Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I am very much obliged. Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord: why not; and who else?

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I understand that. It is rather like democracy. It is

14 Apr 2000 : Column 422

sometimes a very bad system but all the others are worse. That is what I take to be the point of the noble Lord's question. I am not sure. What I am saying is that Privy Counsellors, as we know them, would not command clear acceptance across a large part of the community and would not necessarily deliver what the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, is asking for.

It will be difficult for the criteria to guarantee that the new composition will install personnel with special experience for scrutiny in the delay that is allowed in this House. Some work should be done on obtaining a group of that kind. The delay should be used less for devising awkward amendments--I remember having produced some awkward amendments--and more as a period in which special committee work is done on the structure of Bills. Perhaps I may refer to a scholarly work of as long ago as 1974. Professor John Griffith's authoritative work on parliamentary scrutiny of government Bills made a large number of suggestions of that kind, such as the use of specialist committees and cross-examination--something on which the House of Commons has built rather more than this House.

Complaints of patronage, which will be made because we cannot get rid of the ghost of Lloyd George and others, will go on, no matter what system is used. They are difficult to avoid even if one has an elected Chamber, an answer for which people reach easily as though it is a complete solution. I rather share the view that if systems of election are in any way the result of nominations by party machines they will not provide even a quarter of what the Bill seeks to have. It is about election--I appreciate that--but in fairness to the Bill one should say that many systems of election, especially closed lists and other species of proportional representation, will come in for just the same criticism. It will be another category of what on 3rd February 1969 my right honourable friend Michael Foot criticised because there were to be nominations through party machines. He said:

    "Think of it! A second Chamber selected by the Whips. A seraglio of eunuchs".--[Official Report, Commons, 3/2/69 col. 88.]

That criticism can be made of many of the systems of election that have been proposed.

We do not like to speak much of money. But we all know that, if the Chamber were partially appointed and partially elected, horrendous problems would arise in respect of who should be paid what.

At Committee stage, there will be matters for debate almost as important as the ones I have mentioned. One example is Clause 1(5), which states that,

    "The Prime Minister may not refuse to submit to Her Majesty the names of those recommended as Cross Bench members by the Commission".

"May not refuse to submit" is an odd phrase. Presumably the Prime Minister is under an obligation to submit the commission's lists. Can he just sit on his hands? What is he going to do in regard to relations with the sovereign? Will the commission become a body with absolute sovereign powers to appoint under the pretence of nomination? Is the Prime Minister to be allowed to advise Her Majesty? If he is not, the

14 Apr 2000 : Column 423

sovereign is left stranded in the middle of a political crisis without being able to obtain the advice of her or his Prime Minister. I take it to be a bedrock of our modern constitution that the position of the Crown is established, wisely, to be that which the sovereign will do on the advice of the Prime Minister--the leader of the party of democratic choice.

Questions of that kind will arise in Committee, and they will need to be debated in relation to another area of the agenda for the middle period of the reform of this House. I refer to a matter with which the Bill rightly does not deal, but which must be stated--because, even if the Bill were wholly unanswerable in its propositions, there would be a different part of the problem to confront; namely, the powers of a second House.

The powers of this House are limited primarily by the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts, other than in regard to Money Bills and so on. In common parlance that means a 13-month delay. The Wakeham report explains all the other details and problems very well--although it is one of the least imaginative areas of the report. It explains the powers of delay and the suspensory veto. The periods of delay, too, may need to move with the times. I take it that they should be modernised. For example, however it is composed, the second Chamber must, as the report clearly states, have only a suspensory veto; it must be cautious about obstructing the House of Commons in government business beyond a reasonable time; and it must maintain the Salisbury Convention, especially in not delaying unreasonably the manifesto commitments of the majority party.

Those of us who may be somewhat to the left of centre of the political spectrum do not usually see Cross-Benchers as favourable to their views. "Cross-Benchers" is a curious term. Most Cross-Benchers are at least to the right of the middle point of the spectrum, and one has to face the commitment that no party shall have a majority in this House in that way.

Why do I raise the question of powers? I do so because 13 months is not necessarily a reasonable period in modern conditions to apply to all government Bills. Vetoes are not sacrosanct. The period of 25 months in 1911 was changed, after relatively little debate, in 1949 because it was necessary to stop the last two years of a Labour government's power being utterly useless through inability to govern.

I suggest that the agenda will have to be widened to take in rather more matters than are dealt with in Chapter 4 of the Wakeham report. Some might be resolved more easily by a Joint Committee of the two Houses. The adoption of a Speaker's Certificate as to the nature of a Bill might be taken into account, as it is in relation to Money Bills, and a second Chamber might do better work in not delaying for as long as 13 months a Bill which is at the core of a government's manifesto commitments.

Our constitution has moved. I believe that in the middle or latter part of the term of a government, of whichever party, 13 months is an unreasonable delay.

14 Apr 2000 : Column 424

Even a big Bill of great importance could be dealt with quite satisfactorily by changes in the procedures of this House if, for example, the Committee stage was devoted more to eliciting information to be debated in the Chamber than to special political questions and amendments which could, quite properly, be dealt with on Report. One thing is clear: we have become so devoted to the issue of composition and personnel that we have not examined sufficiently the problem of the powers and duties of the new Chamber. I feel confident that the latter will, and should, dominate the agenda at some point. There is a strong case for shortening the period of 13 months to six months in relation to core manifesto Bills.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, on offering us this Bill as an agenda on composition. I look forward to his next contribution, which must surely help us to devise a proper agenda on the question of the period of delay and the powers of the second Chamber.

2.35 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I too welcome the opportunity that this Bill gives to explore the advantages of, and arrangements for, a statutory appointments commission. The Government are finally putting in place, entirely on their own authority, the interim independent appointments commission which was outlined in the White Paper (Cmnd. 4183) well over 12 months ago. This Bill is too late to set up the interim commission and too early to be the final solution, because to seek the consensus to which the Government aspire we need to concentrate not only on this but on the many other aspects of the Royal Commission's work still to be agreed.

I hope, nevertheless, that we shall receive an indication from the Minister of the stage the interim commission has reached. Has a chairman been identified? I hope that he or she and the other independent members will have more than a superficial knowledge of this place. As the Leader of the House told me in a Written Answer, the commission will nominate all new Cross Bench Peers. Her response, however, suggested that these nominations would replace half-yearly creations associated with the New Year and Birthday Honours Lists. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can clarify the position.

I wrote to the Prime Minister on 9th March to point out that, while the Wakeham commission and the Bill before us today envisage roles for the Convenor of the Cross Bench Peers, no arrangement has been made to involve the Convenor in the interim appointments commission. It would help to underline the Government's commitment to a strong independent element in your Lordships' House if the Convenor were involved in the work of setting up the interim commission. I await the Prime Minister's response with optimism.

To return to the Bill before us, there are a number of points which I welcome. First, implicit in the Bill is the concept of an independent appointments commission

14 Apr 2000 : Column 425

set up by statute. This would underline and enshrine, in a way that no lesser step could do, the strength of support by all political parties in both this House and another place for an independent element in the new House of Lords. I hope that today's debate will reveal a consensus for the statutory route. While so much is made of the importance of a strong independent element in your Lordships' House, it would be perverse if, when put to the test, it transpired that there was really no strong committed support for entrenching the appointing authority. I remind the House of the words of the White Paper:

    "Cross-Benchers will become more important with the removal of the Conservative in-built majority".

I shall judge the strength of the commitment of the political parties to the independents in this House by their reactions to the statutory approach. But given their acceptance of it, the other side of that coin must be accepted too.

It will also entrench occasional parliamentary setbacks, government defeats in this Chamber and difficulties with the passage of legislation. A quarter, I hope, of this Chamber--it will not be supine; it will never be whipped; it will not be brigaded; and it will come and go as it wishes--will have this potential even though it will not be marshalled in any attempt to do so. One cannot but have a sneaking admiration for any executive so broad-minded as to accept such a large lump of intellectual grit in the works of their legislative programme. For my part, I think that it gives the country an assurance that the legislative programme will be well scrutinised and debated, and that the outcome will in the long run be beneficial.

On a mundane issue, I have to say that none of the political parties has shown any strong inclination to recognise an increased importance for independent Peers when it comes to addressing the stark discrepancy between the ratio of desks allocated to Cross-Bench Peers and the parties.

The second point I welcome in the Bill is the place for Privy Counsellors in the appointments commission. If the commission is to be heavyweight--and it must be, if it is a statutory body--then the standing and experience of members must be clear to all and widely acknowledged. Whether under this Bill, the Wakeham commission proposals or something akin to them, the commission will have an authoritative responsibility which must be above and beyond serious challenge. Lesser men and women will not have the respect which each and every member of the commission must enjoy to fit them for their responsibilities.

The White Paper, amazingly, has no formal provision for any member of the commission to be a Member of your Lordships' House. I hope that when it comes to party appointees, this will be corrected. The Bill before us provides for that because the Convenor is to nominate a Member of the Cross Benches to be a member of the commission.

The Bill also proposes that the commission would,

    "publish criteria under which it will determine a candidate's suitability for nomination".

14 Apr 2000 : Column 426

I shall turn to the complexities of determining the appropriate criteria in a moment, but I raise this question. Who would approve those criteria? Are the commissioners really going to be given completely free rein by this House, Parliament, the Government and the opposition parties of the day? How will all this sit with transparency and openness?

A number of Cross Benchers have been giving some thought to devising criteria for accepting nominees as independent Members of your Lordships' House. Your Lordships will recall that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, placed some emphasis, with which I agree entirely, on the acceptability of part-time attendance among the independent element. I hope that part-time attendance will not be a bar to selection by the appointments commission. But there are more difficult issues about selection to address, in particular as the criteria will have to be open and transparent. I am concerned that the Government's interim commission, breaking new ground on all of this, will be hard pressed to be ready to make nominations in a matter of weeks, as is expected of them.

At present there is a tendency to perceive independent Peers and Cross-Bench Peers as synonymous terms. New independent Members will have been appointed only after establishing their independence of all political parties. The independent appointments commission will devise its rules for establishing such independence, but it will have to be done by means of a number of criteria to which a candidate will have to make satisfactory responses. The guidance to public bodies produced by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, which follows the Nolan principles, may be a good starting point, but it will not produce a complete answer. Some criteria, such as current or very recent membership of a political party, would be a bar. Other criteria might require no party political activity, or donations to a party, for a period of time.

Once these new Members are introduced, they should be logged as independent Peers, thus emphasising their status of independence.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page