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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, has not the noble and learned Lord said something quite significant? Does he not feel ashamed of himself and of his government? The first time that we in this House have heard what it is that the Government propose in their interim commission is when they have been dragged to this Chamber on a Friday afternoon by a Bill tabled by the shadow Lord Chancellor. They sneaked out the announcement in a press release and in a Written Answer about the setting up of an appointments commission that disposes of seats in Parliament. This is the first time that this House has had the opportunity to debate the matter.
As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said in his speech, there is a tremendous sense of deja vu about this debate. The arguments deployed in favour of this Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, have not changed in the intervening five months since we first heard them during the course of the passage of the Act--
This is the Second Reading of the Bill and therefore it is not for us to go into detailed textual criticisms of the measure. However, there are some flaws that are so fundamental that I believe they should influence our views even at this stage.
We had three main reasons for rejecting these measures when they came before us last time, and none of those has changed, except to become stronger and more relevant. First, and most importantly, they are unnecessary. Secondly, the proposals are not in a number of details--I have referred to these--the same as those of the Government. Thirdly, they do not begin to address the real complexities of what they are trying to achieve.
I hope that I may once again set out the background of the Government's commitments--which have been made repeatedly and publicly--against which this Bill should be judged. They are the commitments which we are already fulfilling. First, there are our commitments about the overall shape and structure of this House over the lifetime of the transitional House. We have pledged not to seek more than broad parity with the main Opposition party. We still have 34 fewer Peers than they do. We have pledged that there shall be creations for other parties proportionate to their share of the vote at the previous general election. All of that has been made clear and the only person who appears to have missed those commitments is the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Therefore, in the previous round, the Liberal Democrats were offered more than twice as many new creations as the Conservatives and a 17 per cent increase in their membership compared with an 11 per cent increase in the Government's. We have pledged not to interfere in the recommendations of the other political parties except on the grounds of national security. Your Lordships have all recently seen the effect of that pledge in action.
Most significantly for the purposes of this debate, we have pledged to set up an appointments commission to take on the job of producing names for non-political Peers, and to vet all peerages for propriety. We undertook that this body would be
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it was in a White Paper. I understand that the point that is now being made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, from a sedentary position, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is not that he did not know about the relevant matters but that they were not made in a statement to Parliament.
The Government are proceeding with the appointment of a non-statutory commission. Noble Lords will be aware of the extensive public exercise which we undertook in order to identify and invite a wide range of names for consideration as members of the commission. We recruited in January a specialist recruitment agency to help with the process. This has been criticised. The Government think that that is money well spent to ensure that the widest possible field of candidates is considered. It demonstrates our commitment to the process of open recruitment. We advertised publicly in the national, regional and ethnic press last February. A distinguished panel of people, including a Member of your Lordships' House, is sitting with the Cabinet Secretary to identify names for the Prime Minister's consideration. The appointments process is making good progress. The Prime Minister will announce his decision on the membership of the commission when he is ready to do so. He still hopes that this will be around Easter, as planned; but the important thing is to get the right people for the job. I think we would all agree on that.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, who, sadly, has had to leave, asked me a number of specific questions about the work of the Government's appointments commission of which he was good enough to give me notice in a letter of 12th April. Many of these questions were echoed by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. As I have already said, I confirm that it is the Government's intention that during the lifetime of the transitional House the non-political Peers will form a fairly constant percentage of the House. That percentage is around its present level. Effectively, therefore, the quota, as the noble and gallant Lord put it, has already been fixed and there is no need for either the Government or anyone else to do so in the future.
Most of the noble Viscount's other questions--and those of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley--were directed to the appointments commission itself. He asked whether there would continue to be any purely honorary life peerages in the future. The Government have said that once the appointments commission is up and running all non-political peerages will in future be recommended by the appointments commission. It will be up to that body whether, in any particular round, it wishes to recommend someone who traditionally might have
The same applies to those who may covertly have marked political sympathies. It will be up to the commission to decide how it wants to probe such questions and what notice to take of them. The Prime Minister will continue to determine the number of nominations he will seek from the commission, but in the context of the proportions that I have indicated.
Finally, the noble Lord and the noble and gallant Lord asked why the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers was not being asked to nominate a member of the appointments commission. The Government decided that the independent interest would best be represented by those recruited directly by open competition. Political interests, of course, can only be represented by those nominated by their parties.
As I have said, the Bill is unnecessary, irrelevant and a complication. By the time that this Bill could complete its passage, even through your Lordships' House, the appointments commission will be well established. This Bill would add nothing to the situation. Instead, if it ever became law, it would be an unnecessary complication. It would mean inflexibility, confusion and would add no practical strength to the commission's status.
It is claimed that these are the Government's own proposals and therefore we should have no objection to legislating for them. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said. There is a world of difference between the language that is suitable for a White Paper--which is where the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, has mostly quarried for his Bill--and that which is needed for a Bill. The White Paper proposals are not drawn up as a statutory blueprint; they cannot just be lifted verbatim and put into statute. Legislation needs to cater for all foreseeable circumstances. A non-statutory arrangement can lay out broad principles. If specific circumstances arise which have not obviously been catered for, it is probably possible to devise a satisfactory solution from those broad principles. That cannot be done with legislation. In many respects, that is the way in which our constitution has always advanced in the past.
There are gaps in these provisions. For example, they contain no commencement date or transitional provisions. Yet, by the time the proposals made in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, could become law, the interim appointments commission will be well established. What is to happen to it? The Bill would require it to be disbanded and the commission envisaged by the Bill put in its place. This is likely to be a mess, to put it mildly, and a waste of resources. The whole recruitment exercise would have to be done again. Meanwhile, for a period of perhaps three
So the consequences of the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, would not be to strengthen the position of the present appointments commission but to undermine it. If it looked as though it was going to be replaced shortly, no one would take it seriously. It might be argued that, in practice, the existing commission would continue seamlessly into the statutory one, with the simple addition of a Cross-Bench nominee, but no one can possibly guarantee that.
The Bill requires the Speaker of the other place and the Chairman of Committees to join the Prime Minister in choosing the members. I am somewhat surprised that your Lordships are prepared to contemplate the idea that the Speaker of the other place should have a role, albeit at second hand, in selecting the Members of this House.
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