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Constitutional Reform & Governance Bill

January 26, 2010

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill contains provisions to:
– complete the process of removing the hereditary principle from the House of Lords
– provide for the disqualification of Peers convicted of a serious criminal offence allow Peers to resign
– place the Civil Service Code, recruitment into the Civil Service and the role of the Civil Service Commissioners on a statutory footing – create a statutory basis for the Parliamentary scrutiny of Treaties, prior to their ratification
– remove the Prime Minister from involvement in all judicial appointments in England and Wales
– create a new corporate structure for the National Audit Office
– standardise accounting procedures for non-departmental public bodies repeal legislation that limits protests around Parliament
– standardise the time limit within which legal action can be brought under the Human Rights Act across the UK.

Mark made the following interventions in the debate regarding the removal of by-elections for hereditary peers.

Mr. Mark Field: The Lord Chancellor wishes to belittle the Earl of Stair and the Earl of Glasgow, but doubtless if they had been large-scale donors to the Labour party, they would have been welcomed as life peers for the remainder of their days. The Conservatives would be quite happy to go along with clause 29, if the Lord Chancellor had been true to his word. We made it clear in a Division in the House almost three years ago that we wanted to see how phase 2 would pan out, with an 80 or 100 per cent. elected House. Had he introduced that at the same time as the clause, we would have had no objection whatever, but our objection is the only safeguard to ensure that there is going to be a proper phase 2. Without it, we could wait 100 years, as he and Asquith have pointed out, to get rid of the remaining hereditaries. The risk is that if we allow clause 29 to go through, within 30 or 40 years, there will be no further reform, and the Government will have got their way.

Mr. Straw:
That is a kind of Trotskyist argument, if I may say so. The Trotskyists used to argue that running sores should be kept running to raise consciousness, and so hasten the revolution. My view is very different. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at clause 29. All he would see is a measure for the abolition of the by-elections. There have been only 10 since the system was established, but they have become absurd.


Mr. Mark Field:
The hon. Gentleman may recall that, given that this was Asquith’s Government, the Cabinet at the time was very much against women having a vote. Thus, one wonders what the popular vote that they had in mind in 1911 might have entailed.

David Howarth: I suspect that the factions on women having the vote and on going further on House of Lords reform might well have been the same; the Cabinet was also split on that.


Mr. Mark Field:
I appreciate that the Lord Chancellor’s memory may be failing him as to the events of 2002 and 2003-at least that is how it appears from the Chilcot inquiry-but we need to remind him of the reason for some of the 1999 safeguards that he is now seeking to remove. I entirely agree with the sentiments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in that regard.

Crucially, there is a bloc of 92 remaining hereditary peers, who are kept in place pending stage 2 of House of Lords reform, to which the current Administration have notionally been committed since 1997. I listened with great interest to the passionate speeches from the hon. Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), but one must ask why so little progress has been made, given that we have had a Labour Government for the past 13 years who have been committed throughout to a democratic House of Lords, and who have had a huge parliamentary majority during the first eight years and a very satisfactory one in the past five.

We had an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), which went into some of the detail of that history. It is perverse-given the radical reforms made in relation to Scottish and Welsh devolution, for example-that the Government have not moved more quickly on this issue, even as a second-term issue.

An integral part of the present system is the superficially anomalous by-election procedures that have been ridiculed in this debate. However, without such procedures-and we have seen some 12 deaths and 10 by-elections since the 1999 arrangements were put in place-we would see the dying off of all hereditaries and with them the safeguard to which I referred. The history of this issue is clear. As the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) pointed out, House of Lords reform often sees a short and intense burst of activity followed by many decades in which not much else happens. The worry is that Labour would have zero commitment to stage 2 reform if we did not have this safeguard in place.

This proposal is the worst sort of partisan gesture by the Government. Weeks before an election, they are dragging up the issue to try to draw a dividing line and portray my party as the party of privilege for the few and not the many.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am truly bewildered by what the hon. Gentleman has said. What incentive will there be for a Conservative Government to make reforms if this proposal is not passed today? He obviously hopes for a Conservative Government, but what would make a Cameron Government introduce comprehensive reform? We have invited his Front Benchers to comment, but there has been silence.

Mr. Field: The fact is that we have known for almost three years that the settled will of this House has been for a fully or 80 per cent. elected House of Lords. Why has there been a delay when the Government have had a working majority? That is the issue.

Mr. Straw:
It is because it has been necessary to translate that decision-the first ever such decision-into legislative proposals and to try to achieve not just agreement across the Chamber but broad, cross-party support. On the issue of the construction of Parliament, I subscribe to the old-fashioned view that it is important that it should not be in the ownership of any one political party. We have worked hard to achieve that, and I am about to publish the major part of a Bill on the issue-I hope that it will have the hon. Gentleman’s and his party’s active support.


Mr. Field:
Again, I have to say that that is far too little, far too late. I would understand that argument rather better if the Secretary of State had not introduced the clause at this juncture. We could have waited and incorporated the clause into any new Bill in the next Parliament, if his party were to win the election.

I have some sympathy-although I do not agree with-the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). In many ways, much of the constitution is not logical. As he rightly pointed out, having a hereditary royal family is not logical and, if we had started with a blank sheet of paper, we would not have had the House of Lords as it existed before 1997. However, we did not start with a blank sheet of paper: we started with many years of history. My hon. Friend’s arguments were persuasive in the run-up to the debate in 1999, but I am afraid that the pass has been lost, and that is why we must now move to a fully elected second Chamber, if we are to have such a Chamber at all.

I am slightly depressed because I fear that my party, if it gets into government, will press ahead and have a raft of new life peers almost immediately both on our side and across the political divide. I wish that we would treat the situation with more urgency and move rapidly towards an elected, democratic second Chamber. In reality, it will be the life peers on both sides who will be the main road block. I endorse the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) when he pointed out that the phenomenal economic difficulties that the incoming Conservative Government will face will mean that their political energy will be directed at correcting those rather than considering some of these grand constitutional issues. As I say, that depresses me, not least because I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) shares many of my views on this matter. However, such reform will not be an early priority as we do not want our programme to become log-jammed by constitutional difficulties that would be inevitable. Conservative life peers would be just as difficult as Labour life peers in trying to prevent the fundamental democratic reform that is close to all our hearts.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says, but does he intend to vote against clause stand part on the basis that he does not like the piecemeal approach, or will he vote in favour because it is a step in the direction in which he wishes to go?

Mr. Field: I shall vote with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield because the system is an important safeguard and I want to see clause 29 removed from the Bill.

Over the past 13 years, the House of Lords has been packed with 174 Labour peers and 66 Conservative peers-402 new members in total. The last thing that we need is yet another sizeable intake of often relatively low-grade members of the House of Lords. I may also be low grade in the House of Commons, but I am elected and in a democracy that matters. Those of us who are standing for re-election will do so some time in the next 15 weeks, and people will have a chance to vote for me or not. We run the risk of having ever more life peers with an unacceptable life-long tenure.

These issues are very difficult. All of us know that we are potentially getting ourselves logjammed into some major constitutional problems. As a slight aside, it is interesting to note, courtesy of The Sunday Times, that, in the expenses scandal in the other place, not one of the peers who has taken money for asking questions or for lobbying services-or through their second home allowances-is a hereditary peer. Every one of the 25 or so peers who has so far been accused is a life peer- [ Interruption. ] I am not sure that it is entirely a coincidence. It is wrong that we have packed the House of Lords as we have in the last dozen years. I fear that more is to come.

If we are to have a fully appointed House of Lords, which is where I fear this clause will eventually lead, I would prefer to see it abolished in its entirety. I hope that common sense will prevail and clause 29 will be vanquished. Whoever forms the next Government, I hope that they will rapidly return to this issue-although I fear that that will not be the case-and ensure that we have a proper, democratic, fully elected House of Lords, whereupon these temporary arrangements for hereditary peers would fall by the wayside.

Mr. Mark Field: Does my hon. Friend not recognise that the credibility to which he refers applies equally to all the life peers in the House of Lords? However undesirable and risible the electoral system might be, at least in the election for the Labour vacancy to which we have referred the peer concerned won two votes, which is two more than any life peers have ever won.

Mr. Tyrie: That is a little tough on the life peerage. I do not carry any cards for the life peers, but one can make a case for saying that quite a few of them have done something in life that at some point has led people to think that they will be able to make a contribution. Furthermore, some of them-perhaps some of the unlikely ones who have been put there-turn out to make very good contributions.