Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Secondly, Jack Straw could have done what he has done—to produce a White Paper that indicated a way forward that would certainly not give many of us what we wanted but that might be a basis for a compromise. The third alternative was to do nothing, or at most to deal with only a few matters on which all seem to agree. Whatever conclusion we come to at the end, his starting position was a perfectly reasonable place from which to start to explore the possibilities. I submit that there must be a proper and sincere attempt to secure agreement between the Houses and between the parties. So I support the White Paper and believe it is important that we all examine it, not to determine whether it is ideal, which it certainly is not, but whether it has some concepts with which we can live. There are some good proposals which could and should command universal support; namely, to have a statutory and independent Appointments Commission, to keep the Cross-Benchers and the Bishops, and to leave the existing life Peers in place, but to produce a scheme for retirement for those who want to. I would also leave existing hereditary Peers in place and end the system of by-elections.

However, I have serious worries about some of Mr Straw’s proposals. Let me set out some of my concerns. I accept that an elected element is part of the compromise, but a 50 per cent elected element is too high, certainly for the initial period. I would start with 25 per cent, possibly increasing to 50 per cent after 15 years, which would greatly help the size of this House while existing Peers gradually slide away. Whatever the number of elected Peers ultimately, I believe that it is right to start gradually and over a longer period than 15 years.

I can see the case for a single term for elected Members—it is essential—but I can see no case for appointed Members not being eligible for reappointment by a genuinely independent Appointments Commission. I also think that retiring elected Members should be considered by the Appointments Commission for appointment. Without that, the quality of the candidates will be far too low. For example, a QC aged 45 is brought into the House. At 60 years old, you say “Thank you very much. Off you go”. A QC would simply not be interested in coming on that basis, would find better things to do and the House would lose. I gather that the proposal to disregard the existing and remaining Members of the House in the political balance is also totally unacceptable. It seems likely that if we follow the White Paper, one party will, for a number of years, end up with a majority of political Peers, if not of the House overall.

It is politically naive to think that the Appointments Commission should not have the power to appoint a new Member at the request of a Prime Minister to, say, become the Leader of the House or a Minister. It must be in the interests of the House that he should. I would go further and give the same facility to the Appointments Commission in respect of opposition parties in suitable cases. It is essential that a revising House should not have among its number people who still have political ambitions. There is enough evidence of past difficulties between Members of the Commons and Members of the European Parliament—certainly when I was Chief Whip in the Commons—to make Members of the Commons very wary of these problems. In this respect, five years’ restriction on ex-Members of this House standing for the Commons is far too short. My royal commission proposed 10 years, but I would prefer a permanent restriction. I would like to put down a marker to say that in my view it would be totally unacceptable for one class of Peer to be paid for his services to the House that is denied to others.

Finally, the elected element in Mr Straw’s proposals is not like other elected representatives. These Members would not be responsible to their electorate like normal elected Members. They are in effect appointed Members, but they are appointed by the people. They quite rightly will never have to go back to their electors to account for their actions, which is why I can support the idea and can tolerate a list system for party nominees. But there will be required a great leap of faith by those who favour—in my view, wrongly—a truly elected element in the upper House.

These are my principal worries about the White Paper. It has a number of good points, but the shortcomings are significant. Ultimately, Jack Straw and his colleagues will have to weigh up all the factors in deciding whether he can get a compromise that will stick. I have already said that he is right to try. But he will have to be satisfied that a reformed House will be a better revising House than the existing one; that it will not seek to rival the House of Commons; and, most important, that a concerted effort can be made to get across the message that a reformed House of Lords is part of making Parliament work better in the best interests of democracy.

If he can achieve a measure of agreement, he will have done Parliament a great service. However, it will also be a perfectly honourable position if he concludes that this is not the moment to proceed. So far as the voting is concerned, I will vote for the first two options and against the remainder.

5.05 pm

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, our text for the debate today and tomorrow is a hotchpotch of a White Paper, the product of too many people working too hard at trying to resolve irreconcilable views. By that I mean not only the Cabinet, which is in a mess about Lords reform, but also all the groups and committees which have been striving to find answers to very different questions. However, I have no wish to diminish those efforts and the genuine concern, even the passion, of the participants, and not least those of my noble friends here and colleagues in another place. I am sure that mutual respect will continue despite strong opinions strongly expressed. Whatever the votes taken in the House of Commons last week and the outcome of Wednesday’s votes here, as the opening speakers made clear, the saga will go on.

The role of the House of Lords, its powers, conventions, its relationship with the House of Commons and even its style remain familiar and central issues. What surprised me in the Commons debate was an apparent instinct to live in the spirit of 100 years ago. Abolishing the Lords or making a radical change now, in 2007, would be to abolish something very different from what the House of Lords was at the time of the Lloyd George 1909 Budget. Then, I would certainly have been campaigning for the people and against the Peers. Chapter 3 of the White Paper tells the story. Apart from the 1911 Parliament Act and the 1949 amendment, the Life Peerages Act 1958 began to transform the place. As a result, among its provisions it brought many women into the House who had previously been effectively excluded. That was 50 years ago and we take it all for granted, but it was a huge and decisive change.

There has been another huge change since 1997 which some Members of the House of Commons seem to have ignored. Many years ago, when I first began to think about the nature of the House, I believed that there were two overwhelming objections to the place: the hereditary principle and the consequent gross disparity of its political composition. During the ebbs and flows of my own opinions, because there have been some changes, these objections were my constants. But in 1999 the number of hereditary Peers was reduced to 92, and I hope that the hereditary principle will go very soon. In parenthesis, all the hereditaries should have been removed at the time and life peerages offered to the remaining 92—or whatever the right number should have been. Standing Order 10 made under Section 2 of the House of Lords Act 1999 has led to the ludicrous device of by-elections to fill vacancies and has attracted justified ridicule. It has been damaging to the House as a whole, especially since one or two hereditaries choose to flaunt their difference.

As for political balance, looking back over 10 years, it is stunning that we now have 210 Labour Peers, 203 Conservative Peers—rough parity—and 77 Liberal Democrats; too few but significantly more. In that respect, if not for the Weatherill amendment, I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg; I was delighted that he has broken his silence today—

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the only reason we are having this discussion about reform of the Lords now is because we were left here as grit in the oyster to prove that something else happened. Otherwise, it would have been all appointed Peers and no argument. We have been left here to irritate people into producing more reform.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, that is a fascinating and rather perverse argument. I did not notice at the time that all the hereditary Peers wanted to go; on the contrary, there was a negotiation, as a result of which we had the Weatherill amendment, which I think was a mistake. However, despite that, the January 1999 White Paper set the political shape of the House today, broadly reflecting its opinions. In that respect, the amendment was absolutely right.

As a proportion, we have too many Cross-Bench Peers but among them are those who make a major contribution to the House, and I would be very sorry to see them go. Whether or not further changes will take place by common consent, this is the best House ever—well informed and hard-working; above all, it plays a significant and constructive role in shaping legislation. That role is at the heart of objections to an appointed Chamber. On the face of it, it lacks democratic legitimacy, or whatever one chooses to call it.

It is difficult for Members of the House of Commons to have a rounded perspective of the Lords. I can claim no virtue during my 20 years in the Commons, half of them spent as a Minister. I barely listened to a debate here, nor did I read the Official Report. In Cabinet, the Leader of the House—this was in the late 1970s—was seen but seldom heard, except when the Lords defeated the Government in a Division, which caused a row. Many Back-Benchers found the Lords a thorough nuisance. But then, as now, we knew that in the end, the Commons would win. The Lords would irritate the Commons—usually meaning the Government of the day—delay the progress of a Bill, require Ministers to think again and, at the penultimate ping-pong stage, the Parliament Act had to be invoked. I repeat that then, as now, if it was determined, the Commons would win, even if on very rare occasions, the Parliament Act had to be invoked. Ultimately, the House of Lords is a persuasive Chamber; the final sanction lies with the Commons and the democratic legitimacy rests in Parliament as a whole.

There is certainly scope for further reform of the Lords, apart from ending the hereditary principle. I welcome a number of the proposals in the White Paper, but I shall vote for option one as I believe that a fully appointed House will serve Parliament and the nation best.

5.14 pm

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, you will not be surprised to hear that my theme is the real need for a substantial independent element in this House and that that can be achieved only by appointment. It is totally unrealistic to contemplate that, save in the rarest cases, any independents would ever be elected by whatever voting system. They do not have the organisation or the resources to contest elections and, to be frank, quite a lot of them would not have the will to do so.

Therefore, a vote for a 100 per cent elected House is a vote for everyone in it to be party political, with no independents, no Bishops, no retired Law Lords and none of the great and the good, which is contrary to the view expressed by everybody who has reported on this issue during the past 10 years at least.

Would that matter? It would, first, because it surely runs the risk of there being an overall majority in this House—not perhaps one party having an overall majority, but a coalition of Liberal and Labour, let us say, as we know the right honourable Sir Menzies Campbell has suggested. That would certainly mean that the Government had an overall majority in this House if there were no independents. That is surely contrary to what everybody has always contemplated. People have said that there must be no one party with a majority, but surely what they mean is that the Government must not have an overall majority in the House.

It matters, secondly, because the independents are a source of much, though obviously by no means all, of the expertise in and experience of how things are managed outside politics. Members of another place have much contact, I am sure, with their constituents, but few of them have managed businesses or worked in all levels of trade or in the professions.

Thirdly, surely the origins and purposes of a debate are to persuade the listener. In this House, on many issues, there is real scope for persuasion. I have frequently listened with an open mind to a debate, especially to those who have knowledge in which I place trust, and made up my own mind on the basis of those arguments. However, if the independent element goes, the nature of the debates will change and, inevitably, they will become more obviously an exercise in unashamed party political point-scoring, perhaps more in the image of another place.

If those arguments are sound, the all-elected option, as the Lord Chancellor really thinks, is out, and the only refuge for those who abhor hybridity is an all-appointed House, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, would have. However, one of the other propositions put to us is an 80 per cent elected House, but that is very little better than an all-appointed House. On that basis, the only persons appointed to the House would be the independents, but surely, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, suggested, the Prime Minister would inevitably want a few places to which he could appoint Members. And what about the Bishops?

We surely need to ask whether one would get top-class ex-Ministers in this House if everybody had to be elected. Surely one of their aims in coming to this place is to get out of having to continue electioneering. I see a few nods from those whom I am describing. Surely the dilemma for those who support all politicians to be elected in this place is that if being put on the list means that election is a near-formality, there is no real election; it is really appointment by another label. If on the other hand they have to have a real contested election, many—and many of the best—will not stand. What is the answer to that? We are not told.

There are questions which, quite frankly, have not been tackled. Who would want to stand in an all-elected House? Without wishing to be too controversial, I venture to suggest that the standard of those who could not become candidates either for the House of Commons or for the European Parliament would not be so high that we would really think that they would make a superb second Chamber. Another question that has been ducked entirely is cost.

Furthermore, we on these Benches must recognise that, if everybody else is elected, we will be treated as second-class citizens. On the other hand, if a lot of politicians are appointed, that will not be so, because it will be the top-class politicians who are appointed rather than elected.

One argument against political Peers being appointed is the cash-for-peerages issue, but that is in my submission a total red herring. A peerage and seat in this House are to be completely separated, and I do not believe that without the attraction of a title a place in this House with an obligation to work hard and attend is going to be anything that anyone would want to pay for. In addition, far from paying cash for peerages being a new vice it is something that has already been remedied. People have paid for peerages for many years but now, for the first time, the Appointments Commission, even without statutory powers, is putting a stop to that. It has refused to approve peerages for the suspects, so that problem is solved. One cannot conceive that, after all the fuss that there has been and the risk of prosecutions, people are going to be willing to offer money for the chance to come here as merely Mr or Mrs So-and-so, Members of a Second Chamber. Contrast the position if all those politicians are to be appointed. If your name is put on the top of a list or you are given the nomination to a totally safe constituency, you are bound to get in. That is appointment without the benefit of scrutiny, which does not seem to me an improvement.

Therefore, how should those Members vote who believe in the case for the independent Peer? Clearly, they should vote in favour of an all-appointed Chamber and against an all-elected or 80 per cent elected Chamber. What of the other votes? There is a clear choice: either one nails one’s flag to the mast of an all-appointed Chamber, which as I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, is the best solution; or one sends a message to the other place—which is perhaps more realistic and practical—that we might accept something like 50-50 as a compromise, because in the other place we will not get an all-appointed Chamber. But that is very much a personal choice and a question of tactics.

5.23 pm

Lord Richard: My Lords, we seem to have been here before, if I may say so, and on a number of occasions. I am very conscious of that fact. But there is one change that I welcome: the three Front Benches seem to be in agreement that the proper way forward is an 80 per cent elected and a 20 per cent appointed Chamber. However, one thing has not changed: my profound disagreement with my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine of Lairg—and, no doubt, his profound disagreement with me.

I have to say—and I think that I am entitled to say it—that my position has not changed at all. I remain in favour of what was expressed to be Labour Party policy in the years before the 1997 general election, when we campaigned on a platform that the House of Lords should be predominantly but not exclusively elected. I accepted that then and I accept it now. I am pleased to see that the Government now share that view, although it has taken 10 years.

The result of the debate in the Commons last week clarified the position somewhat. There was a majority for an 80:20 House and an all-elected House, and it is now for the Government to decide which option they are to pursue. The importance of the debate and the vote in the Commons, however, is that the Commons have decided firmly—very firmly indeed—that the day of the wholly appointed House is over.

There is some doubt about the validity of the 100 per cent vote. It is said on good authority that some of those who voted in favour of an all-appointed House also voted in favour of an all-elected House. I find it difficult to understand the logic of that position. It seems to me to be playing parliamentary games with a serious parliamentary issue.

So we should commend the Commons for accepting a hybrid House split 80 per cent elected and 20 per cent appointed. I have a very simple view on this issue which I hope is not totally naive. People who make laws should be directly accountable to those who have to obey the laws that they make. In other words, if you legislate, you should have a democratic mandate. What I do not think is acceptable—and in principle I do not think that many other people, even in this House, would find it acceptable—is that people who make laws should be appointed rather than elected. It is certainly not democratic, nor is it properly representational. Elections are, after all, the way in which public accountability of the legislature is guaranteed in every western democratic society; and that accountability certainly cannot be achieved by a wholly or predominantly appointed House.

The House of Commons has now voted for that mix of 80 per cent elected and 20 per cent nominated. What is important now is to look at the function that each of those two groups will be there to fulfil. The 20 per cent should, I think, broadly resemble the present-day Cross-Benchers. I take the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, on the quality and the calibre of those who sit on the Cross Benches, or at least some of them. That point was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. It seems generally accepted in this House that, on the whole, independent Cross-Benchers are a good thing rather than a bad thing. I totally agree with that. It is desirable that senior doctors, educationalists, Chiefs of the Defence Staff and very senior civil servants should have some place somewhere in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Clearly they cannot be in the Commons, because they would not stand for election, but with the history of Cross-Bench representation in the Lords it would seem to be ideal for this House.

However, if the 20 per cent are to be genuine Cross-Benchers, then the 80 per cent should represent the political side of the work of this House. In this day and age, you cannot legislate without parties and the whole paraphernalia of government and opposition. The idea that legislation could be properly considered and passed by a second Chamber that was chosen either by lottery or by indirect sectional elections is absurd. There would never be the discipline necessary to get the legislation passed. But I think that it is idle to pretend that we can turn this Chamber into one that is less political. It will still be a House through which legislation will have to pass and, if so, there are bound to be party differences on what that legislation should incorporate. It seems nonsense to pretend that we can be a proper legislative Chamber without active political parties and, dare I say it, active political whipping.

Of course there are alternatives; namely, that this House should cease to be a legislative Chamber. In that case, it would become of a group of distinguished and experienced people discussing great matters of state but having only advisory functions. Frankly, that is not how I see the future of this second Chamber. If we are to be a proper legislative Chamber, which I want, then we need the authority and the credibility to be one. That in turn means that we need to get our authority from the people and not from the Executive. To be an effective check on the power of the Executive, one needs that legitimacy. But in the end it depends what you want for a second Chamber. If you want a proper legislative second Chamber, then you have to have a majority of elected Members. If you want more of an advisory Chamber, then it does not matter.

I have often heard the argument that to move in this democratic direction would be to produce a Chamber that is in direct conflict with the House of Commons. I do not accept that that is necessarily so—nor do I accept that conflict between the two Chambers is necessarily a bad thing. Other legislatures seem to have resolved the problem of having two democratically elected chambers, one of which is predominant and the other subservient. What it needs is an acceptance by both Houses of their role and a proper mechanism to resolve disputes between the two Houses. This is, after all, the position in the United States, where both the chambers are now elected, where both know the extent and boundaries of their power, and where there is a system in which disputes between the two Houses can be resolved. For the life of me I do not see anything in principle here that the House of Commons should be running scared of.

What may be required in this country is something analogous to the concordat that was reached last year between the judiciary and the Executive. This was the first one that properly regulated relations between those two arms of government. Something similar could surely be accepted between the two Houses of Parliament and, if necessary, enshrined in legislation. Of course, the Commons are the superior House and should remain so. No one is suggesting that the powers of this House should be amended so as to make them equal to those of the House of Commons. But this is not a debate about the powers of the House of Lords; it is primarily a debate about its composition. We took a dramatic step some years ago in removing the automatic right of hereditary Peers to sit in the legislature. I hope that we shall now move to a situation in which nominated Peers will play a lesser role in the affairs of government and elected Peers will play a greater role.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page