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House of Lords Reform Bill

July 9, 2012

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I regret that I will not be in the same Lobby tomorrow night as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), even though I agreed with much that he had to say today.

I think that the primacy problem in this place has nothing whatever to do with the House of Lords or even the House of Commons. The real issue that lies at the heart of UK constitutional politics is the corrosive effect of the overweening primacy of the Executive. Anything, but anything that provides an effective counterweight to the oft unchallenged power of the Executive is, in my view, a good thing.

I remain to this day staggered by the sheer gutlessness of this place, including of many Members who will vote against this Bill’s Second Reading and programme motion tomorrow night, because we waved through the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, and it was a terrible bit of legislation. That legislation cravenly supported a reduction in the size of this House, and it was promoted by the Deputy Prime Minister on the basis of a fatuous saving to the public purse of £10 million a year, which even in his own words has been overwhelmed by the additional amount of money that will be required for the new House of Lords. At the same time, we failed either to nail down any commensurate shrinking of the size or cost of the House of Lords, or to address the constitutional iniquity surrounding the absurdly inflated Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish and Welsh Assemblies.

But I am a democrat, and since my maiden speech in this House I have supported, and will continue to support, a fully elected House of Lords. The case for the preservation of the “ancient traditions”, as many hon. Friends have assured me, of the upper House was conclusively lost in 1999. Once the vast bulk of the hereditaries had been removed, so too should all appointed Members have followed. Instead, today we have a bloated House of Lords, of which the Lords Winstons and Puttnams are assuredly the exception rather than the rule. Over the past 13 years the ranks of the upper House have been swelled by literally hundreds of party hacks and large-scale political donors, along with dubious-quality legislators given the nod on politically correct grounds. In the charming words of my Liberal Democrat opponent at the last election, ironically herself also the daughter of a life peer, I was too “male, pale and stale”. That may well be the case, but I was also elected, and in a democracy that matters.

While I am happy to support the principle of electing the House of Lords both on Second Reading and in the vote on the programme motion, I believe that in many of its particulars the Bill is shoddy and poorly drafted.

Mr Gray: If my hon. Friend is right in saying that the Bill is shoddy and ill drafted, how on earth can he support the programme motion, which should have allowed us the time to put that right?

Mark Field: I will come to that at the end of my remarks, if I may.

The Bill misses the opportunity to propose an elegant solution that might have resolved effectively the four main domestic constitutional uncertainties that have plagued our whole political arena for the past three decades. I hope that when it is in Committee and in the other place we might be able to make some progress in that regard. With a federal UK parliament and four elected national parliaments, we could have not only maintained the monarchy, strengthened the Union, and resolved questions over the legitimacy of an unreformed House of Lords, but given independent and equal representation to citizens in England as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As many Members have said, the British constitution has been one of the success stories of modern politics. It has kept this country together, united under a common Crown and a common Parliament, for over 300 years—not for us the coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions that have plagued many of our European partners over that period. So successful has it been that we Britons had perhaps stopped thinking about some of its great successes. Until 15 years ago, nobody in this House or beyond gave much thought to constitutional issues; we knew instinctively that we had a British constitution that worked well for the whole of these islands. I am afraid that that was destroyed in 1999 when we got rid of the traditional House of Lords, removing much of the genuinely independent hereditary element and created hundreds of new life peers.

Shamefully, this process has continued even under the coalition Government, with some 120 new life peers being created. That is unacceptable.

David Tredinnick: I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but surely he must recognise that a lot of those who are made peers are experts in their own fields; it is not just a case of Lord Winston and one other.

Mark Field: They are the exception that proves the rule. Just look at the 120 who were made peers; we could mention particular names. It is an entirely misjudged view that the House of Lords is full of expertise. Clearly there is expertise—I do not dispute that for one minute—but it is very much the exception rather than the rule.

Louise Mensch (Corby) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mark Field: No. I want to make a little progress because others wish to speak.

I think we all accept that the UK constitution has traditionally been full of anomalies. However, we also like the idea of fair play. As an MP for a seat in London, which is the capital of England and of the whole United Kingdom, I call on the Government to offer all the British people—English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish—a new settlement through this Bill that will be demonstrably equitable for everyone. I believe that we should move in the direction of creating an entirely new federal parliament so that we have four full national parliaments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together with all the existing powers of the House of Commons. The federal UK parliament would deal with defence and foreign affairs, make treaties, and administer a cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the UK.

[ Interruption . ]

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) says that it would be expensive. In fact, it would be anything but, because it would mean that there were fewer politicians as all English Members would be members of both the English and the UK parliaments. It would reduce the number of elected politicians, which would be a much better approach. In a sense, it would be a unicameral system. I was the only Conservative who voted for a unicameral system when we had that option. To me, what we have at the moment is the most undesirable outcome of all.

I would sooner abolish that, put nothing in its place, have a unicameral system, and make the positive reforms that I hope we are going to make. Abolishing the House of Lords would mean that Parliament was unicameral, but that has not proved to be a problem in Edinburgh or in Cardiff over the past 12 years. All this and much more needs to be addressed in Committee, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) said, voting down the programme motion would be tantamount to trying to wreck the Bill as a whole. As a believer in a democratised House of Lords, that is something that I am not prepared to do.