Sir George expresses concern about delay in House of Lords reform
20 Jun 2006
This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons on Lords Reform

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Weir, and I shall confine my remarks to the briefest possible. Anyone who is interested in my views will find them dotted around editions of Hansard for the last 10 years. I commend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his choice of subject for the debate and it is a pleasure to see the Deputy Leader of the House in his place, because he and the Leader of the House are now in charge of this important policy area, whereas on the last occasion that we debated the subject it was the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We understand that the Prime Minister has mandated the Leader of the House to sort out party funding and House of Lords reform, and the Leader of the House will need all the diplomatic skills that he acquired as Foreign Secretary to discharge that obligation.
At the time of the vote in 2003, the current Leader of the House voted for a wholly appointed House, which I think was the least popular option on which the House voted. If he is to search for a consensus and find a way forward he will need to demonstrate some flexibility.
Mr. Heald: Is it not the case that the Leader of the House voted against all the proposals that involved an elected element?
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is correct, although he has approached the matter with less delicacy than I. There is a need for movement on the part of the Leader of the House if he is to find the centre of gravity.
The debate is the second on the subject this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) inspired the earlier debate on 31 January and it is probably useful to have a six-monthly progress report, because there has been a worrying development which I shall address shortly. If anybody had said, at the time of the original Bill which was considered by the 1997 Parliament, that the Labour party would win three general elections and that the Prime Minister would retire, without stage 2 of House of Lords reform being on the statute book, nobody would have believed it. We were all told that dividing reform into two easy sections would ensure that it would hit the statute book early, and that we needed to take two bites at the cherry. The cherry, however, remains visibly unconsumed.
I do not propose to repeat the case—eloquently made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—for a predominantly elected Chamber. It was set out in a publication and in a draft Bill, which I co-authored with Robin Cook, Lord Tyler—as he now is—and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. The Leader of the House need not take up any scarce drafting time for the next Session’s Bill—we have already done it for him.
The debate on composition often takes place in rather crude, two-dimensional terms: if one House wins, the other loses. There is an important constitutional battle going on, but it is not that one—it is between Parliament and the Executive. In that battle the two Houses are allies, not enemies, because the terms of trade have shifted dramatically in favour of the Executive and need to be redressed. Once we have settled the issue before us this morning, we need to develop more ways of working together and pooling resources. For instance, I see no reason why Lords Ministers should not reply to debates in Westminster Hall when they are the responsible departmental Minister. I give way, but in view of the injunction from the Chairman it will be the last time.
David Taylor: The right hon. Gentleman referred to the need for arbitration between the Executive and Parliament. More specifically, however, that need applies between No. 10 and the Commons, or possibly even between No. 10 and the Labour Back Benches. Only three years ago—tantalisingly—we were just three votes short of a majority in favour of an 80 per cent. elected House of Lords. Is not that where we need arbitration?
Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. The Labour party was elected in 2001 on a manifesto that committed it to a more democratic and accountable second Chamber. The Prime Minister must have had some hand in drafting the relevant section of the manifesto, but he voted for a wholly appointed Chamber, and I fail to understand how he and the Leader of the House could reconcile that action with the Prime Minister’s own manifesto. However, perhaps that is an issue better addressed by the Labour party than by Opposition Members.
There is a matter on which I part company with the hon. Member for Rhondda. In earlier debates on Lords reform, there was no controversy about the power of the House of Lords. The Wakeham report agreed that the powers should be left as they were, and so did the Government. A document supporting the White Paper, published in 2001 and optimistically entitled “The House of Lords: Completing the Reform”, stated in relation to paragraph 30 of the White Paper:
“There is no need to change the statutory basis of the second chamber’s powers in relation to primary legislation.”
The only suggestion that the Government made about powers at that time was a relatively minor one about subordinate legislation.
It is worth reading what the Public Administration Committee said at the time about the key issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. Paragraph 69 of its report stated:
“There is no proposal for any major change to the role and functions of the House of Lords. This is one of the fundamentals on which there is broad agreement, and it is one of the firm foundations on which reform must build. The second chamber will continue to be predominantly a revising chamber...Its other main functions are holding the Government to account, and debating political issues, in particular long term or technically complex matters which have been given insufficient time in the House of Commons. The Government wishes to strengthen the capacity of the Lords to perform these functions, but proposes no change in the functions themselves.”
The Committee concluded:
“We agree with the Government that no major change is required to the role or functions of the second chamber. It should continue to be a revising, scrutinising and deliberative assembly. But its performance of all these functions can and should be strengthened.”
That statement, with which I wholly agree, was flatly contradicted in the debate that took place on the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham on 31 January. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said:
“That is why the question of composition is difficult and inextricably linked to the role and powers of the second chamber.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 31 January 2006; Vol. 442, c. 45WH.]
That is a total U-turn.
I am deeply suspicious of what is now happening. There is a view that that is a way of postponing decisions and leaving a status quo that is convenient for the Government. They decide the size and the balance—the party balance, in particular—and they control the composition of a large number of Members. I think that if we reran the 2003 vote today, there would be a majority for a 70 or 80 per cent. elected Chamber, but we would then have to clear a second hurdle, which was not there last time—namely, the powers. If the Government are minded to curtail the powers of the second Chamber, which I believe they are, it could be another 10 years before we resolve the issue.
If we are to resolve the issue, we need to be firm about the destination but relatively flexible about the speed at which we reach it. We need a predominantly elected House of Lords with the powers uncurtailed, but we need to recognise that there are legitimate expectations on the part of those who were made life peers, we need continuity of expertise and we need to maintain the culture and collective wisdom. That is why the draft Bill had a long lead-in time covering three general elections.
When we last debated the issue, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, did not reach her peroration, so we never discovered what the Government were going to do. May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House that this time he begins at the end of his speech and works backwards? That way, we might achieve more enlightenment about where the Government are going than we did last time round.

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