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House of Lords Reform

January 14, 2015

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)—if he does not mind my calling him that, and if it is not too deferential for his standards—will realise all too well that, as a Conservative, my views on House of Lords matters are not particularly orthodox. In fact, even before his time in the House, I was the only Conservative to support the notion of a unicameral system—certainly unicameral compared with the appalling state of our current House of Lords. To be honest, as a Conservative, I have no problem with a little forelock tugging. I do not mind having dukes, earls, marquises, barons and the like. I just do not want them having any place in the legislature. They can call themselves whatever they like, but the notion that they are able to vote through laws seems as anachronistic as he pointed out.

In discussing House of Lords reform, there is a great opportunity for us to make the link with something I had thought the hon. Gentleman would raise: English votes for English laws, and the disjointed devolution we currently have in the United Kingdom. I shall touch on that in my speech. I broadly share his view that the time has come for comprehensive constitutional change in the United Kingdom. If it were to be carried out precisely and without partisan party political consideration, I believe we would be capable of producing a solution that will benefit Britain for decades to come.

My instinctive and immediate proposal would be for the creation of a new federal Parliament. It would be an elegant solution designed to resolve effectively the four main domestic constitutional uncertainties of the United Kingdom, which have plagued the political arena during the past three decades and perhaps will continue to do so in the years to come. With a federal UK Parliament and four elected national Parliaments, we could maintain the monarchy, strengthen the Union, and resolve the questions raised by the disgracefully unreformed House of Lords, which we rightly debate today. I would also wish to give independent and equal Parliaments to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Like the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, I am a democrat. Since my maiden speech in the House some 14 years ago, I have supported a fully elected House of Lords. The case for the preservation of the so-called “ancient traditions” of the upper House—we heard much on that, even from younger colleagues of mine in the Conservative party, when the House debated the issue two years ago—was conclusively lost in 1999. Once the vast bulk of the hereditaries—all bar 92—were removed, so too should all appointed Members have followed. Instead, as has been pointed out, we have a ludicrously bloated House of Lords. I am afraid that the Lord Winstons of the House, who are often prayed in aid of the House of Lords, are, with their great broad-based experience, assuredly the exception rather than the rule.

Over the past 15 years, the ranks of the House of Lords have been swelled by hundreds of party hacks and large-scale political donors, along with legislators of very dubious quality who are often given the nod on politically correct grounds. Indeed, I remain staggered at the sheer gutlessness of this place, the House of Commons, as we waved through the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. That legislation was promoted by the Deputy Prime Minister, who heralded the fatuous-to-the-point-of-being-disingenuous saving to the public purse of £10 million a year, which was ironic, given how the Liberal Democrats have not only stuffed the House of Lords full of their own placemen but swelled the ranks of special advisers to untold numbers, both of which actions are entirely counter to the idea of making the cost of politics cheaper.

Mark Lazarowicz: It appears that we all agree—or at least those of us present in the Chamber—on the need for democratic reform of the House of Lords. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we did not all support the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011—it was opposed by the Opposition.

On change in the House of Lords, although I understand the attraction of a radical transformation and move towards a federal Parliament, is there not a danger that we end up spending so many decades trying to get the correct solution that nothing ever happens? Is there a case for moving to an elected House of Lords now, and then moving on to further changes? Otherwise, nothing will happen, not only in our lifetimes but in the lifetimes of people yet unborn.

Mark Field: There is a danger of that. In many ways, much as I disapprove of what happened in 1999, from the point of view of the Blair Administration, they did the right thing in taking the view that they should partly sort out the hereditary issue. Of course, the risk of any reform is that a little flurry of it is followed by decades of nothing else being done—historically, that is what has happened with the upper House—with those who wanted some reform saying, “Well, listen, we’ve been able to achieve something.”

It is depressing that the House of Lords has become ever more a creature of the Executive, while House of Lords reform has ground to a halt. The truth behind what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said is that it is down to the numbers game. The Whips can get business through the House of Commons, so we have the utter discourtesy of Government amendments being tabled in the House of Lords simply because it is known that the legislation will not get through without amendments, which are rubber-stamped when it comes back to the Commons. Instinctively, that feels wrong. Ultimately, it is in our hands in the House of Commons. We are now only 16 or 17 weeks away from a general election, and if the result is indeterminate, we parliamentarians will have the opportunity to stand up, have our say and make a difference, particularly if we are in the realms of a minority Government.

I must confess that, although I was happy to support the underlying principle of electing the House of Lords on Second Reading and in the programme motion of the House of Lords Reform Bill, I believed ultimately that, in many of its particulars, it was a shoddy, poorly drafted piece of legislation. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said, if we try to work towards perfection, we will achieve very little. That is a great shame, because in many ways the British constitution has hitherto been one of the great success stories of modern politics. It has kept the country together—up to and beyond 18 September last year—united under a common Crown and common Parliament for more than 300 years. Not for us the coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions that have plagued much of the European continent over that period. So successful has the British constitution been that we Britons have often stopped thinking about it.

Until 15 or so years ago, no one lost much time worrying about constitutional niceties. We knew instinctively that, messy as it was, the British constitution worked well and worked for the whole of the British isles. The Blair Administration changed everything. They part-reformed the House of Lords by removing the independent hereditary element, but successive Governments since have created literally hundreds of new life peers. In response to the demand of the people of Scotland and Wales—a demand that I acknowledge the Conservatives were perhaps too slow to understand, and certainly to accept—devolved Parliaments and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were created. It requires little cynicism to see that many of those changes were designed for Labour’s political advantage, and that they have not necessarily been properly carried through elsewhere. That has created many problems, especially in England, the neglected land in all those constitutional changes. England is a nation proud and undivided, but many of its people increasingly demand equal treatment with the other nations of the UK. Since last September’s Scottish referendum—lost, in case there is a doubt about it, by 10.6%—some Tory strategists feel that the time is ripe to play the English card.

There is a deep and increasing disquiet among many in England at the effects of devolution, and the most serious problems are the imbalances left by the somewhat partisan settlement of the late 1990s. Those are easily stated. MPs from Edinburgh and Cardiff can vote on health and education policies that affect my constituents and Manchester constituents, and those of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), but not on health and education policies affecting their own constituents—but why? It does not seem just. Under the Barnett formula, residents of Edinburgh had £1,300 more spent on their public services last year than my constituents did. Again, that seems less than equitable. There was a disgraceful situation before Christmas in the Northern Ireland Assembly when the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein worked together to put a gun to the head of the British Government, to try to ensure there would be more money on the basis that they wanted a Barnett formula for Northern Ireland. If there is an indeterminate general election result, we may go down that route, with a bidding war on similar grounds in May and June.

Mr Gregory Campbell: The hon. Gentleman said political parties had put a gun to the head of the British Government. I understand his use of the phrase, but while he might well say that about Sinn Fein, the Democratic Unionists were applying pressure.

Mark Field: I am sorry—the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I did not mean that literally. I recognise that, within the context of Northern Ireland and Ulster politics, it might be seen as a loaded phrase. He is aware of what I was getting at. There was a sense that a lot of political pressure was being brought to bear by the political Assembly of one of the parts of the United Kingdom that has had a full constitutional change, which would have affected my constituents to a large extent.

There are great dangers for the Conservatives in promoting the prospect of English votes for English laws. The UK constitution is full of anomalies. Attacking Scottish MPs in that way comes across as partisan and negative. Our mission should be to maintain and strengthen the Union. It is all too easy for a negative-sounding solution to the West Lothian question to be portrayed by our opponents—

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I am listening carefully and with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. The title of the debate is House of Lords reform, and he is talking about wider constitutional questions and issues. Perhaps he could relate them back to the reform of the House of Lords. I am sure he would be happy to stay in order.

Mark Field: That is very kind, Mr Howarth. I very much accept that. The point I was trying to make was that we need to look at House of Lords reform in the context of many of the other constitutional reforms that would be at the top of the in-tray for a Government, because of the unbalanced constitutional situation. It seems to me that the English, and indeed the British as a whole, like and respect the concept of fair play, and there is a groundswell of unease about the somewhat one-sided constitutional deal, which is linked to reform of the House of Lords. As an MP for a seat in London, the capital of both England and the United Kingdom, I think that the Conservative party should offer all the British people together, whether English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, a new settlement that is demonstrably equitable for everyone. As I have said, that links to the question of the House of Lords.

Since the expulsion of the great bulk of the hereditary peers some 16 years ago, I have in principle favoured the option of a wholly or largely elected House of Lords. I recognise that such an outcome is unlikely to be within the realms of practical politics soon, because the strongest opposition to an elected House of Lords comes from existing life peers from across the political spectrum. Their support for any reform will be essential if we are to avoid the constitutional deadlock that we have been beset by in the past. In addition, even if the principle of election were established, there would remain the question of the timing and process. Would it be first past the post, or proportional representation, a system that other hon. Members have supported? Would there be fixed or variable terms? The list of practical difficulties would be almost endless.

The solution I propose is the creation of an entirely new federal Parliament, with four full national Parliaments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with all the existing powers of the House of Commons, and over them a federal United Kingdom Parliament, which would debate defence and foreign affairs, make treaties and administer a broader cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the UK and broader strategic economic issues. There would be no need for extra politicians, because the national Parliaments would send representatives to the UK Parliament, which would meet in the old House of Lords Chamber, perhaps once or twice a week. That would mean abolishing the House of Lords, and moving to a unicameral system. That would work pretty well. It has not proved a problem in Edinburgh or Cardiff in the past eight years.

The proposal would cut the Gordian knot of House of Lords reform and provide an equitable structure that respected national differences, while strengthening our ties as a nation of equals. It would remove the growing sense of disgruntlement in England at the perception that the Scots can play the system to benefit financially from the devolution settlement that came into play 15 years ago. It would also save the cost of the House of Lords and the Scotland and Wales Offices and reduce the total number of politicians. It is perhaps a radical and bold solution for a Conservative MP to suggest, but I believe it will be the only way to balance the British constitution, which has served us so well for so long. It would say no to partisan changes and offer the British people a fairer alternative if my party were to hold power after the next election.

The debate is important and will continue. It is easy to be overly negative about the House of Lords. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire comes from a somewhat different political tradition, which means that, for him, the issue has a class war aspect. Even as a Conservative, when I watch the Queen’s Speech, the ermine and the pomp and ceremony of the House of Lords do not fill me with great joy.

Although I believe we should adopt a unicameral system and abolish the House of Lords, I should point out that a significant number of Lords make a big contribution. The composition of the House, particularly recently, has not been terribly satisfactory, but many peers have great expertise and are diligent in their work. They probably earn considerably less in the hours they spend on House of Lords business than they do in their other activities. We should recognise that, but like the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, I feel the time is ripe for constitutional change, to put things on a fair footing, equitable for all our people. I very much want to link House of Lords reform to general devolution reform, which is at the forefront of the Government’s mind.