute that remains tonight. The big question that I pose to the Leader of the House is whether the Committee is to be allowed the opportunity seriously to consider what form the interim Chamber should take, pending the findings of the royal commission and the subsequent debate; or whether we are to be landed with the 91-peer amendment, which we are not permitted to debate in this place and which the upper Chamber will be permitted to debate only in the event of good behaviour. There is much talk of democracy on the Labour Benches, but we are not being allowed a full-scale democratic debate on this vital issue.

Amendment No. —

It being Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report progress and ask leave to sit again.

To report progress and ask leave to sit again. [Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

Committee report progress; to sit again tomorrow.

Back to