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Noble Lords: Criticism?

Lord Elton: My Lords, no; much worse than criticism. I regard my party as open to temptation and to giving in to temptation. The danger of the capture by extremists of a political party on the Right is just as real and dangerous as the danger of the capture by extremists of a political party on the Left. That is a real threat, as real as the threat of a typhoon striking a liner crossing the Atlantic. It is not known now; it cannot be foreseen; but it can happen. We are designing the constitution to deal with such matters.

The protection against that is to ensure that the electorate has an opportunity, every five years, to get rid of the government of whatever party. Anything that puts a spoke in the machinery that ensures that, weakens the constitution. I cannot tell noble Lords whether Margaret Thatcher would have been so tempted had the hereditary Peers not been Members of the House. Although they were on her side of the House, they were not political animals appointed by the Conservative Prime Minister. They were a sure bastion against that sort of chicanery--delaying a general election until after a recession.

All we ask is that, once we have gone, there should be a better mechanism put in place. Ours is an old, creaky, disreputable system, which has become almost a

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laughing stock on the other side of the House, but it has worked thus far. We ask that some nice, shiny, efficient, new, confidence-inspiring machinery is put in our place.

The Prime Minister, bless him, has suggested it. He has suggested it as often as my son has suggested giving up smoking. We ask that he now gives it up to enormous applause from this side of the House as well as the other. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde and his noble friends are asking the House to do that. I hope that we support him.

Baroness Jay of Paddington : My Lords, this is an extended group of amendments which rightly covers a number of aspects of the membership of the transitional House and the way in which it should be composed.

I hope that I do not alarm my noble friend Lord Barnett by saying that the Government have no quarrel with the underlying purpose and intent of this group of amendments in so far as they relate to establishing the appointments commission. We are in favour of an appointments commission and one will be set up as quickly as possible. We simply continue to think that the amendments are unnecessary and even potentially damaging to smooth progress, for reasons which I shall explain.

First, I want to deal with those amendments, and those parts of amendments in the group, which refer to specific numbers and proportions of appointments in the transitional House. I understand that the noble Lords, Lord Coleraine and Lord Stanley of Alderley, have to some extent subsumed their proposals in their support for Amendment No. 25 in the name of the Opposition Front Bench, but unless the noble Lords indicate otherwise, I shall reply to some of the points that have been made because both of them were serious in their intent and covered some serious points.

Amendment No. 26 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, is unacceptable to the Government. I agree with the concerns about it raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, who spoke to it from the Opposition Front Bench. From the Government's point of view, it is inconsistent with the pledges that we made both in our election manifesto in 1997 and the White Paper on House of Lords reform. As we said in both those documents, we intend to move to a position where membership of this House more closely reflects the votes cast at the previous election.

A point made by other noble Lords is that that amendment would also ensure, in the conditions of the House at present, that the Conservative Party continued to be significantly over-represented. At the last general election the Liberal Democrats received a proportion of the vote over half of that of the Conservative Party and this amendment would allow them just over a quarter of the number of seats.

Amendment No. 27, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, also deals with specific numbers and proportions, but, as the noble Lord said in introducing it, the amendment reverts to the question that he raised in Committee about how we can ensure that the transitional House is properly representative, expert in certain ways and certainly distinctive from the other place.

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As I said in Committee, the Government have no quarrel with the noble Lord's motivation or underlying purpose. As I am sure noble Lords are probably tired of hearing by now, one of our subsidiary, but none the less important, motives for the reform is to make the House more representative. We believe that the narrow social base and the preponderance of certain backgrounds and professions among the hereditary peerage have combined to make this House as it is at present: very unrepresentative in the sense that it does not reflect our modern society. Of course, I accept the point made by the noble Lord that on almost any individual subject we can probably find a good representative here to speak in any particular debate. However, as the noble Lord will be aware, we have consistently made it clear that we value the contribution of those independent Cross-Bench Peers who will remain in the House. We want to ensure that they retain a significant role both in the transitional House and in the longer term.

If the objective of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, is to create a transitional House which can call on a wide range of experience and expertise from those whose primary loyalty is not necessarily to a political party, we can wholly endorse that. I am happy to repeat that commitment once again on behalf of the Government. However, where we part company with the noble Lord is on the question of how one could effectively enshrine in legislation those broad principles and broad objectives.

It is extremely difficult, frankly, to frame in legislation the types of proposal suggested by the noble Lord, however much one can agree with their underlying objective. Many aspects of your Lordships' House do not fit into the kind of neat categories which the noble Lord has proposed and which would be necessary if they were to be framed in statute. Perhaps I may give a couple of examples to illustrate that without delaying the proceedings for too long. Subsection (3)(c) of the noble Lord's amendment states that there should be broad parity between the numbers of government and Cross-Bench Peers. Are we to include in that calculation the Law Lords who sit on the Cross Benches? The rest of the amendment is framed in terms of life Peers, but we assume that the Law Lords are to be included. That, of course, alters the understanding of the amendment.

Subsection (3)(d) requires that more than half the Members of the House should have experience of or expertise in areas other than or in addition to politics. This again is a worthwhile aim which the Government would, in general terms, accept. Again, however, it is very difficult to frame these matters sensibly in legislation. I shall give another small series of examples. Are the Bishops to be included in this calculation? How would the Law Lords sit within this context? What counts as experience or expertise? For example, would training as a solicitor 30 years ago but not having practised for 20 years enable one to fall into that category? Also, to use the noble Lord's examples on farming and agricultural interests to which he rightly turned again, does taking up farming in retirement, if perhaps one had been an industrialist and became a farmer when one left one's business activity, count as a farming interest? What counts as "politics"? Is it just

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national paid political activity? Would that much maligned person, a fully paid-up full-time party hack, qualify?

I do not raise these points to suggest anything other than general support for the ambitions of the noble Lord's amendment. I wish simply to say that these are all legitimate questions which would need to be much more precisely clarified if one was going to translate this generally acceptable worthwhile proposal into a statute.

There are similar problems, although in a rather different category of detail and precision, when one comes to Amendment No. 40A. In the Government's view that amendment is not compatible with the arrangement under which the so-called "Weatherill amendment" is given effect. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has said this afternoon and on several other occasions that he and his party will not challenge the broad intent or the detail of new Clause 2. Perhaps I may remind him that as part of the arrangement it was agreed that the Government would be entitled to sufficient life Peers to provide parity with the Conservatives, taking account of the effect of Clause 2. Of course, it is likely that this would result in the numbers for each party being around 220. So the present amendment would probably not allow the Government to achieve parity for some time while the Conservatives, for their part, would not be allowed to replace any of their life Peers until their total number had dropped below 200. For that reason alone, I would suggest to the noble Lord that the amendment cuts across the understanding behind new Clause 2. It is not acceptable to the Government; nor indeed, I would expect, to noble Lords on the Opposition Front Bench.

Another thing we are not quite sure about is how the numbers implied by subsection (1)(b) of the noble Lord's amendment add up. For example, what happens to the share of the vote which goes in an election to parties which cannot qualify under it? Is it fair to limit parties to a share of the vote in the United Kingdom as a whole when, as the noble Lord will be aware, some parties stand in only one part of the United Kingdom? Is it fair to include the votes given to those parties which cannot qualify for a seat in the Lords because they have not won any in the Commons?

Those are questions of detail, but they are ones on which I think the amendment would have to be made far more precise and exact if it were to be translated into statute. I would simply say to the noble Lord, Lord Rogers--this in a way underlies the discussion which has arisen from various quarters of your Lordships' House over these amendments--that I ask him to accept my renewed assurances about the commitment which the Government made in the White Paper about our intentions on the proportionality of appointments in the transitional House and their particular effect on the Liberal Democratic Party. In that context I would urge him not to press Amendment No. 40A.

I turn now to the proposals for an appointments commission and in particular to Amendment No. 25 to which the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, spoke. I am pleased to be able to tell your Lordships this evening that

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the Government are setting up an appointments commission. The process has begun. It will be established as a non-departmental public body under the relevant rules of the Commission for Public Appointments, the so-called "Nolan rules". In Committee I explained the arrangements, and several noble Lords this afternoon have been kind enough to refer to the detail of my explanations. I do not think it is necessary to repeat them. However, I advise your Lordships that I have the agreement of my right honourable friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to begin the recruitment process, and, as the Downing Street official spokesman indicated last Friday, we plan that the commission should be in place in time for the New Year's Honours List in 2000. As part of the process, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be writing to the Leader of the Opposition and to the Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, seeking their nominations to the commission.

In these circumstances, I think that the amendments before us today, which seek to make statutory provision for an appointments commission, are completely unnecessary. Indeed, if they are carried, they will inhibit the process of establishing the commission. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said in his opening remarks before proceedings began this afternoon that he did not seek in any way to delay the Bill. It is, of course, true that the Bill as a whole would not be delayed by an amendment passed against the Government's advice on this subject, but it would certainly slow down an important part of the process of implementing the Bill.

I am grateful to those noble Lords--several noble Lords have referred to this, including the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who was with us in those discussions--who after a very constructive debate in Committee joined me in further discussions on this issue. I understood during those discussions that an announcement of progress of the kind I have just made--translating the Government's aspirations into action--would convince them of our definitive intention to proceed. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for example, will accept that as our good intent. As I have indicated, we are proceeding in the way that we set out in our White Paper. I hope, therefore, that those assurances, which are now more than aspirations and have been translated into action, will be accepted. However, from the somewhat sabre-rattling remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, I fear that that is not so.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that although good attempts have been made to translate some of the proposals into a form that is statutorily acceptable, I do not think that any of the proposals before us this evening have achieved that. I appreciate that, as the noble Lord and others said, they have tried simply to do something which, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, is closely based on the White Paper proposals. However, that is not precisely true in important areas, and it ignores the points that I made at an earlier stage about legislation probably being inappropriate for achieving a purpose which we all agree is necessary.

Once again I remind the House that we are talking about a transitional House and transitional arrangements. Although several noble Lords opposite made fairly substantial points about the need to legislate for a long time, the intention of the existence of the appointments

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commission, in this instance, concerns appointments to the transition House. It is not suitable for an elaborate statutory superstructure. Noble Lords have suggested putting something declaratory on the face of the Bill to ensure that the Government act. I hope that my remarks reassure them about that point.

I am sure your Lordships will have noted the length of even the general propositions put forward. I am advised, and I am convinced, that were we to legislate the provisions would have to be far more complex than those before us. One specific example of the constitutional complexities of Amendment No. 25 where it is substantially different from the Government's proposals is the requirement that all members of the commission should be Privy Counsellors. A field limited to existing Privy Counsellors is hardly compatible with subsection (2)(b) of the proposed new clause which requires "an open and transparent" appointments process. In fact, I suggest that subsection (2)(b) appears to be inconsistent with subsection (8) which suggests that all those who are members of the appointments commission should be Privy Counsellors. In addition, the statutory requirement that holders of certain posts must be made Privy Counsellors would be a constitutional innovation.

There are other proposals, particularly those in subsection (7) of the proposed new clause, where the Government feel that the amendment departs unhelpfully from the White Paper proposals. But overall our concern is not with the detailed content of Amendment No. 25 or the others which refer to the appointments commission. We promised an appointments commission in our White Paper. We made clear what its composition and remit would be. It is not necessary to legislate to achieve that promise. We are going another route.

Noble Lords raised the question of the Prime Minister's patronage and his powers. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, raised the issue of last week's list of working Peers. He and other noble Lords will have noticed that Downing Street confirmed that the Prime Minister had only acted as a post box for the names proposed by Mr. Hague. In other words, the Prime Minister passed the Official Opposition's list directly to the scrutiny committee because we have already begun the steps to reduce the Prime Minister's patronage and we intend to continue. If noble Lords are concerned that this is only our word, then I can say that the Government regard these proposals and all our proposals in the White Paper as binding on any future Labour Prime Minister as much as the present one. If noble Lords are concerned that Prime Ministers of a different political complexion might not see things in the same way, it is equally open to the Leader of the Opposition to make a similar commitment on behalf of his party.

I respectfully suggest to noble Lords that they should not confuse their expressed desire for a statutory provision with a desire to take the Prime Minister out of the process. As we have demonstrated, are demonstrating and will continue to demonstrate, we do not need a statutory provision to achieve the removal of the Prime Minister from some of the central aims. We do not need one to achieve the other.

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Overall we have set in train the administration to create an appointments commission as soon as possible. As I said earlier, we expect it to be in place in time for the next New Year's Honours List. Any amendment to the Bill now which creates a statutory requirement to do something different will simply delay matters. I know that there are some in your Lordships' House who seek delay at every turn on this Bill. But I hope all those who genuinely want an appointments commission to be established quickly to achieve an effective transition House will reject the alternative proposals. Given the clear announcements of progress I have been able to give today, I hope noble Lords will withdraw their amendments. If not, I urge the House to reject them.

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