|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I have been trying to bite my tongue but the noble Lord provokes me too much. Of course, one of the merits of Opposition is that the gag which collective government responsibility always puts on Ministers can be taken off when one finds oneself on this side of the House.
What I wanted to ask the noble Lord was whether he would also accept that, although I should like to start with the reform of the House of Commons, I also said in the lecture--for which he kindly gave an advertisement--that I have to accept that because the Government were foolish enough to start with the reform of the House of Lords we must accept it, although we would prefer that they should start with the reform of the other place.
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I hope that the noble Viscount will make his lecture available to all Members of your Lordships' House. Perhaps it is already in the Library. He spent three whole pages of that lecture spelling out a quite interesting agenda for House of Commons reform. However, I remind the noble Viscount that he is no longer in the House of Commons and, although inevitably the House of Commons will be involved in the reform of the constitution embodied in reform of this House, we might leave some of our colleagues in that place to get on with what they think should properly be done.
There is also this point, which has relevance to what the noble Viscount said. I do not disagree with all the reforms he suggests for another place, but they are all minor compared with what is before us today. When they have virtue, which I have conceded, they are not in any way incompatible--the noble Viscount will tell me if I am wrong--with a second Chamber from which hereditary Peers are excluded. I am grateful to the noble Viscount, who nods his head. I ask those who might be tempted to play the "reform the Commons first" card
Perhaps I may explain my points of agreement with the noble Viscount. Those of us who believe in change must not only say why but how and on what terms. While there is support on these Benches for the principle of legislation--and it is strong--support for the Government's proposals is conditional. First, it is conditional upon there being clear signposts from a wholly nominated House to a predominantly elected second Chamber, with a precise timetable for the transition. Secondly, it is conditional on the Prime Minister of the day, whoever he or she may be, not being free to make the nominations to the transitional House of all parliamentary Peers but only those of his own party; or being able, by the arbitrary choice of numbers, to determine the overall political balance of the House.
The first condition which we make from these Benches looks ahead to a predominantly elected second Chamber. Here, despite the fact that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House read the manifesto--and I listened carefully in case I had made an error in reading it--it is guarded or even obscure. What it calls the "initial" reform, stage one, the disappearance of hereditary Peers, is "not dependent on further reform" and the manifesto's "wide-ranging review" appears to promise only "possible further reform". Again, that is a quotation from the manifesto. I see that a 15-year gap is mentioned in today's newspapers as under discussion. So I think we are right to be concerned on all sides of the House about what the Government's intention is.
The Government offer a Royal Commission. There was no reference to that in the manifesto. The noble Baroness says that they are building on the manifesto. It is an odd bit of building, a quite separate building added to what was there before. But, as I believe the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said, a Royal Commission could hardly assemble more proposals for reform than those already available or represent a greater range of views than will be expressed in this debate. Cross-party discussion would still be necessary on its recommendations.
However, if that is the course the Government choose to follow and they appoint a Royal Commission, say, in January next to work alongside the progress of the Bill--I do not think the noble Baroness told us when they intended to appoint the Royal Commission, whether it was sooner or later or a good deal later--if that Royal Commission is appointed, we shall wish it well and play our part. The timetable is crucial. Even if the Royal Commission reported by the summer of 2000--there is no reason why it should not, although dates slip--there would be little time for a Cross-Bench search for consensus--I am glad that the noble Viscount used that word--to enable the stage two proposals for a predominantly elected House to be included in the Government's next manifesto.
I turn briefly to my second important condition, that a wholly nominated second Chamber should not become the personal quango of any Prime Minister. Let us not be naive about the present system. Prime Ministers have always dictated the timing and numbers of new Peers and their party affiliations and vetted their personal suitability. That is as true of Tony Blair as it is of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher; it is as true of the appointment of life Peers over the past 40 years as it is of hereditary Peers for all time. Therefore, a wholly nominated Chamber, if it did not last too long, would at worst carry over more completely only what has long been the habit of No. 10. But that would be wrong. An independent standing commission should be responsible for determining the political composition of your Lordships' House in the transition period between stages one and two within the terms agreed by Parliament, and for that matter within the spirit of the Labour Party manifesto, as the noble Baroness reminded us. One could begin to move towards a balance that reflected the votes cast for each party in the previous election. The commission would also be responsible for the appointment of Cross-Bench Peers during the transition period and beyond and the overall regulation of the process of appointments.
When I made a proposal of this kind in your Lordships' House four years ago it was greeted with the shaking of some heads and the tutting of disapproval from both Front Benches. Judging by what has been said today by the Leader of the House, in confirmation of earlier government statements there has been a movement of opinion on the Labour Benches. I welcome that, but it is still far from clear that the role envisaged for such a commission is wide enough. The Leader of the House was vague today, as was the recent speech of the Prime Minister. Without an adequate safeguard there would be serious concern in this House and among the public outside. The power and patronage of the Prime Minister has increased greatly in recent years and should not be increased further as a result of changes in your Lordships' House and a transitional period of nomination.
Three months ago William Hague said that the Government wanted "to rush through far-reaching changes" to the House of Lords. I do not know where the Leader of the Conservative Party has been or what he has read. Far-reaching changes have been discussed in both Houses of Parliament for almost the whole of this century and widely agreed. That is hardly a rush. In
Lord Weatherill: My Lords, when I was Speaker of the other place I had to add a fourth absolute lie to the well-known absolute lies, which was, "If you call me in this debate, Mr. Speaker, I shall be only 10 minutes". I shall try to keep to the time limit suggested yesterday by the Government Chief Whip. In the past I may have disclosed that my father led the last and perhaps most successful strike of tailors in 1912 and was strongly in favour of abolishing not only the hereditary principle but also the House of Lords. I confess that I am a convert. Nevertheless, I accept that the Government have a mandate to carry out their manifesto commitment and that they will bring forward a Bill to reform your Lordships' House. But surely "reform" means "better". It is that which should cause us to pause and consider with great care the changes that are to be made.
I am pleased to hear the noble Baroness the Leader of the House say that there is to be a White Paper on this subject. All of us await it with great interest. I am also glad that this is a genuine "take note" debate, not simply a matter to be visited by our old friend "solemn and binding" who was regularly in attendance at debates a few years ago in the other place.
I hope that the Government will consider the views expressed today and tomorrow about the future membership and role of this parliamentary institution which is older than the House of Commons, has served our country well and, incidentally, is generally held in high regard and esteem by the electorate as doing a good job and very cheaply.
As Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers I cannot speak for them all; nor do I presume to do so. Nevertheless, if there is a consensus it is that we have a very high regard and affection for the 203 hereditary Peers who sit on our Benches. Many of them have played, and continue to play, an active and valuable part in the work of the committees of this House. Others sit on the Woolsack as Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chairmen. Others regularly participate in debates and amendments to legislation and bring to bear their personal experience and expertise. No fewer than 141 Cross-Bench hereditary Peers serve on the main committees of this House at the moment.
It is sometimes alleged that our voting record is not good, but we do not issue a Whip and do not plod through Lobbies to vote for or against arguments that we have not heard. I believe that the House will sorely miss the wisdom and experience of the hereditary Peers. We have a legitimate concern as to who will do the work that they currently carry out and how they will be replaced. It will take time for the Royal Commission to make its recommendations. I believe that most Back Benchers are in favour of evolutionary change rather than sudden death. Would it not be wise to phase out the hereditary element in this House rather than
The noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Thorndon, a former Chief Justice of New Zealand and a much-respected Cross-Bench Peer, has put his name down to speak tomorrow and I have his permission to trail the speech which he will give. I believe that he will explain what happened when the New Zealand parliament set out some years ago to reform the Senate. Because they found it so difficult to decide what to put in its place, it became the repository of party politicians and supporters, frequently past their prime. In the process they lost the respect of the New Zealand electorate and the Senate has been abolished. Today New Zealand has a single-chamber parliamentary system.
What the Government are doing, despite their manifesto commitment, is not just a matter for us in this House; it is a matter for the nation as a whole. Because of the constraints of time and in deference to those who are due to speak, I will not today give my undoubted views as a former Member of Parliament for some 28 years, 12 of them spent in the Whips' Office both in Government and in Opposition, then in the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and as Speaker. I will only say that I believe that the other place is in much more need of reform than this House but, my Lords, that is for another time.
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, the Government have set out their proposals for the first stage only of a reform of the House of Lords, but I believe it is important to be clear from the outset about certain criteria which should guide the whole process of reform.
The first, and in some ways the most fundamental, question of all concerns the purpose and powers of a second Chamber: what we want it to do and how we want it done. As at present constituted, the House can stop a government extending their life beyond the term of office for which they were elected. It acts as an ultimate check on potential tyranny. The fact that this power has not been used in living memory should be regarded as an indication of its effectiveness, rather than an argument that such power is not necessary. It acts as a revising Chamber, with the power to slow down legislation for further consideration but not block it for ever. It also provides an opportunity for serious reflection and debate on some of the key issues of the day as they bear on Government policy.
As an academic observer has put it, "The present House exemplifies a rather fine sense--perhaps an overdeveloped sense?--of just how awkward it can be without causing serious and significant problems to either Conservative or Labour Governments". I am therefore very concerned about the possibility of even a partially elected element in the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has emphasised. The purpose of this action would be to give it an extra legitimacy; therefore an extra authority. Such extra authority, however, could lead to a desire to flex political muscles and this in turn could lead, at the very least, to confusion about where ultimate power resides.
The alternative to an elected or partially elected House is a wholly appointed one. In recent months this has been the subject of much criticism, not to say derision, particularly in the proposed transitional phase, as the biggest quango on earth. The option of a wholly appointed House is, I believe, a serious proposition, right through a transitional phase to a totally reformed one, and one which does require careful analysis and consideration.
Again speaking from the particular perspective of these Benches if I may, the backbone of the House is provided by people with political experience and skills, either from the other House or from local government. This is absolutely as it should be. I believe that this element is quite properly appointed by the Prime Minister, with the advice of party political leaders or by some new political process, about which I say nothing. The fact that the backbone of the House is provided by people with political expertise who are appointed by a political process of appointment rather than an election can, I believe, be defended on rational and democratic criteria when this is part of a wider political process which does involve a real element of election.
What makes the House distinctive, however, is that in addition to the political element there are people with different experience and skills who provide a significant independent element: the Cross Benchers, the Law Lords and the Bench of Bishops. I am not qualified to say anything about the Law Lords and the question of bishops raises the wider question of the establishment of the Church of England--too large a subject to raise at this point. I would like, however, to offer suggestions about the appointment of independent-minded people who do not wish to be aligned with any political party, the Cross Benchers, which the Government have said they are committed to maintaining and which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, has again emphasised this afternoon.
Here we already have a good model in existence: the Crown Appointments Commission, responsible for nominating names to the Prime Minister for the appointments of bishops in the Church of England. I must emphasise that I am not saying anything at all about how bishops should or should not be appointed. I am simply using that system as a model of a truly independent commission: for that is what it is. The Commission considers all manner of names submitted from many quarters and, after due deliberation, puts two names to the Prime Minister.
Under an arrangement agreed between the Government and the Church of England, under the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, when he was Prime Minister, the Prime Minister retains the power, in relation to the appointment of diocesan bishops, either to choose the second name instead of the first or to ask for two new names; but the names still come from the Church through the Crown Appointments Commission. What is less well known is that in the case of the appointment of suffragan bishops there is a convention which has always been observed: that the Prime Minister does not either reverse the order of the two names or ask for two new ones. The first name is forwarded straight through on a fast track to Her Majesty the Queen.
I see no reason why there should not be a similar appointments commission to recommend names of distinguished independent-minded people whom it is thought could contribute to the work of the House. This independent commission could consider names sent to it from all over the British Isles, particularly by professional associations and regional bodies, from sport and the arts. It would be allocated a certain number of nominations a year, say 20, and its responsibility would be to put those names forward to the Prime Minister. If the system of appointing suffragan bishops were adopted, these would be nodded through without further ado. I believe such an independent commission could and should be set up even in the transitional period. That would help to preserve the independence of the House, as a number of your Lordships have strongly emphasised today.
I believe that right from the outset of the process of reform of the House we must bear in mind what we believe its purpose and power should be. My view is that it is just about right and that it should not be weakened or unduly strengthened. I believe that we should distinguish clearly those who are appointed by a political process and those who are to be regarded as truly independent. I believe that that independent element should be safeguarded by the setting up of a truly independent commission responsible for appointments. A model of that is already in operation.
I have deliberately not considered the other independent element--the Law Lords and the Bench of Bishops--both of which raise large and complex questions. But, in addition to those two bodies, it is important to have a truly independent element drawn from as wide a cross-section of occupations as possible, for the creative element in this House is in part due to the interaction of people with political expertise on the one hand and expertise of other kinds on the other.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page