Sir George speaks in key House of Lords debate
7 Mar 2007
Sir George spoke in favour of democratic options in the debate on reform of the House of Lords - see below


Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). It is worth reminding the House that during the last Parliament the Select Committee that he chairs produced a unanimous report outlining the way forward, with proposals not wholly dissimilar to those in the White Paper. If his eloquence can secure unanimity in his Select Committee, perhaps he can make similar progress in the House this afternoon.
Anyone watching this debate unfold over the past two days might ask themselves what on earth MPs are doing arguing about a subject that does not resonate outside, on which it is difficult to secure agreement, and which generates friction within the two parties. “Why not leave it all alone?”, I hear them say. To which good question there are two good answers. First, the last time the House voted on this, the option that secured the fewest votes was that of a wholly appointed House, and it is perverse of the House to stick with an option that it rejected. Secondly, less than two years ago, the three main parties went to the country on a proposition that they would reform the upper Chamber and replace it with a more democratic one. One of the themes in the debate over the past two days has been our unique relationship with the electorate, and it is sensible to seek to honour an obligation that the three main parties took on in the last election.
If, despite those manifestos, the House now wants an all-appointed Chamber, it should vote openly for that in the second vote tonight. If it rejects that, it should then alight on one or more of the elected options. We would be greatly assisted in that task if the Liberal Democrats reflected further on the meaning of the word “predominantly”, as in “predominantly elected”. They interpret it to mean 100 per cent. elected, which most of us would regard as exclusively elected, but to exclude 60 per cent., which most of us would regard as predominantly elected. I do not want to be discourteous to the Liberal Democrats, and I appreciate that anything over 20 per cent. is a percentage to which they are unaccustomed—
Mr. Heath: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: In a moment.
However, if they want to reach their goal of 80 per cent., they will need a Bill, and they will not get that unless we alight on one of the options this evening. At this late stage, I hope that their spokesman will tell the House that, on reflection, they will vote for additional options over and above 80 per cent.
Mr. Heath: Let me simply repeat that 80 per cent. elected is our manifesto commitment. It is what we have argued for throughout this process and what the vast majority of my colleagues will vote for this evening. The difficulty lies not with how we vote but with how the right hon. Gentleman’s colleagues and those of the Leader of the House vote, in terms of whether they are prepared to support a properly reformed House.
Sir George Young: The trouble is that we all seem to know more about the Liberal Democrat manifesto than the hon. Gentleman does. The word that it uses is “predominantly”, and I hope that he will stick to that.
A word to those in my party who are, even at this late stage, still undecided as to how to vote: having seen the problems caused for this Administration now that the genie of Lords reform is out of the bottle, I would want the process to be completed before my party takes over in government. It has the capacity to divide and destabilise a party; that is bad enough in opposition, but far worse in government. The stated position of our leader, the next Prime Minister but one, is that it is time to move on. Even though there was some dissent, the party’s official view for the past three general elections has been to move in the direction of the White Paper. We have repeatedly said that when the Government do the right thing, they should be supported. I believe that they are, belatedly, doing the right thing, and that is why I propose to support them.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that when 80:20 was last voted on, more Conservative Members voted against it than for it? Does he also accept that we are on a genuinely free vote tonight?
Sir George Young: If my hon. Friend looks at the vote on the all-appointed option, he will see that more Conservative MPs voted against it than voted for it. One can interpret the votes in more than one way.
Mr. Tyrie: Does my right hon. Friend recall that there was an overall majority of 30 for some form of predominantly elected House? The votes for democracy were divided around various options—a problem that the Liberals do not seem to have grasped. Furthermore, last time four Conservative Members succeeded in voting for 60 per cent. and 100 per cent. They thought they were voting for 80 per cent. but got themselves into the wrong Lobby by mistake.
Sir George Young: I thank my hon. Friend. I hope that the House can exercise some collective ingenuity this evening and avoid the errors of four years ago.
When the Prime Minister contemplates his legacy, the chapter on constitutional reform will be incomplete. When he set out on this journey 10 years ago, he was warned not to do stage 1 without
stage 2—in other words, that before he removed the hereditary peers, he should have a clear vision of what was to be put in their place. He was told that if he did not do that, the process would stall, as indeed it has. In their response to the Wakeham report, the Government said that they would
“make every effort to ensure that the second stage has been approved by Parliament before the next general election”—
that is, the 2001 general election. Subsequently the Prime Minister made a further inexcusable mistake. He was elected in 2001 on a manifesto that he wrote, in which he committed himself to a “more representative and democratic” House of Lords. A week before the vote on that commitment, he announced that he had changed his mind and wanted a wholly appointed House. Whatever diminishing influence he may now have within his party, had he voted in line with his manifesto four years ago, I am sure that 80 per cent. vote would have been carried. Now he has changed his mind.
I want to make three brief points. In this debate, some people have taken a two-dimensional view of the relationship between the two Houses, whereby if one Chamber gains in authority, the other must lose it. However, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said, the dynamics are far more complex. For 90 per cent. of the time, we are not rivals to the upper House, but partners in holding the Government to account. The House of Lords adds weight and value to arguments that we have adduced in this House or arguments that we have not had time to deploy. I would argue that over the past 10 years, the House of Lords has gained in authority, and that it has done so not at the expense of this House, but at the expense of the Executive. I would further argue that, if its legitimacy were enhanced by the injection of some democracy, its authority would be further enhanced—again, not at our expense, but at the expense of the Executive. A stronger House of Lords is a threat not to the Commons but to the Executive. For that reason, we should welcome, not obstruct, a more effective second Chamber.
On composition, my view is that there is a role in the upper House for an appointed element—those who served in the armed forces, the generals, the surgeons, the lawyers, the mandarins, and the professors. I agree with everything that has been said about their contribution to the proceedings, and I would want them to remain—at a level of about 20 or 30 per cent. However, the party political peers, whatever the percentage, should be elected. Unlike the Cross Benchers, they are political animals; they are not political virgins. If we look at those who have been appointed since 2001, we find that 69 per cent. previously fought an election—either general or local, devolved or European. If we look at some of the party peers who have not fought an election—the Lord Chancellor, for example—we find that they would have liked to do so, but could not find a constituency to select them!
If we look at what happens in general elections, the fact is that large numbers of Conservative peers are out banging on doors on our behalf. I find nothing wrong at all in saying to those who are members of a political party and who want to sit in a second Chamber that is going to pass laws that they should have one final gentle brush with the electorate along the lines proposed in the White Paper. That confers a legitimacy that no other process can.
Finally, I want to deal with the other side of the legitimacy coin—namely, the rival mandate argument. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) demolished the argument yesterday, so I add but a footnote to what he said. Let us consider the proposition in the White Paper, with50 per cent. appointed and 50 per cent. elected, and the 50 per cent. elected being replaced a third at a time at European election time. At any one point in time, at most 17 per cent. of the upper House could claim a more recent mandate than that of this House; and of that 17 per cent., some would remain loyal to the Administration. That is hardly a strong platform on which to base a claim for a rival mandate and extra legitimacy over and above this Parliament.
Yet it goes further than that. Members of this House are all elected on the same day on the basis of the same party manifesto; we are elected to the pre-eminent House in Parliament, which sustains the Executive and produces the Prime Minister. We submit ourselves for re-election, which is the country’s verdict on our performance. None of those conditions would apply to the second Chamber as proposed in the White Paper. Elected Members would not be elected all at the same time, but over a longer period. They would have no mandate to rival the mandate of those in this House: indeed, some would be not elected, but appointed. The notion that they could somehow convert themselves into an equally legitimate Chamber that could challenge the authority of this House is strictly for the birds.
In all the proposals for the second Chamber, it is clearly defined as complementary and subordinate to this House. Its only powers are those given to it by this House, which remains pre-eminent. The second Chamber would simply not be able—even if it wanted to—unilaterally to change its powers after reform, any more than it can now.
In common with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, I find echoes in today’s debate of earlier debates in which we heard that the accumulated wisdom of those who govern the country would be lost if the franchise were extended. The good folk of other countries that used to be behind the iron curtain but are now democracies—or, indeed, the good folk of Iraq and Afghanistan—might be surprised to learn that we regard it as a matter of controversy that people should elect those who govern them. This reform is long overdue and, when it has happened, people will wonder what all the fuss was about. We should get on with it tonight.

 
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