HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM – 20 June 2006
Dr Julian Lewis: It is a great pleasure to follow the robust and common-sense remarks made by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (David Clelland). I am glad to know that I will not be the sole reactionary participating in this debate. He suggested that people would give a dusty response to any idea that we should set up another body with another raft of elected politicians. I think that people would give an even dustier response if anyone suggested that the House of Commons, with its 640-plus Members of Parliament, was in fact too small and that we ought to do something to double the number of MPs elected in a single-chamber Parliament. If that is regarded as a foolish, if not barking mad, proposition, why should it be regarded as a sensible proposition to create that number of elected Members of Parliament if they happen to be divided between two Chambers?
I can think of a number of possible outcomes of going down such a route, and that would depend on whether the Members in the two elected Chambers were elected by the same system of elections or a different system, and whether they were elected at the same time or at different times. If both Chambers of Parliament were elected and if they were elected at the same time, it is reasonable to guess that we would get broadly similar results in each of the two Chambers, and if the intention was that the second Chamber should be some sort of revising brake on the first, that would be unlikely to happen. If, however, they were elected at different times, the likelihood is that we would see the sort of results that we see in local government elections midway through the term of a national Government; the local election is seen as a sort of referendum on the performance of the Government. One Chamber would be elected as, in some sense, a protest against the way in which the Government were proceeding, and the result would be likely to be deadlock.
I have a confession to make. Once upon a time I had a private conversation with a very senior member of my Party’s Shadow Cabinet. He is not here today, and even if he were, I would not embarrass him by identifying him. He said to me, “Julian, you don’t understand. The whole point is to have a deadlock. If the problem is that Parliament is doing too much, that there is too much legislation and too much government, then isn’t it a great thing that the two Houses should be deadlocked in this way?” That is a radical approach, but I do not think that it is a very constructive one.
Chris Bryant: I have just been quietly counting to myself the number of subjunctives and ifs that the hon. Gentleman has used. I think that we are up to about 15 of each. I think that that is because he is describing something, to then knock it down, that nobody is advocating. The truth is that the vast majority of those of us who advocate a substantially or wholly elected second Chamber suggest that it should not all be elected at one time, that it should not have a majority for any one party and that the relationship between the two Houses needs to be a constructive one that can lead to proper legislative process.
Dr Lewis: Yes, but if it were not elected all at once – [Interruption.] I am terribly sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not like my use of the word “if,” but when one is trying to anticipate what the results of a proposed change will be, that is the only way in which one can proceed. One can say, “If you take course A, the result will be consequence B. If you take course B, the result will be consequence C,” and so on. There is nothing wrong with my doing that; in fact, I cannot think of an intellectually honest alternative way to proceed with the argument.
Ian Lucas: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr Lewis: Well, okay. I had not finished my response to the previous intervention, but never mind.
Ian Lucas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that he is always anxious to take lessons from Europe, and in his support I refer him to the position in Germany in recent years. A series of state elections led to the paralysis of government in the Bundestag, which meant that the Government were unable to continue through their term and an election had to take place. That position would apply here if a directly elected second Chamber were introduced.
Dr Lewis: Of course the hon. Gentleman’s point is right, and it is precisely the answer to the objection that was made to my argument. There are differences between people’s outlooks on the most legitimate method of electing a Parliament. If people believe, for example, that it is most legitimate to use a system with a proportional element, which tends to lead to the type of results to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred, they will regard the Chamber elected by those means as having more legitimacy. If people believe, as I do, that it is more legitimate to have a first-past-the-post system of election, they will take the view that the Chamber elected by that method has the greater legitimacy.
The key argument against the proposals is shown by the fact that nearly every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has emphasised that the main role for the second Chamber should be as a revising Chamber rather than to extend, repeat or second-guess the process of legislation carried out by the House of Commons. Who is better qualified to undertake its work – another raft of non-expert, professional, elected politicians or a collection of people who have achieved distinction in other walks of life, but chosen not to enter the hurly-burly of the democratic political process because they are intellectually gifted and temperamentally inclined to become distinguished academics, practitioners of the law, medical practitioners and experts in their field? The reformers’ proposals would exclude from the legislative process a group of people who can genuinely improve the legislation that comes before them in favour of non-expert, career politicians who have nothing to add to what the career politicians in the lower House contribute.
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend provokes me almost beyond belief. Under the proposals, the percentage of independents in the new, reformed House of Lords would be almost exactly the same as it is now.
Dr Lewis: I am not sure that that bears very much on the question of expertise. If people have to go through a process of election to get into the second Chamber, then the majority of people who have chosen not to become professional politicians but to rise to the top of their professions will almost certainly be excluded.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is provoking me even more than he provoked his right hon. Friend. The majority of those who do most of the work in the House of Lords at the moment are career politicians who have gone from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. I do not understand why those people should suddenly be frightened of elections. Surely anybody who is in the legislature on a party ticket should at least have to be elected.
Dr Lewis: I am very surprised at the assertion that the majority of work is done by the ex-politicians. The vast majority of business management may be done by such people, but a very considerable contribution is made, according to the field in which their expertise lies, by people who have, as I have repeatedly stated, risen to the top of their respective professions. Those people will be excluded.
Why has the Prime Minister suddenly declared himself a convert to this cause? Is it because he has been convinced by the integrity, consistency and plausibility of the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? I rather doubt it. I think that it is because he and his party have been caught with their fingers in the till – they have been caught out over the question of loans for peerages.
They are not the first, and they will not be the last to have been caught out in that way.
If we are talking about the people who do the majority of the work in the upper House, I think that it will be found that those who have been controversial appointees are not the ones who do the majority of the work. A lot of those people take the bauble and are never heard of again.
John Bercow: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Dr Lewis: I am actually bringing my remarks to a conclusion.
I can think of a lot of good reasons for the Prime Minister’s having one view or another about the composition of the second Chamber, but doing things as a panic reaction to having been caught out in corrupt practices is not the right way to decide this important constitutional issue.