Sir George speaks out on Lords Reform
23 Feb 2005
This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House on Lords Reform:

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) on his choice of subject for this morning's debate and the way he introduced it. There is an opportunity now to show that there is an all-party consensus on the way forward. There is not unanimity—I respect the fact that there are dissentient voices in all parties—but there is a consensus that will break the deadlock of the past couple of years. I hope that the debate will give the Front-Bench spokesmen of the three main parties an opportunity to download their House of Lords speeches, freshen them up and explain their party policy on this important issue.
I hope the Minister, whom I welcome to the debate, is not going to tell us that there can be no progress on composition until we have resolved the issue of powers. That would be universally seen as a cop-out, and our report would have landed on a snake rather than a ladder. We have had extensive reviews of the second Chamber and there has been remarkably little dissent about the powers. The difficult question has been that of composition. So, I hope he welcomes the report and agrees that it shows the way forward.
I hope, too, that we will be spared one sentence that appeared in the Government's post-Wakeham White Paper, which is straight from "Yes Minister":
"There are however a number of areas where further consideration of the practical effects of certain recommendations has led the Government to consider some modification of the precise recommendations so as to ensure implementation of the Commission's principles in the most effective way possible".
To give the debate an historical context, it is worth remembering that in 1998 the Government told us that stage 2 would be approved by Parliament by the time of the last general election. Indeed, Lord Wakeham assumed that the first round of elections to the reformed upper House would take place in June 2001. To have gone through not one but two general elections before achieving stage 2 has something of Lady Bracknell about it. Her husband was, I am sure, a distinguished Member of the unreformed upper House.
Whoever said no stage 1 without stage 2 was absolutely right: at the beginning, the fear was expressed that if we had stage 1 the momentum would stall and it would not carry through to stage 2, and a working, if imperfect, model would be destroyed. The interim House—the wholly appointed House—would, by default, become the long-term solution.
When I pressed the Government on the matter at the time, I was told by the then Leader of the House that breaking the process into two made it more likely that stage 2 would be embarked on. We were told that the 92 hereditary peers would be the grit in the constitutional oyster that produced the pearl of reform—a colourful metaphor, but one that was entirely inaccurate.
There is a second important lesson to be learned from what has happened so far. Although we should be clear where we want to end up, we should also be flexible about speed and transitional arrangements. That is reflected in the report that the right hon. Member for Livingston referred to and to which my signature is appended. It is more important to secure agreement on what sort of House we should end up with than to try to get there too quickly. Indeed, we are more likely to secure that agreement if we are flexible about how we get there.

The main Conservative objectors to a predominantly elected House are in the House of Lords, and we should try to carry them with us. Several hundred people have been made life peers; they believed that that meant what it said. We should avoid another unceremonious dumping of the hereditaries, which was undiplomatic and discourteous. Even if it makes the journey a bit longer, we should be flexible and generous with the existing life peers, as our report proposes.
I strongly endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said about the opponents of reform, which is that they tend to treat the debate as a one-dimensional contest: if one House gains in legitimacy, credibility or authority, by definition the other must lose. It can be compared to the annual House of Commons-House of Lords tug-of-war on the Green, which the lower House has won ever since the virile young hereditaries were banished from the upper House.
The reality is that the two Chambers are partners in a joint endeavour to hold the Executive to account. Lord Wakeham put it well in his report:
"Our ambition for the reformed second chamber is that it should enhance the overall ability of Parliament as a whole to hold the Government to account. It should do this by using its particular strengths to develop arrangements which complement and reinforce those of the House of Commons."
I want briefly to address the two main arguments on what we propose—what I call the rival mandate argument and the British Rail argument, which is, "It will produce the wrong sort of politician." The rival mandate argument alleges that a predominantly elected second Chamber would challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons, a point mentioned by the Prime Minister shortly before the vote in 2003. However, the second Chamber is clearly defined as complementary and in the end subordinate to the Commons; its powers are those that are given to it by the House of Commons, which is pre-eminent, and they cannot be unilaterally changed.
There is a related argument that that settlement might be subject to a moral challenge if the upper House contained an elected element and there could be tension between the two Houses if both claimed democratic legitimacy, especially if the lower House was approaching an election and the Government were unpopular.
I disagree with that analysis. In the Commons, we are all elected on the same day for one Parliament after a vigorous campaign on the basis of a party manifesto. We are elected to the pre-eminent House that sustains the Executive and produces the Prime Minister, and we submit ourselves collectively for re-election, at which point the nation passes its verdict on us.
None of those conditions would apply to the second Chamber proposed in our report, so the premise for a moral challenge does not exist. Many of its Members would not be elected at all and would have no mandate. Those who were elected would be elected at different times and on different mandates, and it would be impossible for one party to claim that it had control of the upper House. The notion that electing some or even most Members could lead to the conversion of the upper House into a rival Assembly, where one party claimed a competing mandate, is simply unsustainable.
The second argument is the British Rail argument that electing two thirds of Members would produce the wrong sort of politician. There is a view in the upper House that it does not want the rough trade from the other end of the building. Lord Wakeham said in his speech on the matter that elections would produce
"a second Chamber that was a clone of the other place, full of professional politicians".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 January 2002, Vol. 630, c. 582.]
I am not sure how he classified himself in making that comment.
The late Earl of Longford made the point less tactfully five years ago:
"We would get the dregs."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 March 2000, Vol. 623, c. 955.]
Again, I do not agree. Behaviour in our House is less a function of the sort of people we are than of the conditions under which we operate. We are Members of Parliament in a highly political, dominant Chamber, to which we have to be re-elected. When we move from the charged environment of the lower House to the calmer one at the other end of the building, our behaviour changes. Perhaps the best examples of that are Lords Wakeham and Hurd. While MPs in our current environment, we behave as MPs, but translated to the reflective atmosphere of the upper House, where, crucially, one does not have to be re-elected and the Whips have a looser grip on discipline, people behave differently. They make shorter, more courteous speeches that are less flavoured by political invective. I disagree with the rival mandate argument.
Let me conclude with a question to the Minister. Four weeks ago, we had the bombshell from Lady Amos in The Daily Telegraph. Asked whether the long-awaited plan on future composition would be in the manifesto, she said:
"No. I think there is still more work to be done because if you put four different people in a room, regardless of which party they come from, there will not just be four different views but you'll probably get eight different views about composition."
Will there really be nothing in the Labour party manifesto about House of Lords reform? If there is to be a vacuum in that chapter of the manifesto, I can think of no better way of filling it than by endorsing the report introduced by the right hon. Member for Livingston.
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015