Sir George speaks out on Lords Reform
31 Jan 2006
This is the text of Sir George's speech in the House:

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): When my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) rose to his feet at 11 o'clock, he was confident that he would catch your eye, Mr. Caton. He does not always have such confidence that he is going to be successful when he jumps up from his seat in the Chamber. We are grateful to him for initiating this important debate on House of Lords reform. It is a little bit like "Groundhog Day", which I think will be quite soon. We have had a number of debates about the next stage for the House of Lords. My hon. Friend mentioned that nearly a year ago the late Robin Cook initiated a debate at which he launched a document—"Reforming the House of Lords"—that bears the names of a number of Members present. I just want to add a few footnotes to what my hon. Friend said.

When the Prime Minister begins to think about his legacy, he will find the page with "House of Lords reform" at the top of it as yet incomplete. If he wants to leave a legacy of which he can be proud, he will have to do something quite quickly. If one puts the matter in context, in retrospect, the Government should have heeded the advice of people such as Bob Sheldon, who warned them against initiating stage one without stage two. If the Minister casts her mind back to the debate during the 1997 to 2001 Parliament, many people warned the Government that if they split the process in two, they would not get further than the first hurdle. The argument was turned around, and we were told that if we tried to do it all at once, we would fail and get nothing; but if we split it into two digestible sections, we would be more likely to complete the reform.

It is worth reminding Members that when Lord Wakeham wrote his report during that Parliament, he was hoping that the first regional elections to the House of Lords would take place in 2001. That was the pace at which reform was expected. In the Government's response to the Wakeham report, they said that they would

"make every effort to ensure that the second stage has been approved by Parliament before the next general election."

That was the 2001 general election. But, of course, nothing happened.

During the last Parliament, there was the fiasco of the vote to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred. My hon. Friend is a very generous man, because he might have reminded Government Members that there was a commitment in the 2001 Labour party manifesto to a more democratic and accountable House of Lords. Presumably, the Prime Minister had some passing connection with the drafting of that commitment.

It is astonishing that between 2001 and 2003, the Prime Minister made a complete U-turn. When it came to the vote, he voted for a wholly appointed House of Lords. How he reconciled that with the manifesto commitment to a more democratic and accountable House of Lords escapes me.

John Bercow : The explanation is quite simple: the Prime Minister developed a lethal addiction to unfettered power.

Sir George Young : My hon. Friend is moving into a less generous mode than that which he exhibited when he was on his feet. It is astonishing, given the rebukes that should have fallen on the Prime Minister for that complete U-turn on a major constitutional proposal, that he escaped quite lightly. As my hon. Friend said, the key division on the 80 per cent. proposal was lost by three votes. It would be fair to say that there was a certain amount of confusion and tactical voting that evening. The important conclusion is that if one considers all the Divisions, there was a majority for a predominantly elected second Chamber.

We should have taken a warning that the Government were not going to make fast progress from their response to the Wakeham report. There is a sentence that is worth reading out, but before I do, let me say that it does not come from "Yes, Minister".

Giving the impression that the Government accepted the Wakeham proposals, they said:

"There are however a number of areas where further consideration of the practical effects of certain recommendations 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."

Sir Humphrey could not have bettered that paragraph. In the ensuing eight or nine years, whoever drafted it has probably become a permanent secretary somewhere. It is a remarkably skilful exposition. Indeed, we have not made much progress since then.

I am reminded of a story that Michael Foot told the House about a conjuror in his Plymouth constituency who asked a member of the audience to produce a gold watch. Another member of the audience produced a silk handkerchief, which was placed over the gold watch. The conjuror produced a mallet, and brought it down with some force on the handkerchief and the watch. He then said, "I'm frightfully sorry, but I've forgotten the rest of the trick." In a sense, that is what the Government have done with the House of Lords. They have abolished what was there, and they have not got round to the second half of the performance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham came up with some recommendations for what a new Chamber might look like. The authors of the document before us are flattered that his proposals bear some resemblance to what was in the document: in particular, he mentioned a much smaller upper House, which would be predominantly elected. We want to get from this debate some idea about the speed of and the commitment to the process by which we shall move on from where we have been for five or six years.

In the Norton report, the Wakeham report and the unanimous Public Administration Committee report, there is not much controversy about powers. I am deeply suspicious if the Government are now saying, "We can't make progress until we look at the powers." I am afraid that that is equivalent to putting the matter in the long grass. There is broad consent about powers. All the reports are roughly agreed. Yes, we must do something about ping-pong, but that need not arrest the process of moving towards a more legitimate second Chamber.

I want to make one point about the argument that is always held against those such as myself and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) who prefer a predominantly elected second Chamber. We are told that there is a risk of a rival mandate, and that another Chamber with an elected element will somehow challenge this House. However, in the proposals in our document, the second Chamber is clearly defined as complementary and subordinate to this House. Its only powers would be those given to it by this House, which is and would be pre-eminent. The second Chamber would not be able unilaterally to change its powers.

None the less, there has been an assertion that members of a second Chamber, were they elected, would have some moral authority that enabled them to challenge the authority of this House. I do not accept that. Members of this House are all elected on the same day on the basis of the same manifesto, and we are elected for one Parliament to the pre-eminent House, which sustains the Executive and produces the Prime Minister. We submit ourselves for re-election. None of those conditions would apply to the second Chamber as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and those who produced the report. Members of a second Chamber would be elected not all at the same time, but over a certain period. They would therefore have no mandate, and some would be not elected at all, but appointed. The notion that they could somehow convert themselves into an equally legitimate Chamber that could challenge the authority of this House is simply for the birds.

We welcome the Prime Minister's commitment to give Government Members a free vote. No doubt, it will release some of them from any shackles of loyalty to the Prime Minister that they may have felt before. I hope that the Minister will explain in which of the Lobbies she personally will vote, if there is a free vote, as we are entitled to know that and to have it on the record. I also hope that she will give us some idea of when the vote will take place. Finally, I hope that she will provide a commitment that the necessary legislation for a legitimate second Chamber will be on the statute book by the end of this Parliament. If we can obtain that, my hon. Friend will have secured a debate of enormous value to the House.

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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015