Commons Hansard
20 Jun 2006

House of Lords Reform

09.58 am

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on raising this important issue and I agree with him that the first job in respect of reform of the House of Lords is to talk about its responsibilities and to decide what its responsibilities and functions should be. I broadly agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that it should be a revising, deliberative and scrutinising Chamber. However, I do not agree with his remark that it ought to be there to hold the Executive to account. I do not believe that that should be the job of the House of Lords at all. Holding the Executive to account is the job of the Opposition and Back Benchers in this House; it is not a job for the second Chamber.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Is not holding the Executive to account the job of Parliament as a whole - that is, both Houses?

Mr. Clelland: It is at the moment, but we are talking about reforming the second Chamber; that is the reason for my remarks. In future, I do not think that the second Chamber ought to work in the way that it does.

If the second Chamber is to be a revising, deliberative and scrutinising Chamber - and even one that holds the Executive to account, if that is what hon. Members want - it needs to be made up of people who have wisdom, experience and expertise. We all know that elections do not necessarily result in a group of people with those qualities; I make an exception of the Members in this Room, of course. If we need people with such qualities, they have to be selected rather than elected. Certainly, people with such qualities could not be guaranteed through elections.

Once the hereditary peers are abolished, as I believe they ought to be - ironically, because of a quirk in the way that things developed, that is the only democratic element in the House of Lords at the moment, but there we are - responsibility for appointments will be left solely to the Prime Minister and the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which, I am afraid to say, have both been brought into disrepute by the cash-for-peerages row. That would not be sustainable, and there would have to be changes to the way that appointments were made.

I do not agree that elections are the answer to the problem; I insist on my argument that an elected second Chamber would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons, whatever Members tried to do to change the constitution of the second Chamber. Elected Members will, quite unjustifiably, want more power if they are elected to the second Chamber - more, perhaps, than hon. Members who are pushing for elections might care to give them. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda says that they would not have casework, but who is to prevent them from having it? If someone writes to a Member of the second Chamber who has been elected, that Member would have every right to take up that case on behalf of the elector. I do not see how we can ever legislate to stop them answering letters and taking up cases. Of course they would develop casework if they were elected.

Such Members might not have constituency responsibilities because of how they might be elected, but in a way that might be worse than their having constituency responsibilities, because they would have a brief to go anywhere they liked. They could go anywhere in hon. Members' constituencies, dealing with anything that they wanted, visiting factories and schools, opening this and that, and taking up issues. There would be nothing to prevent them from doing that, and I do not see how we could legislate to do so.

My hon. Friends argue that if we had a referendum and asked the general public the simple question, "How should a new, reformed second Chamber be made up?" people would generally say that it should be elected; that is the knee-jerk reaction. But ask them a different question - ask them whether they want another 300 elected politicians, with their secretaries, offices, expenses and salaries - and see whether there is the same knee-jerk reaction. I doubt that there would be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda knows, we had that experience recently in North-East England, where we had a referendum on an elected regional assembly.

Chris Bryant: But my hon. Friend really had to rig that question to make sure that he got the answer that he wanted.

Mr. Clelland: As my hon. Friend may be aware, those of us opposed to an elected second Chamber will make that same point if the issue ever comes before the people. We are talking about a fundamental change, and if we had to have a referendum on devolution, and on regional assemblies, we ought to have a referendum on making a wholesale change to the second Chamber. When we have that referendum, the very point that I just mentioned will be made in opposition to an elected second Chamber.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there is a possibility of bringing a small elected element into the second Chamber while reducing representation commensurately in the Commons?

Mr. Clelland: A hybrid House would be the worst of all worlds. Two classes of Member would certainly not work. Elected Members would quite rightly consider themselves to be superior and to have more authority than non-elected Members, and I cannot see how they could possibly work together in a Chamber. If we had a proportion of elected Members, we would eventually end up with a fully elected House.

The answer is to continue with an appointed Chamber, so that we can appoint people who have the experience, expertise and wisdom to ask Members of Parliament to think again on legislation, but the responsibility for making appointments ought to be much wider, including business, trade unions, religious organisations, local government and devolved institutions. If the appointments were made with that wider sort of franchise, for want of a better term, it would be more democratic and more accountable. That answers the question asked by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire; he asked how the Prime Minister could say that he wanted a more democratic, more accountable House, but vote for a fully appointed House. We can certainly have a House that is appointed in a more democratic way than it is at present; any change in that direction would be more democratic than the present system. It would certainly be accountable if people were appointed. If the CBI, TUC or Local Government Association were to appoint people, those organisations would expect those people to be accountable to them, particularly if the appointments were made for a limited period, as I believe they ought to be.

We can have accountability and a more democratic system under an appointed House, and we would certainly have the kind of people who would be able to challenge the House of Commons on the legislation that it put though and who would have the authority to do so.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I know that the hon. Gentleman has had a long-standing and consistent position on this subject. Would it not be a fair summary of his argument to say that he is in favour of a little more democracy as long as there is not too much and there is no danger of it being described as fully formed?

Mr. Clelland: I am fully in favour of democracy, of course. This is a democratic country and democratic democracy is the basis of our governance, but the this country is not entirely run by democratic organisations. A swathe of people in all sorts of organisations are a part of our democracy and run our system of governance but are not directly elected. School governors, the police, doctors and so on do not have to be directly elected in order for us to have an efficient democracy. As long as the House of Commons has primacy and is the elected body, that is the basis of our democracy. All the rest flows from that.

John Bercow: Could I put it to the hon. Gentleman, although there is no great prospect of persuading him to change his mind, that there is one important difference between the second Chamber and the various institutions to which he has just referred? The difference is that the second Chamber is part of Parliament and has some legislative responsibility, which does not apply to schools, hospitals or the other organisations that he has in mind.

Mr. Clelland: The hon. Gentleman brings me back to the point that I made earlier. The first thing is to get the powers right. I do not think that the second Chamber ought to have legislative responsibility. Once we get the powers right and it does not have legislative responsibility, his argument falls.

10.07 am


Mr. Clelland: What evidence has the hon. Gentleman for saying that the House of Lords is considered to be illegitimate? That might be the view of those who want an elected second Chamber, but what evidence has he that people out there care very much about having the House of Lords reformed, never mind whether they think that it is illegitimate?

John Thurso: I have three pieces of evidence for the hon. Gentleman. The first is my own experience in another place. Secondly, I have listened to Members, in another place and in the Chamber, usually on the Government's side, saying that it is time to stop voting against legislation, either because "We are the unelected House" - when I was up there - or because "They are the unelected House" - now that I am down here. Thirdly, I have had many conversations with ordinary voters concerned about Parliament who feel precisely the same way.

I do not think that anyone can challenge the fact that the House of Lords is regarded as illegitimate. That for me is the core problem when considering reform of the House of the Lords.


Mr. Clelland: I hope that the hon. Gentleman was listening carefully to the contribution from the Liberal Benches, which mentioned the form of election that might be adopted for the second Chamber. The suggestion, which seems to be widely accepted by those who want an elected second Chamber, is that there should be some sort of PR system - no doubt, some sort of list system. Does that not call to mind the old pals act?

>Mr. Heald: Well, that is the criticism. Although my party is obviously willing to talk about this issue, we have said in the past that one could get the flavour of a larger area, such as a county, while still retaining first past the post. One would not have a directly similar constituency, and North-East Hertfordshire would still be represented in the House of Commons, but Hertfordshire could be represented as a county by a group of Members in the second Chamber. We would have a flavour of representation on a larger scale than we normally have in the Commons. That would give some interesting insights into issues such as what the policy for a county or city should be, and there would be a different approach, which would fit very well into our constitution. However, my party is prepared to talk about what the method of election should be and how large the constituencies should be.

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