House Of Lords Reform

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Despite his eloquence, I disagree with most of what the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) said. There are two issues that I wish to address from the outset. The first is the charge that now is not the right time. It never is the right time to introduce constitutional reform. That is the dreary, weary excuse that anti-reformers use over and over again. It was used about devolution and almost every other constitutional reform brought in by the last Labour Government whom I was proud to serve. What if great reformers over the years had decided that it was not the right time? What if Aneurin Bevan had said, “I have this really good idea for a national health service, but the country is broke and we are probably going to lose the next election, so it is not the right time”? What if the suffragettes had said, “We’d really like the right to vote, but there is so much else going on at the moment; let’s leave it to the men for a few more years”?

Secondly, if any of us had been starting from scratch and designing a second Chamber for a new, modern democracy, it is inconceivable that any of us would have come up with the House of Lords in its present incarnation. Of course we would not have done so; the very idea is risible. The truth is the House of Lords is an anachronism, and we all know it. Yes, it performs a valuable scrutinising and revising role. Yes, it demonstrates a diligence often superior to that of the Commons. When I was a Minister appearing before a Lords Parliamentary Committee, the standard of questioning was often more stringent and, I regret to say, its members often better informed than those in the Commons. There is, however, absolutely no reason why that standard of performance could not be maintained, possibly even exceeded, by a democratic second Chamber with new blood and new expertise. This is not about a personnel change; it is about accountability and democracy.

In any case, the fact that the House of Lords performs a valuable role is no reason to maintain it in its current constitutional form. It is a democratic farce, an arbitrary mixture of a majority deriving their place from patronage and a minority deriving it from titles inherited from a liaison with a royal, centuries ago. It is a hangover from pre-democracy days, a constitutional dinosaur.

Labour has a proud record, going back to our first Labour leader, Keir Hardie, of demanding a democratic second Chamber. If we do not take this opportunity now, through this Bill, to ensure that we have a democratically constituted second Chamber, we will be throwing away that opportunity—if not for ever, certainly for this generation. It is a “now or maybe never” decision.

We will try to amend the Bill. For instance, I am a supporter of the reformed democratic second Chamber having a “secondary” not a “primary” mandate. That principle, eloquently enunciated by Billy Bragg, will help to address the crucial issue of the primacy of the Commons. I am not in favour of electors having two votes—one for MPs, one for Lords—as there should be just one vote: for MPs. This House should continue to have the primary representative mandate from our constituents. Parliament should consist of MPs with legislative primacy by virtue of their primary mandate, with peers discharging their important revising, scrutinising role by virtue of their democratic but secondary mandate. That is an issue for Committee; for now, we have a duty to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Oliver Heald: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Joint Committee, which examined at the draft Bill, suggested that the Government should have another look at forms of indirect election that preserve the supremacy of this House while still giving a democratic legitimacy to the other place? Does he agree that looking again at some of those ideas would be well worth while?

Mr Hain: I do if the hon. Gentleman means by that the secondary mandate.

I remind the House that the last time the Commons voted on a very similar proposition to that put forward by the Deputy Prime Minister—the one put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in March 2007—it voted decisively for an elected Chamber. A 100% elected Chamber was favoured by 337 votes to 224, and an 80% elected one by 305 votes to 267. Surely this House of Commons, with hundreds of younger MPs of a new generation, is not going to backtrack on that vote? With new MPs of a new generation, we should be increasing the majority for reform.

One of our greatest parliamentarians, Robin Cook, told the House on 4 Feb 2003 that there was a real possibility of House of Lords reform becoming a parliamentary equivalent of “Waiting for Godot”:

“it never arrives and some have become rather doubtful whether it even exists, but we sit around talking about it year after year.”—[Official Report, 4 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 152.]

For the very first time, all three parties have a manifesto mandate for Lords reform. To betray that mandate would be to betray trust even more. This House has a once in a p political lifetime opportunity to bring down the curtain on what must rank as the longest political gridlock in the history of parliamentary democracy. It is high time we resolved this once and for all, and brought our democracy fully into the 21st century by an historic decision for a democratic second Chamber.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): In response to an earlier intervention, my right hon. Friend referred to indirect elections. Would it not be sensible, and would it not have been sensible over the last 10 years, to have seriously considered the alternative approach, as in India, of having an indirectly elected second Chamber with a small composition to reflect the regions and nations of this country rather than bring in a party-list PR model of regional election?

Mr Hain: I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend. What I favour is different proportions of party votes given to MPs then going into a regional pool, as the Bill envisages in its proposal for second votes to determine the numbers of party representatives in the second Chamber, subject to the specified transitional arrangements. This closed list mechanism is not one used in European, Welsh or Scottish elections, which quite properly have open lists, but it is not appropriate, in my view, for elections in which voters elect primary legislators in Europe, Wales and Scotland. However, a new democratic second Chamber would be unique among our institutions because a direct mandate from voters would compromise the primacy of the Commons. That is my view. If I win that argument in Committee, so be it. I hope to do so, but I will still vote for the Bill because it is vital to get it out of the House of Commons in good order so that it goes to the House of Lords. That is essential.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I think the right hon. Gentleman has talked a lot of sense, but does he not accept that if Opposition Members vote against the programme motion, it would seriously jeopardise Lords reform and our ability to get it through?

Mr Hain: No, I do not. I am glad I took that intervention. I am a former business manager, as I used to be Leader of the House, and I say that if a Government with this majority want to get this Bill through, they will get it through—with or without a programme motion. When we were in government, and we introduced the system of programme motions, I cannot recall off hand—there might be examples, but they would have to be searched for—either Liberal Democrats or Conservatives ever voting for them. They consistently voted against our programme motions—for honourable Opposition reasons —and I when I was Leader of the House the current Leader consistently opposed my arguments for programme motions when we were introducing new Bills. It is the duty of the Opposition to seek proper scrutiny of the Bill, which the programme motion does not allow. It is not our duty to provide extra time for the right-wing Bills that occupied the rest of the Queen’s Speech.

I shall vote enthusiastically for the Bill’s Second Reading, and will follow that up by supporting the Bill in principle at the end of its parliamentary stages. It is vital for it to leave the House of Commons and go to the House of Lords—and let battle then commence.