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1.57 pm

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I believe that most speakers in the debate today will concentrate on the important issues of home and legal affairs, which is understandable because the list of Bills for the Session includes Bills on asylum, immigration, counter-terrorism, organised crime, offender management, criminal justice tribunals, courts and enforcement and legal services. It is crime with a big “C”, and I am truly glad that we have the noble Baronesses, Lady Rendell and Lady James, in the House.

Some of those subjects are familiar to noble Lords who have worked on legislation on those questions in the very recent past, who have scrutinised and—I believe—improved it, fulfilling our role as a second Chamber, complementary to the work of the House of Commons and widely appreciated by the public for that role. There is some truth in the charge that what we most need now is a much more effective administration and monitoring of legislation that already exists—for example, in relation to those cases in which foreign nationals after release from prison should be considered for deportation and should not be simply lost to view. Unfortunately, that is only one example. I am prepared to be convinced, if the Government can conclusively show that the new legislation outlined in the gracious Speech and specified in the list of Bills is truly needed to better manage immigration and cut crime—but, please, at the same time can we not improve the working of the present arrangements? That is truly the priority.

Our debate today extends beyond home and legal affairs to constitutional issues. The gracious Speech refers to the programme of reform of institutions and says that the Government will introduce proposals on the reform of the House of Lords. Many had concluded that proposals would be set out in a White Paper for consideration in both Houses of Parliament but had not envisaged that a Bill would be presented in this Session. However, a House of Lords Bill is

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included in the list of Bills for 2006-07, and in view of that I shall comment on that part of the Government’s programme.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for what he said about the future programme and for much of the substance, with which I agreed. If he ever wishes to cross to the Cross Benches, I am sure that he will receive a very warm welcome.

Before I move on to that, however, I express my pleasure that the gracious Speech tells us that Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will be visiting the United States of America next year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first English-speaking settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia. This is what the Americans call the 400th birthday of America, and it will be widely celebrated there. The English settlers left Blackwall in London in December 1606 in three very small ships and, after storms and a long crossing, arrived in Virginia five months later in May 1607. I declare an interest as a member of the British committee for the celebration in the United Kingdom of this event, which changed the world by launching the history of modern America and the worldwide spread of the English language. It is perhaps worth recalling in this debate that the English were the immigrants then and that one of the earliest actions of the settlers was to establish a Parliament and the rule of law on the English model.

After that brief diversion to Jamestown, Virginia, I come back to the expected debate on proposals for the future of this House. I am struck by the fact that, although there have been many reports, including that of the Royal Commission, and a great deal of speculation, there has not, looking back, been very much debate in the House itself. In the perspective of proposals, I should like, without going into detail, to stress a number of important points.

First, I very much welcome the reference in the gracious Speech to consensus in this area. That may have been implicit in earlier discussions but it is now explicit and a benchmark for future work. This, of course, recognises that changes in the constitution of the nation, whether written or not, are of a different kind from changes in our domestic policies.

Secondly, I welcome the decision of the Government to look, first, at the procedures of the House in its relations with the House of Commons, which has the primacy of the two Chambers. I also very much welcome the unanimous report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, which we shall be debating. However, it has, in my view, reached a definitive position in broadly confirming that existing relations between the two Houses, at least so far as concerns the House of Lords, are satisfactory and appropriate to the proper scrutiny and, where desirable, improvement of draft legislation.

I recall that in a recent Session 3,527 amendments were made in this House and a large percentage of them were agreed by the House of Commons. It is sometimes said that many of them were government amendments. All the better for that, I say. It shows that the Government are willing to accept the force of

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arguments presented in this House and by interested organisations and to draw the conclusion that some change in a draft legislative text would be an improvement. After all, we examine all amendments here without a guillotine. That is one of the best ways in which this House works and it is not demonstrated solely by votes in the Chamber. I note of course that, although the Joint Committee took a clear view on the effectiveness of present arrangements, it concluded that, if any firm proposals should be put forward to change the composition of this House, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again. That is a judgment which we can perhaps come back to later, but at least we have made substantial progress with the Joint Committee’s report.

My third point goes much wider than conventions. At times, I have the impression that some commentators believe that, if a change to the election of a good proportion of the membership of this House were to take place, that would increase its legitimacy but leave the balance between the two Houses hardly changed. I do not believe that myself. Evidently, the House of Lords would be more assertive, and that would not be a consequence of conventions; it would be a consequence of the wishes of the electors who had voted in the elected Members of this House. Here, we are really talking about democracy.

My fourth point is that, if there is to be any further change in the composition of the House, in my view it is important that it should be spread over a reasonable period of time—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and others. Contrary to the common impression, a large percentage of the current Members of the House are relative newcomers and, if there is to be change, we need to safeguard our pool of expertise. We need to allow the steady assimilation of new, elected Members, if that is to be the case, and, in my view, the membership of existing life Peers should continue unless ended by resignation or death or by individual decisions to stand successfully for election to the House. The total size of the House would reduce, but gradually.

Finally, noble Lords would be surprised if I did not refer to the position of the Cross-Benchers. With more than 200 Members, we are not quite yet the majority party but we are an important component of this House, both in numbers and in knowledge and experience. The number might of course be reduced if the House were to be reformed on a part-elected basis. There are 33 hereditary Peers on the Cross Benches, including officeholders, and, when the Supreme Court is set up, the Law Lords—but not of course the retired Law Lords—will move away. The Northern Ireland politically appointed Members currently sit on the Cross Benches and, if elections were to be held for part of the membership of the House, obviously Northern Ireland could not be excluded.

In general, we have been heartened by the widespread acceptance since the Royal Commission that, in any reformed House, at least 20 per cent of the Members should be independent Cross-Bench Peers—we attach importance to those words. Allied

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to that is the widespread acceptance that, in any future reform, a statutory appointments commission should be able to choose the best men and women from a diversity of backgrounds to refresh the pool of knowledge and experience. I believe that this pattern of an independent element of at least 20 per cent and confidence in the appointments process should be one of the defining features of a complementary second Chamber in our system.

2.06 pm

Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton. As chairman of the English Speaking Union, I thank him and his colleagues for their wonderful efforts in preparing us for the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. Like the noble Lord, I feel that next year will be marvellous with the royal visit of the president of the English Speaking Union, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, and Her Majesty the Queen to Jamestown, together with the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, and Sir Robert Worcester in taking forward this important anniversary.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. I think that it would be advisable for everyone who is considering the reform of this place to re-read the report of the Royal Commission. It would enhance the debate if we were to do so a little more carefully because, as the noble Lord pointed out, it was always a bid to find the consensus which the Government now say they are seeking. Of course it was never going to be welcomed by everyone, but it struck a careful balance between all the different views already expressed in this debate and those submitted to the Royal Commission.

My purpose, however, is just to refer to the Legal Services Bill. I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his generous tribute to the work of the Joint Select Committee, which I had the honour to chair. I will pass on his comments to the members of the committee and to our Clerk and her colleagues, our special advisers and the witnesses who gave oral and written evidence. The experience of the Joint Committee reinforces the benefits of this way of scrutinising legislation, which I warmly commend—in particular, when one is dealing with detailed regulatory Bills. However, we were set an impossible timetable. My recollection is that the draft Legal Services Bill was published on 24 May and the Joint Committee met on 25 May and had to report within two months—by 25 July. The Government responded by 25 September and we had First Reading of what is, one hopes, the redrafted Bill, today; no doubt we will see it tomorrow, and I understand that Second Reading will be on 6 December.

There is always a need to look again at the structure of something as important as the legal profession, which is one of our greatest assets. English law is regarded across the world as a safe haven for independent and impartial scrutiny and for justice. Indeed, English law is the chosen law of many international commercial transactions and London is

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the centre for international litigation and arbitration. The way in which commercial disputes are decided is very much in accordance with the traditions that we have established in English law.

I say all that because it is vital that nothing is done in any overtly bureaucratic way to damage that asset. Having spent a little time in government myself, I believe that this Government may be in danger of going down a path that we will all subsequently regret. I refer in particular to the independence of the legal profession. There is no doubt that our lawyers compete across the world exceedingly well but are constantly fighting for access to other legal markets; indeed, other legal markets are envious of the much respected traditions of English law. If there is any attempt by the Government to impose their will on the legal profession, that will hugely damage our capacity to continue to compete across the world for legal business.

Why should that danger exist? Because the Government, like many previous Governments, have gone down the route of saying that, when it comes to establishing the new legal services board, for instance, they want to choose the people who will regulate the legal profession. Having had the privilege of being a Secretary of State, I well know how easy it is to fall into the trap of believing that only I, or my successors, could possibly make the right choice. There are huge dangers in going down that path.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to run a check on the number of times that the term “Secretary of State” appeared in the draft Legal Services Bill and that powers were given to the Secretary of State. Lo and behold, 121 references came up. This issue, however, involves not only all those references and powers but also the conviction on the part of Secretaries of State that they are the only people who could possibly choose the chair and members of the legal services board.

The Joint Select Committee felt strongly that we should concede, as did the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, that the eventual right of appointment lies in the hands of Ministers, but we suggested that the least that could be done is for the Secretary of State to consult the Lord Chief Justice. The Government said in their response that it is not right to name a consultee in the Bill. However, we are dealing with not just a consultee but the Lord Chief Justice himself. The importance of providing for that consultation is to reinforce the independence and integrity of the legal profession. When I open the new Bill tomorrow, I hope that I will see a change of heart on the Government’s part and that they will have accepted at least that recommendation from the Select Committee.

I do not have time to discuss the other recommendations. I applaud the wish to reform the entire legal services market, to bring it under one regulatory framework and to create a new way of dealing with complaints through the establishment of the office for legal complaints, but I wonder about the cost of it all. I remember, when the conditional fee agreements were introduced by the previous Lord Chancellor, that a number of us, including the sadly

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missed Lord Ackner, pleaded with the Government to test first and to carry out the necessary research into the conditional fee agreements so that they would be a success and not, as we have subsequently seen, a failure. That failure has required the Compensation Act to establish a whole new regulatory system for claims management bodies that advertise on television, saying “Where there’s blame there’s a claim and it won’t cost you a penny”. It was a disaster because there was a refusal to have pilot schemes, to test the water and to proceed step by step.

My final plea to the Government is that when they look at alternative business structures, reform of the system of training, discipline and competence—and particularly the valuable work done by the Inns of Court and many other such revered institutions—they will look back to Sir David Clementi’s report and decide that perhaps he had the right way forward; that is, to proceed step by step. Then we will make our greatest asset even more valuable than it is today.

2.17 pm

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in rising to support the Motion on the gracious Speech, I should like to add my welcome for the work of the Joint Committee on Conventions. I, too, thought that its recommendations were eminently sensible. I hope that the Government will have no difficulty in agreeing with them and the thrust of the committee's report.

The committee also said that should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the House of Lords, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again. I recall, however, that the Government’s consultation paper CP 14/03 suggested that there was then—September 2003—widespread agreement that the,

That still seems right to me.

The Leader in another place is working with all sides of both Houses in an effort to reach a consensus. I strongly welcome the general acknowledgement that a constitutional settlement of such importance must be broadly consensual.

Stability—and over a considerable period of time; over decades—is an essential outturn of any further reform. Today I wish to confine my comments to two particular points that concern me. First, I think that I may still take it as a given that whatever may be the eventual size of the House or the percentage element of elected membership, a fifth of the total membership will be allotted to non-party independents, presumably to be found and nominated by a Statutory Appointments Commission. This was also reflected in that 2003 consultation paper, although in his letter responding to one I wrote to him in mid 2004, when I was Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, the Prime Minister was less explicit, saying only that,

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Whatever the Government’s present thinking about a non-party element, my concern is about the quality of both elements of a new second Chamber that remains subordinate to the Commons. The field of electable candidates for the second Chamber will be, to put it in a shorthand way readily understandable to your Lordships, a field of B-list-type candidates; that is, candidates found mainly from those party supporters who failed to get, or to be selected for, seats in the Commons. It would be facile to generalise from that and claim there would only be inferior candidates for the second Chamber’s elected element. Some would be eminently satisfactory. But to the extent that there were fewer able elected Members, without the wealth and depth of political and other experience that now resides in your Lordships’ House, that could have an impact on the quality of individuals prepared, if selected by the Appointments Commission, to allow their names to go forward to become independent Members.

Some of the best might feel that membership of what could be characterised as a B-list revising Chamber, perhaps with more restricted responsibilities than this House presently discharges, was not sufficiently attractive to them, the more so if changes in the Companion, to reflect the more adversarial ethos of party politics, removed our present forms of self-regulation. The remaining vestiges of the award of a peerage as an honour would also have been lost. For some, at least, all that might be too much. In turn, with the passage of time, the high quality that is generally acknowledged to be a key characteristic of the present independent elements of your Lordships’ House would not be sustained.

It is important, as the future of this House is considered, to recognise that there are already a few—not necessarily exclusively because of the changes that have been made so far in the size and composition of the House—who have none the less decided that this House is not any more to their liking, nor worthy of their continuing participation. Just as one swallow does not signal summer, the departure of a Peer or two does not necessarily signal that there could be a large-scale exodus, but, following reform, might there not be reluctance to become involved as a new independent Member of a redefined and still subordinate Chamber in a bicameral system? That question needs to be addressed. While I do not rule out changes, for the present I still feel there is a measure of greater agreement to leave things as they are and allow them to settle down.

The manifesto commitment to reform envisages a House that is more effective, legitimate and representative than we have at the present time. It will be for the proposers of any new settlement to demonstrate not only legitimacy and wider representation, but also greater effectiveness.

My second concern is that the last of these three aspirations may not be given as much weight as the other two. It should. The effectiveness of a reformed House, whatever its final make-up, must be considered. It may be considerably more expensive

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than we are today. It would be wrong to confine the case for a revised Chamber solely to the political issues identified; that is, legitimacy and representation. There should also be a business case that addresses the costs and other issues that are bound up in any restructuring.

I hope that those who are looking for consensus on structure will also seek consensus on the cost/benefit analysis that should be undertaken before voting and a decision on the way ahead is made. Is it not reasonable to expect an indication of the costs of any proposed new settlement? Government and opposition parties should not seek to dismiss costs as irrelevant and of no concern. They will be a concern for the taxpayers, and so they must be for this House and the other place.

Will the Minister give an assurance that the costs of any new proposals will also be available before votes are cast? That was done, albeit with reluctance, for the Supreme Court. It should be even more important to do it for any further reform of your Lordships’ House. Will the Government agree to provide proper costings?

Incidentally, party funds to fight elections for a second Chamber will also be needed. I can but assume that this would be a recurring difficulty for all the political parties. I hope that they will not forget to factor that into their thinking about any new proposals. They should not look to the taxpayer to fund it all.

2.25 pm

Lord Judd: My Lords, this debate underlines that the challenges to government are immense; that the pressures on Ministers and officials alike are huge; and that the workload, with its strains on family life, can at times be almost intolerable. Precisely because of my genuine admiration for those who carry so much responsibility on our behalf, I am sure it is essential to be candid in any critique of the gracious Speech. Anything less would make a mockery of respect.

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