Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): It is with a heavy heart that I speak to the Bill before the House. I am a reformer, and I would welcome a well-crafted Lords reform Bill without election that reduced the size of the upper House, removed those who have committed serious criminal offences, improved the scrutiny of legislation, strengthened the appointments process, reduced political patronage, converted the hereditary peers to life peers, and separated the peerage as such from the legislature.
Those measures would constitute a great reforming Bill and would, I suspect, pass through this House on a free vote. This Bill, however, is a hopeless mess.
Members of the House can properly differ on the merits of the underlying issues. What they cannot differ on are the flaws in the Bill itself. It is deeply confused and, indeed, dangerous legislation. It will prevent real reform. It will reduce diversity and deep expertise in our political system. It would be a catastrophe for this country if the Bill were ever enacted.
There has also been an important failure of due process. The Government originally worked hard to establish a consensus on the Bill, but without success. The Joint Committee sat for longer than any in recent memory. Because of its internal disagreements, it was forced to put more issues to the vote than any recent Committee. It even produced an unprecedented minority report, signed by six Privy Counsellors.
But the views of the Joint Committee have barely been heeded by the Government. Its key recommendations were that an issue of this constitutional magnitude required a referendum and that the crucial clause governing the relationship between Lords and Commons should be entirely rethought. Those recommendations have been ignored or brushed aside.
The result is that important matters have been introduced without any pre-legislative scrutiny. Those include a revised clause 2 on the relations between the Houses, and a party list voting system. Instead, the Government have treated the votes of a highly divided Committee as a consensus when they were nothing of the kind. The Government refused to allow the Committee to publish the costs of the draft Bill, and refused to schedule a debate on its report, as is normal practice. They have rushed to get the Bill into Parliament before the summer.
Mr Gray: As evidence of the lack of consensus that my hon. Friend so well describes, has he ever attended any Second Reading debate in which every speech of any substance at all was against the principle behind the Bill?
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The Bill is being pushed through the Commons by the Government—before the summer, on a whipped vote and with a guillotined debate—but the central question concerns the likely constitutional crisis that will arise from the Bill, which will transform the Lords into a Chamber competing with the Commons. The result will be gridlock, cronyism and a rise in special-interest politics.
The US offers a useful cautionary tale. The American political system is manifestly struggling: beset by gridlock; vulnerable to powerful special interests, from the gun lobby to the American Association of Retired Persons; and its politicians elected by corporate lobbyists through political action committees, recently liberated by the Supreme Court from any spending constraints under the first amendment. The two Houses have repeatedly found it impossible to achieve consensus on important legislation. Pork-barrel has been replaced by stand-off. President Obama’s health care Bill is a classic example, and it ended up in the Supreme Court.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Is not my hon. Friend adverting to the fundamental conundrum at the heart of the Government’s presentation of the Bill? On the one hand, they are arguing for a more legitimate House; on the other, they are arguing that there will be no change in the relationship between the two Houses. It does not add up.
Exactly the same thing as has happened in the US will happen here. I refer my colleagues and Members across the House to Lord Pannick’s brilliant memorandum on the issue, which has been published this afternoon. Lord Pannick is widely regarded as one of the most excellent lawyers and advocates of his generation, and is specifically expert in the Parliament Acts. He is also precisely the kind of person who would never be willing to stand for election to a new Senate. In his words:
“The Bill does not adequately address the central issue of constitutional concern: the fact that a House of Lords most of whose members will be elected will almost certainly be much more assertive than the unelected House of Lords and reluctant to give way.”
“only relate to the end of the legislative process, and not the day-to-day conventions which (at present) result in the Lords giving way to the Commons. Indeed, the Parliament Acts do not apply at all to Bills introduced in the House of Lords or to subordinate legislation.
The crucial question is this: should the Bill seek to regulate all these matters, or leave them to convention? If it leaves them to convention, then the result will be disputes between the two competing chambers. If it regulates these issues, then the result will be that relations between the chambers become justiciable in law, as they did over the Hunting Act, which went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Mr Harper: The Joint Committee considered the question of putting powers in the Bill and clearly recommended that we should not go there; it would be dangerous and it would open up the Bill to interference by the courts. We listened to the Committee very carefully.
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Jesse Norman: I am grateful to the Minister for stating that he wishes to be impaled on the first horn of the dilemma: in the absence of regulation that would render the actions of the Houses justiciable, he wishes to impale himself on the horn of constant gridlock and competition between the two sides.
“the Government have, hitherto, failed to recognise the difficulty”—
“and the importance of the constitutional issue arising from a decision to elect 80% of the House of Lords.”
Members of the House of Commons, Lord Pannick is no partisan, no party politician. His is quiet but devastating criticism. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us about what external advice the Government took when they reformulated clause 2. We now know which of the two options he proposes to take, so I need not ask him. He proposes not to allow the judges in, but to leave future disputes between the two Houses to the conventions —and a thoroughly unsatisfactory compromise that is.
In politics, as in all else, timing is everything. That applies in particular to voting against one’s own Government for the first time, which is not something to be wasted on a small measure. Luckily, however, this Bill makes it very easy. There is a fundamental issue of constitutional principle at stake; the Bill is a hopeless mess; it is in no sense a piece of Conservative legislation; it lacks any genuine manifesto commitment; it proposes a new upper Chamber that will be less expert, less diverse and more expensive than the present one, let alone one after sensible reforms; and the issue is absolutely irrelevant to the overwhelming need to put out the fire in the economic engine room. I shall be voting against it and I would venture to suggest that the Bill is such that all MPs, Conservative or not, have a constitutional obligation to vote against it.