Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The case that an interim package of widely supported and sensible reforms should not be held up indefinitely pending the enactment of root-and-branch legislation was unanswerable the last time that we made it, and it is even more unanswerable today. Things have moved on. The reasons for saying this are threefold. First, the Government have published a further White Paper as a result of discussions in a cross-party group that was more like the magic circle than a genuine process of consultation. Many of its conclusions were indecisive, the response that it received could be described as “underwhelmed”, to put it mildly, and the Government have not felt confident enough of such proposals as there were in the White Paper for a comprehensive package of reform to move to a debate on them in either House of Parliament.

Secondly, the recent allegations of misconduct in this House have pushed the question of House of Lords reform up the political agenda and made it imperative that action be taken without delay to remove at least the more glaring defects in our constitution. If the Government have particular measures that they wish to introduce to deal with this situation, the Bill presents just the legislative vehicle that they need.

Finally, the Public Administration Select Committee in another place has published two reports strongly endorsing the case presented by the sponsors of the Bill. I did not want to weary the House with lengthy quotations, and I want to weary it even less now that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has quoted from the report, but I will quote a couple of passages from the first of the Select Committee’s reports, Propriety and Peerages, which it published in December 2007. One is specific and one is more general. The first relates to the specific need to put the Appointments Commission on to a statutory basis. At paragraph 135, the report says:

“One of the major lessons to be drawn from the events of the last two years is that the rules for entry to the House of Lords are far too ad hoc. They must be clear; they must be widely agreed; and they must be of unquestionable legitimacy. In short, they must be statutory. We call upon the Government to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to put the House of Lords Appointments Commission onto a statutory footing”.

27 Feb 2009 : Column 454

In support of the more general proposition, I was going to quote briefly two paragraphs, but as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has already quoted the passage about running repairs not being held up pending agreement on elections, I shall simply quote from paragraph 180, in which the Select Committee said:

“We believe that we propose a package that can be supported by all major parties—many of its elements have already been supported—and by those who have very different views of the future of the second chamber. We hope that recent events will provide the impetus to make these proposals, much discussed but never implemented, the political priority they need to be”.

If the Government do not respond positively to these calls, they are in serious danger of making the best the enemy of the good.

11.35 am

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on his expertise and diplomacy, one result of which is that, for the first time, all the Back-Bench speakers support one set of propositions. That is remarkable. I may stand to be corrected, but I think noble Lords will find that all nine Labour speakers will speak along the same lines and that they reflect the great majority. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be able to say in a few minutes that that is true of those on his Benches. This reflects the fact that we have been developing this consensus for three years. The majority of the Labour group decided that we should write to the Prime Minister. His response to our question about what should be done was that we should go away and find a consensus, which we did; so that is the position.

I was very interested in the line of argument of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who is not in his place. He is the representative of the Bourbon tendency, in close alliance, I have to say, with our own Front-Bench representatives of the Trotskyite tendency. After all, both of them have in common the fact that neither of them actually believes in incrementalism or even in implementing before the next election, apparently, the last Labour Party manifesto, which referred to the creation of a statutory Appointments Commission and action on the 92 hereditaries, on which we were ready to give the softest possible interpretation: in other words, the suspension of by-elections.

People on the Front Bench may say that we now have to wait for the next manifesto, but why should we believe what is said in the next manifesto if we do not believe—I am thankful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on this—that it will be as sacrosanct as the last manifesto?

The reason for not waiting for the next general election is surely that, after the election there will be an even greater dilemma about what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, describes as the need to wait for stage 2, even though it is, as we all now know—and we have been at it for 10 years—like waiting for Godot: the doctrine of unripe time.

My noble friend Lord Grocott said that this was a well constructed Bill and that we should just get on with it. Those on the Front Bench can no longer sustain the doctrine that you cannot do anything until

27 Feb 2009 : Column 455

you have done everything. I have to say to my very good friend the Minister that the platform that he is standing on, or at any rate has been standing on until today, is collapsing under his feet. I speak with some authority on this; I spend half my life standing on collapsing platforms, so I recognise one when I see one.

On a practical point, which, again, arises from a question from the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who, unfortunately, is not now in his place, I wish to clarify one aspect of the work of the statutory Appointments Commission where there is a serious and dangerous possible misunderstanding. I just wish to get on the record what I think we are talking about. None of us on the party-whipped Benches, which I think is true of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches—I stand to be corrected—believes that, as hinted in paragraph 8.32 of the White Paper, it would be up to the statutory Appointments Commission in any way to pick and choose between candidates for the whipped seats. How could that be? It certainly could not be true in the Labour Party. There would be all sorts of accusations about choosing right-wing or left-wing candidates and about seven people being able to make decisions on the whole second Chamber. I hope that the Minister will tell us that that is a narrow point in the White Paper which needs to be rewritten.

There are many ways in which the statutory Appointments Commission could participate, along with the political parties, in looking at how people get to be here. I have written extensively on how this could work as regards the Labour Party being more transparent, albeit with some confidentiality in regard to the final stage after the trawl, but that is for another day. It is time to say, in reverse of what I said a few minutes ago, that the time is now right to get on with it.

11.42 am

Viscount Astor: My Lords, both main parties have now signed up to the reform of this House following the next general election. Therefore, it is perhaps a bit surprising that the Bill is coming from one party which probably has no chance of forming the next Government.

I am an elected hereditary Peer. I remain here due to an undertaking given by this Government to ensure that second-stage reform comes about. I am also here to ensure that when it does, the role and power of the second Chamber, whether elected or appointed, is not diminished. I believe that the Government will not dishonour themselves and break that undertaking given by the former Lord Chancellors, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Irvine of Lairg and Lord Falconer of Thornton. It was also confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, at Second Reading. There may be a very bizarre replacement system for those of us who finally succumb and move on to an even higher chamber. Although it works—admittedly only just—it was never meant to be permanent. But the Government’s delay in handling reform is the reason that it still exists.

I believe that the official Lib Dems’ policy is for an elected second Chamber. But one cannot help but have the sneaking feeling—I am sure that I am probably wrong—that so many of the colleagues of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, support this Bill because they really want the status quo—an appointed second Chamber.

27 Feb 2009 : Column 456

Given the White Paper published last year by the Government, with its menu of options, what benefit could this Bill achieve if enacted as a short-term solution? Would it make this House more effective? I think that the answer must be no. Would it be viewed as more representative? I think that the answer is hardly. Would the reputation of this House improve? That is open to debate. That does not mean that in the long term parts of this Bill would not be an improvement. The Bill supports a statutory Appointments Commission. The current statutory Appointments Commission now works well. We have a chairman who attends this House. A fully elected second Chamber would not need an Appointments Commission. The Bill offers a retirement system, but that does not add much to the current arrangements except to disbar those who have not attended for a Session without a good excuse. It does not cut the number of Peers sitting in this House.

The European Parliament has debarred any person sitting in another Parliament. This Bill gives temporary leave of absence so that a Peer elected to the European Parliament could return, but it fails to extend the same principle of disbarring the attendance of any Peer who is a Member of the Scottish Parliament—even the noble Lord, Lord Steel, as convener—or the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly. This House and this Government should consider that. There is a constitutional debate that we must have about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which was largely ignored in the Government’s White Paper. That is a huge disappointment.

The final part of the Bill is to disbar those who have been convicted of a serious offence. I have no problem with that, except it refers to banning for life. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, supported the principle of rehabilitation of offenders in society. In the past, this House has benefited from the expertise of those who have served Her Majesty in one way or the other.

I accept that reform of this House is long overdue, if for no other reason than that I have been here for 35 years. The Government’s White Paper sadly did not offer a clear way forward, but it offered a menu of option: fully elected, part-elected, under one system or another. Unless the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is able to tell us the Labour Party’s preferred option, we will have to wait to see its manifesto. Unless there is a major shift of opinion by both major parties in another place, we will move to a fully elected or partially elected second Chamber. The change may be instant after a general election or it may be incremental. I suspect that it will be incremental. But who knows? It may be in the first term, the second or even the third, but that depends on who wins the next election.

If it is the second or third term, that is the moment we will have to see the changes the then Government propose are required in this House to take it through to that stage. We should wait to see what is required, which is important. My party must not shirk from the debate we must have on our policy for this House, which needs to be set out in the manifesto. There is a majority in this House in favour of an appointed Chamber. There is a majority in both major parties in another place for an elected Chamber.

27 Feb 2009 : Column 457

Noble Lords: That is not true.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, it is true that there is a majority in another place for an elected second Chamber. That is a fact and it is how they voted. It is an impasse that can be resolved only by a general election. That point answers the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and the right reverend Prelate. I welcome the opportunity given to me by the noble Lord, Lord Lea, to join the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and my noble friend Lord Caithness on the Trotskyist Benches and I look forward to Committee stage of this Bill.

11.47 am

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak once again in support of this Bill and I hope that this time it will make further progress. Stage 1 of House of Lords reform took place in 1999 and on the whole has been a great success. This Bill, as has been stated by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has four main purposes, which are aimed at tidying up a few perceived weaknesses in the present structure. The Bill in no way seeks to influence the debate on whether the House of Lords should remain a fully appointed House, as I hope most of us would wish, or whether it should be abolished in favour of an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected senate. That is a battle for another day.

Given the large number of speakers in this debate, I wish to raise only one issue, which I raised at Second Reading last year. The Bill expresses,

Given that we are all living longer, it will be difficult to achieve this while still catering for a reasonable number of new annual appointments. With the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I agree that the best way of dealing with this problem would be to institute for all Members of the House a fixed period of service of, say, 20 years. A transitional timetable spread over four or five years would need to be put in place for existing Members in order to avoid a mass exodus of the 190 or so existing Members who have already served more than 20 years. But this matter is for the Committee stage and I will raise it again on that occasion.

One final point: while accepting that the present system of elections for hereditary Peers to fill vacancies should be ended, I support the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that a special case should be made for the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain.

We are accused of being unrepresentative, but the great strength of the House of Lords is that its Members have first-hand experience and expertise in a very wide range of subjects and that they represent the interests of those subjects in the House. The Bill seeks to strengthen further the workings of the House and it deserves our support.

11.50 am

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, the circumstances in which we debate the Bill today are quite different from those in which we debated it last year. There is now common agreement that there is no realistic possibility of a resolution in this Parliament of the

27 Feb 2009 : Column 458

great issue of whether there should be elections to the second Chamber. This House is in a reputational crisis. Wisely, a number of noble Lords who previously opposed the Bill have concluded, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, put it, that the best is the enemy of the good. There is no longer any respectable case for obstructing the reforms in the Bill that are necessary for the good functioning and good reputation of the House of Lords, of Parliament and of politics as a whole. If the reputation and good functioning of Parliament are in question, I put it to my noble friend the Minister that the reputation and good functioning of government are in question.

Members of the Government know that the reforms put forward in this Bill and in the Bill tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott—reforms which might perhaps be spliced into this Bill—are urgently needed. The Government control the parliamentary timetable and they must make this Bill their own. If they fail to do so, they will be guilty of defending the indefensible and of letting Parliament and the country down.

The present non-statutory Appointments Commission has to make up its rules as it goes along. I imagine that that is embarrassing for its members and creates practical difficulties for them. It is not tolerable that they should have to continue to work in such ill defined circumstances and with their duties so hazy.

It is argued by those who favour elections to the Second Chamber that an appointed House lacks legitimacy. The detailed provisions of Part 1 of the Bill address that issue usefully. The commission, of course, would not only be created by Parliament but its membership would be nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons as well as by the Lord Speaker. The criteria that the commission would have to use and the guidelines that would be published would be determined by Parliament. In these ways, government patronage and any suspicion of undue government influence over the workings of the commission would be removed.

The broad shape and balance of an appointed House would have to be approved by Parliament as set out in Clause 8(2). An appointed House, if it is not already legitimate by virtue of the knowledge, experience and diversity of its Members and the quality of the work that they do—and those characteristics do confer legitimacy—would have an added legitimacy imparted by parliamentary ratification of the procedures for appointment to the House.

The proposal gradually to exclude the hereditary Peers is opposed with passion, and undoubtedly in good faith, by a very small number of Members of your Lordships’ House. But I ask those noble Earls, noble Viscounts and a small number of other noble and idiosyncratic Peers to tell us fairly and squarely how they believe that they can justify membership of the legislature in the 21st century on the basis of heredity. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, promised us that he would be ready to bespatter the Bill with amendments—no one, I am afraid, will be able to persuade him to forego his right to obfuscate the argument and to frustrate the Bill by taking advantage of those procedural opportunities—but I simply put it to him that, surely, on any reasonable assessment,

27 Feb 2009 : Column 459

these reforms are substantial enough to be stage 2 of reform. Those who oppose Part 2 of the Bill should tackle the issue of heredity square-on in debate and give the House their reasons. To do otherwise would be too frivolous and would fail to rise to the seriousness of the situation.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, gave the House important advice on Part 3 of the Bill concerning permanent leave of absence. She warned us that there is an imminent and serious problem about the increased size of the House, and it is plain that we need to take urgent steps to deal with it. We need a dignified procedure for retirement from the House by Members who have served long years and are, perhaps, in failing health, as well as to make way for a new generation of Members. These are difficult issues, not least because some noble Lords who joined the House when they were relatively young have given long years of hard work and excellent public service, unsalaried and unpensionable. More thought needs to be put into the practicalities of how we devise a retirement scheme of the kind we need.

The issues that have been recently before the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests and the Privileges Committee of your Lordships’ House are not the issues that are dealt with in Part 4 of the Bill—nor should they be dealt with in this Bill. Where the House may judge that an individual Member of the House has disgraced himself or brought the House into disrepute, the House should deal with that by means of its own disciplines. I do not believe that statute or the intervention of some external body is an appropriate way to deal with that. Our tradition of self-regulation is very precious and very important to the character and the quality of the House. However, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is right to include in the Bill a provision that a Peer convicted of a serious criminal offence should be expelled from the House. As he said, it simply brings us into line with the House of Commons.

The whole Bill is needed, and it is needed urgently.

11.57 am

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I support the Bill. Since we debated the original Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on 30 November 2007, we have had a White Paper. To say that that has been greeted with wild enthusiasm, or even to describe it as a damp squib, would be a gross overstatement. That is not surprising because, as we well know, to a large extent it was influenced by the so called cross-party group, which met in secret, has refused to publish its minutes and is in no way representative of the bulk of Members of this House. Even the Public Administration Select Committee of the other place, in its response to that White Paper, deals with it in a matter of about two-and-a-half pages when the White Paper consists of something like 130 pages, which reflects the general reaction to it.

On the broader issue, the Government are placing far too much emphasis on the vote which took place in the House of Commons. It was originally advertised as an indicative vote but, the moment they finally managed, at the second or third attempt, to get a decision out of the House of Commons, that decision

27 Feb 2009 : Column 460

was then adopted as if it were Gospel. I do not think that that is true—the vote was partly the result of tactical voting and so on—but, at all events, the vote took place in this Parliament. It is absolutely clear that one Parliament cannot bind another, and it is equally clear that nothing is going to happen on this issue until the next Parliament, so to treat that decision of the House of Commons in the way it is being treated by the Government is completely wrong. It is also case that the matters in this Bill are becoming increasingly and very urgent.

I take up, as did the noble Lord who has just spoken, the point made by the noble Baroness the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers: it is likely that after the next general election there will be a substantial increase in the number of Members of this place. The Bill represents the last opportunity we have of giving those who wish to retire an opportunity to do so; it gives us a certain amount of headroom. We shall not have an opportunity to do that in time for the influx of Members which, as the noble Baroness rightly said, is likely to take place after the next election. That clause in particular can be regarded as urgent.

I turn to the other propositions in the Bill, particularly the proposal for an independent appointments commission. This matter was dealt with in the House of Commons committee report to which I have just referred. The committee was desperate that something should be done in this area and put forward various proposals whereby something might be done on a non-statutory basis. It hoped that its proposals would,

that is, the whole question of cash for peerages and so on. The Bill, though, gives that Select Committee in another place a legislative opportunity to put the matter right, which is a much better way of dealing with the issue of an independent appointments commission.

The committee points out, incidentally, that Mr Brown has changed his view between one White Paper and the next with regard to the extent to which the relationship with an independent appointments commission should be a matter for the Prime Minister and to what extent a matter for Parliament. The points the committee makes in that regard are important. We can make progress on that front as well and, because of the effect of the scandal, the sooner we can do so, the better.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page