David Miliband (South Shields) (Lab): I apologise to the House for having to absent myself for a short period this evening.
It is nice to be able to speak in the House in full and enthusiastic support of the manifesto on which I was elected, and consistent with my previous votes in the House for 100% election and 80% election to the Lords, in 2003 and 2007. I look forward to getting the chance to vote on the matter again.
I wish first to dispose of three very bad arguments against proceeding towards an elected House. The first is that we need to sort out the functions of the House of Lords before doing so. The truth is that there is agreement on that point. The House of Lords is a revising Chamber not equal to the House of Commons, prevented by statute from pre-empting the supremacy of this House and established by law and by practice to persuade and restrain this House.
The second argument is that the public have got other things on their mind. The idea that the Government have a bad economic policy or health policy because they are distracted by House of Lords reform is frankly risible. We are elected to this place to debate the big issues of the time, and I do not believe that it is sufficient to say that this is not people’s main preoccupation.
The third bad argument is by far the most tempting. It is: because the Deputy Prime Minister is in favour an elected House, is sponsoring the debate and will sponsor the Bill, it must be a bad idea. That view has many supporters in both main parties, as we will discover, and one can see the force of the point. When the right hon. Gentleman said before the election that he wanted to unite the nation, he could scarcely have imagined that people of all shades of opinion would come together so quickly to agree that he is not a very lovable rogue. However, although that is a tempting argument, I hope that my colleagues, especially Labour colleagues, will not fall for it. The right hon. Gentleman needs no help from either of the two so-called main parties to administer his fate, and there is a much bigger game here than the temptation to kick a man when he is down. The roadblock to reform is not, in this case, the right hon. Gentleman, but the Government’s puppetmaster, the Prime Minister. We should not be diverted by the temptation of kicking smaller fry.
The fundamental issue at stake is whether a stronger, more assertive, more legitimate House of Lords will be good for the governance of the country, not just in democratic theory, but in real life and practice. I believe that it would. I am a believer in strong government. I also believe that a strong Government get stronger and better when they are more accountable to a strong legislature. That is what we are debating today. That is a recipe not for gridlock but for better government.
Legislative strength is, in part, the way in which this House functions. Personally, I would have liked to see electoral reform of this House and the second Chamber on the same ballot paper in a single referendum, because we should debate the Parliament of the United Kingdom as a whole. The House of Commons and the House of Lords exist in relation to each other, not simply separately. However, following the alternative vote fiasco, that opportunity has been missed. None the less, it is striking that many of those who argue that reform will make no difference to the public also contend that it will mean the end of the House of Commons as the voice of the public. They cannot have it both ways.
Reform of the House of Lords is important to the strength and effectiveness of the legislature as a whole. That is why I argue for it.
Jesse Norman: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reciting such a compendium of errors. If he is giving us a lecture on logic, how does he explain the contradiction of a Prime Minister, who is allegedly, in the right hon. Gentleman’s view, a puppetmaster, yet also an enthusiastic advocate of the proposed legislation?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman tempts me and I will deal with that exact point shortly.
To those who say that an elected House of Lords will be stronger, I reply, “Good.” It will be good for the House of Commons and good for Governments of any stripe to face more effective and assertive scrutiny, and, where necessary, revision of their legislation from the House of Lords. That is not the same as advocating the overthrow of the primacy of the House of Commons, or as saying that the House of Lords will be a rival to the House of Commons. This country’s democratic problem is not neutered Government, emanating from the House of Commons, but under-scrutinised, under-accountable, over-centralised and over-confident Government.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): In the first minute of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman said that the House of Lords would not be more powerful; in the fifth minute, he said it would be. I think that it would not be a bad thing if the House of Lords were more powerful, but we ought at least to recognise what we are doing.
David Miliband: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I have my speech in front of me, and I did not say that the House of Lords would not be more powerful. I made the logical point that the House of Lords could have a stronger voice in the nation’s affairs; that it would not become a rival to the House of Commons, but that it could provide more effective scrutiny of legislation proposed by a Government elected to this House.
The problem in the current system of an over-centralised and under-accountable Government would be significantly reduced by an elected House of Lords. The simplest and most principled case is for a wholly elected House. It has my support. However, I do not accept the argument that the reservation of 20% of seats for independent voices, independently selected, torpedoes the purpose of reform. It is less pure than a wholly elected House, but it may be more practical. The argument that it creates a hybrid House is not strong, given the current composition of the House of Lords, in which the hereditary peers and the non-party peers are in a class of their own.
Let me conclude with some history, which addresses the point that the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) made. I had the pleasure of writing with Lord Irvine of Lairg the 1997 Labour manifesto that committed the new Government to removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords. The wording was designed to pre-empt any queries from the other place on Salisbury convention grounds. However, we did not bank on the willingness of Viscount Cranbourne and his backwoodsmen to threaten the whole of the Government’s programme if we proceeded with the abolition of all hereditary peers. That was the origin of the then Government’s acceptance of the so-called Weatherill amendment, which reprieved 92 hereditary peers.
In speaking to the historic motion to remove some 650 hereditary peers from the Lords, Lord Irvine said that the compromise in respect of the 92
“would guarantee that stage two would take place”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 1999; Vol. 599, c. 204.]
One reason for its not taking place is that, until now, the Conservative party has been officially opposed to an elected House of Lords. However, the Conservative Opposition in the House of Lords in 1999, in reply to Lord Irvine, said that it was absolutely crucial that one amendment to the Bill should be a timetable setting out exactly when stage two would be put in place.
Twelve years on, we are still waiting, to the shame of all parties in this House. Many of us fear that the Deputy Prime Minister’s Joint Committee will be another recipe for foot dragging. However, for the first time in centuries, the Conservative party has been dragged to support an elected House of Lords. Let us get on with bringing it about.