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House of Lords

Monday, 14th February 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

House of Lords Reform

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether it is their intention to introduce legislation to give effect to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on reform of the House of Lords; and, if so, when.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, the Government have welcomed the report of the Royal Commission and made clear that they wish to give proper consideration to all the recommendations. That process is still continuing and, as noble Lords will be aware, we hope to proceed by consensus with other political parties on the next stage of reform. It would be premature to say whether the Government intend to accept any particular recommendations and, therefore, what legislation would be required.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, there is nothing unpredictable in that Answer. Therefore, I cannot bring myself to thank the noble Baroness for it. However, perhaps she will be kind enough at least to understand that what some of us fear most is that either we shall get a pale shadow of the present House of Commons or a body which is merely a convenience for the House of Commons. Either would be very nasty. I wonder whether the time has come when the Government, flushed with their constitutional triumphs to date, will feel encouraged to take them a step further.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I never aim to be unpredictable. Therefore, I am sure that I shall give the noble Lord another predictable answer for which, perhaps, he may be able to summon up some gratitude. I simply report that, as I am sure he is aware, there is an informal understanding between the usual channels in this House that we should have an early opportunity to debate this issue. I look forward very much to the noble Lord's contribution to that debate. I hope he looks forward to mine.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that not all of us share the gloomy view about the future of this House just expressed on the Opposition Benches? Some of us are quite hopeful and optimistic. To that extent, perhaps the Government may feel assured.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am most grateful for my noble friend's support. I hope that he

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will feel it appropriate to express that support at greater length when we come to debate the issue in, I hope, a very few weeks.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, will the Leader of the House accept that, as expressed in this Question, we do not want legislation to give effect to the recommendations of the Royal Commission, or such of them as are acceptable to the Prime Minister, but legislation which will ensure that we get an effective second Chamber which is accountable properly to the people of this country?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am sure that that is a general aim. As I said in my initial response to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that is why we very much hope to achieve consensus among all the political parties involved on a general approach to the second stage of reform.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, when my noble friend comes to examine the Royal Commission's report, perhaps I may ask that she should not be taken in by the siren calls from the Opposition, who suddenly seem to be taken by the novel constitutional principle that elected governments have no right to get their business through?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the Opposition's view on both the short and long-term position on reform of your Lordships' House has, shall we say, been variable. In the spirit of genuine consensus which the Government now hope to achieve, I am sure that we shall be able to reach some kind of working arrangement on the way forward.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, is the Minister prepared to consider that democratic accountability requires consideration of the way in which Members of the House of Commons are chosen by a tiny minority of political parties? Further, is she prepared to consider that the Whip is very strong, that independence is out and that Peers are more independent in this House? Are Her Majesty's Government prepared to consider that independence should exist in this House rather than in the other place?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware, the Government made clear in our White Paper, published just over a year ago, in the ensuing debates on what has now become the House of Lords Act and in the initial response to the Royal Commission that we intend that Cross-Bench contribution to this House should continue and that people who do not take a party Whip should be represented substantially in any reformed Chamber.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a Question such as this should be viewed with a degree of suspicion and certainly

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surprise coming, as it does, from an Opposition who defended the hereditary system for so long and now want to act in haste to make further changes?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, as I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, I have decided that in this debate it does not help to be unpredictable and, presumably, it does not help to be suspicious. I believe that it is right to start with a clean slate on the whole issue of reform of the second Chamber and proceed to a proper and full discussion. I agree with my noble friend that anything which is considered to be enacted in haste is unlikely to produce a generally accepted solution. As I have said in response to two supplementary questions, we hope that there will soon be an opportunity for general debate. That may be a more appropriate way to continue these discussions rather than in a Starred Question.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, in the light of the answer which the noble Baroness has just given, does she not agree that it was a mistake to appoint PricewaterhouseCoopers to oversee appointments to the new commission? Will the noble Baroness answer the question which I put on the last occasion on which the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, raised this subject? How much are the Government paying PricewaterhouseCoopers to deal with the appointments to the commission and what are the contractual arrangements? Does she not believe that that too should be a matter of consensus?

Baroness Jay of Paddington : My Lords, I have recently answered a Written Question about the fees to PricewaterhouseCoopers for its expert support to the Cabinet Office in relation to the logistics of making appointments to the appointments commission. I believe that it has been published in the Official Report. The details of the terms of reference for PricewaterhouseCoopers are given there, as well as the fees.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to hear my noble friend Lord Peyton asking these Questions. The Government asked the Royal Commission to report in record time. If they want to stop my noble friend asking questions, the best thing that they can do is to give a proper response to the Royal Commission. Can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House tell me when that is likely to occur?

Following on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, does the noble Baroness now regret that she did not come to this House to make a statement about setting up the Prime Ministerial appointments commission? On whose ministerial authority was some £100,000 plus committed to the PricewaterhouseCoopers recruitment campaign? Will she confirm that that same Minister agreed the wording of the advertisement?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, in response to the noble Lord's request for an early opportunity

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for the Government to state their position, the Government have offered, through the usual channels, days for debate to the Opposition for precisely that purpose. I understand that the first date proposed was not convenient to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, he cannot be particularly concerned about the speed with which we respond.

On the second point, no, we do not regret that we asked PricewaterhouseCoopers to assist us in the administration of that particular activity. Government departments have had such assistance over many years, as we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, when this matter was raised on a previous occasion. As I said in my Answer to the Written Question, Ministers gave general agreement to the appointment of that particular firm. The terms of the advertisement were agreed at very high levels within government.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am extremely glad that the Government have said that they will give a response to the Royal Commission when we debate the matter. However, the noble Baroness has missed the point of my second question. Does she regret that she did not make a statement to this House about asking PricewaterhouseCoopers to assist with the setting up of the appointments commission? Does she not believe that this House should have a role in deciding what should be the terms and conditions of the appointments commission?

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