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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 May 2001

[Mr. Michael Lord in the Chair]

People's Peers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

9.30 am

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue of the so-called people's peers and the future of the House of Lords. Some of the usual suspects are in attendance and I extend a welcome to them, especially to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan). They are in their final days in the House of Commons and have consistently promoted a democratic Parliament in the United Kingdom, a democratic Parliament that is denied to the people of our country. I look forward to their contributions to the debate.

I want to focus my remarks on the absolute absurdity--the nonsense, the charade--that surrounded the announcement a little more than a week ago of the so-called people's peers. Prophetically, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said that it would again open up the debate about the future of the House of Lords--and how right he was. I hope that this morning's debate will be a further nail in the coffin of that wholly illegitimate Chamber.

Having said that, it is with some pride that I show visitors around the building. I take them to the House of Lords and say how improper that Chamber is, but I then pause and say, "However, its functions are extremely important." One of the great challenges to us in the United Kingdom when trying to argue for constitutional change is to build in ratchets against arbitrary government. Lord Hailsham referred to our constitution as facilitating parliamentary dictatorship. All too often, we have seen how both Conservative and Labour Governments railroad through legislation without its having received sufficient scrutiny. The statute at the end of sausage machine is flawed. It is bad law. We have inadequate opportunities to check and probe the Executive, so much of whose work is done without a mandate from Parliament, but under the royal prerogative.

I am someone who unashamedly believes in bicameralism. There is an important function to be fulfilled in the Chamber that is currently occupied by the House of Lords. Its membership is "unlawful" and I look forward to the day when a totally elected democratic Chamber, with legitimate Members who have individual mandates, replaces it. I chose to be on the left of politics. I am a socialist. The history of our party has been one of trying to do away with that Chamber, yet I find it deeply disappointing, as do Labour party activists throughout the country, that we have failed to abolish the House of Lords and, as far as I am aware, it is not our intention to do away with it, or

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even to replace it with an elected Chamber called the House of Lords. The position is to sustain the illicit situation in which the House is filled by a substantial number of hereditary peers and those who are appointed by the patronage of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats and the fig leaf of nonsense of so-called people's peers.

I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary tell us what our stance will be over the next four weeks on the House of Lords, which will be interesting. I remind him of our stance four years ago. We made it abundantly clear--it was unequivocal, not conditional--that

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): The suggestion that I feel part of the current establishment is far removed from reality. Watching the Prime Minister on television yesterday, as he went to his school in Bermondsey, I realised that I was living on a completely different planet from him.

Mr. Mackinlay : I am talking about the House of Lords. If someone wants to divert to a completely different subject, so be it. I hope that it has not escaped the hon. Gentleman's attention that, although the debate may be adversarial, it is between a Labour Member and a Labour Minister. In a sense, the hon. Gentleman is trespassing on a matter that is none of his business, as we are in government and it looks as though we shall be there for a long time to come. Such diversions are irrelevant. The hon. Gentleman should focus on arguing for a change in the culture in this country--the magic circle in a class-ridden society, that narrow group that runs and takes all the decisions in this country, especially in relation to the House of Lords, which is the subject of this morning's debate. We have reinforced the hereditary element in the House for Lords for decades to come, and we have reinforced the system of prime ministerial patronage. I find that entirely unacceptable.

I invite the House to consider, human nature being what it is, what Prime Minister or leader of the Conservative or Liberal party would appoint to the House of Lords someone who is bloody-minded, an irritant or a nuisance or who takes a different view from himself. I shall not name the person involved, but I have often heard people with a different view from that of a particular important person referred to as neanderthal. People who will ruffle feathers are never, and will never be, nominated.

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The system is flawed. I look forward to hearing from the representative of the Liberal Democrats, as I understand--I acknowledge some credit--that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), who leads the party, and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown) have at least created in their party machine a quasi-democratic system whereby the membership can throw up nominees whom the leader of the party might consider nominating for appointment to the House of Lords. If that is so, it is something. That certainly does not happen in the Labour party. I oppose appointment by the Prime Minister or the leader of the Labour party, but, so long as it exists, I should have thought that, within the Labour party and, for that matter, the principal opposition party, there should be some facility for panels nominated from the grass roots of the party, from whom the leader might select people for ennoblement. However, there is not. The matter of who is preferred is left exclusively in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. That is entirely unacceptable.

Each of us has been privileged to go abroad to represent Parliament and, perhaps, to lecture students or other parliamentarians in the fragile or emerging democracies of the world about parliamentary democracy. What arrogance we have, when we cannot see the beam in our own eye--when half our Parliament is unelected and illegitimate and has no mandate. We have the audacity to go abroad and talk about parliamentary democracy. Can my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary not see how absurd that is? It is time to mobilise the next Labour parliamentary party, with some vigour, to demand of the next Labour Government radical change in our parliamentary arrangements--to rid ourselves of this House of Lords by sweeping it away with a democratically elected second Chamber.

The nonsense of the people's peers has prompted this debate. Did you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that applicants were vetted by PricewaterhouseCoopers? We could avoid the next four weeks by sending our applications to that company. If the machinery for gauging what is representative or what may constitute a microcosm of the nation is so sophisticated, we could save a lot of time and effort. That is what happened, and that lovely company drew up the shortlist with Lord Stevenson and his Appointments Commission. Lord Stevenson has done a great service to the cause by showing his enormous snobbery, abysmal ignorance and insensitivity and by demonstrating that he is totally disqualified from selecting anyone. His utterance is no matter for levity; it is important. When examined about the absurdity of the 15 nominees that his commission had thrown up, he said:

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I am opposed to the lottery, and I counsel people never to buy a ticket because I see so many people seduced by the dream that somehow they might come up trumps. This is the middle class equivalent. I am sure that all hon. Members knew people who asked, "Will you give me a reference, because I am applying to the House of Lords Appointments Commission?" I told them, "Don't bother. It's an absurdity. It isn't going to happen. You're not going to get a look in." Those people are immensely able and would be capable of serving the House of Commons with distinction, but I knew that the appointments would be a farce and that they would not get a look in. However, they dreamed that they might get in, and they are deeply angry and hurt by the process and by Lord Stevenson's comments.

Let us look at the people who have been thrown up by the appointments process. The general view is that, under the existing process, many could have got to the House of Lords, and were probably already anointed to go there. They applied, and I am most unhappy about some of them, looking at their individual qualities. They signed up to get into the political arena. Politics is not a kid-gloved affair. It is deeply worrying that Sir Paul Condon, who was, to say the least, a very unsuccessful Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, should be nominated, especially as one of the criteria for selection was that applicants should have been very successful in their professional life and in the contribution that they had made.

If we examine Private Eye this week--and it is always useful to have a copy on these occasions--we see an important column relating to Valerie Howarth, who has been nominated to be a people's peer. The article tells us that she is the chief executive of the telephone charity Childline, and goes on to say:

Frankly, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham should revisit the appointment. I assume that, over the next 12 months, it is unlikely that Royal Assent will be given to a Bill that I would like and that would abolish the House of Lords or, perhaps, abandon the absurd experiment and silly idea of people's peers. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary should tell us this morning that the business of the Appointments Commission, which I understand was dealt with by the Cabinet Office or Prime Minister, will be revisited in

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time for next year. Alternatively, I should like my hon. Friend to say that the experiment will be abandoned--he may not use that word, but I will take a nod and a wink from him that the matter will be quietly forgotten and lost. We cannot go through the procedure again because it is offensive to applicants, a snub to the people of the United Kingdom and acutely embarrassing to the Labour party and the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is a great man, for whom I have great and deep affection. However, the people's peers was not his best idea.

I am being unfair to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, because I think that the people's peers were not his idea, but that of some people whose names we know not, who are in 10 Downing street or policy think tanks, and who are unaccountable to this place. I hope that my right hon. Friend will learn from this episode that the focus group to which he should listen is the parliamentary Labour party, which--I suspect, like my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary--does not believe in such nonsense in its heart of hearts.

Is it true that when my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and I were parliamentary candidates, and during his long time in the Labour party, he rightly expressed scorn for the House of Lords? Did he not believe in doing away with that House altogether, or replacing it with a democratically elected House? It would be interesting to know that, because we would then know that in the heart of Government we have somebody who is advocating the view that will be reflected this morning.

I have said that it is wholly unacceptable that membership of the House of Lords should be subject to the patronage of the leaders of the principal political parties. People who are appointed have no mandate. There are some very good people, some of whom I am very fond of and who, contrary to their better judgment, have some regard for me. However, their membership of that House is not legitimate.

There are other serious problems that should be addressed with expedition. When a person is appointed as a life peer, he or she may well be able in body and in mind, and may be so for the next 10, 20, or 25 years. However, in that job there is no exit, other than going to the great parliamentary chamber on high, and seeing the great general secretary up there; such people must continue.

The matter is serious, but sensitive, and not uttered here because it is sensitive. I wish to deal with it with utmost delicacy. Some of the peers are past it, and some who are at such a stage are desperate to give up. However, the party Whips in the House of Lords scurry around putting leverage on them to come; they put leverage on the loved ones of those in the House of Lords to persuade them to come--in body, if not, in some cases, in mind. That is absurd. I have seen American tourists come down from the House of Lords Gallery in a state of total bewilderment. They cannot believe that it is a parliamentary Chamber--they have seen Gilbert and Sullivan.

How long can we go on like this? The least that should be done in a short Bill is to allow members of the House of Lords to abandon that House while perhaps keeping their titles. A credit may remain with the political party so that the arithmetic that is apparently so important is

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maintained. I know that there is a system through which one can decline to apply for a writ, but that is not adequate. People should be given the opportunity to say, "No further."

The red chamber in Canada has a cut-off point in the mid-70s for its members. That is correct, so long as the House is unelected; when there are direct elections, it will be for the people to decide. I have always said that. There is a senator in the United States who is pushing 100--and so be it, as the people of his state are comfortable with that. I am not ageist in that I do not think that an age limit should be set on a democratic Parliament but, so long as the House is unelected, there should be a cut-off point or an exit for those people. In many cases, their families would like them to retire with some dignity--and I use that word deliberately. There are some sad members in the House of Lords who are losing their dignity but are being abused by the party political system and the Whips.

The rapid appointment of a large number of peers debases that parliamentary Chamber even more, and makes it an absurdity. It is far too large. My hope is that we might have a relatively small democratically elected Chamber, numbering perhaps 150, elected on a regional proportional representation list. There should not be big bang elections; there should be a fixed term, so that no opportunity exists for premature dissolution. A third of the members should retire in rotation.

People who oppose my idea say, "Mackinlay, we must not create anything that challenges the House of Commons." That is nonsense, because when we reorganise our constitution we can write in bold letters in the statute and paint on everyone's eyelids that the House of Commons is supreme and its view will prevail. The statute may also reiterate that the House of Lords has no responsibility for supply, so we do not have the problems that bedevilled Gough Whitlam in Australia in 1975. That Chamber should fulfil the existing functions of scrutiny and frustration--it should frustrate sometimes by delay. It should also do the important job of review.

The House of Lords should be elected, however. If it were elected on a fixed-term basis, with a third retiring every so often, every member would have legitimacy, but the Chamber as a whole would not have a mandate to frustrate the democratically elected will of the people's popular House, which would remain the House of Commons. That is the sensible way forward. We also need to get rid of the Cross Benchers, bishops and Law Lords. Under the electoral system that I propose, it would be possible for independents to get elected. That would put the political parties on their mettle. There would be a level playing field.

Under the system that I propose, the people who had no mandate to represent anyone but themselves would be gone. The absurdity of one particular denomination being represented in a parliamentary Chamber would be gone, but not added to by designating a number of seats for the Roman Catholics, the Methodists, the Pentecostals or whatever. We should be a secular Parliament. To use the biblical phrase, "Render unto Caesar all that is Caesar's and unto God all that is God's." Christ was clear about that division of responsibility. He prophesied our ideal constitutional arrangements 2,000 years ago. There should be a cut-off point. People who represent religions should not be

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given seats in the parliamentary Chamber: they may be religious, but they should not be in Parliament for that reason.

Yesterday, I tackled the Minister about another matter that could be expeditiously resolved. It is nonsense that senior Ministers can sit in the House of Lords while legislation for which they are responsible is piloted through the House of Commons. Questions about their Bills are answered at the Dispatch Box by junior Ministers who, in some cases, do not know the subject. They will pretend that they know about the matter by working from a brief, but they have no mandate to reassure hon. Members who make valid points and try to improve the legislation.

That situation is a charade, and it also increasingly happens the other way around. There are delightful people in the other place called Lords-in-waiting who play the role of jobbing Ministers by merely working from briefs: they are utility players who perform a variety of duties and pretend that they know what they are talking about when they do not. It is nonsense.

A modest reform could be expeditiously introduced. Ministers who are the architects and pilots of particular pieces of legislation should promote and defend them in both Houses. Other Westminster-style constitutions allow that to happen. I would invite Ministers who sit in the House of Lords to take a seat on the Treasury Front Bench. However, if hon. Members feel sensitive about the matter, a little Dispatch Box could be erected at the Bar of the House, because it would make sense for such Ministers to be able to speak in both Houses.

Recent Conservative Governments have included two distinguished and able Ministers who sat in the House of Lords: Baroness Chalker held the overseas aid portfolio, and Lord Young was a Trade Minister in one of Margaret Thatcher's Administrations. It frustrates the House of Commons when Ministers sit in the House of Lords. There is a rumour that Lord Macdonald might be promoted to the Cabinet when the next Labour Government is appointed on 8 June 2001. He cannot stand for election because he is unable to quit being a Lord. There would be one hell of a row if a Labour Government were to appoint Members of the House of Lords to the Cabinet as Ministers with important portfolios. The House of Commons is the people's Chamber, but its elected Members would not be able to have direct access to those Ministers at Question Time or when legislation for which they were responsible was debated. If a Labour Government were to do that, it would stand on its head the party's criticism of Margaret Thatcher's appointment of Lord Young as a Minister.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary must address that issue. I hope that he agrees with my view about the implications if Lord Macdonald is awarded a senior portfolio. I also hope that he recognises that the reform that I have proposed is sensible and modest and that further great changes are necessary.

I apologise for detaining this Chamber, but I have now got something off my chest, and I feel better for it. If the Government wish to endure by winning a third term in office, they must fulfil the expectations of the Labour party activists who have struggled for real--

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rather than cosmetic--change in our institutions, who want to get rid of the class divisions that bedevil our society and who still occasionally sing the words

There are people in the Labour party who believe in change, and who might refer to themselves as socialists. There is also a larger body of people, spanning all political parties, who believe that the Parliament of which we are, in some ways, proud is also an anachronism, and they look to the next Labour Government to be radical and to reform the institution after the general election.

9.59 am

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who is a true friend, for raising the issue, especially as, at such a time, there are two categories of retiring Members of Parliament--those who know that they are retiring and those who have yet to find out. I hope that by 8 June I shall be in neither category, but this is an excellent moment to be debating the issue.

I suppose that, of all Members of Parliament, I should welcome the appointment of people's peers because they are Cross Benchers and will sit as independents. In a limited sense, therefore, I do welcome such appointments. However, I do not delight in the spectacle of the establishment selecting its own. I would like just one of those 15--or even two or three--to be somebody of whom I have never heard.

All hon. Members know many people of great and quiet distinction in their constituencies. Such people would, and could, have served admirably in the House of Lords. I find the suggestion that such people would not be comfortable in such elevated company absurd. It is a little bit like Army officers of the old school who objected to promotion through the ranks because a sergeant or warrant officer would not be comfortable in the officers' mess. That is nothing but arrant snobbery.

I should have thought that, of all Members of Parliament, the one least likely to accept a peerage if offered would be the hon. Member for Thurrock, and I think that I know why. Like me, he is a democrat, and he would not wish to be a member of an assembly that is so indiscriminate that one can buy one's way into it. The number of life peers as a percentage of the population is, I guess, 0.0000001 per cent. In terms of contributors to party funds in the coming election, however, I guess that at least 25 per cent. of them happen to be peers--in the case of the Conservative party, the percentage is probably even more. It is undeniable that that opens the door to corruption.

During one Prime Minister's Question Time, I made the point that peerages are bought and sold in this country on a greater scale than at any time since the days of Lloyd George. In doing so, I managed to offend the Government and the Opposition, and I drew the reproach of the Liberal Democrat leader, who did not like the disparagement of his great predecessor. It is clear, however, that we must find a different system, in which elevation cannot be bought. In this case, the

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House of Lords reminds me a little of space travel--one can buy one's way up there. I am convinced that that should not be so.

I once voted for an amendment proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews)--another real democrat who would never accept the golden shilling--which suggested bricking up the entrance of the House of Lords. It seemed to me that, if what we have is the best that we can do, we are probably better off without it. Patronage has been the curse of the British political system for 200 years, and it still is. However, we are now on the threshold of a general election and the almost certain re-election of the Labour party in vast numbers. Clearly, the House of Commons needs a different form of democracy--the Executive cannot continue to be as unchecked as they are. The House of Lords, for all its faults, provides some kind of a check. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Thurrock that the time has come to democratise the other place.

We are governed by a Government of unfinished business, and no business is more unfinished that that of the reform of the House of Lords. When I joined this Chamber, rather accidentally, four years ago, I thought that I was joining the free Parliament of a free people, but it has some dismaying elements of a rubber-stamp assembly. In the next Parliament, we can and must do better, in the House of Lords and in this House.

10.3 am

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on raising the subject and on his speech. Not many Members take an interest in constitutional matters, but he has done so from the beginning. He has knowledge, commitment and passion. It is appropriate to discuss the subject now, because we are about to go into a general election--not, of course, for our Parliament, but for half our Parliament. Every hon. Member present, except me, will be seeking support on polling day. However, those who have just been appointed will be in the other place for life.

I shall address a point that is not often made: the establishment has a deep hostility towards democracy. It took me a long time to realise that the establishment and the powers that be--including the Prime Ministers of the day, whoever they may be--do not want a democratic challenge. That is maintained in a skilful way, which includes the use of the royal family for political purposes. The Queen depends on the Prime Minister for her popularity, and the Prime Minister depends on the Crown for his power. That said, the establishment is not so committed to individual monarchs that it is not prepared to sacrifice one to save the Crown, as it did with Edward VIII in 1936. The Crown is the core of the system.

People say that this country does not have a written constitution, but of course we do. Without wishing to bore hon. Members, I can recite the whole constitution:

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Under the constitution, the Prime Minister of the day has enormous power. Every Prime Minister--I am not making this personal--uses that power for political purposes. They used to appoint hereditary peers, but now appoint life peers. The idea of people's peers was proposed, which involves a sort of extended patronage. A committee is appointed to appoint people who are described as people's peers, but the purpose is to maintain political power.

Another important theme is the corruption of the word "representative", which has two meanings. Every Member is a representative of his or her constituency. When we are in our constituencies, the bus drivers, street sweepers, home helps and policemen are our employers. The other meaning is statistically representative. People talk about so many men, so many women, so many blacks and so many gays. The idea that we can have statistical representation and entrust to those people the right to pass laws, which we are expected to obey, is an abuse of what we boast is democracy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock said.

I am not much of an academic historian, but I have studied a few things in my life in order to understand where we are. On Second Reading of the Reform Act 1832, rioters shot two redcoats in Wales. Speeches in the House of Commons warned that extending the franchise would undermine parliamentary democracy. Later, when women campaigned for the vote, Mr. Asquith, the great Liberal leader, said that, if they got it, parliamentary democracy would be undermined.

Our system is designed to brainwash us into believing that some people are better than us. Every country has people who think that they are better than anyone else, but we must be the only country where everyone accepts that that is the case. The cultural aspect of the peerage is that we are trained from birth to bow and scrape to someone else. Mister bows to the knight, who bows to the baronet, who bows to the baron, who bows to the viscount, who bows to the earl, who bows to the marquess, who bows to the duke, who bows to the royal duke. They all bow to the Queen. That is deeply corrupting of the democratic spirit. The system is not only absurd, as has been said, but absolutely contrary to our boast that we are a self-governing country. When there are riots in the streets of London, the Prime Minister always says that we live in a democracy, but we do not.

We are now being trained for a new group of managers. According to Gerhard Schroder, Mr. Prodi is to be the Prime Minister of Europe, but he is not elected by anyone. The head of the World Trade Organisation is not elected. If a peer is better than us, perhaps the head of the WTO is also better than us. Perhaps we are so inferior that we are not fit to govern ourselves. That coded message comes through all our political and civic systems, our education and so on.

If we are to tackle the problem, which I have no doubt we will--I hope that it does not take 700 years, as it did to make the House of Commons democratic--we must

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recognise that it involves a challenge to power. There is no other way of describing it. We must say, quite openly, that we will not accept laws that are made by people we did not vote for.

I am not an advocate of violent action; I am a non-violent man. However, Governments only listen when there is trouble. I hate to say it but, for example, the pensioners would not have received that little bit more without the Labour conference last year. Possibly, handguns would not have been banned if there had not been a big demand in Scotland after Hamilton killed those children at Dunblane. Truthfully, the environmental movement would not have made much progress if Swampy had not been rather difficult. He will be the next people's peer, no doubt; we shall hear about that in the answer. My experience of progress is that it begins outside and, through the democratic process, permeates inside. Parliament historically is the last place to get the message.

I welcome the debate. It is a much more dangerous debate than perhaps the House might realise, because it challenges power. People in power do not want to be challenged. The Prime Minister did not want to lose the right to appoint people. As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister will, in a sense, appoint Members of the House of Commons. Some MPs will decide to retire at the last minute--they will get peerages--and, under the rules of the Labour party, it can appoint the successors. There could be circumstances in which Members of Parliament would have to apply to Lord Stevenson and prove that they would be comfortable in the House of Commons. Indeed, I can imagine that, if market forces reach much further, parliamentary seats might be put out to tender. I am sure that Bob Maxwell could have put in a better bid for my constituency than I could have. Perhaps even the Prime Minister's job should be subject to some external bid under the best value principle.

However one looks at it, the question must be tackled. My limited experience is that capitalism, communism and feudalism have one thing in common: the management can be changed, but the system cannot be discussed. Someone who discusses the system is a threat.

I had already made my last speech; I am afraid that I have done it again. My grandfather was the Member of Parliament for Govan, and was known as the poet laureate of the House of Commons. I will finish with some words that he wrote:

10.12 am

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on his perspicacity and timing in securing the debate on people's peers. With a general election four weeks away, I must be slightly measured in my comments. However, we are going into an election with a Labour manifesto that calls for something that I, as a Labour MP, repudiate. The manifesto agrees with the royal commission on the reform of the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Wakeham, which calls for a second

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Chamber that is largely appointed, with a small elected element. That is simply not my view, nor was it the Prime Minister's view in 1996, when he said that Labour's policy was for a directly elected upper Chamber. Things have changed in that four-year period, and we now find ourselves, as the Government party, going into an election promising that one part of Parliament will be appointed rather than elected.

I believe that legitimacy only comes with election. Appointment fails on many counts, but what Wakeham proposed is absurd with a capital A. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, I believe in secular politics. What we will be asked to endorse--in the next Parliament, presumably--is not a secular second Chamber but a Chamber with people who have been appointed because of their religion. The Bishops Bench will be reduced from 26 to 16, I believe, but we will then have Buddhists, Baptists, Jains and Jews legislating on the laws of the land. I do not believe that that is right. More than that, I do not believe that members of the Labour party believe that that is right.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) talked about the patronage peers and how corrupting that is. Amazingly, over the next few days some of my colleagues in the House will decide that they do not want to stand for election to the new Parliament. They will be rewarded with peerages. That is deeply corrupting, not just for the people going into the House of Lords after the next election, but for those in the House of Commons, and I do not disparage my colleagues, who perhaps aspire to a peerage. It is corrupting and it should not be allowed.

Under the new system, we have the prospect of life peers serving well into the 21st century. I tabled an early-day motion in February 2000. The statisticians in the Library did some number crunching and told me that 49 per cent. of the present House of Lords will die by 2011. The average ages are 70 for male life peers and 64 for female life peers. About half of them will be dead by 2001; 90 per cent. will be dead by 2029, but 10 per cent. of those currently serving as life peers will still be serving in 30 years' time. We need a small, directly-elected second Chamber of no more than 100 to do a job of work. We do not need a bloated, elephantine monstrosity of 1,300, which is what we had before we got rid of most of the hereditary peers.

Will that happen? We had the ridiculous situation a week ago of people being discounted from consideration by Lord Stevenson because they would not feel comfortable in the second Chamber. He said that hairdressers could not cut it. That is a man who is a self-confessed intellectual snob. He should never have been given the job of chair of the Appointments Commission. In recent months, I have tabled many questions about that commission and I just about fell off my chair in January when I got an envelope with a little House of Lords stamp on the back. Inside was a letter from Dennis Stevenson, the noble Lord Stevenson. He wrote saying that over the Christmas period he had been looking at the questions that had been tabled about the work of the Appointments Commission. He noted that I had been very energetic and had tabled many questions and suggested that we talk about it.

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I went to see Dennis Stevenson. He is a mover and shaker. He is chair of both the Pearson group, which owns the Financial Times, and the Halifax. That takes up a lot of his time, which probably explains why in the two years since he was appointed to the House of Lords he has spoken only twice. On both occasions he confessed to a feeling of nervousness.

Mr. Tony Benn : He was not comfortable.

Mr. Prentice : That is the man who says that hairdressers cannot cut it. I described all that as a sick joke. I am receiving lots of application forms from people out there who applied to Lord Stevenson saying that they wanted to be a people's peer. They tell me that they read in the paper that I think the whole process is a sick joke and that they agree with me. The whole system was designed to exclude 99.9 per cent. recurring of the British population. They never got a look in. We had that big con trick--not only the word from the spinmeisters in Downing street that we were going to have people's peers, but the farce of last year's four regional roadshows. They went from London to all four points of the compass with the message that new Labour would bring government back to the people. They said, "You, too, can become a people's peer; just fill in that application form, we'll check it against the criteria and you can join us in the House of Lords." It was never going to be like that. I will make a prediction for my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. There will be no regional roadshows this year because, if the House of Lords Appointments Commission embarks on them again, there will be few members of the public, but many members of the media, finding out exactly what happens.

When I visited Lord Stevenson's lair in Tufton street, which is just round the corner from Smith square, it was incredible and like something out of "Smiley's People". The front door had no sign of who was behind it, and that office is separate from the main office of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which is just around the corner in Great Smith street. I was ushered into the noble presence and, within about three minutes, we were almost at blows--he accused me of being political. I told him, "I am a Member of Parliament," but he said that I was there only to be political. I was interested in the process of how people would be plucked from obscurity to be put into the nobility. I wanted to know who would do the sifting, what criteria would be used and whether people would be interviewed.

Most important, I wanted to know whether people who were rejected would be told the reasons for that. I asked Dennis whether that would happen, because it is good employment practice. There was a pause, so I asked him whether it was ministerial policy not to tell anyone. There was a longer pause, and then I twigged. There was no ministerial policy on the subject; it is a Dennis Stevenson policy not to tell people why they were rejected. Now we know why people were not told the reasons for their rejection. Only a tiny percentage of the 3,200 people who applied were ever going to be seriously considered. That is pretty corrupt.

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Something else is corrupt. Who appointed the noble Lord Dennis Stevenson, the snob? I tabled a question to the Leader of the House about the criteria and qualities expected in the chairman of the Appointments Commission. She replied:

Who selected Dennis? The answer is a panel chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, assisted by Lord Fellowes, who sounds a good lad, and some other worthies, including a then independent assessor who is now a people's peer--incredible. I mean Cross Benchers, so I am not making party political points. I am talking about the process, the system, openness and transparency. We should be told about these matters rather than having to table parliamentary questions about them. Sir Herman Ousely, now Lord Ousely, was on the panel that selected Dennis Stevenson to become chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. So there we are.

We must revisit the whole issue. When I said that the process was a sick joke, I meant it. I also meant it when I said that I hoped to re-ignite a debate on the future of the second Chamber. It saddens me to say it, but the Labour party has lost its way on this issue. The official policy cannot and does not reflect the views of the mainstream of Labour party members. No one in my constituency Labour party believes that the Government's policy is a good idea.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock on providing us with an opportunity to air this matter. It may appear a little arcane and an issue for the constitutional nerds, but it has a wider salience.

10.26 am

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay)--who has a longstanding interest in constitutional matters--on initiating the debate. He has debated the issues with verve, commitment and analytical skill. I am hopeful that his arguments will be carried forward into the next Parliament.

In common with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I am retiring from the House of Commons. I am disappointed that the present Parliament has not carried the process of constitutional reform further. I acknowledge that considerable and important changes have been introduced over the past four years. They represent the British way of effecting change; step by step, rather than as a consequence of a carefully thought out blueprint for democratic modernisation.

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Prior to the last general election, I had the satisfaction of meeting the current Foreign Secretary to discuss the possibility of a joint platform of constitutional reform--including changes to the House of Lords--that our two parties could endorse in our manifestos. If the electorate voted for a Government who could act on those recommendations, there would be a degree of legitimacy for a much wider reform of our institutions and more cross-party support than in the past. Earlier attempts to reform the House of Lords in the 1960s--including in the first Parliament in which I had the honour to serve--came unstuck because of the absence of any such agreement. The parties were divided about the direction of reform.

I felt that we had started the process of reforming the House of Lords quite well. We recognised the need to give priority to the removal of hereditary peers. No case was made for their participation in debates--and, ultimately, the enactment of legislation--when we were deciding what sort of upper House should replace one stripped of its hereditaries. It seemed that we might have some broad support for that proposition, but--partly because there were not enough Members like the hon. Member for Thurrock--for a long time, even among reformers, there was no consensus about what should take the place of the second Chamber. The whole thing seemed so anomalous that many in the Labour party thought that it should be swept away and that we should not have a second Chamber.

I have always favoured a second Chamber. The distribution of power, provided that it is accountable and democratic, is desirable; that is why I favour the devolution of power and want at the centre separate Chambers, performing somewhat different functions. It seemed right that that process should be kick-started after the last election. Unfortunately, our recommendations were not acted upon in the way that we recommended. We advocated the establishment of a Joint Committee of both Houses to introduce detailed proposals on structure and functions for the later stages of reform within a limited period. That body should produce recommendations for a democratic and representative second Chamber.

I take to heart what the right hon. Member for Chesterfield said about the two meanings of "representative", and I agree with him. The trouble is that the Government latched on to the notion of a second Chamber constructed--not elected--of people drawn from different walks of society on the wrong basis of belief that what we wanted in a second Chamber were people with experience of different activities, who could speak with the authority drawn from that experience. However, what we want are people drawn from our society by those who choose them to exercise their judgment based on their experience and the evidence before them. They should not be elected merely to speak for themselves or appointed merely to speak about medicine, for example, because they have served as the president of the Royal Society of Medicine.

We require people of weight and judgment, chosen by the electors; something that the appointment of the people's peers failed to achieve. An exercise in which people were appointed following consultation with PricewaterhouseCoopers and others was bound to fail.

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There are always hopeful people who will apply for opportunities to give public service. As one of those who launched the SDP, I received hundreds of letters from people offering their services who thought they would be suitable to be Prime Minister.

There is a deep failure to grasp the importance of democracy within the Government and within Parliament. In the White Paper on reforming the House of Lords in January 1999, the Government stated:

Mr. Tony Benn : A hereditary peer would not get in on the basis of a degree of legitimacy.

Mr. Maclennan : I take the right hon. Gentleman's point.

We must aspire to legitimacy and that means democracy. If that word is missing from future dispositions, White Papers and other indicators of Government intention--what will appear in the manifestos of the various parties on that subject is also a litmus test--we must regard the entire process as suspect. We can expect that the House of Lords, in whatever form it is devised, will lose popular support and ineluctably wither away as an effective part of our constitution. As someone who believes in the distribution of power, I believe that that would be a pity.

10.35 am

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): This has been a most enjoyable debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on introducing it. I took issue only with his suggestion that my position as a Conservative spokesman made me part of the establishment. Over the past four years I have felt increasingly marginalised; indeed, I have begun to feel that I no longer exist in a country in which government is carried out. That feeling reached a climax yesterday when, with an overwhelming sense of nausea, I watched the performance of the new establishment launching its election campaign by hijacking a school assembly service in London for political purposes. It was disgusting, if typical of the general drift of politics over the past few years. It was an interesting example of how a Government can come into office full of commitments to democratise the political process but, four years later, can produce absolutely nothing in that regard except the introduction of some features of establishment life which, as a Conservative, I find even more objectionable than the ones that pre-existed them.

The hon. Member for Thurrock made some good points. The so-called people's peers are nothing of the kind, although I confess that I mildly participated in the process. A radical human rights lawyer asked me whether I would support his nomination; I did not quite draw the hairdresser analogy in thinking that he might bring a bit of spark into the institution or that he might make a particular contribution in the wake of the

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Human Rights Act 1998, but I supported his nomination. I thought--thinking politically for a moment--that he was the sort of person on the borderline who might be nominated. However, it did not happen. Instead we had the appointment of the great and the good, with the usual dilution caused by the shifting position of the establishment. As has been said, it was a con trick. I am sure that it will not be repeated in terms of the regional bandwagons, from which point of view it is completely irrelevant. The system of people's peers was designed to cloak the fact that the Government, having made a commitment to reform the House of Lords, failed completely to carry through any sort of rational strategy or policy.

As a Conservative, if I were asked to choose between what we have now and what we had before we abolished hereditary peers, I would have to say that I see no benefit whatever in the present system. The previous House of Lords was archaic and indefensible on any rational or practical basis, but I had a greater affection for it than for what we have now. The question is what direction we should go in. Several pertinent points were made on that subject. Speaking not as a party spokesman but from a personal view, I believe that the trend of history lies in the direction set out by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield and the hon. Member for Thurrock. I believe that we will eventually end up with an elected second Chamber. There are drawbacks to that, about which I remain anxious.

The point about preserving an independent element was also made; the independent element in the present upper House is important. However, I am concerned whether we shall be able to preserve that element by that method. I realise that forms of proportional representation may make that possible, but I have my doubts.

The place will be dominated by placemen of parties. The difficulty is that if the second Chamber is to remain subordinate--I am sure that it must within our constitutional framework--I am sure that the hon. Member for Thurrock will agree that the problem is who will be attracted to do that particular form of work. Are we not in danger of ending up with the second tier of rejects from those who failed to get on selection lists for their political parties? Those are real issues that must be considered carefully before we embark down that road. Although the end product is logical in terms of democracy--as stated so eloquently by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield--and logic, it may not work as well in practice as it does on paper.

The second thing, which could be done at once, is to end the Prime Minister's powers of patronage over appointments to the House of Lords. Having seen the performance of Lord Stevenson in relation to people's peers, I, like the hon. Member for Thurrock, am worried about an appointments commission. However, if this House put its creative mind to the matter, we could set a statutory framework and guidelines and find suitable appointments commissioners to do the job. Beyond that, there is no earthly reason why the Prime Minister should have powers of patronage over appointments to the House of Lords. That could be got rid of quickly. When the Conservative party gets back into government, which I believe and trust will be soon, I hope that that is one of the first things that we shall do.

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We have ended up with a hybrid. The Prime Minister says, "Of course, I am setting up the Appointments Commission. Various people will be appointed by it and I shall not interfere with the Leader of the Opposition's rights of nomination." That is nice, but the Prime Minister has kept the power to appoint such peers as he wishes. As long as that is the situation, the system will remain inherently corrupt.

The Liberal Democrats were angry about the criticism of Lloyd George by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell). Lloyd George was extremely corrupt; it is as simple as that. He was extremely corrupt in the way in which he used his powers. As a matter of absolutes, one thing that I should like to see in politics is the diminution of the ability of politicians to be corrupted by their office or to corrupt others in the process of discharging their office, which is always a great challenge in democracies.

To return to a point made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, we must remember that, however clear-cut and perfect a structure we set up, it is still possible to corrupt it. I come from a half-French background. The constitution of the French Republic, as set up, is supposed to reflect democracy. If one examines the way in which it operates in practice, it is riddled with corrupt practices of one kind or another, despite its democratic credentials and its adherence to the rights of man. We should not get too carried away with the principle; we should examine the practice.

I want to leave a great deal of time so that the Minister has a leisurely opportunity to reply to the debate; I intend to speak for only a few more moments. I disagreed with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield when he said that the only constitution that we have in this country is the oath that we, as Members, take to the Sovereign. The only constitution that we have in this country is the oath that the sovereign takes at her coronation, which is worth examining because it forms a fairly reasonable framework--which can always be altered--for the way in which government should be conducted, if we remove the references to the established Church.

We have a flexible constitution that has served this country well and there is an essential role for an upper House. We need a revising Chamber that is relatively and reasonably detached from the cut and thrust of the political process, so it can take an independent view. That is what we should set out to achieve, and not gimmicks such as people's peers. The process by which the old constitution of this country has been gradually turned on its head has produced not the democracy that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield wants but a substitute for the sort of country that Napoleon III set about creating; a populist autocracy, in which the Prime Minister is Napoleon III writ small.

10.44 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping) : My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has introduced the debate in his usual challenging and robust way; I congratulate him on that, and on securing the debate. Many of his remarks concerned the suitability of the so-called people's peers. I confess that it is a phrase that I personally never use. However, I think of my hon.

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Friend as a people's champion. Whatever the events of the next few weeks bring him, I will always think of him as the thane of Thurrock.

If the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and the hon. Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Tatton (Mr. Bell) will forgive me, the early part of the debate seemed to concern the parliamentary Labour party. I am conscious of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that the matter has not only been pursued historically but will be pursued in future.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) may not have the opportunity to pursue the argument in this place, but I know that he will do so vigorously elsewhere. I will not say that he made a farewell speech; I have said that before, and he may be tempted once more. However, I want to put on record an important and influential comment that he made, which was that we should not lose sight of the fact that the mood for change comes from outside the House. A strong Government and Parliament should turn outwards, listen to the voices, reflect on them and introduce change. My right hon. Friend mentioned the environmental movement. If we do not listen to its concerns and projections, there will be serious environmental consequences.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and the hon. Member for Tatton acknowledged that things had changed. The message that I took from them was that change was not happening quickly enough and that we were not making enough progress on the matter. I look forward to hearing the views of the hon. Member for Tatton, perhaps in a debate of a different title, after 8 June. We will sorely miss the statesmanlike comments and perceptions that the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has provided over many years.

It has been suggested that the list of names announced by the Appointments Commission proves that the idea of opening up the process of appointment to the House of Lords is a farce. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock went further and said that it was an absurdity, a nonsense and a charade. Supported by other hon. Members, he argued that, in effect, the usual suspects had been appointed, so nothing had been gained from the establishment of an independent commission on appointments. I do not believe that to be the case. In the past, the process by which peers were chosen was shrouded in mystery. For non-political, non-working peers, a list of names was published twice a year, but how the names emerged was known to few in government, and even fewer outside. It was not clear to the recipient, or anyone else, whether it was simply an honour or a recognition of past achievement for which nothing was required in return, or whether the main intention was that the individual would bring experience to the Lords and contribute to a revising Chamber.

Mr. Mackinlay : So what has changed?

Mr. Tipping : A great deal. First, the Prime Minister no longer controls the names. I know that there has been

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argument about the 15 names and the quality of the chairmanship of the Appointments Commission, but it has brought forward the names, not the Government. The obscure process by which the names were selected has been opened up, although perhaps not far enough for some of my hon. Friends. Instead of relying on soundings in Departments or the random recommendations of those outside who have some knowledge of how the system works, we now have, by the instincts of the Prime Minister, a more open and transparent system. We know who is responsible; the Appointments Commission is recommending the names.

Mr. Mackinlay : If there is greater transparency, can my hon. Friend the Minister tell us whether it was news to him, as it was to me, that someone on the body appointing the Appointments Commission was actually a beneficiary of it; a nominee after it was set up? My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) revealed that. It is wholly corrupt. Is the Minister going to address the question of Valerie Howarth who was clearly deficient in her application in terms of the criteria laid down by the Commission? Did that woman disclose in her application that she had failed in her application to become director of social services for Cambridgeshire?

Mr. Tipping : If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will come to those points in a second.

We clearly know who is making appointments and how that is being done. The important thing about the independent Appointments Commission is that it has set out criteria, which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle has examined. He might not like them, but they are there for him to examine. The Appointments Commission has checked the names against those criteria. He mentioned the roadshows. Whether they continue in the regions next year is a matter for the commission. It is an independent body, which does not belong to me.

As an avid reader of the Appointments Commission's website, I am confident in the knowledge that it approached more than 10,000 organisations, asking for suitable candidates to apply. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield supported one such candidate. Its report is on the record. That contrasts with what went before. More than 3,000 people applied; that is a big step forward. Of those, 15 have been recommended for appointment. All have made it clear that they are willing to serve and expect to be hard-working, committed peers.

I shall labour the point; the Appointments Commission was set up to be totally independent. It has a remit, which I believe that it has fulfilled. My hon. Friends do not agree with the remit and that is the basis of their argument. Within the remit, however, the Appointments Commission has done its job. It is the commission that must take responsibility for individual names. The Prime Minister has committed himself not to become involved in those appointments and not to block names unless major issues, such as national security, arise.

It is not for me to comment on individual names and I will not comment in depth about the people who have been recommended. If we look at our careers--I say this

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to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock in an open-handed way--we have all made mistakes in the past. The important thing is to come through those mistakes. My hon. Friend asked whether it was news to me that Herman Ouseley, a member of the committee that appointed the Appointments Commission, was recommended. It was not news to me. The Appointments Commission will be issuing a press release today, setting out its views on that matter. It believes that the process was carried out properly and transparently. My hon. Friend might not accept those assurances, but those are the views of the commission, taken after careful consideration.

I would like to make some general comments about the people appointed. The individuals nominated--my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock has given names--have without exception, in their differing ways, given outstanding public service over many years and have exceptional records of achievement. As hon. Members have said, in comparison to the traditional composition of the House of Lords, the new peers come from more varied ethnic backgrounds, include more women and are, on average, younger. We have had a discussion about death. I wish these peers a long and active life in the House of Lords. We are making important steps in the right direction.

Mr. Grieve : I certainly do not consider that the people who have been appointed are unsuitable to serve in the House of Lords. However, does not the Minister agree that the list of names suggests precisely the sort of people that one might have expected to be sent to the House of Lords under the old system? The whole thrust of the idea of people's peers was to reach out to other or further sections of the community that had not previously succeeded in securing representatives. Is that not the key failure of the appointment process?

Mr. Tipping : I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. The success of the Appointments Commission has been greater than he acknowledges. A young man from the black and Afro-Caribbean community--who has been the chief executive of a voluntary organisation and has now been offered a peerage--is very different from the current kind of peer. The Appointments Commission has widened the range.

In the few minutes that remain I want to talk about the wider issues involved in the future of the House of Lords. Change has occurred, although my hon. Friend the member for Thurrock and others do not think that

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it has been sufficient. After a century of trying, phase 1 of House of Lords reform has taken place and the vast majority of hereditary peers have gone. We need to move from the past arguments to the future arguments. I am committed, as are the Government, to a way forward that builds on the work of the royal commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock grimaces at that, but the Government have made it clear that the basic premise of the commission's report is correct.

The argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, which is supported by several hon. Members, is that the correct way forward is to disestablish the present system and put in place a democratically elected second Chamber. However, there are real dangers involved in creating a void and putting a new structure in place. In fairness to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, he recognised some of those dangers. He acknowledged that the second Chamber's primary role should be that of a revising and delaying Chamber; a Chamber for the exchange of ideas. I am worried that we might set up a Chamber that is in opposition to the House of Commons. I believe in the paramount position of the House of Commons. In terms of the scales of balance, it is fundamentally important that that is where the real power and democratic structure of Parliament should reside. Any change to the second Chamber will have profound consequences for the House of Commons.

I am not arguing that we should not have change in the House of Commons; indeed, there is a compelling case for more modernisation. However, to create a democratically elected second Chamber comprising 100 peers elected by proportional representation, or whatever it may be, would have real consequences for the House of Commons. That requires careful thinking through, and I counsel my hon. Friends and colleagues within the party to take a cautious approach.

I want to make a couple of final points. I was asked what had happened on the question of the Joint Committee. Let me be blunt about that. We were unable to reach agreement on the Joint Committee's terms of reference, but the Government are committed to ensuring that all parties have a say in the way forward and the mechanics of changes to the procedures.

In conclusion, there has been vigorous debate in Westminster Hall today, and it is absolutely clear that there are different views. The debate will continue and I look forward to the publication of the election manifestos.

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