David Miliband (South Shields) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington). I hope in my six minutes to pick up two of the key points that he made and that were made very forcefully by Labour Members yesterday. I have been spurred to speak by the fact that I find myself on the opposite side of the debate from some comrades on this side of the House with whom I have worked very closely over the past 10 or 15 years. I have asked myself why my view is so diametrically opposed to that stated by, for example, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who spoke passionately about the constitutional disaster that the Bill, he believes, represents. I do not share his view for two reasons, and I shall use my time to explain why.
First, my difference with my right hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken is that I take a different view of the inadequacies and dangers of the current system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) rightly drew attention to the Hansard Society study of how politics is held in disrepute. That study shows not just disengagement, but disaffection; not just misunderstanding, but deep mistrust; not just confusion, but contempt for politics and for Parliament. We have to take our share of the blame for that, but so does the House of Lords.
Once a fortnight, I teach A-level politics at my old comprehensive school. I was there this morning. That experience brings home the gap between the debates, the procedure and the structure of our Parliament and what exists outside. It is not just that a lesson on the British constitution seems like a trip to Hogwarts and games of quidditch; it is more fundamental than that. At a time when politics needs to be more transparent and inclusive, the unelected structure of the other place makes politics opaque and exclusive.
Yesterday, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) made the very good point that we need reform in this place, and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) spoke with real passion about that. I want to work with them on those reforms, but the need for House of Commons reform is not a reason to close our eyes to the need for reform of the House of Lords.
Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con):
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that it is not so much that the system needs reforming, but that, sadly, some Members in this place behaved disreputably which has brought politics into disrepute?
Clearly the antics of some Members—a very small minority—brought Parliament into disrepute, but I regret that, two or three years ago, more of us did not speak up and say that 95% or 99% of Members in all parts of this House come into public life for public purpose, not for private benefit. Our problems are, in a way, deeper than a couple of rotten apples who abuse the system.
Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend says that the current system is opaque and exclusive. Does he agree that one way to prevent that from happening on this issue is to have a referendum?
I ran on a manifesto that included a referendum and I support it absolutely.
Let me deal with the argument that elected Lords will represent a shocking precedent and a threat to the constitutional order, because they will be political partisans—not to say apparatchiks—put on party lists. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that 80% of the current House of Lords were nominated by party leaders, and the figure is higher if we look at voting numbers in that House. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who is not in his place, said that the Lords defeated the Blair Governments 430 times and invited us to believe that that proved that the Lords were mighty enough already. The truth is that the problem was not the power of the House of Lords, but the fact that there was an in-built Conservative majority when we came to power in 1997.
The second issue that I want to deal with is more important. It goes to the issue of the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords—something to which the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) referred. I have long argued for a single package of reform for both Houses, but the alternative vote farrago or fiasco has put paid to that, and we need to cut our Lords cloth accordingly, given that we know that the electoral system for this place is not changing in the foreseeable future.
Many of those who have attacked the Bill have done so on two mutually contradictory grounds. They have said that election to the Lords will mortally wound the primacy of the House of Commons—the point that the hon. Lady made—and neuter the power of Government in the process. At the same time, they have argued that 15-year terms will not provide sufficient accountability for Members of the new House of Lords, and that it is necessary for the new elected Lords to have more regular engagement with the electorate, but opponents of the Bill cannot have it both ways. The truth is that 15-year terms were designed, in 2007-08, to minimise the challenge of an elected Lords to the Commons. The electoral alternative to 15-year terms is five or 10-year terms, with re-election. That really is a recipe for a challenge to the primacy of the House of Commons. To oppose 15-year terms is to oppose any direct election at all. That is a perfectly principled position, but not one that I hold.
Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab)
I will come back to my right hon. Friend if I can. The real question is whether an elected second Chamber with 15-year terms will overwhelm the conventions and understandings that establish the primacy of this place, and that we all defend. I can see the truth in the argument that an elected upper House will be more demanding of the Executive, and lead to more robust debate. It might—probably will—make life more difficult for Government, though contrary to the editorial in The Times and what the hon. Member for Portsmouth North said, Cross Benchers will be protected, and will hold the balance of power in the new House. Personally, I think that a more robust challenge to the Executive from the second Chamber would be a good thing. It would make for a better Parliament. To be fair to myself, I argued for that when I was in government, as well as in opposition.
I cannot, however, see the truth in the argument that that greater challenge—that more robust debate—will lead to such difficulties that the Lords will overrun the Commons. This House will form the Government, control the finances, and have the constituency link; this House will always have the most recent—and only—electoral mandate; and this House will hold up its sleeve the ace of the Parliament Acts, which regulate the role of the other place on financial matters, and provide that this House will get its way.
In Lord Pannick’s submission to the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, he made the point that
“it is absolutely vital…for the reform Bill to specify with clarity whether or not it is the intention that the Parliament Acts should continue to apply”.
That is the Government’s intention. We must make sure, in Committee, that in all scenarios, the Parliament Acts are completely protected. The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), said yesterday that he did not want justiciability, and I understand that argument. If we are to go with that argument, we must be absolutely sure that we cement the role of the Parliament Acts, which Lord Pannick says is possible.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con):
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I just do not have time; I am really sorry.
Lord Pannick’s point is that if we want to achieve that aim, we must cement the role of the Parliament Acts in the Bill. We can do that in Committee, and must make sure that we do it properly.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles and the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), but I shall not be able to give way; I have only 25 seconds left.
The issue before us is not whether the proposals are perfect, or even whether a Bill based on the manifestos of all three parties deserves a Second Reading. It is whether the proposals improve on an unelected and unaccountable House of Lords, and the current indefensible set of arrangements. The Bill is not about neutering the Commons; it is about bringing our democracy into the 21st century, and I urge all colleagues in all parts of the House to support the Bill in the Lobby.Tweet