House of Lords Reform Bill: 9th July 2012

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
Although I support the Bill, as a Member representing one of the most marginal seats in the House—my majority is 389—I think that my hon. Friend is making an extremely important point which must be considered. I can imagine how, had I been elected under the proposed system in the last election, my Labour or Liberal Democrat opponent would have sought to undermine my position by claiming that he or she had a mandate equal to mine.

Oliver Heald
My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about that.

The Joint Committee took evidence from Australian senators. The Australian system is similar to that proposed in the Bill. Senator Ursula Stephens from the governing Labour party told us:

“I am allocated a number of seats that are not held by the Government in the lower House in my state. I look after those constituents who do not have a government representative. Those people might come to me about issues and legislation.”

Senator Lee Rhiannon from the Australian Greens said:

“we have nine Senators and only one Member in the House of Representatives. The issue of working with constituents is very important for us and it takes up quite a bit of time.”

Senator Michael Ronaldson of the Opposition Liberal Party said:

“I do not think that you can make the assumption that you will not be engaged in constituency-type work, particularly if the elected Lords in an area—as Senator Stephens said—come from the other party. If you are a Member of the non-ruling party, the Lords might find that they have more people knocking on their doors than they might otherwise have anticipated.”

When the Clerk of the House gave evidence, he spoke of the danger of “constituency case tourism”. We must try to avoid such constituency conflicts.

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op)
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate. I note the number of Members who are still seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and who will no doubt be seeking to do so tomorrow. A six-minute limit underlines the importance that many of us attach to the Bill and the fact that there is genuine concern about the time that we will be able to spend discussing some of these important issues.​

As it happens, my views are probably not as strong as some of those expressed today by eminent and experienced Members on both sides of the House, and on both sides of the debate on the other side of the House. I perhaps find myself slightly in sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), wondering how much the Bill is a distraction from more important issues. It is certainly not something that has been raised particularly by my constituents at surgeries or on the doorstep in recent times.

Anna Soubry
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree with me, though, from his experience on the doorstep, that a lot of people are disaffected and cynical about politics, and does he not think that one of the reasons for that is that we have an unelected House of Lords?
 
Tom Greatrex
I think there are many more fundamental reasons why people are disappointed in politics.

Before coming to the Chamber this afternoon—I have been here since the debate started—I checked and found that two constituents have contacted me about House of Lords reform and implored me to support it. At the end of the letter—they are identical—it says:

“All I ask is for you to do one simple thing; keep to your manifesto commitment and vote in favour of reforming the House of Lords.”

I do not know whether other hon. Members have received that letter. One was sent to me by a Liberal Democrat councillor—well, he was a Liberal Democrat councillor; he lost his seat in my ward earlier this year and was replaced by the excellent Labour candidate—and I presume that the other was from the other Liberal Democrat in Cambuslang. So we know that there are some people for whom this is a big issue.

In view of the lack of time, I shall not draw the House’s attention too much to the idea of being urged to keep one’s manifesto commitments by Liberal Democrats, given their recent past. However, the lack of demonstrable public interest does not mean that House of Lords reform is not important. It is important, and the consequences of the Bill and their impact on the governance of the country as a whole are such that it is important that we ensure that two things happen: first, that the Bill is properly scrutinised and, secondly, that public support is tested in a referendum, just as many significant constitutional changes have been in recent years. Given that Bill will have an impact on the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament, that referendum is fundamentally important.

A range of concerns about the Bill need to be properly discussed in Committee. Many hon. Members have expressed real concern about the 15-year term, the list system and, in particular, the inadequacy of clause 2, which deals with the relationship between the two Houses. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) was admirably naive to suggest that there would not be some sort of mission creep from the Lords. As others who have experience of regional list MSPs will know, it does not matter what is set out in the code; behaviour is something quite different.

I wish to air two issues that have not been touched on much so far. The first is regional representation. The proponents of the Bill have made much of the idea that it will enable real and effective regional representation ​within the second Chamber. Those who spend a lot more time considering these matters than I do know that that is a widely accepted role for second Chambers in other countries. Schedule 2 to the Bill sets out the formula for the allocation of the elected peers: in each of the three elections, Scotland gets 10, Wales gets six, Northern Ireland three, and England 101. Thus, after the first set of elections, the combined strength of Scotland and Northern Ireland plus four of the Welsh representatives would be needed to outweigh the south-east of England.

That formula is based on population share and, in that sense, it is perfectly understandable, but it does not mean that the reformed House will represent the regional balance, as some have suggested. In the United States, California gets no more senators than Wyoming, even though its population is 66 times larger—that is pure regionalism. Germany has a different structure, with a minimum number of sets and then an additional number, according to population share, up to a maximum. As the constitution unit notes, Germany is one of the few countries without pressure to change its second chamber. If the proposals in the Bill are to be held up as a model of regional representation, those issues need to be looked at.

Secondly, part 4 of the Bill contains the clauses dealing with the number of bishops in the second Chamber. Over time, their number will be reduced. I think the bishops in the House of Lords bring a different perspective. I am a great admirer of the Archbishop of York, whose experience in Uganda brings something different to debates. It seems that the remaining bishops are to be among the 20% of Members of the new House who are appointed. Why, though, do we not get rid of all the bishops, as some have advocated, or if they are to be appointed Members, why do we not ensure representation from other faiths? There are Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, members of the Free Church and many others, and those are just Christians. Should we not ensure that Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and others are properly reflected among the Members appointed to the new Chamber? Could we not make space for a Catholic Cardinal or the Chief Rabbi?

I raise those two issues because they are issues that many people will not see as being of primary importance as the debate goes forward, but they are two important aspects of the composition of the second Chamber that could be the casualty of the programme motion.