Speaking in the House of Commons debate on Reform of the House of Lords, Sir George said that two-thirds of the new Second Chamber should be elected, with the remaining one third appointed.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and I have much sympathy with many of the points that she made.
It is almost exactly two years since Lord Wakeham's commission produced its report, a task that it was challenged to do within a year. It responded well, and no doubt hoped that the momentum urged on it by the Government would be matched by that Government. It is worth reminding the House that Wakeham envisaged the first elections for the upper House happening in June last year. In June 1999, we were told by Ministers that the Commission was "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."--[Official Report, 9 June 1999; Vol. 332, c. 743.]
So after a brisk sprint round the first lap by Lord Wakeham, the baton was handed over to a jogger in rather poor shape, and it has taken the Government nearly two years to produce their response, optimistically entitled "Completing the Reform." Reading the foreword by the Prime Minister, one would have thought that the Government had simply accepted the Commission's views. He summarises Wakeham and then says:
"The Government strongly endorses the Royal Commission's vision of the role and importance of the second chamber. It also accepts the Commission's broad framework for composing its membership."
There is no hint there of any disagreement.
Of course the Government do not accept the broad framework, however. They want something quite different that would undermine the legitimacy, independence and effectiveness of the second Chamber. Only when we get to the small print of the White Paper do we read some words that the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne would have enjoyed delivering:
"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."
In a sentence, those words emasculate the Appointments Commission and propose shorter terms, undermining the independence of the second Chamber.
I want to make a number of brief points indicating the way forward. First, there has been a tendency to represent the debate about Lords reform as a two-dimensional contest between the Lords and the Commons: if one gains, the other must lose. But the true picture is multidimensional, and the real contest today is not between the Lords and the Commons but between Parliament and the Executive. In that battle, the two Houses are not rivals but partners. Without waiting for the Government to determine what to do next, the two Houses need to develop stronger links with each other.
We have an increasingly influential Liaison Committee in this House, and perhaps that should open a dialogue with the comparable body in the Lords to discuss matters of common interest. One issue about which we could talk to their Lordships is paragraph 5 of the White Paper, which says:
"Labour supports modernisation of the House of Lords' procedures to improve its effectiveness."
We have tasted some of Labour's modernisation down here, and although I do not criticise all of it, the motive has been the expedition of Government business, rather than better scrutiny of legislation. My strong advice to their Lordships is that they, not the Government, should decide how to improve their effectiveness.
Secondly, the current position of a wholly appointed Chamber is unsatisfactory. The Government have asserted that the House that we now have is more legitimate and more effective. However, there is no sign of the Government respecting the new House; nor do I think that they will until its composition is changed. When the Government lose, it is just like old times: more threats and more abuse. The Lords have recently defeated the Government on anti-terrorism legislation, and quite rightly so. The Government must accept the legitimacy of criticism from an effective second Chamber, and we need a House with more authority than the present one, and a Government who respect it when they lose the argument.
My third point is on numbers. Wakeham proposed 550 Members, and the White Paper says 600. That strikes me as rather high. We have 660 Members here, a number that is scheduled to go down when we lose the presence of a number of Scottish colleagues. Even with 630, I believe that the lower House will still be too big. It is difficult to see why the revising Chamber has to have 600. No one has proposed that it should carry out the demanding constituency role that we carry out; nor is it proposed that it should provide more members of the Executive than it does at the moment. I would aim at the Wakeham maximum or below it.
The White Paper does not make it clear how we would keep the number at 600, if more peers are to be created to get the balance right after each election. To take an unlikely scenario, let us suppose that the Liberals were the largest party after the next election. They would be entitled to more peers than the largest Opposition party--that is, 222 instead of 65. But if the number of Members is capped at 600, how on earth would we achieve that proposal?
My fourth point is on composition. I believe that the new House should be one third non-political and appointed, and two thirds political and elected. I accept that many 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--hence the one third. I also believe that no single party should have a majority in the upper House. Keeping one third of Members non-political while dividing up the political two thirds between the major parties should ensure that no party has a majority in the upper House.
There is an extraordinary passage in the White Paper seeking to reject this option which deserves quotation:
"A mainly elected second Chamber would have the following, further, practical disadvantages:
The independent members would virtually disappear."
That is manifestly absurd. In my example of one third appointed and two thirds elected, the appointed Members--the independents--could number about 200 and might form the largest block in the upper House.
I would like the two thirds who are politicians to be directly elected by open rather than closed lists. By definition, those people will not be political innocents and there is no reason for them not to go through the single gentle encounter with the electorate proposed by Lord Wakeham--an encounter much less taxing than anything we have to go through--which brings me to my next point, which is the British Rail argument: that produces the wrong sort of politician.
There is an unspoken view in the upper House, which is, "We don't want the rough trade from the other end of the building up here." In his speech yesterday, Lord Wakeham said that that 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.]
Lord Longford put the point less tactfully two years ago:
"We would get the dregs."--[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 March 2000; Vol. 610, c. 955.]
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 the highly political dominant Chamber to which we must get re-elected.
When the sort of people we are move from this environment to another one down the other end, our behaviour changes, and the greatest examples of that are Lords Wakeham and Hurd. When they were here, they behaved like Members of Parliament, but in the less partisan, more reflective environment of the upper House, they behave like peers. There is therefore nothing inherently suspect or inappropriate about people who want to stand for election being Members of the upper House; our former colleague, John MacKay, was one of the outstanding performers in the upper House until his untimely death last year.
That brings me to my penultimate point--the rival mandate argument: if we have a predominantly elected second Chamber it will challenge the mandate of this Chamber. The second Chamber is clearly defined as complementary, but in the end subordinate to this one. Its powers are those given it by this House, which is pre-eminent, and they cannot be unilaterally changed. The assertion is that that settlement might be challenged and that there would be tension between the two Houses if the upper House were elected, but Members of Parliament are all elected on the same day on the basis of a party manifesto and for one Parliament. We are elected to the pre-eminent House that sustains the Executive and produces the Prime Minister. We submit ourselves for re-election.
None of those conditions would exist for the upper House were it to be elected on the basis that I suggest or, indeed, that suggested by Wakeham. Many of its Members would not be elected at all and they would have no mandate, while those who were elected would be elected at different times on different mandates; so 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 unsustainable.
So what do we do next? The only sensible way to resolve the issue is by a free vote on the various options, starting with the most radical--all Members elected--and then working down. On this side of the House, it is known that there is a variety of views and I see no reason for them to be restricted by the Whips. On the contrary, it would injure the standing of Parliament if either side became heavy handed.
Thanks to the early-day motion, we know that a significant body of opinion on the Government Benches disagrees with the Government on the percentage to be elected. As a party politician, I would love the Labour Chief Whip to exercise the diplomatic skills that achieved prominence last year to dragoon her party into line, but that would be absurd, so I look forward to a sensible debate followed by unconstrained Divisions leading to legislation that passes to the statute book quickly.