HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM – 7 March 2007

Dr Julian Lewis: I begin my short contribution with a confession: as a legislator – but not, I hope, as a parliamentarian – I have been an abysmal failure since I entered Parliament in 1997. [Hon. Members: “No!”] I appreciate the noises of protest, but it is true. Not one piece of legislation has been changed as a result of my presence in this House for nearly 10 years. I suspect that that would have been the case, even if I had been fortunate enough to sit on the Government Benches – as a Back Bencher, at any rate – but perhaps that is not the case.

It was not always thus. Back in the 1980s, I had the privilege of acting as specialist adviser to a small group of peers, one of whom was Baroness Cox. Sadly, the other four are no longer with us.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is a jinx.

Dr Lewis: I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman finds that amusing. I think that when distinguished Members of the other House pass away, we ought to show some respect. The other four with whom I worked were the late Lord Beloff, the late Lord Kimberley, the late Lord Orr-Ewing and, in the latter part of the late 1980s, the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford. As I say, it was an immense privilege to know and work with those gentlemen and that lady, who were of various parties. I worked with them to consider legislation that was being considered in the Commons in a party political way, but which could benefit from amendment on a cross-party basis in the other House.

As a result of that work, the Trade Union Act 1984 was amended after a revolt in the House of Lords. The Lords introduced registers for properly secure postal ballots for trade union elections. Postal ballots for trade union elections were made law in the Employment Act 1988. The Education Act 1986 was amended, against the wishes of the Government, to prevent political indoctrination in the classroom. The revolt in the House of Lords was so strong, and the arguments so compelling, that when the Bill came back before the House of Commons, the House of Commons and the Government listened and the law was changed.

Similarly, in the Local Government Act 1988, measures were introduced to prevent indoctrination and propaganda on the rates. Those measures still hold good today, and they have been good enough to be carried forward in subsequent legislation. In the Broadcasting Act 1990, detailed provisions were included to ensure impartiality on television. Although the provisions are not always observed, they at least set a benchmark and set out what should happen when controversial, politically contentious issues are aired in the mass media.

As a result of the Lords’ ability to combine expertise and cross-party commitment to a cause when considering a Bill, it was possible to amend legislation. I have to ask myself whether that job of revision, improvement and refinement would be in any way improved if we had a wholly or partly elected Upper House. I answer my own question with a resounding 'No'. Yesterday, I experienced another failure. Despite trying on 11 separate occasions to persuade the Leader of the House [Jack Straw] to give way to me, I was not successful. That is rare, as he is usually extremely courteous.

Mr Straw rose

Dr Lewis: I am about to be courteous to him.

Mr Straw: If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask his question now that the positions are reversed, as it were, he is welcome to do so. May I point out that I accepted 24 interventions, so my speech, which was scheduled to last less than 20 minutes, ended up as a 40-minute speech?

Dr Lewis: I am delighted that the Leader of the House has responded as I calculated that he would, and I shall proceed to ask him what I was trying to ask him yesterday. On reflection, does he wish to give me a slightly different answer from the one that he gave to the question that I asked in the meeting of peers and Members of Parliament that he kindly attended on 30 January? I asked how precisely would the function of the House of Lords be improved as a result of the incorporation of an elected element. As I recall, he said that in the 21st century, it was no longer legitimate to have a purely appointed House. If I missed something, I will happily give way so that he can clarify that response.

Mr Straw: As I spelt out yesterday – I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was listening – a fundamental argument in favour of change is the issue of legitimacy. People can make up their minds, but I do not think that it is acceptable, this time, to have a wholly appointed Chamber. That is my opinion. I believe, too – I spelt it out yesterday – that as the Second Chamber becomes more legitimate so its scrutiny of Government will increase. I do not fear that, because it is perfectly possible to accommodate it without challenging the primacy of the Commons and its ability to sustain a Government.

Dr Lewis: That is a classic case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (John Maples) said in his excellent speech yesterday, of a solution looking for a problem. There is a determination in different parts of the House, including among Ministers, to introduce an elected House of Lords because they think that that is right because they think that that is right. I am indebted to the hon. Liberal Democrat Member for Somerton and Frome (David Heath) – we should all be grateful to him – for stating that "the issue is not utility but legitimacy".

There is a visceral or emotional rejection of the notion that the Upper House should be appointed, as we have not heard a rational explanation of how an elected Chamber would perform the function of the Upper House any better. Indeed, if it is elected under any conceivable electoral system discussed in the long hours of debate yesterday and today, we can be sure that independence and cross-party co-operation will vanish in a puff of smoke. We will end up with a situation that no one in their right mind would vote for if they were asked whether they thought that the House of Commons had too few – not too many – professional politicians, and if they were asked whether it should be doubled in size.

We are being asked to double the community of elected politicians, and put them in two Chambers, rather than one. We are expected to believe that the Second Chamber, having secured the same legitimacy as the Commons Chamber – everyone is anxious to give it that legitimacy – will be content to be regarded as the subordinate Chamber. That shows breathtaking naivety, but I do not think that everyone who has enunciated that proposition believes it. I recall a conversation with a profound Front-Bench thinker in my party.

Simon Hughes: That limits it.

Dr Lewis: Indeed. I suggested that that proposition was in danger of creating deadlock between the two Houses, and it would undermine our ability to function if we ever came to power. He gave a purist, nihilist response:

“Julian, you must realise that, if you oppose interference by Government, that would be a very good result.”

John Bercow: It was Eric Forth.

Dr Lewis: No, it was not. In fact, it was someone who has taken part in this debate.

It took a great deal of effort for me to enter the House, and I did not do so to sit around playing a deadlocked game of chess or draughts. I wanted to try to improve things as best I could for my constituents and, perhaps in a small way, for the country. We have been told that the Upper House does not include experts in everything. The logic of that argument is that because it does not have experts in everything it should not have experts in anything.

As a Shadow Defence Minister, I believe that we get far more out of a Second Chamber in which the Chief of the Defence Staff, who served under the Prime Minister during his first four years in office, now serves. He has been released from his shackles or harness to serve in the House of Lords, and he can say what he thinks the Government are doing right, and what they are doing wrong.

To replace Lord Guthrie with a list-elected party political hack is absolutely absurd. If they are to carry the argument, people who want an elected Second Chamber must do better. They must show how elected Members will improve the role of the Second Chamber to revise and improve legislation. The role of the Commons Chamber is to introduce legislation, and that complementary role will be served in future, as it has been in the past, only by an appointed Second House of Parliament.