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7 pm

Mrs. Laing: It was interesting to hear the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) for tabling this helpful and illuminating amendment. The Conservatives do not stand in the way of reasonable reform; we are very much in favour of it. No institution can remain static lest it stagnate, and it is important that reasonable steps to reform should be carefully taken. The vast majority of Members of this House are agreed that some sort of reform of the other House is necessary, and I am pleased that he has tabled these carefully considered amendments. The amendments and new clauses, taken together, may well provide a useful transitional measure while we await-it might take yet another 11 years-the Government's final proposals for the proper debate on and reform of the other House.

I also agreed with what my hon. Friend said about Lord Jay, because it is right that in considering the appointments process in the House of Lords we should be moving along that curve from honour to job. Almost all of us are agreed that sitting in the upper House is a serious time-filling job, and one of responsibility. The upper House is a brilliantly effective reforming Chamber.

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Mr. Heath: It is a brilliantly ineffective reforming Chamber, but it is a brilliantly effective revising Chamber.

Mrs. Laing: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, because the Lords is more of a revising Chamber than a reforming one-I am perhaps rather taken up with the idea of reform this evening. As I have said, I am all in favour of reform, but it should be carried out at the right pace and in a reasoned and logical way. As he rightly says, the Lords is an effective revising Chamber and the people of this country deserve to have as effective an upper Chamber as possible. Amendment 92 and the associated provisions might make the House of Lords more effective.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester was right to make the point about the size of the House of Lords, and his argument was persuasive. In redressing the balance of numbers among the parties in the other House, every new Prime Minister rightly has the power to appoint more peers and does so. As a result, the size of the Lords grows and grows. Thus, my hon. Friend was right in his analysis, in his comparison of our bicameral system with other such systems, and in his comparison of the number of people sitting in the Lords with that in any comparable Chamber in the democratic world. Rather than leaving the culling process-I hope that I may call it that-in order to limit the size and overall membership of the Lords to the grim reaper, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) put it, it would seem sensible for us to consider the possibility of introducing term peerages.

As a matter of principle, the Conservatives are always in favour of strengthening Parliament and thereby strengthening democracy, and my hon. Friend's proposals could be a small step in strengthening democracy. They are no substitute for full, considered reform, but he is not pretending that they are. They are possibly a small step in the right direction and for that reason we will not be opposing them.

Dr. Tony Wright: The hon. Lady just said in closing that she would always support measures that strengthen democracy. The only trouble is that she has just voted, along with her colleagues, to maintain the hereditary peerage, so it is difficult to make out a coherent case.

Mrs. Laing: The two acts-strengthening democracy and voting as we have just done-are entirely correct and compatible. [Interruption.] Contrary to what the Minister is saying, they are totally compatible. One of the main reasons why we voted as we just did was to show how much we appreciate the importance of an undertaking-a promise-made by the Government of the United Kingdom; it is a promise that should not be broken. That is about strengthening democracy; if the Government are allowed to break promises, democracy is not strengthened.

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady is very experienced, so she will be aware that her interventions should be brief. I think that she has made her point.

Dr. Wright: I concede that in a different logical universe there is a consistency to what the hon. Lady is saying.

I wish briefly to say something in support of the proposal made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) for term limits. The only thing that gives me pause for caution is that he said in his previous interesting
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speech that everything we are saying today is irrelevant and that all this is an academic exercise, because it will not happen. Given that spirit, I am on his side, because I think that term limits would contribute something interesting to a package of reform measures, for the reasons that he has outlined. The biggest reason relates to the looming problem of the number of peers in the second Chamber. I have come to think that House of Lords reform will eventually be driven not by any great principles that we may hold, but by the need to attend to problems that we can no longer avoid addressing.

Perhaps the biggest of those problems is the exponential growth in the number of Members of the Lords, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has described. It will make the place completely unmanageable and something will have to be done. The other measures in the Bill-the removal and retirement provisions-will help, but far more is required, and the move to term limits is sensible. All of us who subscribe to one or other version of House of Lords reform usually include term limits as part of our package. Even those in favour of a wholly democratic House usually have term limits as part of the package that they advance. That is entirely consistent, whichever direction one is coming from.

We all have our own approach to House of Lords reform, and we all recite it at every possible opportunity. We are all wholly unmoved by what other people say when they describe their position; that is one great feature of this debate. We never change our positions, but simply repeat the positions that we have always held on the issue. I long for the day when someone says that they have just heard an argument that has persuaded them that we should move in the direction of election or appointment. That never happens. Year in and year out, there is simply a repetition of the positions that we hold, immune to argument, and I am as guilty of that as anyone else.

With that proviso, let me just say, as someone who has always been in favour of a vigorously mixed House, that as long as one can defend the integrity of the ingredients of the mix, in reasonably democratic terms, term limits contribute something to that mix. Whatever we do, in a mature sense, about changing the composition of the House of Lords, or if we simply want to attend to the problems of today, term limits are a sensible ingredient in the package of measures that we are being offered in the Bill today.

Mr. Hogg: May I join the consensus? It is rather cheering that so far there has been total consensus of view among hon. Members who have spoken. Indeed, I ventured to table new clause 25, which has the same purpose as the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).

I, too, favour fixed-term peerages. I came to that position after balancing the arguments, because there is, in fact, an argument the other way. That argument, which in the end I did not accept, is that life peerages add to the independence of mind of the individuals who are made life peers, because they know that they will be in the Lords for ever, as it were, and have nothing to fear. When Members are independent in that sense, there is a more independent second Chamber, and I am strongly in favour of that.

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That is the argument on one side, but there are counterbalancing arguments that I accept and prefer, and my hon. Friend advanced them. There are four of them, and I can set them out very briefly. First, the second Chamber is too large. My hon. Friend spoke about the ratchet effect; he is wholly right, and the second Chamber will get still larger after this coming electing.

Secondly-we have to deal with this point with a degree of caution-many noble Lords have, in fact, made their contribution, and have perhaps a limited contribution yet to make. That is because age has an impact on even the most able. That is, of course, recognised in judicial appointments. When my father was Lord Chancellor, judges could go on for ever, and often did. That became quite bad news for some litigants. The truth is that we recognise that through a retirement age. We do not have one in the other place, and that is not always a good thing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), made the important point that being in the other place is not just an honour; it is becoming a job-an important job that contributes very much to our constitution. If it is a job, it should be a job only for as long as a person is capable of doing it. In parenthesis, may I say that the other place would be sensible to look to salaries, rather than allowances? We all know the problems relating to allowances, so if it is a job, the other place would do well to consider a salary.

I have one further point to make, and it relates to GOATs. The House will be conscious of what I mean by GOATs-Ministers in a Government of all the talents. A number of noble GOATs appointed to the other place found that their ministerial functions entranced them only for a few months, but thereafter they were able to graze on the red Benches indefinitely. That is slightly distasteful to the public as a whole. That is not my principal argument in favour of fixed-term peerages, but it is a consideration that this Committee might want to take into account.

7.15 pm

I have two further points to make before I sit down and allow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to speak. First, the terms should be quite long. How long is a matter for debate, but they should last for some significant time-certainly more than two Parliaments-so that there is a degree of continuity in the other place. Also-this is a slightly different point-that would enhance the sense of independence that I think is so important.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): To pick up on my right hon. and learned Friend's point about GOATs, if someone is appointed to the other place specifically to be a Minister, does he think that the term of their peerage should be tied to the length of time for which they hold that office? Once they cease to be a Minister, should they not cease to be a Member of the other place?

Mr. Hogg: That is a very serious point that I have considered. Probably, one cannot be doctrinaire about it. I am inclined to answer that question in an ad hominem way. If I were the Prime Minister, I would be
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inclined to ask myself whether the GOAT in question was likely to make a continuing contribution after he or she ceased to be a Minister. If the answer to that was no, I would appoint the GOAT for the period for which the GOAT was likely to remain in the field, and not beyond. If, on the other hand, I thought that the GOAT was likely to make a continuing contribution to us all, I would give the GOAT a longer expectation of life.

My final point is on reappointments. Assuming that we go down the road of fixed-term peerages, which I commend to the Committee, and assuming, too, that the period is quite long, we might well find, at the end of the stated period, that the person still has a real contribution to make. I hope that in those circumstances, the person could be reappointed for a further term, albeit a further term of significantly shorter duration than the original term. That does not fall within the scope of the amendments-I do not think that it has to-but it is a proviso that I would make to the Committee.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): At the risk of making this all fuzzy and warm, I, too, welcome the proposals set out by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). I abhor appointment to a democratic Chamber. It is ludicrous and embarrassing, and we should be ashamed of our constitution, but his proposal is less ludicrous, embarrassing and shameful than the situation that we would otherwise be stuck with, and I therefore think it sensible in the circumstances.

It is interesting to consider what we are debating. We are debating how to end people's term of office in the House of Lords and how they should be removed. We are not proposing giving the people of this country the power to remove them-a power that, thank goodness, the people of this country have over us. I look forward to the day, hopefully when I am still a Member of this House, when the people of this country get that power.

It is worth looking at who else has the power to remove Members of this House. In clause 30, there is a power to remove Members of the House of Lords if they commit a particular kind of criminal offence or become bankrupt. There is a provision that if Members of this House are sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983, they can be removed.

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I ask the hon. Lady to recall that that subject would come under a clause 30 stand part debate, rather than this debate on amendment 92.

Fiona Mactaggart: I stand corrected. I hope that this is a matter we can address very quickly, and I shall stop talking about this very sensible amendment.

Mr. Heath: I forbore to stand to catch your eye earlier, Mrs. Heal, because I wanted to listen to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) discuss their amendments and new clauses.

I shall maintain the spirit of consensus that has predominated in this debate, but not because I believe for one moment in the concept of appointed term peers or non-term peers. I am wholly against that concept. As most hon. Members know, I have always argued in favour of an elected second Chamber, but the amendment has some merits in the context-and only in the context-of an unreformed House and how we might limit some of
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the more deleterious aspects of its form and function at the moment. One thing that I have noticed about those who are elevated to another place is that they tend very quickly to believe that the process by which they were elevated must be extremely wise and sensible given the outcome, which is that they are now a Member of that House. The longer they stay in the House, the more they are convinced of that fact and the less likely they are to change.

The merit of what the hon. Member for Chichester has proposed is that it provides an envelope for that patronage to end. That must be right. It limits, at least to a certain extent, the effect of prime ministerial patronage. I also think that it would have the function of focusing those who were in that House for a limited period on the job that they were there to do. A great number of life peers, particularly those who have been recently created, seem to have only the haziest view of their function as members of a legislature, as evidenced by the fact that they rarely attend. When they do attend, it is usually on a matter that directly affects them rather than because they have any view of their function in a working democracy. The fact is that the work of the other House is carried out by a very limited number of people. All credit to those who shoulder the burden-they do a terrific job-but the fact is that many Members of the other House are rarely seen and rarely contribute.

Mr. Hogg: The truth is that the less the House of Commons scrutinises legislation, the greater the burden on their lordships in their purpose of scrutiny.

Mr. Heath: Precisely so. It irritates me enormously when someone has the perks and honours associated with membership of the other House but does not do the work involved. It is sad to say that a lot of them do that. We might feel that some Members of this House, on occasions, contribute relatively little, but at least they occasionally turn up to vote. Some in the other place do not even find that that is a necessary part of their function.

As I said, I think that term limits might focus the view of those who receive such preferment on the role that they are expected to perform. My only quibble, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Chichester, is the time period for which they might be expected to serve. He mentioned three Parliaments. I would be happy with that if we had fixed-term Parliaments, but we do not. Having a specific time might be better than expressing it in terms of Parliaments, because there would not be a direct relationship between the peer's activities in the other House and elections to this House. However, I am a strong advocate of a fixed-term Parliament in any case, which would solve that difficulty.

I have to say that I do not agree with the arguments made by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham in favour of reappointment. There is a considerable benefit in not having reappointments, largely for the reason he enlisted in favour of some of the things that he said-that is, independence. When people know that there is nothing to be gained by reacting positively to the prospect of future advancement or patronage, they have an independence of mind that might not be quite as strong in other circumstances. If we have a fixed term without the possibility of reappointment, that frees anybody who is in that position
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from the sometimes adverse attentions of the Whips or party colleagues. They will clearly be free to speak their own minds.

An interesting and important point mentioned by the right hon. and learned Gentleman at the end of his comments and picked up on by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) is the position of Ministers. I take a view, which is not shared by everybody, that we should not have Ministers appointed from the House of Lords anyway. Ministers should come from this place and should go along to the House of Lords to argue their case for particular legislation and we should remove yet another tier of patronage. However, that is not the position at the moment.

Mr. Hogg: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. May I put this slightly different question to him? Given where we now are, would he support Ministers in the other place being able to come to this place to respond to questions and perhaps to advance arguments in debate?

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I am afraid that that question, interesting as it might be, is not relevant to the amendment that we are discussing.

Mr. Heath: I accept your guidance, Mrs. Heal.

On term limits for Ministers appointed as Ministers to the other place, I think that there is a very strong argument-we dealt with this in our cross-party discussions on the future of the House of Lords-that, if someone is appointed as a Minister, the term should be for the duration of their role in the Administration. There is no argument for its coming automatically with a permanent seat or even a 15-year seat or whatever in the House of Lords. It should be an ad hoc position, if it is our view that Ministers should continue to be appointed from that House. Entry to the House should be for the duration of the time for which that person is a Minister.

If there is then an argument that the person involved has performed distinguished service, perhaps in the role of Secretary of State, and merits a term peerage, so be it. Their appointment should not be a disqualification from a term peerage, but it should not automatically be assumed that because someone has been an Under-Secretary for a few weeks that person merits a permanent place in the revising Chamber of our legislature. That seems to me to be an unanswerable argument.

I would have preferred it if this amendment had included a section on Ministers, but I appreciate the fact that we are talking about a principle. It is a principle on which we will divide, if the hon. Member for Chichester presses his amendment to a Division. I shall recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that the amendment should be supported. I shall not do so, however, because I think that it is a perfect amendment or that a reformed House of Lords with term peers in it would be a reformed House of Lords. It would be just slightly better than what we have at the moment and I suppose that any advance is better than none.

Mr. Mark Field: I want briefly to contribute to the debate. I agree very much with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I, too, want to see a full democratisation of the House of Lords. In many ways, the term peerages that we are debating will tend to recognise the perpetuation of the life peerages that I would like to see done away with.

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