Lord Northbourne: I have not wanted to intervene in the terrifying crossfire between the two major parties and the very distinguished speakers who contributed to it. However, I want to draw the attention of Members of the Committee to Amendment No. 134, which is included in this group of amendments. In scale, this amendment is more modest and does not refer to the proposed appointments commission. Indeed, it refers specifically to the independent Peers. Noble Lords may say, "Well, you would talk about independent Peers because you are speaking from the Cross Benches", but it is the other way round. It is because I believe passionately in the importance of independence that I sit on these Benches. The debates--I was tempted to say "the interminable debates"--that we have already had on this Bill have been splattered with references to the importance of the independent Peers. Of course, the Government have acknowledged that they want a strong independent element, and have said that they want a significant Cross-Bench element.
Amendment No. 134 is a probing amendment, the purpose of which is to see whether the Government will explain a little more clearly what they mean by the word "significant". I find it fairly easy to understand what they mean by "broad parity" between the two major parties, but what do they actually mean by "significant"? In the context of cot deaths, or road accidents, 1 per cent could be significant. In another context 50 per cent could be insignificant. Will the Government tell us something more about what they mean by "significant"? I do not have the undivided attention of the Front Bench but on Tuesday the noble Baroness said,
"the Prime Minister has already said...that the number of Peers who sit on the Cross-Benches, independent Peers, should be determined by an Appointments Commission and not by personal patronage".--[Official Report, 11/5/99; col. 1191.]
I may have missed something but I was not aware that the number was going to be determined by the commission. I always understood that the appointments were to be determined by the commission, but it appears that the number will also be determined by it. What criteria will be used to decide the number of Cross-Bench Peers who will be appointed? If the noble Baroness can help me on this matter, I shall not need to bring it back on Report. I hope that she will be able to do so.
The Earl of Sandwich: I speak in support of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Shore, was the only person who spoke about the future and what the public will think about this Chamber. The other day I took some sixth-formers from Dorset into Parliament. I showed them the single Independent Bench of the Member of Parliament for Tatton. That may only be a temporary Independent Bench. Then I brought the sixth-formers to this Chamber. They were amazed at the
13 May 1999 : Column 1364
proportion of Members in this Chamber--it has now risen above 25 per cent--who are independent. I believe this is the most valuable asset of this Chamber, of which the electorate are completely unaware. I go further. I believe that we should strengthen and increase the proportion of the independent Peers in this Chamber. I should like to see a progressive reduction of the party political element in favour of the independent element.
The White Paper at Chapter 6, page 33, refers to the appointments commission. I understand that the new commission will have a status somewhere above the present Political Honours Scrutiny Committee and it will do more than safeguard independent Peers. This is a significant move by the Government which will ensure that the country understands the role of our independent element in this Chamber and that it is not looking for another elected Chamber.
I supported Amendment No. 31 on Tuesday in the cause of reform, not in the cause of democracy. I trust the Government will continue to resist the idea of a sham democracy through an elected Chamber here. It is becoming an old red herring waved about by both parties and sections of the media. It will not satisfy anyone who believes in the balance between our present Chamber and another place. To ensure that this happens the Government will have to make more of the idea of the valuable quota of independent Peers. As has been well argued by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that measure should be on the face of the Bill. It already enables us to argue that we are not a pale shadow of another place. I would like to see more public recognition of independent Peers as Peers who are seen to represent their professions in a voluntary or part-time capacity. However, that is a discussion for another day.
Much more detail will be needed when the proposal comes back from the Royal Commission. I have written to the Royal Commission in these terms. In the meantime I hope that the Government will stand up to the pro-election lobby and secure the principle of the element of Cross-Bench Peers. I believe that that is what the modest amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, sets out to do.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: I know the Committee is anxious to hear the Minister reply. However, I venture to take a minute or two to support what the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, has urged upon the Government Front Bench. I know that they took careful notice of what the noble Lord said, as it is always sensible to do. I wish to add one facet to the point that he made, which was that the country will find it difficult to understand why the Government should resist the intention--these are not necessarily the exact words--behind the amendments put forward by my two noble friends.
I wish to add a little force to that, if I may without presumption, by going back a few days to the tremendous battle that we had on Clause 1. We had put forward a formulation which we believed would without any doubt secure the declared intention of the Government. The Committee will remember that the matter concerned the words, "by virtue of a hereditary
13 May 1999 : Column 1365
peerage". I shall not repeat the arguments that were made. However, the Government said time and again that they were going to proceed in this way because that was stated in the manifesto. The manifesto commitment was recited time and time again. After a while I came to recognise the force at least of what was in the Government's mind. They were concerned not to allow any perception--we know the force of perception--that they were somehow going back on what they had put before the country in their manifesto.
The executive summary of the White Paper states,
"The Government set out its approach to reform of the House of Lords in its manifesto".
There then follows a summary. The document continues,
I rise only to prevent myself from having to interrupt the Minister in the course of the reply. If it were so essential to have on the face of the Bill that which appeared in the manifesto relating to Clause 1, why is it somehow wrong to put on the face of the Bill that which appears in the White Paper which is declared only to set out,
"This White Paper sets out how we intend to deliver on those promises, through a step-by-step process of reform".
All that my noble friends seek to do is to assist the Government in their declared intention to deliver on those promises by writing into the Bill the very words that the Government employed in the White Paper.
"how we intend to deliver on those promises"?
I cannot see why that decision should at the moment be so firmly held by the Government. I wish, therefore, to hear from the Minister how the Government propose to deal with the fear behind the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Shore; namely, that they will be seen somehow or other to be casting an aura of unreality over what they stated in the White Paper.
Lord Marlesford: I ought to make one brief point. Quite apart from the desirability of underwriting in statute important undertakings given by government on important matters, the matter that worries me is that there has been much talk about the past and the virtue, or lack of it, of previous administrations. The whole point of this Bill is that it will totally change the House of Lords. It will give us a situation in which not just the temptations but the opportunities for changing the composition of the Chamber will be infinitely greater. Quite frankly, in the past, with the inbuilt Conservative majority among the hereditaries, what could be done was pretty marginal, even if it was occasionally offensive to certain noble Lords. The real point is that we are now in a new situation--or will be--and it seems reasonable that the safeguards which will be so much more necessary should in some way or other be underwritten in statute.
Lord Kingsland: So effectively have your Lordships conveyed the fundamental messages that underlie the various amendments that, I am glad to report, I have very little to say.
Noble Lords: Oh!
Lord Kingsland: However, I shall say it. I listened to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of
13 May 1999 : Column 1366
Greenwich, with some bewilderment. I think the best I can do--perhaps I can say this on behalf of the Government Front Bench--is to refer him to paragraph 19 of their own White Paper which states, inter alia, that,
"For the transitional House, the Government will ensure that no one political party commands a majority in the Lords. The Government presently plans to seek only broad parity with the Conservatives".
No clearer statement of what the Government intend to do could possibly have been made than that.
I think that the fundamental question the Government have to answer is the one put by my noble friend Lord Waddington. He quoted from the White Paper. I dare to quote from it once more.
At paragraph 3 of chapter 6 the White Paper states,
"For the transitional House...We will establish an independent Appointments Commission to make nominations to the cross benches and to oversee the propriety of all recommendations of political peers, so that all peers are vetted to the highest standard".
The White Paper is absolutely clear, therefore, that the appointments commission is an integral part of the interim House. The arrangements for the appointments commission must be set in place before the new House comes into being. If that is not done in the Bill, how is it to be done? Perhaps the Government are proposing a second Bill about which we as yet know nothing.
In the press release on the Labour evidence to the Royal Commission, the Labour Party--which, dare I say it, has some loose connection with the Government--said:
"Tony Blair is the first prime minister to relinquish powers of patronage in the appointment of life peers, through the establishment of an Independent Appointment Commission for the transitional chamber"--
again underlining what the Government have said in their White Paper.
I do not understand the kind of argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. If the Government are sincere about the undertakings in the White Paper, why cannot they put them in the statute? Those undertakings are ideally suited to statute. The Government have spent the past two years putting enormous constitutional changes, of the most wide-ranging implications, into statutes. For instance, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, which handed over large areas of power from Parliament to the judges; and the devolution Bills for Scotland and Wales which devolved powers from the centre to the periphery. All of those were dealt with by statute in the most minute detail.
If that is so, why are the Government so afraid of doing the same thing in relation to the appointment of Peers, who are, after all, independent of both or, I should say, of all three political parties? What is so special about that which requires the Government to handle it by prerogative, especially since the Government have said that the transitory House will be very transitory indeed?