|Sir George backs elected House of Lords
21 Jan 2003
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who has just talked himself out of elevation to the upper House by revealing himself as a unicameralist. The difficulty with his argument is that it would result in our never tackling the House of Lords. If the challenge is to reform the Commons first, we would leave the House of Lords semi-reformed. The Prime Minister would be delighted with that argument, as there would be a strong case for inaction.
When we have these discussions, there is always a risk of portraying the debate as a two-dimensional contest between us and the other place—if one gains, the other must lose. The constitutional contest is not between the Commons and the Lords, but between Parliament and the Executive. In that contest, we are partners, not rivals, and the key issue is the way in which we each perform our task better to hold the Executive to account. The prime question is whether the legitimacy and effectiveness of Parliament as a whole would be enhanced if some Members of the upper House were elected. I believe that it would. In passing, I agree with comments about proposed size—a Chamber of 600 is far too big—and I was delighted to hear from Committee members that that matter will be addressed.
On composition, I was surprised and alarmed to read in The Sunday Times and The Times today of the Cabinet's recent apparent conversion to a wholly appointed second Chamber. That would be a change in the Government's previous policy of a 20 per cent. elected Chamber, but it would show astonishing disregard for the views held in the House. Having been told by the House that their proposal of 20 per cent. was not enough, it would be wrong of the Government to retreat to zero instead of advancing beyond 50 per cent.
The two most recent reports on the subject by Lord Wakeham and the Public Administration Committee were unanimous that there should not be a wholly appointed Chamber. A consensual solution is unlikely to be achieved if one starts by rejecting the common ground reached by those reports.
The Leader of the House made a plea for flexibility, and I hope that he will use his persuasiveness to impress on the Prime Minister the need for flexibility if we are to achieve a proper solution. My judgment is that roughly one third of Members in the new House of Lords should be non-political and appointed, and the balance of two thirds should be political and elected. I am not in favour of a 100 per cent. elected Chamber for the reasons that we have heard about—it would exclude many people who do not belong to a political party and do not want to stand for election, but who add enormous value to debates in the upper House. No single party should have a majority in the upper House. A one-third bloc of Cross Benchers would in effect mean that the Government of the day would have to win the argument to win the vote, which is as it should be.
I want to deal head-on with the three main arguments sometimes used to criticise that solution: the Lord Chancellor's argument that oil and water do not mix; the British Rail argument that that solution produces the wrong sort of politician; and the rival mandate argument.
On the argument about two types of Members and their alleged incompatibility, as we have heard, the House of Lords has had two types of Members for more than 40 years: those who got there by accident of birth; and those who got there by achievement after birth. It is difficult to think of two more diverse sources of arrival into the upper House, plus the bishops and Law Lords. We can debate the legitimacy of the hereditary element, but we cannot say that it did not mix with the life peers. Indeed, when the hereditaries were abolished, the life peers were some of their staunchest defenders. Of course, there are other models: the Inner London education authority, which had directly elected and borough-nominated members; the assemblies; and the Scottish Parliament. I am old enough to remember aldermen in local government. So it manifestly is not the case that a body can work only if all its members arrive through the same door.
The British Rail argument is that electing two thirds of Members will produce the wrong sort of politician. There is a view in the upper House that "We do not want the rough trade from the other end of the building up here." A year ago, Lord Wakeham said in his speech on this matter that elections 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.]
I am not quite sure how he classified himself in making that comment. The late Lord Longford made the point less tactfully three years ago:
"We would get the dregs."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 March 2000; Vol. 610, c. 955.]
I think that that anxiety is misplaced. Behaviour in our House is less a function of the sort of people we are than of the place in which we operate and our role as Members of Parliament in a highly political, dominant Chamber to which we have to be re-elected. When we move from this charged environment to the calmer one at the other end of the building, our behaviour changes. Perhaps the best examples are those of Lords Wakeham and Hurd. If my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) were elevated to the upper House, he would be absorbed into that environment with no difficulty whatever. When we are in our current environment, we behave as Members of Parliament, but in the more reflective environment of the upper House, where Members do not have to be re-elected and Whips have a slender grip on discipline, people behave differently.
I find nothing inherently suspect or inappropriate about people who want to stand for re-election being Members of the upper House. If they are elected on a rolling basis for a fixed term, nor will there be very many to elect at a time, so there will be no shortage of quality candidates. Crucially, if they do not have to be re-elected, they will not have to emulate some of the characteristics of this House to which Members in the other place take such exception.
My last point concerns the rival mandate argument, which alleges that, if we have a predominantly elected second Chamber, it will challenge the supremacy of this Chamber. However, the second Chamber is clearly defined as complementary and, in the end, subordinate to this one. Its powers are given to it by this House, which is pre-eminent, and they cannot be unilaterally changed. There is an argument that that settlement might somehow be subject to moral challenge and that there would be tension between the two Houses if the upper House were elected. I strongly disagree. Here, we are all elected for one Parliament on the same day after a vigorous campaign on the basis of a party manifesto. We are elected to the pre-eminent House that sustains the Executive and produces the Prime Minister, and we submit ourselves for re-election.
None of those conditions would exist for the upper House if it were to be elected on the basis suggested by, for example, Lord Wakeham. Many of its Members would not be elected at all and would have no mandate. Those who were elected would be elected at different times and on different mandates, and it would be impossible for one party to control the upper House if it were elected on the basis that I have outlined. The notion that electing some or even most of the Members could lead to the conversion of the upper House into a rival assembly where one party claims a mandate is unsustainable. Yes, the upper House should be given greater legitimacy in its existing role, but it does not follow that it will acquire a claim to a greater role.
I believe that the right way forward is to seek to reach agreement, but if that fails, to make progress on the basis of what this House decides, but at a pace that does not cause too much turbulence and respects the rights of life peers to remain in the upper House for as long as they want. In other words, there should be a gentle transition to a predominantly elected upper House. Put in those terms and approached with understanding, I believe that a settlement can be reached.