» Thursday, February 8, 2007

House of Lords Reform

The Leader was asked if he could indicate the date of the debate on the first motion to take forward the White Paper. He said that it still had to be sorted out in the usual manner.

Asked for his view of the reaction to his statement yesterday, Mr Straw said that it had been as he had expected. He added that anyone who had accepted "this hospital pass", as the Prime Minister had described it when giving him Ministerial responsibility for the policy, compared his position to that of Scottish rugby forwards lying underneath the English pack last weekend! He said that there were very many opinions on the issue, including quite a lot of those who did not want any change. However, he was also pleased about the comments of those MPs who had stood up in the Chamber in support, both for the process and the content of the White Paper, on both sides. He made further comments about the attitude of the Opposition.

He was asked whether it was fair to say that, if MPs did not agree the proposed preferential voting system suggested for them to reach a decision, the "whole thing goes down the tubes". The Leader reminded journalists of what he had said on the subject earlier in the House: he always listened carefully to the views expressed in the House and was continuing to do so. His one aim was to enable the House to come to a conclusion, which it sadly was unable to do on a previous occasion. Mr Straw said he was in "a listening mode and digesting what was said."

The Leader pointed out that, on the previous occasion when MPs voted on the issue, the House ended up arriving at no conclusion, which he thought most people felt was very far from satisfactory. His latest proposals were one way of resolving it. He was asked if his comments meant that the proposed alternative voting system was not set in stone and that there could be an alternative. Mr Straw repeated that he was listening to what was said – he could hardly avoid it.

Asked if there could be a simpler form of deciding the issue of composition of the second Chamber, the Leader said that that the subordinate difficulty which flowed from something meritorious, as he would put it, was that a free vote meant an almost unlimited number of options. There was a prospect of motions being amended. On the previous occasion, the House followed what was recommend by "Cunningham One" (the earlier formula) – eight possible divisions, with five actually taking place. Mr Straw said that the difficulty of an option for a more simplified process of voting was two-fold. He could be vulnerable to the charge that he was doing "less even than Cunningham One" and, secondly, there was genuinely a big difference between 20pc elected and 80pc elected of the membership. In addition, if the terms were "predominately elected", "predominantly appointed" or "50-50", which was possible, the objection would be that it was also less than what "Cunningham One" offered. The other point was that the cross-party group, which he led, was agreed that 20pc of the places should be for non party-political members. The Leader said that the problem lay in trying to adapt a "yes, no" voting system to people being asked to exercise a preference. He was asked if his proposal was comparable to having a vote on capital punishment, where there could be a choice between the methods of execution but not being able to decide whether to have the death penalty at all. Mr Straw rejected the comparison.

It was put to the Leader that the free vote on composition was a manifesto commitment and that the decision on the voting system to determine that would not be a free vote. Mr Straw said that a free vote was a free vote. In terms of how the House reached that stage was a matter on which he was listening and continuing to listen. He was digesting what had been said.

Asked if the preferential voting system would be used for choosing members of a reformed Chamber, the Leader said it was not. In response to a further question, he said the White Paper was a stage in a process which began nine years ago with the appointment of the Royal Commission, and would not be over when the House had a free vote on composition. The Paper was explicit that, if there was a consensus for option "x", the Government would have to look to see if that involved any elected element. There would have to be further intensive consideration of whether the conventions were adequate to protect the power of the Commons. There would then be a great debate about many issues, including the voting system for the elections which, in the view of the White Paper, would be on a partially-open "list" system. He took the view that, for the kind of members being sought for a reformed Chamber, in addition to the need for party political representation there should be those of more independence of mind and more detachment from the party battles. He pointed out that his proposals had not been plucked from the air; they had come from the earlier Wakeham Commission.

Asked about the timing of the votes in the House, the Leader said that the vote on whether to remove the remaining hereditary peers would take place at the same time as the voting on composition after a two-day debate. There would be a series of resolutions. One resolution would ask the House to decide whether the right of the remaining "hereditary" peers to sit in the Lords should be ended. Mr Straw said that the debate would take place before Easter. He took account of representations from the media about the timing of the outcome.

It was put to the Leader that the issue of House of Lords was not engaging the public. Mr Straw said that reform was not a single event; it would take time, including nine years to get to the present stage. It would not be finished overnight. He pointed out that the latest poll by the Hansard Society, of 2000 individuals, indicated that just 6pc of then agreed with an appointed Chamber; 82pc wanted either a wholly or partially-elected one. People did raise concerns about the working of the system of democracy. He held the view now that an all-appointed Chamber, with members in it for life, was no longer acceptable.

Briefing took place at 15:00 | Search for related news

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