Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report


185. Throughout this report we have commended the Government for maintaining the momentum on Lords reform. That will be as important in the next stages as it has been in the initial stage, which led to the removal of most of the hereditary peers. It is essential that the legislation for the next stage is passed during this Parliament: and passed in time for the first elections to the new second chamber to be held at the same time as the next General Election, which is likely to be in 2005. In the first table below we sketch out the timetable which will be necessary in the next two legislative sessions to achieve that. We then explore what action might be necessary to control the overall numbers once the elected members start to arrive.

186. Annex A below shows the timetable and sequencing if (as we propose) the next steps include the establishment of a Joint Parliamentary Committee, which is given the specific task of scrutinising a draft Bill. We hope that the Government will respond to our report within two months (as their own standards require), and that they will be able to publish a draft Bill not more than two months after that. That would enable the Joint Committee to start their pre-legislative scrutiny well before summer, and if possible to report on the draft bill in the autumn. The Government would then be in a position to introduce the stage two bill early in the next session. Early introduction of the bill would allow time for full debate in both Houses. The Lords in particular will need plenty of time, as they did for the House of Lords Bill in 1999.

187. The timetable needs to allow for the possibility of the House of Lords blocking or wrecking the bill, and the Government needing to re-introduce the bill in the next (2003-04) session and forcing it through under the Parliament Acts. That is the possibility referred to in square brackets in the entries in our Table for November 2003 and January 2004. In 1998 a similar situation arose with respect to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, which was lost in November when the Lords refused to accept closed lists, but was immediately re-introduced by the Government in December. The bill was then forced through under the Parliament Acts in January, just in time for the elections to go ahead using the new voting system in June 1999. However, this relied on a degree of co-operation from the House of Lords in the second session, by the unusual tactic of blocking the bill at Second Reading; if opposition peers had wanted to delay matters further they could have done. Even if the Bill can only be passed under the Parliament Acts, it would still be possible for the second chamber elections to be held at the same time as the next general election, expected by 2005.

The next steps: Draft Bill, Joint Committee, Legislation

188. We took a variety of evidence on the difficulties of the transition from the current chamber of more than 750 to the smaller final chamber. This is one of the most intractable of the practical difficulties surrounding reform, and we found that wishful thinking dominated many of the contributions we received.

189. The White Paper suggests that members of the second chamber should be allowed formally to retire when they feel "they can no longer make a full contribution". They could be offered a "winding-up allowance" and "resettlement grants" to help them to adjust.[82] Similar suggestions came from the Liberal Democrats.

190. Some witnesses suggested that the process of reducing the number should be left to the passage of time. According to the actuaries, an average of 18 life peers are predicted to die each year over the next decade.[83] At that rate, and without any retirements, it would take more than a generation for the chamber to reach its final size. The appointments commission would find it difficult to achieve its task of rebalancing the second chamber to make it more representative.

191. This approach does not seem to us to be satisfactory. It is too dependent on a series of individual decisions by current peers, and there is no guarantee that the "stayers" will be those who have most to contribute to the work of the chamber. The quality of accountability could diminish as a result. We propose that a more active approach should be adopted, if the Government are serious about second chamber reform.

192. The remaining hereditary peers should leave the House when the Act takes effect. The hereditary peers have contributed greatly to the public life of the country over many centuries, but the whole basis for membership of the second chamber is now changing and we agree with the widespread opinion that the remaining hereditary peers should leave when the relevant legislation is passed.

193. We recommend that the remaining hereditary peers should leave the second chamber when the reform Act comes into effect.

194. We now turn to the existing life (or "patronage") peers. We agree with many of our witnesses that since 1958 such peers have contributed greatly to the public life of the country. Their ranks include some of the most distinguished figures of the past half-century. We believe that, despite the need to move to a more legitimate and democratic second chamber, existing life peers have a role to play in the future of the second chamber.

195. However, we do not agree with the Royal Commission and the Government that the life peers should retain their membership for life. We believe that the climate has changed, and that membership of the legislature can no longer be seen as an inalienable individual right. Our priority is the effectiveness of the institution in carrying out its work, and in this context we believe that life peers should be retained only for a further fixed period, to lend continuity to a changing chamber. The Committee is also in favour of some appropriate arrangements for a resettlement allowance or pension which would be offered to peers who wished to leave the second chamber, particularly where there is hardship. However, we would not support a scheme which appeared to offer excessively generous payments regardless of commitment or hardship in a hurried attempt to reduce the size of the second chamber. The appointments commission should make no appointments until this date. We are relaxed about the retention of club rights.

196. We recommend that all life peers should remain in the second chamber until the next general election. An appropriate scheme of payments should be offered to members who wished to withdraw from the second chamber. The appointments commission should not make appointments until the next general election.

197. The question then arises of how the number of life peers is to be reduced, as we believe it has to be if reform is to proceed, and the reformed second chamber is to be of an acceptable size. Here we follow an interesting recent precedent. We have been impressed by the experience of the election held among the hereditary peers in late 1999. This had the advantage of drawing a clear line under the hereditary issue and giving a dignified opportunity for those peers who wished effectively to retire to do so. It is our sense that those peers who were successful in the election have been endowed with greater confidence, legitimacy and status by their victory.

198. An election or elections for life peers, held at the same time as general elections, would offer an opportunity for peers to consider in their own time whether they wished to run for continued membership, propose themselves for nomination or direct election, or to retire.

199. This transitional arrangement, we believe, would enhance the second chamber's capacity to hold government to account, and combine gradual change with the momentum of reform. It will also ease the path for the Appointments Commission to produce a more balanced and representative second chamber. There are various options for the organisation of these elections; a single election would be simpler, but would lead to the sudden loss of much experience and expertise. The organisation of two elections would be more complex, but would enable the transition to be more gradual. At Annex B, we provide one possible model to illustrate the changing composition of the second chamber as elections are held, to coincide with the next two general elections (so reducing the number of life peers to 250 in the first election, to 100 in the second and removing them altogether by the time of the third election, about 2013).

200. We recommend that one or more elections should be held among the life peers, at the same time as general elections, to reduce their numbers by stages to zero.

82   Cmd 5291 para 95 Back

83   Cmd 5291 supporting documents Chapter 13 para 17 Back

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