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Senior Tory peers line up to sound sceptical notes about Nick Clegg's proposals for an elected second chamber

By Jonathan Isaby
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Yesterday saw the first day of a two-day debate in the House of Lords on the Government's recently published proposals for introducing a predominantly elected second chamber.

Over 100 peers are due to speak in the debate over the two days and yesterday a number of senior Tories - including many former Cabinet ministers - contributed to the discussion with more than note of scepticism.

Here's a flavour of the debate...

Lord St John of Fawsley
"The beginning of wisdom is to leave well alone. What on earth is this House doing spending two precious days debating an issue that has no interest outside the Westminster village and for which there is no demand in this country at a time when we are facing a domestic crisis of major proportions? We have problems with the health service-the mind boggles at how we are going to get through that-and a world economic crisis. What kind of a world are we living in when we give priority to this subject which, however interesting to the few, is of no major importance?"

LLAWSON NIGEL TODAYord Lawson of Blaby
"Understandably, most people of ability are disinclined to enter the overexposed hurly-burly of electoral politics. Some of us have been sufficiently mad to do so, but there is a limited supply of such mad men
and women. The best of those few who are prepared to take the plunge will rightly seek to enter the House of Commons, where political power overwhelmingly resides, at least in principle, on whose support the Government of the day depend and from whose Benches high government offices are filled. There may also be some men and women of ability who, recognising the importance that the institutions of the European Union now play in our national life, may be attracted to membership of the European Parliament. In Scotland and Wales, the devolved Assemblies offer another possibility of a worthwhile and high-profile role. Even local government in England provides a greater opportunity to influence real events on the ground than does membership of the second Chamber at Westminster. That is the reality.

"So which would serve our country best? Would it be an elected senate composed of, at best, second-rate but, more realistically, third or fourth-rate politicians, or a House made up of men and women of proven achievement in all walks of life, appointed for life and thus crucially possessing the robust independence that life tenure confirms? The answer is clear.

"In conclusion, there has been some discussion of whether, if and when the Bill embodying these foolish and misguided proposals comes before the House, it should be whipped or not. So far as I am concerned-and I am sure that I am very far from alone in this-there will be free votes whether or not the whips are on. As a former Whip myself in another place and as a great admirer of our Government Chief Whip here, I hope that the Government, of whom I am a strong supporter, will have the courtesy and common sense to spare her and themselves the embarrassment that will otherwise ensue by not attempting to whip what will in any event be de facto free votes."

Lord Howe of Aberavon
Lord Howe Geoffrey "In the present structure, Cross-Benchers make up about 200 of the 800 Members in very general terms. If one reduced the House to 300 Members in total, one would have 30 Cross-Benchers and 30 Members from other parties. We would be looking pretty anxiously to try to find anything resembling the diversity of experience that is available if we were to shrink this organisation in that way.

"I come back to the conservative proposition with which I started: we keep what is good and we change what needs to be changed. The reduction in the House's size needs to be kept under control, or we will reduce the chances of it containing very much, if any, of the talent that it contains today. The burden of proof for making such a fundamental change is on those who seek to achieve it. In my respectful judgment, they have not begun to do so to the satisfaction of the people of this country."

Lord Jopling
"The main question before us tonight is whether the House should be elected or nominated. I am opposed to the proposals in the White Paper and the draft Bill. I served in the House of Commons for 33 years and in many ways I am a child of that place. Paragraph 10 of the White Paper states: 'The Government believes that the powers of the second chamber and, in particular, the way in which they are exercised should not be extended and the primacy of the House of Commons should be preserved'.

"That is just about the wildest pious hope that I have ever heard. Is it the serious view of those who are pushing this Bill that that would be the likely attitude of elected Members in this place? They just would not have that. They would want to take on more powers. It has to be understood that an elected upper House would be a direct challenge to the Commons. That is one reason why I am opposed to it.

"The second reason why I am opposed is that we should not be destroying the expertise of this House. The breadth of knowledge here is unique. My noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon talked about that most eloquently. Once you start having elections and bringing elected Members into this Chamber, you will naturally have domination by the parties and therefore much greater domination by the Whips' Office than now. I have some knowledge of the Whips' Office in another place and all I can say is that, if you want the domination of the Whips in this place to be similar to what it is down the Corridor, then have elected Members. I believe that the proposals in the White Paper and the draft Bill will not be agreed by Parliament - nor should they be."

Lord Dobbs
Michael Dobbs "I think I understand my duty in this place: it is to listen, to learn what I can, to contribute to the best of my ability-although not too frequently-and to assist the Government to get the best out of their business. My rights as a Peer to inquire are almost without limit yet my right to pursue the conclusions reached are strictly limited. I am unelected and have no right to do any more than to ask the Government to think again. I am oil for the wheel, not a spanner in the works. However, if I were elected, it would be very different. I would have a duty toward those who sent me. I would have rights and powers, given to me by them, that I could not cast easily aside. If that electorate numbered more than half a million, I would regard my duties and my rights as being at least on a par with those in another place.

"In my few months here, I have followed the principle that we in this House are servants, not slaves. Occasionally, I have indulged that implied independence in the Division Lobby, to the discomfort of my noble friends on the Front Bench. They may have come to the conclusion that I can be a bit of a pain-but if they think that now, let them wait until I am elected.

"On a recent Radio 4 programme I described this White Paper as stonkingly silly, although that is not the sort of language for this place and the sensitive ear of my noble friend the Leader of the House. Instead, I would say that this White Paper lacks the courage of its convictions: 80 per cent here, a dozen bishops there, mixed together with a little afterthought and a whole lot of muddled previous. Nowhere does the White Paper mention the word "abolition", which is what it proposes. Nowhere does it define the shortcomings of the present arrangements, except that they are not democratic; yet nowhere does it talk about taking the opinion of the people, through a referendum, even though it pretends to act in their name. I am confused, but perhaps it is my extreme innocence and I hope that my noble friends will put me right on this. Last week we agreed to hold referenda on all sorts of matters, but this week one might be forgiven for concluding that the authors of this White Paper regard the appointment of a European public prosecutor as being of considerably greater importance than the abolition of one entire half of Parliament. This is a dog's dinner of a White Paper for a pretty scrawny mongrel."

Lord Cormack
Sir Patrick Cormack "The underlying theme of the White Paper is a reluctant acknowledgment and praising of your Lordships' House for what it does and how it does it and assurances that the senate that would replace it would preserve our merits, our detachment from party domination and our powers. But that could not be. My noble friend accepted that the relationship between the new Chamber and the other place would inevitably be different. Some, such as the President of the Liberal Democrats-I referred to this in an earlier intervention-have said that an elected second Chamber would, if elected on PR, be more legitimate than the other place. Even if the actual powers were no different, as has been said several times, those powers would be used. My noble friend Lord Dobbs, in his extremely entertaining and amusing speech, made that point with real vigour and force. He was right to do so."

Lord Wakeham
"The real worry is that if we have a substantially or wholly elected House, we will have politicians coming here with a view to undermining the position of Members in the House of Commons. I tried to say in the royal commission that anybody who ever served in this House could never serve subsequently in the House of Commons. I was told by the lawyers that that would now be ruled to be a breach of their human rights, so would not happen. We did not think that it was a very good idea to have too many elected Members. Frankly, the sort of House that I envisage is a revising Chamber with, in the final analysis, an advisory role and with the House of Commons always having to be supreme in the end. The most important part of that advisory role is that we have people here capable of giving advice of value. "

Read the full debate here.


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