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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness quite so early in her speech, but will she reflect on the statement that she has just made about party strengths? She makes great play about the independent Cross-Benchers--and rightly so. Why, then, does she not include them in the statistics she has just given?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, that would have no impact whatever on the relative strength of the Conservative Opposition, which is the main Opposition party to the Government party, the Labour Party. That is what I was trying to illustrate. I am very happy to talk in more general terms about the membership of the Cross-Benches. I will come to that later in my remarks.
Some of my colleagues may well find that those figures as they relate to the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, and their relative strengths and relation to the popular vote, suggest that we are being too generous to the Conservative Party in our proposals for the transition House. They certainly do not suggest an intention to pack the transition House.
This proposal is in some contrast to the position of noble Lords on the Conservative Benches who, during the previous administration, bolstered their already very large built-in majority created by the relative party strengths in the hereditary peerage by appointing more than twice as many life Peers to their Benches as the Opposition.
But I say to the Leader of the Opposition, the Government have been consistently committed to an important Cross-Bench element in this House. On the Cross-Benches sit those Peers who do not want to be associated with a single party; they are genuinely independent.
The second part of our plan for the transitional House is to establish an independent appointments commission to recommend names for Cross-Bench Peers. There have been numerous suggestions that this body will be packed with cronies to ensure that it selects cronies. Quite frankly, again that accusation does not stand up to the simple facts. The advisory appointments committee will be set up as an advisory non-departmental public body; as such, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. His rules on the appointment of its members will therefore apply. I remind your Lordships that the rules were drawn up under the previous administration. Presumably, therefore, the Conservative Party believes they are adequate. Among other things they involve the appointment of an independent assessor in the appointments process.
The representatives of the three main political parties invited to sit on the commission will be chosen by their respective parties. How the parties choose their members will naturally be a matter for them. Of course, the final appointments--and I expect noble Lords opposite to make this point--will be made by Ministers. But Ministers and, through them, the Commission are accountable to Parliament.
During the transitional phase, membership of this House will continue to involve the award of a life peerage. The final recommendations to the Queen--as they always have done--will constitutionally have to come from the Prime Minister. Therefore, the third element in our proposed arrangements is that the Prime Minister has promised that he will not interfere in the details of nominations from the other party leaders, or from the appointments commission. It is the first time that a public commitment to this effect--different from some past practice--has been made.
Taken together, this package of measures amounts to a very considerable safeguard against the abuse of prime ministerial power in relation to nominations to your Lordships' House. It proves that the Government's motive in removing the hereditary Peers as a first step of reform is not intended to be a way of gaining control of the majority membership of your Lordships' House.
These proposals relate to the transition House, which the Government see as being just that--a temporary, transitional bridge to a fully reformed second Chamber. I announced to your Lordships on 14th October last year that the Government would set up a Royal Commission to examine these issues.
The third part of the White Paper deals with the terms of reference for the commission and the options for reform which the Government consider it appropriate for the commission to consider. I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the commission, is in his place and will speak later in the debate. He may well take the opportunity to outline to your Lordships the way in which he and his colleagues intend to work. I am also pleased that other members of the Royal Commission who are also Members of the House--my noble friend Lady Dean and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford--are also in their places. I am sure that this debate will prove helpful to them and inform their discussions. Perhaps I may again, on behalf of your Lordships, and indeed on this occasion on behalf of the Government, thank all those members of the Royal Commission for undertaking this important task.
I have previously told your Lordships that the Government themselves do not plan to give evidence to the commission. The Labour Party will do so, as I imagine will other political parties represented in your Lordships' House. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, will also confirm that it is, of course, open to individual Peers to submit their ideas and opinions. However, since the Royal Commission was established, the Government have been asked some specific questions about its terms of reference and its timetable. It seems sensible to respond to at least two of those today.
The first is the timetable. Noble Lords will remember that we asked the commission to report by the end of this year. This is a demanding schedule, but the Government are confident that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and his colleagues can meet it. After all, the issues surrounding reform of your Lordships' House have been extensively discussed for a hundred years. The issues are intellectually and politically challenging, but we know what they are, and we know what are the options for addressing them. There is frankly no need for a long period of primary research, as there is sometimes with Royal Commissions that are set up to consider, for example, fundamental issues of social policy. The Royal Commission, we feel, can move almost immediately to its analysis and recommendations.
The Government are determined to maintain momentum on reform. We want to see a speedy report so that we can, as the White Paper states, respond to the recommendations in advance of the next general election. The more we can achieve consensus on the recommendations, the more rapidly we will be able to move to a fully reformed second Chamber. That is the Government's strategy. It is clear and unequivocal. I can only state again that we have no wish to remain stationary on the transitional bridge.
Perhaps I may repeat the Royal Commission's terms of reference as their scope has sometimes been questioned. The amendment today of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition seems perhaps to suggest that
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness about one point in the White Paper. Page 1 of the document states that the purpose of the Government's reforms is to make this Chamber more effective. Page 40 refers to lessening the time by which this House can delay legislation passed in another place. There is a positive reference to that. If the object is to make this House more effective, how would that be served by lessening the time by which this House can delay legislation?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I hope he will understand that that is precisely the argument I am seeking to develop in relation to the amendment of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. If, by the conclusion of the passage in my speech on that, he feels that I have not done so, perhaps we can return to it, but it is specifically that point I am about to address.
Perhaps I may return to the question of powers, which was the point of the noble Lord's intervention. I have been asked whether the terms of reference enable the Royal Commission to look at the potential powers of a reformed House. The amendment of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition calls for a specific "exclusion clause" to ensure that no possible reduction in the theoretical powers can be considered. Perhaps I may look, first, at the question of the remit to consider powers. The terms of reference clearly include roles and functions and they must legitimately include looking at powers, especially in relation to the legislative function. I think the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and I had a semantic or perhaps conceptual confusion when he raised this point during Oral Questions recently. I apologise to the noble Lord and to the House if I was unclear about that at the time.
The purpose of the argument in Chapter 7 of the White Paper, to which the amendment of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition refers, is to discuss different approaches to the powers of a reformed Chamber. The chapter notes that today's House of Lords observes what could be called "self-denying ordinances" in the use of its powers over legislation, self-denying ordinances which rest largely on the self-regulation of the present House and its understanding of the limitations of its existing composition. The White Paper argument discusses the possibility of perhaps institutionalising the present understandings; leaving the powers intact but formally restricting the circumstances in which they may be used. An alternative might be to
Those options will obviously be the basis of significant debate for the Royal Commission, but at this stage I think that the amendment of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition is unnecessary because it elevates prematurely a suggested issue for discussion by the Royal Commission to a formal government proposal. That is not what the White Paper intends or indeed says.
However, I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that, overall, the Government accept the broad sentiments of his amendment. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, pointed out, the first page of the White Paper emphasises that Parliament is the central element of Britain's democracy, and that for Parliament to carry out its purpose it must act with authority and integrity. That principle is the basis for our proposals for reform of this Chamber; to improve the effectiveness and balance of the House so that it can play a full and proper role in Parliament, a role which necessarily includes a significant scrutiny of legislation and of the executive. Chapter 2 of the White Paper concludes:
I fully understand the concerns that have prompted 60 hereditary Peers to speak to the Motion today. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to say once more that many of their individual contributions to the work of this House are highly valued. But I hope in turn that they will understand the Government's concerns and the Government's priorities. As I emphasised last November in opening the debate on the Queen's Speech in relation to constitutional change, constitutional reform is of great importance to this Government, but so too are other legislative priorities. As legislators, we have a duty to look beyond our own affairs, beyond this Chamber and beyond Westminster. We have before us Bills which are central to the cares and concerns of most people in Britain. We are currently considering measures to improve access to justice and to change the National Health Service. Both of those Bills began their passage in your Lordships' House. Other significant legislation has recently included Bills on youth justice and criminal evidence, on social security and on pollution.
I must tell your Lordships that I was disturbed when I saw the lengthening list of speakers for today's debate--disturbed that this debate might disrupt proper consideration on the important Health Bill, which was due to begin its Committee stage tomorrow.
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