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Statement on Lords reform

Jack Straw

14 July 2008

Jack Straw has made a statement on proposals to reform the House of Lords.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw):

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on House of Lords Reform. I am also today publishing a White Paper on the subject.

In my statement to the House on 19 July last year, I said that I would continue to lead cross-party talks on reform of the Lords. Those talks have included front bench representatives of the main parties from both Houses, as well as representatives of the cross-bench peers and the bishops. The talks have made good progress and I am most grateful to all those who have served on the group. I pay tribute to them for their constructive contributions and readiness to consider alternative proposals. Our discussions have been much informed by the work of others, including the Public Administration Committee, informal cross-party groups, the Cunningham report and above all the report of the Royal Commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord Wakeham.

The basis for our talks was the outcome of the votes in the House of Commons in March 2007. The House voted then for a wholly elected second chamber, and for a mainly elected second chamber and rejected all other alternatives by a large margin. Their lordships took a different view and voted for a fully appointed second chamber and rejected all other alternatives by a large margin. However, as I said in my statement on 19 July last year, reflecting the remarks of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on 3 July last, work taking forward House of Lords reform had to be based on the will of the House of Commons, which is the primary chamber in our legislature. The proposals we make today are consistent with the 2005 manifesto commitments of the three main political parties.

The White Paper sets out how a wholly or mainly elected second chamber might be created within a bicameral legislature in which the House of Commons retains primacy. The White Paper reflects the considerable consensus reached in the cross-party talks. Inevitably, we did not reach agreement on all issues. In some instances, those taking part have asked that the White Paper record their difference of view, which of course it does.

As I indicated to the House in my statement on 19 July last, our intention is that the product of the cross-party talks would be the basis of a:

'package that we would put to the electorate as a manifesto commitment at the next general election and which hopefully the other main parties would include in their manifestos'. [Official Report, 19 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 450.]

It has, therefore, never been the intention to legislate in this Parliament - as I said last year. The White Paper represents a significant step on the road to reform, and is intended to generate further debate and consideration rather than being a blueprint for final reform.

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The White Paper sets out how members could be elected to a reformed second chamber from the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. It was a key recommendation of Lord Wakeham's Royal Commission, and one that has since enjoyed strong consensus within the cross-party group, that members should serve a single, non-renewable term of three electoral cycles - that is, of between 12 and 15 years. The proposal reflects the proposals in the February 2007 White Paper. Under this system, elections would be held at the same time as those for members of this House, so as to minimise disruption to the business of Parliament.

The current House of Lords has more than 700 members. The government intend that the reformed second chamber should be significantly smaller, not more than between 400 and 450 members, maybe fewer, and that costs should be similar or reduced. We envisage all members of a reformed second chamber making a full contribution to its work and we would welcome views on its size. Single, non-renewable terms would help to provide a membership for the second chamber that continued to be distinct from that of this House and could hence bring an added dimension to the work of Parliament. It is proposed that this be reinforced by the use of large constituencies for elections to the second chamber.

I referred earlier to the primacy of this House. Analysis of other countries' arrangements, including that set out in chapter 5 of last year's White Paper, and consideration of our own history shows that primacy does not depend on the fact that this House is elected while the Lords is not, rather that primacy is rooted in the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 and the conventions that govern relations between the two Houses. However, with the introduction of elected members in the second chamber, we have to ensure that the mandate of this House, and of the government it sustains, continues to hold sway. The membership of a reformed second chamber should be such that it could not challenge that mandate. That is why we saw considerable merit in staggered elections, with a third of members returned at each election. In that way, the electoral basis of the reformed second chamber could never, as a whole, be more recent than that of this House.

The cross-party group considered at some length possible voting systems. The White Paper presents detailed modelling on the possible - I underline possible - effects of each of four electoral systems for elections to a second chamber. The systems are first past the post, the alternative vote, the single transferable vote and open or semi-open list systems. The government would welcome views on the choice of system.

The group considered the powers of a reformed second chamber. We took the view that it would be wrong to presuppose conflict between this House and the other reformed House. The working relationship between the two Houses currently functions well, and we could see no reason why it should not continue to do so. Creative tension between the Houses can lead to better government, not to an undermining of the primacy of this House. If conflict arose in the future, it would, as now, be for both Houses to devise a way through that conflict. In advance of that, we identified no persuasive case for reducing the powers of a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber.

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Given the Commons votes last March, the White Paper does not take a view between the options, which were voted on in favour, of either a 100% or an 80% elected second chamber, but the White Paper includes detail on a possible 20% appointed element, should the latter option be chosen. There would then be a statutory appointments commission and published criteria for appointments. Any appointed members would serve for three electoral cycles in the same way as elected members.

If the second chamber became fully elected, there could be no seats appointed or reserved, including for Church of England bishops. But in recognition of the wide and important role played by the Lords Spiritual in the life of the nation and the special constitutional position of the Church, we propose that their representation should continue in a mainly elected House. In that instance, their numbers would not contribute to the 20% appointed element.

The White Paper includes proposals on eligibility and on disqualification. Because of the long non-renewable terms for which they would serve, we were attracted to the system discussed in the White Paper of recall ballots for elected members of the second chamber, with analogous arrangements for any appointed members, but those would apply only after the first of the three parliamentary terms that members would serve. Again, the government would welcome views on that.

We also propose that members of a reformed second chamber should receive salaries, with the Senior Salaries Review Body asked to advise.

The transition to a reformed second chamber raises a number of important issues, not least about the future arrangements for existing members of the Lords. It is those members who, collectively, enable the chamber effectively to fulfil its key roles of scrutinising legislation, conducting investigations and holding the government to account. The government and, I know, the whole House greatly value the work of the Lords and the contributions of individual members to it. However, it was made clear in 1999 that the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote would be removed, as part of the next phase of Lords reform. The government therefore propose that, following legislation and during the transition to a reformed second chamber, there should be no further by-elections to fill vacancies for hereditary peers.

The February 2007 White Paper included a proposal from me that a reformed House should be 50% elected and 50% appointed. One of the many merits that I saw in that proposal was that it would have enabled existing life peers to remain for life if they had wished to do so. But that 50:50 proposal was comprehensively rejected by both Houses. The votes in this House for a wholly or 80% elected House mean that the context for the transition to a reformed second Chamber has changed. There may not be an appointed element in a reformed second chamber. If there is, it may comprise 90 or many fewer members.

A discussion is therefore now required to determine how far the rights of life peers to sit and vote during any transition to a reformed second chamber should continue. The White Paper sets out three options for managing this transition:

  • first, for all existing life peers to leave in tranches, allied to the three electoral cycles;
  • secondly, for all to leave on the third cycle; and
  • thirdly, to remain as now for life. Again, the government would welcome views on those options.

The cross-party group faithfully and assiduously followed the mandate set for it by the Commons in March 2007. We are now keen for there to be a wide-ranging and thorough debate on our proposals. But I hope that all members of the cross-party group share my view that to have got this far on such an important but highly complex issue is a considerable achievement.

I think so, and I am very grateful for the approbation of the House in that respect. As I said in my statement on 19 July, our intention now is to continue to develop the consensus around a comprehensive package for reform of the House of Lords.

Any final package would have to be put to the electorate as a manifesto commitment, including in Thurrock, at the next general election. I hope that we will be able to build on the considerable consensus established already in the cross-party group, to the extent that other parties include similar commitments in their manifestos.

An effective second chamber plays an invaluable role in holding the government to account and in scrutinising legislation. Our belief is that the proposals in the White Paper and those of the group will lead to a more legitimate and strengthened second chamber. I commend this statement and the White Paper to the House.