House of Lords Reform

 

5.43 pm

 

Mr Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West) (Con): I am delighted to follow the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I share much of his analysis but arrive at the opposite conclusion.

 

The Deputy Prime Minister builds his case on three broad themes. First, there is his claim about the manifesto commitments. It is clear, however, that the Conservative manifesto contained no commitment to legislate—the Prime Minister famously described it as a third-term issue. Regardless, however, I would urge my hon. Friends to think carefully about their responsibilities as Members of this House. We are not delegates sent here to nod through whatever our parties ask, but representatives sent here to exercise our judgment in the public interest.

 

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I would also like to reflect on the case for a referendum. If it were true, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, that all the major parties promised the Bill at the general election, then contrary to the assertions of the Ministers, the public were presented with no choice at the general election, so the case for a referendum on such major constitutional change is compelling.

 

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman is giving a thoughtful speech, as have other Members. If it is possible to have a referendum in a local authority—for instance, on something to do with council tax—surely it is absolutely right, on an issue as significant as this, that the British public should be offered the same choice.

 

Mr Brady: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The case is compelling. Ministers really cannot have it both ways.

 

Much of what has been said about the Bill, however, concerns not party commitments but calculations of party advantage. We spend too much time here pursuing party advantage. To do so in changing our constitution would be not just wrong but contemptible.

 

Let me turn to the other parts of the Deputy Prime Minister’s case—the points of principle on which I hope the House will judge any proposal to effect a massive change in our constitutional arrangements. These are whether reform is needed and the argument that there is an absolute principle that those who legislate for the people should be chosen by the people. There has been an effort to paint opposition to the Bill as reactionary opposition to any change. Nothing could be further from the truth. Few on either side of this House or in the other House would dispute the need for reform. The Lords is too big and it needs a route to retirement. It also needs a means of removing those found guilty of serious crimes. All this, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said, could be enacted with little dissent here or in the other place. However, desirable as reforming the Lords may be, I would contend that reforming the Lords without reforming this House would be to miss the point.

 

The public are not stupid: they know where power is located in our Parliament. They know that it is in this House and not the other. People certainly dislike politicians who break promises or who seem interested more in seeking or holding on to office than in serving the public good, but this is seen as a failing in the House of Commons far more than in the House of Lords. People notice that this House is poor at holding the Government to account. They see that we make only a desultory effort at scrutinising legislation—although I trust that this Bill will be an exception. People see the damaging effects of patronage—against which Lord Ashdown railed in the weekend press—but they know that patronage is a greater impediment to the freedom of this House than it is to that of the Lords. We are agreed that the House of Lords needs reforming, but reforming the Lords while flunking the far more important task of strengthening the Commons would be profoundly mistaken.

 

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The hon. Gentleman will know that the coalition agreement is clear that we need to work to reform the

 

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effectiveness of this place, but is he clear that he appears to be proposing that we should end up with a second legislative Chamber that is slightly altered, but all of whose Members are appointed? Is that really justifiable in 2012?

 

Mr Brady: The right hon. Gentleman should be patient.

 

Let me turn to the most important pillar of the Deputy Prime Minister’s case: that those who legislate for the people should be chosen by the people. Many of the opponents of the Bill, on both sides of the House, reject that. They rightly point to the expertise of the upper House. They highlight the obvious truth that an elected or part-elected upper House would be more inclined to challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. I accept both assertions, but unlike many of my hon. Friends, I would support an elected upper House in spite of them. However, that is not what the Bill delivers. We do not have time today to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the United States constitution. There can certainly be gridlock between the Houses in the United States, but the legislation it produces is at least as effective as ours, and Congress is certainly far better able to hold the Executive to account than we are. However, is the Bill before us today one that would excite Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine? Is it a great clarion call for government of the people, by the people? It is not.

 

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

 

Mr Brady: No, I cannot give way again.

 

Let us look at the reality of the Bill and some of the reasons why it should be rejected by any true advocate of reform. Even if the Bill were enacted unamended and even if all the electoral cycles it envisages were allowed to take place and the reformed House foreshadowed by the Bill were implemented in full, we would have a bizarre and opaque arrangement—a House of indeterminate size, with an unknown number of Members appointed as Ministers by prime ministerial patronage; an appointments commission for the unelected Members responsible for vetting appointees for propriety, but not if they were appointed as Ministers; and a number of bishops, as has already been said.

 

Instead of a simple, transparent democratic process, the Bill proposes an absurdly complex hybrid assembly: elections by not one but two different systems of proportional representation; and party lists to help to maintain the central powers of the political parties over who will sit in the newly constituted Chamber. Far from the high principle of an elected Chamber, we have a ridiculous fudge, justified by the Deputy Prime Minister as a gradual move towards a wholly elected Senate, although he, like the Prime Minister on previous occasions, has suggested with a nod and a wink that the second and third cycles may never happen, and that that will be open to this House or indeed to the public in a referendum to decide.

 

As an advocate both of reforming the Lords and of introducing more democracy to our institutions, I shall oppose this appalling Bill because if those are its aims, I believe it will fail utterly to achieve them. The Bill fails to address the real problem in our democracy—a Commons that is so greatly dominated by the Government that it fails to perform its core functions of holding Ministers

 

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to account and of scrutinising legislation effectively. I urge the House to vote against a Bill that is complex where it should be simple, that preserves patronage instead of providing real democracy, and that yet again allows this House to avoid confronting the truth about its own shortcomings