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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 March 2007, 12:04 GMT
Lords reform
On Sunday Sunday 04 March, Andrew Marr interviewed Jack Straw MP

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Jack Straw MP
Jack Straw MP

ANDREW MARR: Now, on Wednesday MPs are going to vote on reforming the Lords. Indeed it's possible that the very phrase House of Lords will disappear from the language.

Some people want the Second Chamber to be all appointed so it can't rival the Commons.

And others say that's ridiculous, in this day and age you can't have part of parliament that is not elected.

Others still want literally a halfway house, part elected, part appointed. Now the man in charge of all of this is the leader of the Commons, Jack Straw, who joins me now from Oxfordshire where it is clearly raining, I can see.

Thank you indeed for joining us Mr. Straw. Before we turn to the House of Lords can I just ask you, we can't of course talk about the detail of the injunction and all of that.

But do you think it's right that the Attorney General who sits in the Cabinet, a highly political figure, is involved in injunctions on such a political matter? JACK STRAW: Well the position of the Attorney General is very well established, he's independent of ministers, every system in the world has a figure like the Attorney General, usually called an Attorney General.

And when this has come up before the Conservatives have very wisely and correctly confirmed the position of the Attorney as well. I cannot talk about anything else that's happened recently in respect of the injunction.

ANDREW MARR: No, I do understand that. Let's turn to the House of Lords. You changed your position in the House of Lords, you've become pro-election for the Second Chamber. Why was that?

JACK STRAW: Well, the more I thought about it and when I took over responsibility for this particular policy issue I had to think about it a very great deal.

The more I read about it, and what reports on committees like the Royal Commission, and the Public Administration Select Committee had said about it, the more I became convinced that a wholly appointed Chamber was simply unsustainable. It lacked legitimacy and it wasn't going to survive as a legitimate Second Chamber in this century. And that's where the public (??) is. The second thing, Andrew, is this - why worry about a partially or wholly elected chamber was that it might challenge the primacy of the House of Commons.

When I looked at the research evidence from abroad what I found, and there's a great deal of this in the Royal Commission report, was that there's no necessary connection between the composition of a Second Chamber and whether it has fairly great power or whether it's a, as we want it to be, as a revising Chamber, a challenging Chamber, but not a rival or a replica for the House of Commons.

ANDREW MARR: So you can as it were...

JACK STRAW: Leave aside the United States...


JACK STRAW: Leave aside the United States Senate. Sorry.

ANDREW MARR: Sorry, I was just going to ask - so you can sort of tie it down a little bit constitutionally, limit it, and therefore allow it to be elected?

JACK STRAW: Yes, we'd obviously have to decide how exactly we'd tie it down, but all parties in both Houses have just agreed a major report from the committee chaired by Lord Cunningham, formerly Jack Cunningham, setting out the conventions which relate to the powers between the Commons and the Lords. Some of these are confirmed in statute, some are literally conventionalist, it's the way we do it in the United Kingdom.

Everybody wants that to be the basis for any further reform. Once we've got a clear view about how we go forward, we can then sit down and decide whether or not the existing statutory backing for these conventions is sufficient, or whether we need to underpin it as it's underpinned in other countries. But I don't think it's a big issue, and it certainly should not be a breaker in the way of having a party elected element.

I'm against, let me say, a wholly elected Second Chamber, and so I think are most members of the House of Commons. Because that could lead to a challenge directly to the authority of the House of Commons. But I think, and my personal preference is for 50% but I've made it clear that I will vote for 60% and 80% because I think we have to come to a decision otherwise we'll lose the opportunity for another generation. My own view is that a partially elected Chamber with a significant proportion of elected members is the way forward.

And the other really big change by the way, between this Parliament and the two previous Labour Parliaments, is that the other parties are now signed up to this and the Conservatives were dragging their feet because that's where they've always been in the past. But they are now committed by their manifesto to a "substantially elected Second Chamber as well".

ANDREW MARR: So you think that the chance of a repetition of the last set of votes where effectively the House of Commons was asked for its view and said, ah, we don't have a view. That's not going to happen this time, that you will come to a conclusion?

JACK STRAW: Well, it could happen. I mean, I put forward, actually a very straightforward, it's called an alternative voting system where people would have ranked their preferences on a ballot paper. But the House of Commons was not in favour of that so I had to revert to the old-style system.

Now, technically we could have up to nine separate votes, each one of those could be negative so we could have no decision. But I've said to my colleagues, two things, I mean one is we really can't have another train wreck and it would damage the authority of the House of Commons, and also the authority of all three parties who actually committed to a substantially elected Second Chamber. The second thing is this, I've said to colleagues look, we cannot make the best the enemy of the good.

I personally favour 50% but I want to see a substantially elected House of Lords. We can debate some of the crucial but subsidiary issues like exactly what election system should follow after this. But I'm saying to people whose first preference may be 80%, vote too for 60% on 50% so that we get a clear decision.

ANDREW MARR: You get as many people as possible...

JACK STRAW: ...for the first time. Indeed.

ANDREW MARR: Absolutely.

JACK STRAW: We've been looking at this, by the way, for almost 100 years, since 1910.

ANDREW MARR: Now you would still have under your proposal, you would still have people called Lords. It would be a sort of honour, a title, like being made a Sir, but they wouldn't necessarily be anything to do with parliament, which means that the Second Chamber wouldn't any longer be the House of Lords. I have to say, with the greatest respect, the proposed alternative name "the reformed Chamber" seems about as dull as it could possibly be.

JACK STRAW: I'm sorry, that's just a working title.

ANDREW MARR: Oh I see, so you wouldn't....

JACK STRAW: No, no, look. I don't want to get hung up on what we're going to call this. Let's make the first decision about whether we're going to reform it, whether we're going to split the peerage as an honour from membership of what is currently called the House of Lords.

And interestingly, I mean I've been chairing an all-party working group with both of the other parties and the Bishops and the cross benchers from the House Lords on it. We've agreed about really a very great deal. We've agreed to separate the peerage from membership of the House of Lords. We've agreed on long transitions, probably up to 15 years before we get up to whatever figure it is - 50%, 60% or 80%.

We've agreed that any elected members of the new Lords should be elected for one single term, long term, and should not be able to stand for the House of Commons for say a five-year period after that. So there is a very clear distinction both in the functions of the House of Lords versus the House of Commons, the new Lords, and in the kind of people who will be attracted to it.

ANDREW MARR: Well for those of us who think there's too much mimickery of the American system already, can we please not call it the Senate - that's just a personal plea!

JACK STRAW: Look, absolutely, but many other countries call it, sometimes they call it a Senate, sometimes they call it a Second Chamber but you may wish perhaps to run a - once we get to the decision, which would be dramatic itself, then perhaps your programme might run a little lottery or a competition to find out the best name.

ANDREW MARR: And if we don't, if you don't..,.

JACK STRAW: Perhaps you could do it on a Sunday morning Andrew!

ANDREW MARR: Thank you very much! Absolutely, I'm always looking for that! If you don't get a result, a clear result, on Wednesday is that it? I mean is it off the agenda then for years?

JACK STRAW: Well it will in practice be off the agenda because I mean what, there may have to be some minor reforms introduced, but I mean on what basis could I possibly introduce a Bill into the House of Commons if the House of Commons decide not to come to a decision.

And interestingly enough, the Conservative leader, as I understand, told back benchers in the House of Commons, if we don't deliver on this the Labour Party, it will be a third term issue for a Conservative leader, given what Michael Portillo's saying about the prospects, even as a first term under a Conservative leader, that really puts it as the Americans say, to the right, a very long way.

ANDREW MARR: So it's going to be ...

JACK STRAW: Make or break. And as the Americans might, Colin Powell said, it's show time on Wednesday.

ANDREW MARR: It's show time, it's going to be a very, very long, very interesting evening. I'll enjoy it. I was going to say, shall I say enjoy. Enjoy it.

JACK STRAW: Thank you very much.

ANDREW MARR: All right, thank you very much indeed Jack Straw.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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