Eleanor Laing opposes the Deputy PM's proposals for House of Lords reform
Eleanor Laing opposes the Deputy PM's proposals to reform the House of Lords as under the proposals members would be unaccountable, there has been no consultation and members would be elected by proportional representation - a system recently rejected in a national referendum.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). Although I disagree with a lot of what he says, I have respect for the way in which he says it. I certainly agree with his last point about a referendum.
There is wide agreement in this House and in the other place that we want reform of the second Chamber. Sadly, the Bill before us is standing in the way of measured, necessary reform. If only we had a small Bill that proposed to do what we all know needs to be done, we could get on with it. But we cannot, because the Bill is fundamentally flawed. It undermines democracy in three specific ways: first, it damages accountability; secondly, it has not been subject to proper consultation; and thirdly, it ignores the will of the people.
First, a person who is elected for a 15-year, non-renewable term of office is accountable to nobody.
Duncan Hames: How would the accountability of the Members of the House of Lords be achieved under the proposals that the hon. Lady would support?
Mrs Laing: I do not know what proposals I would support for the House of Lords, because we have not had proper consultation or proper consideration of what ought to be done. I believe that we ought to have a constitutional convention to consider the reform of Parliament as a whole. Once we have done that properly, I will be happy to give the hon. Gentleman my answer.
Worse still on the matter of accountability, a body of people who, having been elected, claim to have a democratic mandate, will behave as though they had one. There will be no stopping them. They will flex their democratic muscles and challenge this House of Commons. No matter what any Bill or any convention says, they will challenge the primacy of this House.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): When these people are elected to the House of Lords, or the House of senators, or the second Chamber, they will be elected by millions. They will therefore say, “Millions of our people have put me here, so I have a better democratic right than MPs to speak for them.” That will mean a challenge to this Chamber.
Mrs Laing: Exactly. Not for the first time, my hon. Friend has got it absolutely spot on.
Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the challenge will be not just here in the Chamber but in every marginal constituency? That is what happens in Australia, where they have the system in question. The equivalent of a Liberal Democrat Senator in a Conservative seat becomes that area’s parliamentary representative, and so it is in every marginal constituency.
Mrs Laing: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Joint Committee took evidence from the Australian Parliament, and Members ought to look at that evidence and pay heed to Australia before giving away our primacy.
The most worrying thing of all is that as the primacy of the House of Commons is challenged, the unique link of accountability between the elector and his or her representative in Parliament—their Member of this House —will be undermined, so Parliament’s very accountability will be undermined as well.
Quite apart from the fact that there is no reasonable question to which the right answer is 450 extra elected politicians, having a second House of Commons at the other end of the corridor will not increase the chances of holding the Government to account. It will do exactly the opposite. A clash between the two Houses and a squabble over when and whether the Parliament Acts could be used will lead to a challenge in the courts, and I for one do not want vital political issues to be decided not by Parliament but by the judiciary. Our electors expect us to take responsibility, and they expect the buck to stop with us, their MPs. We ought to fight to preserve that.
I turn to the matter of consultation. The subject of Lords reform may have been talked about for 100 years, but we are not considering it in a proper, wider context. Reform of one part of Parliament is reform of Parliament as a whole, but we have been able to consider only the narrow proposals that the Deputy Prime Minister has put forward. I sat on the Joint Committee for eight months, and we recommended a constitutional convention so that the subject could be properly examined in context. The Government have ignored that recommendation, and now we face the possibility that we might not even be able to examine the Bill fully here in the House of Commons because of a narrow programme motion. At the same time, the Government are afraid of a referendum. They are afraid to ask the people. No constitutional convention, no referendum, no proper scrutiny in the House of Commons—that is not democracy.
Mr MacNeil: May I do a cursory self-interest check? Will the hon. Lady rule herself out now of ever taking a seat in an unreformed second Chamber?
Mrs Laing: No, I will not rule that out—not that I ever expect to be offered a seat, and certainly not by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I am probably not the most popular Smartie in the tube today, but I do not care about that: I am here to do my duty for democracy.
The Bill ignores the will of the people. Only one year ago, we had an expensive nationwide referendum in which the people overwhelmingly rejected a proportional representation voting system. The Deputy Prime Minister now ignores the will of the people. PR for this House was rejected, so he says, “Let’s introduce it for the other place.” What contempt! What duplicity! Why does he do it? The answer to that non-rhetorical question is that a proportional election system will give the Liberal Democrats a permanent hold on the balance of power in the second Chamber. That is not democracy; it is blatant party political advantage. It is short term and small-minded, and I certainly cannot vote for it.
There is very much more to say on this subject, and I hope the House votes to give all the time necessary for proper scrutiny of such fundamental parliamentary reform.