Sir George Leads for Opposition in Debate on House of Lords Reform
19 Jun 2000
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The right hon. Lady's search for a consensus has got off to a lively start. I join her in paying tribute to Lord Wakeham and his fellow commissioners for producing the high-quality report that we debate today. It has taken our debate a stage forward and it can serve as a launching pad for stage 2.
It was not, in my view, Lord Wakeham's skills as a former Chief Whip that have been so valuable--the sanctions that go with that position were not available to him--but his skill at chairing Cabinet Committees. I recall his ability to resolve a discussion by finding against a colleague, but to sum up in such a way that the colleague thought that he had won. I commend his diplomacy in identifying a broad consensus from a very wide range of opinions in a very short time.
The Government should not just thank the commission, as we do, but should apologise to it. It is as though the captain of the relay team had instructed the runners of the first legs to sprint around the track at high speed, but when the baton was handed over to the captain for the final lap, he relaxed into a leisurely stroll. Wakeham reported--we read in an article in The Parliamentarian by Baroness Jay--with a week to spare, but his vision of the first election of regional Members taking place at the next general election looks extremely ambitious.
It is shameful that we have had to wait five months for this debate, and even after that interval, the Government have little idea of what to do next. However, in the case of the Burns report on hunting, they knew exactly how to take that forward even before it had reported. On Lords reform, the Prime Minister told us last week that we would have to wait for Labour's next manifesto to find out its plans.
I am reminded of a speech by Michael Foot at the Dispatch Box when he was Leader of the Opposition. He described a conjurer in his Plymouth constituency who invited a prosperous member of the audience to lend him a gold watch. That was placed on a table. Another member of the audience was invited to lend a silk handkerchief. That was placed over the watch. The conjurer brought down a hammer with some force on the handkerchief. He then announced to the audience that, sadly, he had forgotten the rest of the trick. That seems to encapsulate Labour's approach to reform of the House of Lords.
I shall make four short general points. First, there has been a tendency to represent the debate about Lords reform as a one-dimensional contest with the Commons: if one gains, the other must lose. It is perhaps symbolic of that view that our debate takes place on the day of the annual Lords v. Commons tug-of-war, which the lower House should win now that the virile young hereditaries have been banished from the upper House. That is the wrong perspective. The real contest today is not between the Lords and the Commons, but between Parliament and the Executive. In that battle, the Houses are not rivals, but partners.
We believe that any reform should strengthen Parliament as a whole. Much of what the Government have done has weakened Parliament. That is why we set up the Norton commission to examine the way in which Parliament could be strengthened. It will consider the way in which the workings of both the Commons and Lords can be reformed to ensure that Parliament is better able to hold the Executive to account. It will report shortly.
Secondly, it is difficult entirely to ring-fence Lords reform and thus separate it from Commons reform. There is interdependence and interchange between the two Chambers. The commission is considering conciliation, not ping-pong. Proposals that the Lords should set up a constitutional committee or a human rights committee have implications for the Commons. Some have argued that we should reform ourselves before reforming the upper House. The proposal to elect Members to the upper House has implications, to which I shall revert in a moment.
Thirdly, the current position is unsatisfactory. The Government have asserted that the new House will be more legitimate, more effective, more authoritative and more influential. In the Parliamentary Monitor in November 1999, Baroness Jay stated:
The House will be able to speak with more authority . . . A decision by the House not to support a proposal from the government will carry more weight because it will have to include supporters from a range of political and independent opinions. So the Executive will be better held to account.

However, there is no sign of the Government respecting the new House. When the Government lose, it is just like old times: more threats and more abuse. The Lords has defeated the Government on several issues. It has protected the right to trial by jury; Londoners from a veto on free leaflets from mayoral candidates; the independence of local authorities from central dictation; and children from unsuitable material in schools. The Government must simply accept the legitimacy of criticism from an effective second Chamber and control their wish to dominate our proceedings.
As the Leader of the House said, the Wakeham commission was unanimous. However, the unanimity disguised a disagreement on the most contentious issue--the composition--and avoided a conclusion on some others. If the commission had had more time, and if Lord Wakeham had had more cigars, it might have reached agreement. However, we must recognise that, while it agreed on a House of mixed composition, the key issue of balance was left unresolved.
Mr. Nicholls: My right hon. Friend has reached the crux of the matter. There is no way of deciding who is right in the arguments for and against appointed or elected Members. That is a good reason for doing the bare minimum. It is not possible to achieve a consensus even, I suspect, through the use of a Whip.
Sir George Young: I hope to deal with balance in a moment. While I make no claims to be right, we can try and tackle the issue. If the alternative is to remain as we are, that is unsatisfactory.
I want to consider the two issues that should form the focus of our debate. One is process and the way in which we should we handle the next stage; the other is policy and what we should do.
On process, it is an understatement to say that the Government have not handled the issue very well so far. Matters do not seem to be about to improve. The assertion that, by splitting the process in two, the end is attained more quickly than by doing it in one looks rather tattered. In our debate last year, the far-sighted and right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) opined that we would never reach stage 2. History has reinforced his fears. He said:
My expectation is that that temporary scheme is likely to become permanent.--[Official Report, 9 June 1999; Vol. 332, c. 668.]

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) agreed.

We made it clear that there should be no stage 1 without stage 2. Lord Hurd observed:

It is customary, in an advanced society, to inform passengers of the . . . destination before they board the train.

Lord Weatherill said:

before we bulldoze this House we should see the plans--[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 October 1998; Vol. 593, c. 937-52]

Angela Smith (Basildon): The right hon. Gentleman seems to advocate the all-or-nothing approach in reforming the Lords. Does not he accept that, at every stage in our history, that approach has led to no action?
Sir George Young: I do not accept that it was right to split the process in two. We think that the Wakeham commission should have been set up earlier so that the House could deal with the problem logically and coherently. We set the pace: we established the Mackay commission, and eventually pressurised the Government into setting up a royal commission.
There is no sign that the Government will handle the future any better than they have handled the past.
Many suggestions have been made that the government will shelve the royal commission's report,

Lady Jay writes.

Nothing could be further from the truth,

she assures us. That overstates the case. We can see the long grass opening up to embrace the report. I challenge the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), to end tonight's debate with the words that he used to end our debate a year ago. He said then:

I conclude with some words from the White Paper, as set out in the executive summary. The commission is "being asked to report by the end of 1999, to enable the Government to make every effort to ensure that the second stage of reform has been approved by Parliament by the time of the general election." That remains our firm intention.--[Official Report, 9 June 1999; Vol. 332, c. 743.]

I challenge the Minister to repeat that commitment tonight.
Mr. Kaufman: When we were discussing these very matters in the context of the terms of reference for the royal commission, all its members, including Lord Butler--a former Cabinet Secretary--understood one thing: we, as a royal commission, expected the Government to adhere to the words that the right hon. Gentleman just quoted, stating that the recommendations would be approved by Parliament before the general election. However, no member of the commission--which included Lord Hurd and Lord Wakeham--was for a moment deluded enough to believe that "approved" referred to the enactment of full legislation. We took the view that Parliament, before the dissolution of the current Parliament, would be asked to approve Government policies that would proceed into legislation early in the next Parliament.
Sir George Young: I am not asking the Government to commit themselves to what the right hon. Gentleman believes; I am asking them to commit themselves to what they believe. I am asking the Government to reaffirm the commitment that they made last year, when they said that they expected stage 2 to be completed by the time of the general election.
Mrs. Beckett: I think the right hon. Gentleman's memory is at fault. We never said that we thought it would be possible to get all the legislation through by the time of the forthcoming general election.
Sir George Young: I just read out a Hansard quote from our debate last year.
Mrs. Beckett: I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find that what we have always said is that we hope the House will have a chance to express a view, and that the direction will be clear. The Opposition pressed us to commit ourselves to the notion that legislation would be on the statute book before the next general election. Indeed, they tried to introduce a sunset clause into the legislation, but that was resisted at every stage.
Sir George Young: I suggest that the right hon. Lady refer to the report of our debate on Wednesday 9 June last year, and to what her hon. Friend the Minister said when replying to that debate. Those are the words that I just quoted.
Not only have the Government not handled the process well, there has been a breach of commitment.
The rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute,

said the Labour manifesto; but they have not. Nor have the Government set up the Joint Committee promised--not "suggested", as the Leader of the House said--in the White Paper. We were told:

Once the Royal Commission has reported, the Government will then establish the proposed joint committee of both Houses . . . to examine the Parliamentary implications of the Commission's work. It, too, will be asked to work speedily.

How can it work speedily if the Government will not set it up?
We have already heard qualifications of that commitment. In the other place, Lord Williams qualified it by saying:
It is idle to think of having a Joint Committee unless the general parameters of agreement in this House have already been established for that Joint Committee.--[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 March 2000; Vol. 610, c. 1031.]

In other words, "If you don't agree with us, you can't have a joint Committee, and we will stay where we are".
I see a joint Committee as a means of securing agreement. There is currently disagreement about the way forward within the Government, and indeed within the opposition parties. A Joint Committee could tackle that, rather than being set up after a deal between the two Front Benches.
Against that background, with the Government not making good progress, we come to the debate about cherry-picking--making progress with some but not all proposals. If the Government were making good progress with the report, there would be no need to debate cherry-picking. Although Lord Wakeham asserted that the proposals could not easily be separated, the truth is that they could be, and in my view they now should be. I shall return to that shortly, when I deal with policy.
The Government have set up an Appointments Commission, but not on the basis of what Wakeham proposed. Paragraph 13 of the Wakeham report makes it clear that the commission should be statutory, not voluntary. Wakeham reminds us that the Prime Minister will still be able to control the size and the party balance of the interim House.
If the Leader of the House is firm in her commitment to legislation, the Life Peerages (Appointments Commission) Bill is before the House of Lords at the moment. As she gave, I think, a commitment to a statutory commission, I hope that the House can now make good progress with that important legislation. Therefore, on process, we have a rather unhappy record of delay, diversion and indecision, which is not radically changed by anything that we have just heard.
I come to policy. I thought that Lord Wakeham summarised in a sentence what the second chamber should do:
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.

That is spot on. To do that, the reformed upper House needs to be at least as strong and independent as its predecessor. We reject the option in the White Paper of reducing its powers.
The report revealed--perhaps surprisingly--agreement on functions. Indeed, there was not a lot of representations on that, nor indeed much dissent about functions in the recent Lords debate.
In the time available, it is not possible to run through all 132 recommendations, so I shall pick out a few key ones. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) will touch on some others in his winding-up speech, particularly those on the Church and the law. I agree with what is said about the Salisbury convention and the supremacy of this Chamber. I agree on the need for a constitutional committee and a human rights committee, and about no Government having an in-built majority in the upper House. In particular, I agree with Wakeham that it is important that procedures in the upper House are not dictated by Government--we have our own experience of that here. I agree that indirect and functional constituencies are unsatisfactory.
In the context of another debate, it is worth mentioning Wakeham's views on the English question:
There may well be a separate case for Parliament as a whole to reflect on how business which can be identified as exclusively "English" should be handled in future.

It is also worth recalling that Wakeham said that being a Member of the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly was

a full-time job. It would leave no time for regular participation in the work of the second chamber.

That must apply with even more force to the work of the first Chamber.
Since the report, life has moved on in one respect, which should qualify Wakeham's conclusion. He asserted in paragraph 11.8:
The fact is that elections can only be fought effectively by organised political parties which can attract large blocks of voters and who have the resources to organise television broadcasts, publicity, canvassing, public meetings and the like.

The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) has comprehensively disproved that assertion.
The report leaves unanswered the question of how to get the upper House down to 550--it is now nearly 700--and, indeed, how to keep it at 550 if, after each election, more peers must be created to get the balance right.
At the heart of the debate is the issue of composition. We have recognised that there is a range of views within my party and have said that we are likely to end up favouring a higher percentage of elected Members than model C, which had 195 elected Members in a House of about 550.
On that key issue of composition, it was interesting to re-read the two recent debates: that in the upper House on 7 March this year, and that in the House of Commons on 9 June last year. Summing up the latter, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire pointed out that the majority of speeches argued for a wholly or largely directly elected House. Looking through the other debate, there was some cultural antipathy to the concept of electing Members. If I were to summarise a rather long debate, I would say that the upper House believes that it is doing a very good job, which it is. Its Members want to go on doing that job and they believe that violent change would undermine them. Many had never stood for election and made it clear that they found the prospect distasteful. Others had stood for election and hoped that they had put the experience behind them. There was an unspoken view that, "We don't want the rough trade from the other end of the building up here."
Reading Wakeham again, we get the same impression of "de haut en bas." In paragraph 11, he pleads for the second Chamber not to be
a home for yet another group of professional politicians.

Later, he asks us to avoid a

hunting ground for another tribe of professional politicians.

The issue of election goes to the heart of the debate. Two principal reasons are put forward against elections for the upper House. The first we might call the British Rail argument: elections produce the wrong sort of politician. The second is the "rival mandate" theory.
On the first, there is an issue that we all need to address: how do political parties attract quality candidates for election to the upper House? Lord Longford put the point dramatically in the debate in the upper House:
We would get the dregs.--[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 March 2000; Vol. 610, c. 955.]

Personally, I accept that many of the people who would be first-class Members of the upper House do not belong to a political party and do not want to fight an election, but, if we believe that 195 or more should be elected, we are not talking about many each time--if they are elected every five years for 15 years--and I note that some of the recent appointments to the upper House are exactly those who sought election to the House of Commons and failed.
I believe that the anxiety about elected Members is misplaced. Behaviour in our House is less a function of the sort of people we are and more a function of the role of a Member of Parliament in a dominant Chamber. When the sort of people we are move from this environment to a different one, our behaviour changes. The greatest demonstration of that are two of my noble Friends who were on the commission--Lords Hurd and Wakeham. When they started, they were down here. When they were here, they behaved like Members of Parliament. However, when they were put in a less partisan, more reflective environment such as the upper House, they behaved like peers. Therefore, there is nothing inherently suspect or inappropriate about people who want to stand for election to the upper House.
Mr. Robertson: My only concern is that, with a greater number of elected Lords, the upper House would become more like the House of Commons, so they would behave exactly the same.
Sir George Young: I am coming to the second leg of the criticism: the rival mandate theory, to which, I think, my hon. Friend is referring. If the second Chamber is elected, it may claim a rival mandate to the Commons.
Mrs. Dunwoody: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: May I develop the argument?
I do not subscribe to that argument either. The role of the second Chamber is clearly defined as complementary but, in the end, subordinate to this one. The powers are the powers given to it by this House, which is pre-eminent, and they cannot be unilaterally changed. The argument asserts that, if the upper House is elected, that settlement might be challenged, but there would be a world of difference between the two Houses.
Members of Parliament are all elected on the same day, on the basis of a party manifesto for one Parliament, to the pre-eminent House that sustains the Executive and contains the Prime Minister. They submit themselves or their successors to re-election. None of those conditions would exist for the upper House, were it to be elected on the Wakeham basis. Therefore, the notion that electing some or even most of its Members could lead to the conversion of the upper House into a rival Assembly is, in my view, unsustainable. Therefore, on policy, although there are still legitimate areas of disagreement--on which, I hope, this debate might shed some light--there is much agreement where progress could be made.
The story of the Government's reform of the House of Lords is an object lesson of how not to set about constitutional reform. They have shot first and asked questions afterwards. They have not thought through the policy before embarking on it. As with their commitment to hold a referendum on an alternative to first- past-the-post, the constitution section of the manifesto is strewn with unkept promises. There was no talk of seeking consensus when they started on Lords reform, but, now they have got stuck, they are looking around for allies.
We are a generous party. We care about the constitution, so we readily give advice on where we should go from here. First, we should set up the Joint Committee to identify the way forward and we should do it now. We heard a very equivocal response from the Leader of the House to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire. The Government say that they want to identify a consensus--setting up a Joint Committee seems a good start. There is a lot of agreement. Many people agree that the new House should be part elected and part appointed, and there is widespread agreement on what its functions should be, so let us do that soon.
Secondly, a statutory appointments commission should be set up---not the non-statutory one, but a proper one, curtailing the huge rights of patronage that the Prime Minister has retained for himself. Thirdly, we should make progress now with many of the non-compositional recommendations in Wakeham, engaging in the horticultural practice of cherry-picking, because the Government have clearly stalled on compositional reform.
Fourthly, the Government should initiate a wider public debate about stage 2, which they have conspicuously avoided. They hope that the problem will go away, but it will not. They must take progress off the back of the Lord Chancellor's envelope, on to the Floor of the House and out into the country.
As on so many issues at the moment, Ministers are like rabbits in the headlights, not knowing which way to turn. The constitution of this country is not safe in their hands. It will fall to a Conservative Government to restore stability and fairness.
Back to index. Index Back to index.
Back to index.

Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015