Monday, 14 July 2008

Statement on Lords Reform

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on House of Lords reform on which I am today publishing a White Paper.

In my statement to the House on 19 July last year, I said that I would continue to lead cross-party talks on reform of the House of Lords. Those talks have included front-bench representatives of the main parties from both Houses, as well as of the Crossbench Peers and the Bishops. The talks have made good progress. I am most grateful to all those who have served on the group. I pay tribute for their constructive contributions and readiness to consider alternative proposals. Our discussions have been much informed by the work of others, including the Public Administration Select Committee, informal cross-party groups, the Cunningham report and above all the report of the Royal Commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord Wakeham.

The basis for our talks was the outcome of the votes in the House of Commons in March 2007. This House voted then for a wholly elected, and for a mainly elected second chamber and rejected all other alternatives by a large margin. The Lords took a different view. It voted for a fully appointed second chamber. However, as I said in my statement on 19 July last year, reflecting the remarks of my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister on 3 July last, work taking forward House of Lords reform had to be based on the will of the House of Commons, which is the primary chamber in our legislature. The proposals we make today are consistent with the 2005 manifesto commitments of the three main parties.

The White Paper sets out how a wholly or mainly elected second chamber might be created, within a bicameral legislature in which the House of Commons retains primacy.

The White Paper reflects the considerable consensus reached in the cross-party talks. Inevitably, we did not reach agreement on all issues. In some instances, those taking part asked that the White Paper record their difference of view, which it does

As I indicated to the House in my statement on 19 July last, our intention is that the product of the cross-party talks would be the basis of “a package that we would put to the electorate as a manifesto commitment at the next general election and which hopefully the other main parties would include in their manifestos.[1]” It has never been the intention to legislate in this Parliament. The White Paper represents a significant step on the road to reform and is intended to generate further debate and consideration rather than being a final blueprint for reform.

The White Paper sets out how members could be elected to a reformed second chamber from the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. It was a key recommendation of Lord Wakeham’s Royal Commission, and has since enjoyed strong consensus including within the cross-party group, that members should serve a single, non-renewable term of three electoral cycles, that is, of 12-15 years. This reflects proposals in the February 2007 White Paper.

Elections would be held at the same time as those for members of this House, so as to minimise disruption to the business of Parliament.

The current House of Lords has over 700 members. The Government intends that the reformed second chamber should be significantly smaller, not more than 400-450 and maybe less, and that costs should be similar or reduced. We envisage all members of a reformed second chamber making a full contribution to its work and would welcome views on its size.

Single, non-renewable terms would help provide a membership for the second chamber which continued to be distinct from that of this House and hence which could bring an added dimension to the work of Parliament. It is proposed that this be reinforced by the use of large constituencies for elections to the second chamber.

I referred earlier to the primacy of this House. Analysis of other countries’ arrangements and our own history shows that primacy does not depend on the fact that this House is elected whilst the Lords is not. It is rooted in the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, and the conventions which govern relations between the two Houses. But, with the introduction of elected members into the second chamber, we have to ensure that the mandate of this House and the government it sustains continues to hold sway. The membership of a reformed second chamber should be such that it could not challenge that mandate. This is why we saw considerable merit in staggered elections to a reformed second chamber, with a third of members returned at each election. In this way, the electoral basis of the reformed second chamber could never, as a whole, be more recent than that of this House.

The cross-party group considered at some length possible voting systems. The White Paper presents detailed modelling on the possible effects of each of four electoral systems for elections to a second chamber. The systems are first-past-the-post; alternative vote; single transferable vote; and open or semi-open list systems. The Government would welcome views on the choice of system.

The cross-party group considered the powers of a reformed second chamber. We took the view that it would be wrong to pre-suppose conflict between this House and a reformed second chamber. The working relationship between the two Houses currently functions well, and we could see no reason why it should not continue to do so. Creative tension between the Houses can lead to better government, not an undermining of this House’s primacy. If conflict arose in future, it would, as now, be for both Houses to devise a way through that conflict. We identified no persuasive case for reducing, in advance of that, the powers of a wholly or mainly elected second chamber.

Given that the Commons voted last March for both, the White Paper does not take a view between the options of either a 100% or an 80% elected second chamber. But the White Paper does include detail on a possible 20% appointed element, should the latter option be chosen. There would be a statutory Appointments Commission and published criteria for appointments. Any appointed members would serve for three electoral cycles in the same way as elected members.

If the second chamber became fully elected, there could be no seats appointed or reserved, including for Church of England Bishops. But in recognition of the wide and important role played by the Lords Spiritual in the life of the nation and the special constitutional position of the Church, we propose that their representation should continue in a mainly elected House. In that instance, their numbers would not contribute to the 20% appointed element.

The White Paper includes proposals on eligibility, and on disqualification. Because of the long non-renewable terms for which they would serve we were attracted to the system discussed in the White Paper of recall ballots for elected members of the second chamber, with analogous arrangements for any appointed members. This would apply only after the first of three Parliamentary terms which members would serve. The Government would welcome views on this.

Members of a reformed second chamber should receive salaries, with the Senior Salaries Review Body asked to advise.

Mr Speaker, the transition to a reformed second chamber raises a number of important issues, not least about the future arrangements for existing members of the Lords. It is those members who, collectively, enable the chamber effectively to fulfil its key roles of scrutinising legislation, conducting investigations and holding the government to account. This Government and I know the whole House greatly values the work of the Lords and the contributions of individual members to it.

However, it was made clear in 1999 that the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote would be removed as part of the next phase of Lords’ reform. The Government proposes that following legislation, and during the transition to a reformed second chamber, there should be no further by-elections to fill vacancies for hereditary peers.

The February 2007 White Paper included a proposal from me that a reformed House should be 50% elected and 50% appointed. One of the many merits I saw of that proposal was that it would have enabled existing life peers to remain for life, if they had wished to. But that 50/50 proposal was comprehensively rejected by both Houses. The votes in this House for a wholly or of 80% elected House mean that the context for the transition to a reformed second chamber has changed. There may not be an appointed element in a reformed second chamber. If there is, it may comprise 90 or fewer members. A discussion is therefore now required to determine how far the rights of life peers to sit and vote during any transition to a reformed second chamber should continue. The White Paper sets out three options for managing the transition to a second chamber – these are (i) for all existing life peers to leave in tranches allied to the three electoral cycles, (ii) for all to leave on the third cycle, and (iii) to remain as now for life. The Government would welcome views on these options.

Mr Speaker the cross-party group faithfully and assiduously followed the mandate set for it by the Commons last March. We are now keen for there to be a wide-ranging and thorough debate. But I think all members of the cross-party group share my view that to have got this far on such an important but highly complex issue is a considerable achievement.

As I said in my statement on 19 July last, our intention now is to continue developing consensus round a comprehensive package for reform of the House of Lords. Any final package would have to be put to the electorate as a manifesto commitment at the next general election. I hope that we will be able to build on the considerable consensus established already in the cross-party group, to the extent that other parties include similar commitments in their manifestos.

Mr Speaker, an effective second chamber plays an invaluable role in holding the government to account and in scrutinising legislation. Our belief is that the proposals in the White Paper, and of the group, will lead to a more legitimate and strengthened second chamber. I commend this statement and the White Paper to the House.
[1] House of Commons, 19 July 2007: Column 450