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Perhaps I may make some general points in response. I think that we are now considering Amendments Nos. 75, 86 and 134. I hope that we can consider them in the spirit of the dialogue which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, enjoined on us. I hope that he will find that satisfactory. I am grateful to him for what he said about the reason for not including his particular proposals in this group.
Let me begin by saying that the Government recognise that this is a complicated area. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney for making that very clear. I can assure him that we have thought about this and have considered carefully the role of the appointments commission and the way that Members of the Cross Benches particularly--that is what we consider the appointments commission will deal with in the interim House--should be appointed.
We find that the individual amendments--they have been very forcefully moved--are flawed or, frankly, raise more questions than they answer. I support my noble friend Lord Richard in feeling that some of them suggest a world of political unreality.
The number of specific amendments on this subject which we have considered tonight, and those which are on the Marshalled List but have not been spoken to so far, illustrate that there is no agreement about precisely what the appointments commission should do; how it should be constituted; and, frankly, how complex the statutory provision would need to be which attempted to answer all the questions which have been raised by Members of the Committee and in the several amendments, either those which have been spoken to or those which remain on the Marshalled List.
I shall deal with the specific difficulties that the Government see in the various amendments that have been spoken to, but I should like to explain to the Committee--I am afraid this may be in some detail--the Government's plans and why we do not at the moment think that statutory provision as has been suggested is appropriate for this stage. Perhaps I may repeat what I said much earlier today in response to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley. I refer to Amendment No. 71. I have no doubt at all that if we had introduced statutory provisions, the accusation would immediately have been made that we intended the transition arrangements for your Lordships' House to be permanent. That was a point made in an intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, and which we discussed earlier in relation to Amendments Nos. 71 and 72.
I said to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who was at that time replying for the Official Opposition, that I could almost put in his mouth the arguments that he would have made had we proposed statutory provision. His reaction, which was not verbal but expressive, suggested to me that I was not far off the mark. The noble Lord is no longer in the Chamber, but I do not think that he would quarrel with my remark. We did not want to send the signal that we were proposing provisions which would be seen as determining a long-term life for the transitional House. We want to do precisely what we intend, which is to move swiftly to an appropriate short-term transitional House and then to move further on to long-term reform.
When last February we debated the White Paper, which has been much referred to in the course of the debate, I explained the commitments which the Government were making and which we intend to follow through. Perhaps I may briefly review them. We have consistently made it clear that we do not intend the transitional House to be under the control of the Government; quite frankly, as we have said on several occasions, that would be completely absurd, given that the 500 life Peers who will be Members of that transitional House have been nominated by eight Prime Ministers over the past 40 years since the Life Peerages Act. The majority of them are Conservative life Peers. We do not at this stage need to go into the relative virtues or otherwise of individual Prime Ministers during that period.
We said that no one party should seek a majority in the House of Lords; we said that the system of appointment of life Peers would be reviewed; we committed ourselves, as has been pointed out by the further amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to maintaining the independent Cross-Bench presence of life Peers; and we said, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, indicated, that, over time, party appointees should more accurately reflect the votes cast at the preceding general election.
There are three elements to those proposals: first, the principle which will inform the overall numbers in the transitional House; secondly, the introduction of the independent appointments commission to nominate Cross-Bench Peers; and thirdly, the undertaking to forward to the Queen, without interference, the recommendations of other party leaders and the commission.
I should like to emphasise two aspects of that. First, the very act of setting up the appointments commission is an indication of the Government's continuing commitment to the idea of independent Members in the House of Lords. It is also an indication of our commitment to the idea that they should be working Members of the House since the change in the nominations process will distance them effectively from the honours system. The second aspect is, of course, the reduction in patronage which will follow.
The whole process should be overseen by a panel, not by an individual, and this must include at least one independent assessor. All candidates--and that includes those put forward by Ministers--must be scrutinised by the panel. If a Minister wishes to act independently in making an appointment and not follow the code or guidance, the commissioner for public appointments has to be informed. He may require that a public statement to that effect be made. Ministers are, of course, accountable to Parliament.
How the parties choose their members for the appointments commission is a matter for them, although they too are encouraged to follow this open process. The appointments commission itself, once established, will be encouraged to seek nominations from a wide field. As has been said, the commission will take over the role of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee in vetting all peerage nominations for propriety. This is a substantial commitment, one which goes far beyond the slightly broad headlines in which it was described by Members of the Committee in speaking to their amendments. It is worth considering the provisions which exist under the Nolan rules.
The third element of our proposals is that the Prime Minister will relinquish control over individual names from anyone except his own party. As noted by several contributors, the Prime Minister has for the first time publicly committed himself not to interfere in the details of other parties' nominations. This goes much further
The Committee may be interested to know that I have opened discussions with my right honourable friend the Chief Secretary of the Treasury to ensure that there is at least a process for recruiting members of the commission to start work in the near future. Thus the commission would be ready to start functioning at the beginning of the next Session of Parliament, as we have always suggested it should. I am sure Members of the Committee who have had experience of dealing with the Treasury in their government experience realise that I would not tangle with my right honourable friend on the matter if I considered that it was either a theoretical proposition or one that had little weight behind it.
I hope that the Committee will accept that these are earnests of our good intentions and that we can move rapidly ahead with the non-departmental public body appointments commission. Many of the regulations which are in place to govern such a body are tougher than those contained in some of the amendments.
I turn to Amendment No. 75 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Elton. It is the first of the amendments which raise in detail those facts about the appointments commission which could have a life of their own. As both noble Lords explained, the amendment takes care to address a number of principles and--as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said in introducing the amendment--in proximate language, those points which the Government have laid down as criteria for recommendations as life Peers in the future. They include the idea that no one political party should command a majority in the House of Lords, that there should be rough parity of numbers between the two main political parties and that there should continue to be a significant presence of independent Cross Bench Peers.
The Committee will not be surprised to know that on the Government Benches we are delighted by the noble Lord's confirmation that these are the right principles to pursue. However, we feel that the amendment has some serious flaws. I imagine that some of the concerns will be shared by Members of the Committee on the Opposition Front Bench. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, has already identified some of them from his perspective.
There is a second point on which the proposals diverge from those we feel are appropriate. It also causes the Official Opposition some concern, I imagine, that the amendment gives the Prime Minister apparently unfettered power to choose the individual members of the commission. I understand from the amendment that the only undertaking is that members of the commission should be Privy Counsellors. There are no other criteria. The criteria under our proposals, as I have explained at some length, would be governed by the provisions of the Nolan rules on openness and transparency. The Government have pledged themselves to an open appointments process. Although the provisions of Amendment No. 75 would be statutory, they do not go so far as we would go in distancing the Prime Minister from the appointments process.
I also query a point which is not very great, the limit on the number of new peerages in any one year under the amendment. Although the figure of 50 looks quite generous, if one considers the year 1997, when we were taking account of both dissolution and resignation honours, there were 31 appointments under the provision. In an average year 50 might not be as generous as initially appears.
I submit to the Committee that the net effect of the amendment produces a rather inflexible statutory process and it does not deliver the independence that Members of the Committee seek because it provides no extra safeguards. In some instances it provides slightly fewer than those which will arise under our non-departmental public body appointments commission.
Amendment No. 86 proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, provides yet another variation. It limits itself to the Cross Bench Peers explicitly and to that extent it is consistent with the Government's clear proposals. But we are concerned about the details of the numbers in subsection (2) and how they are supposed to work. The subsection suggests that the commission could apparently be limited to only five members, yet it provides that eight shall be appointed. I am not sure whether this is a way of ensuring that the commission could continue to function when it had vacancies or that it could be limited to five members, four elected by the Cross Benches plus one; for example, one of the two nominated by the Prime Minister. What happens when there is vacancy among those elected by the Cross Benches?
The fundamental question arises: are those to be chosen by the Cross-Benchers also to be Cross-Benchers? What provision is made for holding elections to the Cross Benches, whether or not the candidates are limited to existing Cross-Benchers? We
We also have difficulties--this is the general point in relation to all these amendments but I raise it particularly in relation to Amendment No. 86, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell--regarding what exactly would be the constitutional position of the commission. Subsection (3) of the amendment states that its role will be to make recommendations to Her Majesty. On the other hand, subsection (5) states that,
So are the recommendations under this proposal being made to the Prime Minister, as we propose, or will they simply be passed on to the Queen? What, for example, would be the grounds for the Prime Minister refusing a recommendation? We have made it clear that under our proposals the Prime Minister would not have the right to reject any recommendations from the appointments commission, unless of course issues of national security were involved. So once again we feel that, despite the statutory basis, under this proposal the appointments commission would be less free of Prime Ministerial interference than under the non-statutory basis that we propose.
On the question of the Cross-Benchers, the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, seeks statutory guarantees that there will continue to be a certain minimum non-party representation in the transitional House. As I have said on several occasions, we have no difficulty with the idea of guaranteeing a continued non-party presence. We have repeatedly made it clear that we are committed to maintaining the independent presence of a substantial number of life Peers. We have been pressed as to the actual numbers. They will depend on the overall make-up of the House. It would be very difficult, other than on a strictly proportionate basis, to make provision for absolute numbers at this stage. The noble Lord will have to accept that the words "substantial" and "significant" mean what they say in commonsense language. We have to see what are the final numbers, the numbers of hereditary Peers who remain on the Cross-Benches and the numbers that are proposed by the appointments commission, before we can be absolute in regard to those numbers. I hope the noble Lord will accept that. But we are uneasy, for reasons that go beyond that, about trying to set out the proportion in statute.
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