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House of Lords

Friday, 20 July 2007.

The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.


Lord Grocott: My Lords, before the debate is called, I have a more than usually helpful recommendation about speaking times, if we are to finish before Saturday. The statistics are that the target rising time is 4 o’clock; we will finish by 4 o’clock if each Back-Bench contribution is restricted to four minutes. There is no timetable and no punitive action will be taken. This will be self-regulation at its best. I remind everyone that when four minutes shows on the screen, that is the time to close. By that time, noble Lords will be speaking in their fifth minute and, with 55 speakers, if everyone speaks over by a minute, we will over-run by an hour.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I endorse what the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms has said. He says that there are no sanctions, but for my colleagues I would like to make it clear that as long as I am Chief Whip no one will get anywhere if they go over four minutes.

House of Lords Bill [HL]

11.07 am

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the House of Lords Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I am cheered to see so many Members here on a Friday. At the beginning, I make it clear that this is not a Liberal Democrat Bill, as no doubt my noble friend Lord McNally will point out later. We on these Benches remain committed to a fully elected House. Nor is the Bill strictly speaking mine, even though it has been called the Steel Bill. It is the result of a lot of work by an all-party group that has been greatly concerned that the years of debate about long-term reform are obscuring the need for what we call effective, immediate reform of your Lordships’ House.

I pay tribute to that group, chaired by Sir Patrick Cormack, a Member in the other place. It included the Father of the House, Alan Williams from the Labour Benches, and many of your Lordships attended. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth—Professor Norton—who was

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mainly responsible for drafting the Bill and the Explanatory Notes. He has done that in such a lucid way that I do not propose to weary the House with an introductory speech spelling out all the details in the Bill, as it is quite easy to follow simply by reading it. Members may ask why I am doing this. The answer is breathtakingly simple. I missed the meeting at which it was decided who would propose the Bill.

Yesterday, we had a Statement from the new Lord Chancellor on the long-term vision of reform of this place. In referring to this Bill, he said that it did not contain the comprehensive reform that he was seeking. That, of course, is true, but if we are to achieve that comprehensive reform, we need a series of steps. First, we need agreement on all the party manifestos, which as we saw from the exchanges yesterday is not all that straightforward; we need new conventions between the two Houses—the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, unanimously and emphatically made it clear that an elected House would require different conventions; we need agreement on an election system, because the party list system did not find much favour in either House when it was last debated; and we need legislation on the Floor of both Houses, which will take time, including for the financial arrangements of an elected House. Those of us who were present during the 1968 and 1969 debates on reform know how complicated that can be.

Then there is the holding of elections. Yesterday, the Minister agreed with me that we are looking at 2014, if we are optimistic. There was a delightful moment in the other place yesterday when Jack Straw chided the Leader of the Opposition for saying that, if he came to government, this would be a third-term issue. As was pointed out, that was a bit rich coming from a Government who were clearly making it a fourth-term issue. That was a neat point to score.

This Bill offers the prospect of limited but early reform. I shall deal with the four parts of the Bill. Part 1 is very topical and brings to an end the controversy over cash for peerages. Let us be quite frank: despite the decision that we all heard this morning, the damage that has been done, particularly to this House but to the political world in general, by the cash-for-peerages allegations has been substantial. There is a strange symmetry about this in party-political terms. The Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats can point the finger at the Blair Government and say, “Ah, no smoke without fire”; the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats can point to the Conservative Party and say, “What about your tax exiles?”, one of whom was recently appointed as a working Peer and then applied for leave of absence so that he could stay in his tax haven; and the Conservative and Labour parties can, in turn, say to this quarter of the House, “What about Mr Lloyd George?”—the song is, “Lloyd George Knew My Father”, and he probably sold him his peerage as well.

All parties have been tainted by this matter. It is not modern. One can go back to the days of James VI and I, who was well known to dispose of peerages to people who in the school books of history were euphemistically called his favourites. The fact is that

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appointment to this place in return for favours of different kinds has long been a blot on the landscape. The Bill does away with that by saying that in future there will be a single-entry system into the House as a result of the appointment of a statutory appointments commission. Even those Peers who come here by virtue of the Prime Minister’s continuing right to appoint Members to be Ministers should be subject, even if only briefly and automatically, to the scrutiny of that commission. The commission would be appointed by Mr Speaker, who according to the Bill would have to consult the Lord Speaker and others, obviously including the party leaders. The appointment of a statutory commission has been promised and awaited for some time, so I hope that this proposal will commend itself to the Government.

The second part of the Bill brings to an end hereditary by-elections. Much has been made of the statement made in 1999 by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, that hereditary Peers would remain until stage 2 reform took place. He said that stage 2 reform “will” take place, but he was talking in 1999 and I do not think that he was contemplating 2014. I do not think that any of us thought in 1999 that we would be having an endless series of hereditary by-elections. The Bill does not propose that the hereditary Peers be dismissed from the House; it simply proposes that no new ones should come in. Therefore, it brings the principle of entry to this House by heredity to an end, which was foreshadowed in the Labour Party manifesto and was part of Mr Asquith’s pledge back in 1910.

It is necessary to do this because, although the by-elections that we have had may pass muster in the Conservative Party and, indeed, on the Cross Benches, on these Benches the process was ridiculous: we had six candidates for a by-election and four voters. Before the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the rotten borough of Old Sarum had at least 11 voters. In the Labour Party, there were 11 candidates and only three voters, and we had the spectacle of the Clerk of the Parliaments declaring to the world that a new Member had been elected to the British Parliament by two votes to one. That should not be allowed to continue and my Bill brings it to an end.

Part 3 enables Members to retire from the House. That is a very modest proposal, but an important one. When I was a student of constitutional law at Edinburgh University, the late Professor JDB Mitchell banged into our heads—and it became an examination question—that the House of Lords is the only manmade institution that is kept efficient by the persistent absenteeism of the majority of its Members. That is not quite as true today as it was then, but it is still partly true. This House has some 750 Members, and our average age is over 68. That means that the great majority of us, including me, are bus pass holders. We do not exactly represent the broad sweep of the nation. The ability to get the numbers in this place down to below the numbers in the House of Commons is an important part of the Bill. It can be no function of a Private Member’s Bill or of this House to make financial provisions, but the hint is there that the Government should come

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forward with some scheme—it cannot be a pension because we are not paid, but perhaps a gratuity or an annuity—to encourage Members over a certain age to retire if they so wish. The House might decide in those circumstances that such Members should keep the social rights that we have allowed the hereditary Peers who disappeared.

There is one other important consequence of this part of my Bill that I draw to the attention of the House: the European Parliament has decided that, as from the next election, it will not permit any Member of a national Parliament to sit in the European Parliament. This House has benefited from having Members who have been in the European Parliament or who currently serve there. They will be debarred from serving in the European Parliament for another term unless we pass the Bill, because temporary leave of absence does not remove membership of this House. That has already been determined by the European Parliament. It is therefore important that we include this provision in the Bill. There is nothing to prevent a Member who has retired from being reappointed at some time in future. This provision would bring down our numbers and the average age.

Part 4 is the least important part of the Bill, but I introduce it as a matter of principle. In the Commons, if a Member is guilty of a serious offence involving a year’s detention in jail, he is expelled from Parliament. The principle is that lawbreakers should not be lawmakers. I believe that that principle ought to apply in this House and that it is an anomaly that it does not. I know that this is topical, as one of our number is awaiting sentence, but I do not want the debate to be ad hominem; I want it to be a matter of principle that applies equally to both Houses. The provision in brackets in this part has a tinge of retrospection about it and I await to hear comments from other noble Lords, especially the Minister, on whether it should remain or be removed.

In conclusion—I want to be brief and encourage brevity throughout the day—let me reiterate the main point of the Bill: its proposals provide an opportunity for consensus on a more limited range of reforms than those that were outlined to us yesterday. It has the potential to unite a majority in all three parties and in both Houses. Most interesting of all, it has the potential to unite those who seek an elected House and those who are happy with an appointed House. Yesterday, in a timely intervention, the Constitution Unit said:

That is the basic case, and our plan is to listen to the voices in this debate and reintroduce the Bill, possibly with amendments in the light of comments today, early in the new Session. It would then be possible for the Government to pick it up in the other place and for legislation to be in effect next year. In his answer to questions yesterday, Mr Straw made it clear that he is in a listening mood. We should take advantage of that. The Bill is not the comprehensive reform that he seeks; it does not pretend to be.

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I am aware that during the past few weeks it has become politically sound to parade one’s credentials as a son of the manse. I happily do so, and end with two lines from a well known hymn:

The distant scene; one step enough for me”.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Steel of Aikwood.)

11.19 am

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has presented an impeccable case for the Bill. I associate myself with his remarks about Sir Patrick Cormack, who is here, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. Since we put forward the idea about a year ago they have had an indispensable role in making such progress with it. I also thank my noble friend the Leader of the House for her courtesy. I will refer later to a letter that she circulated to every Member of the House last night. Finally, I thank my noble friend the Chief Whip for his long-standing advice on procedure and in particular for making provision for this full day’s debate today before the Summer Recess.

I underline just one point made in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Steel: that the two main planks of the Bill meet not only the great consensus of this House but the consensus of the House of Commons as well. They were in the White Paper and I have heard no one oppose the broad principles. So something peculiar is going on in the doctrine enunciated in yesterday's mini-Statement: the doctrine of unripe time, the doctrine that the Bill could be incompatible with the final solution. We should address that point head on.

Yesterday’s Statement refers to the role of the cross-party committee eight times in four pages. That is the group to give us guidance on democracy. The group needs to give us answers to some questions at this stage. I will come to the membership of the group in a moment. It has now lifted the veil on its secret talks for the first time—the first veil. By the way, I have not found any minutes in the Library. I ask my noble friend: is this the beginning of the dance of the seven veils, because the results would be of interest? In particular, may we see the minutes of the discussion that led to the conclusion that the Bill would be a hindrance to what will happen after the election? Was that point raised by the Convenor of the Cross-Benchers? He has a chance to explain that in his speech. Or are such members not really full members but merely “useful members”, in the terminology that many Members of the House will recognise.

What are those involved in opposing the Bill frightened of? For example, why does the statutory Appointments Commission have to wait until after the next general election? It is now very timely to engage the Labour Party and the Conservative Party apparatus in consideration, which would follow the Bill being enacted, of what is required to introduce greater transparency and buy-in by the political parties to these appointments. Or is buy-in by the Labour Party in that way the last thing that Jack

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Straw wants? The same applies to the 92. Is removal of the causus belli of the 92 something that the Government do not want?

Finally, I ask my noble friend the Leader of the House to think again about the membership of the Joint Committee to include Members of this House from the Labour Party and the Conservative Party who are clearly at odds with their field marshal—overwhelmingly so. The other essential request is that the Steel Bill proposals should immediately be made part of the agenda for consideration, so that there will not be just a rubber stamp and an agenda that excludes those questions.

I think that I speak for nearly the whole House in saying that we have always tried to be constructive, but there would otherwise be great resentment in the House.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, it was made absolutely clear at the beginning of the debate that it was the will of the House that all Back-Benchers should stick to four minutes.

11.24 am

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, my mother used to tell me that I spoke too quickly and I may now be about to prove it.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on the powerful and, I believe, compelling case that he has made for the Bill. The Bill delivers on those parts of the Wakeham report and the White Paper that are generally agreed as being desirable. Indeed, there is no part of the Bill that does not relate to proposals embodied in the February White Paper. Support in this House for the proposals is clear from the survey results published yesterday by the constitution unit at University College, London, to which the noble Lord referred. There is overwhelming support for a statutory Appointments Commission and ending the by-election option.

Given that, it is difficult to see how the Government could do other than welcome the provisions of the Bill. What could be the arguments against the Bill? Some may accept the ends, but question the means. I think that that is principally a case for Committee. I want to focus on ends for reasons of time. Looking at ends, there are those who may argue that the Bill goes too far. They may do so on the basis that the House does a fine job as it stands. I believe that the House fulfils its functions extremely well, but to argue that something is good is not to argue that it could not be even better.

People may argue that the Bill goes too far by ending the link with the hereditary peerage. Those coming in through the by-election route do so because they hold a hereditary title, but not because they have inherited a seat in this House. Their birth places them in an exclusive pool of candidates, but they are selected—indeed elected—for reasons that are particular to them. If one closes off the by-election option, that does not prevent hereditary Peers being selected on merit for life peerages. There are as many hereditary peers sitting on the Labour Benches as life Peers as there are sitting

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under the provisions of the House of Lords Act 1999. Holders of hereditary peerages can—and, I have no doubt, will—continue to be nominated on merit. The argument used to justify the existing arrangement is addressed by Part 1.

Of course, some may argue, as does the organisation Unlock Democracy, that the Bill does not go far enough. They want wider change. To argue that is not to argue that the Bill is not necessary. There are those who will regard the Bill as necessary and sufficient. Others will argue that it is necessary but not sufficient. The point of agreement is that it is necessary. Acceptance of the Bill does not foreclose discussion on wider issues of reform.

The Statement yesterday on Lords reform appeared not to grasp the significance of that point. The Statement appeared contradictory. I gleaned two points from it. First, the Government wish to proceed by way of consensus. Secondly, the Government do not propose to act on proposals on which consensus exists. That is not a tenable position. The Statement made clear that there will be no substantive measure on wider issues of reform between now and the next election. In short, the alternative to the Bill is the status quo. If there is to be movement, the Bill is the way forward.

11.28 am

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. Do not blink, or you may miss it. After all, there are 12 Cross-Bench speakers, who will speak in a moderately co-ordinated manner. In the light of all the discussion on the composition of the House, this is obviously a partial Bill. We accept that, but it is none the less very welcome in tackling the related issues, such as the future of the Appointments Commission and the question of permanent leave of absence. In a debate involving almost 60 speakers, I cannot comment on all the points, so I shall comment on two only, but from the perspective of a welcome for many points.

It is vital for the independent members who will be part of the 80 per cent elected, 20 per cent appointed House—if that ever comes about—that the definition of independent, non-party members will be watertight to avoid political creep. I am not sure that the phrase “non-affiliated” or, to use the exact text,

which appears in the Bill, would achieve that. Even the phrase “independent non-party Peers” could well be substituted, but it might need further definition. It is important for us that that is correct.

Secondly, the principal criterion for recommending a peerage would be conspicuous merit. As I look around the Chamber, I am glad to see that it is already true. It could be true again, and there is nothing wrong with that, but we need some reference to a declared willingness to participate in the work of the House. This is very important for us. The nomination should look forward as well as back to past ability and merit. I know that the commission in the Bill can propose additional criteria, but that is not enough. The willingness to participate in the work of the House is fundamental.

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This should be explicit in the Bill, and should not depend on the commission’s possible proposal of additional criteria.

11.30 am

Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, I will also be very brief. The aims of the Bill have already been admirably set out. Yesterday’s Statement by Jack Straw was somewhat dismissive of the Bill, although in fairness to the Minister, his replies to questions were rather less so. The Bill is indeed limited in its ambitions, but the reforms that it proposes are both useful and necessary. My noble friend has already quoted Dr Meg Russell of UCL, and we know that a restoration of public trust in governance is needed. So, too, do the Government, if we are to believe the proposals in the very comprehensive document, The Governance of Britain.

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