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House of Lords

Friday, 30 November 2007.

The House met at ten o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.


Lord Grocott: My Lords, for obvious reasons I need to say something about timing. This is our first 10 o’clock start and it is the first 3 pm target rising time on a Friday. This is now written into our orders. There are 47 speakers, which means a maximum of five minutes for each Back-Bench contribution. I usually offer these timings in a diffident way, as is normal here, but the suggestion is rather more robust today because if we do not finish by 3 pm it will be bad on the first test of the new system.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, just for clarification, is the five minutes a guideline and not a limit?

Lord Grocott: My Lords, all I can offer the House is a guideline, but if we had a vote on it I think that it would be a limit.

House of Lords Bill [HL]

10.07 am

Lord Grocott: 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 interests 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.

Before I speak to the Bill, perhaps I may refer to the fact that today, sadly, is the memorial service of my late friend Lord Garden. Tim Garden’s untimely death has robbed these Benches, in particular, of great expertise in defence. I hope that the House will understand that these Benches will tend to be rather empty today for that good reason.

I do not want to repeat the speech that I made in July when we had broadly the same Bill before us. If I were to do that, I would be guilty of the parliamentary offence of tedious repetition before I got into my second sentence. I want instead to explain very briefly the four purposes set out in the Bill and to draw the attention of the House to the changes that have been made since we debated the Bill in July. These changes have been made entirely in response to the speeches in that debate.

I repeat that this is not a personal Bill of mine. It has become known as the Steel Bill but it is one of the curiosities of parliamentary procedure that, whereas in the Commons a Private Member’s Bill would be

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festooned on the back with the names of Members of all parties, in this Chamber there is only one name. But this Bill is the result of the work of a group of more than 200 Members, of all parties and of none and of both Houses. I pay particular tribute again to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who was responsible not only for drafting the original Bill but also for dealing with the amendments in response to July’s debate.

Part 1 of the Bill seeks to establish a statutory Appointments Commission that would be responsible for all appointments to your Lordships’ House. The Bill makes perfectly clear the different routes by which names may come to the statutory commission. I believe that the measure is necessary. In this past year, we have had all the irritation of the cash-for-peerages question, but the statutory commission will have responsibility for maintaining a proper size of the House and proper proportions between the parties. In fact, all the political parties are agreed that the statutory commission is long overdue. I remind the House that the present non-statutory commission was first appointed in 2000. Its remit has twice been extended, through to June next year. Something has to be done and I suggest that Part 1 of the Bill provides the solution.

Let me draw to the attention of the House two changes in this part. First, the original Bill suggested that the appointment of the commission should be made by Mr Speaker. Again in response to the debate, the Bill now reads that the appointment will be made jointly by Mr Speaker and the Lord Speaker. Secondly, we have changed the definition of independent Peers to meet the request of the Cross-Benchers.

Part 2 of the Bill brings to an end the hereditary by-elections. As I mentioned in July, in one election we had the spectacle of the Clerk of the House informing us and the nation that a new Member had been admitted to the British Parliament by two votes to one. This is not a sensible way to continue. Indeed, it was never intended that the hereditary by-election system would be long-lasting. The Library has produced a helpful research document, which shows that in October 1999 the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, when he was Lord Chancellor and dealing with this matter, invited the House to make a bold hypothetical assumption. He said:

That was eight years ago and there is no prospect of any change to the transitional House for some time to come.

I pay tribute to the hereditary Peers; they at least are here because they were chosen on merit by their fellows and they continue to play a crucial part in our proceedings. If we were to pass the Bill, however, it would bring to an end the principle of entry into this House on the basis of heredity, thereby satisfying not only the Labour manifesto but indeed one half of the famous Asquith promise way back in 1910.

Part 3 of the Bill provides for a system of permanent leave of absence—in other words, retiral—from the House in order to reduce our numbers and

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to reduce the average age, which is now approaching 70. I am informed that actuaries who have been working on this matter have discovered that Members of this House live longer than the average of the population. They explain that this is because we come to a nice warm place, we are well fed and we have intellectual stimulus. That is all very well, but we are not supposed to exist as a therapeutic community; we are supposed to be an effective revising legislative chamber. It is only right that we should make provision for Members to retire full-time.

The late Dennis Carter, when he was the government Chief Whip and afterwards, was working on a proposal to provide not necessarily a golden handshake but at least a silver or bronze one to Members to enable them to leave. The hint is there in the Bill that we hope that the Government will come forward with some such scheme. My noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie, when we were discussing this in one of our internal party meetings, strongly supported this measure. He is in his late 80s and he said that it was preferable to his agricultural solution of having us shot.

Perhaps the most significant new provision in this version of the Bill is Clause 12. During the debate on the previous version in July, many Members said that, if we were going to try to get the numbers down in the House by having permanent leave of absence, that should also apply to those who never attend. Clause 12 therefore says that those who do not attend for a full Session should be deemed to have applied for permanent leave of absence and should have it granted to them compulsorily. Subsection (2), to which I draw your Lordships’ attention, would exempt those who have good reason for not attending. I know that the post no longer exists, but if a Member of your Lordships’ House had been Governor of Hong Kong, that would be an obvious example where a Member would be enabled to stay away from here with the impunity that Clause 12 would provide.

During the debate in July, there was some criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, the current chairman of the Appointments Commission, because he does not attend your Lordships’ House. I said that I was to have dinner with him in Edinburgh over the summer at his invitation and that I suspected that he had issued the invitation not in his capacity as chairman of the commission but because I was a customer of his bank. That indeed turned out to be the case. He was very concerned about three overdrafts: Mexico’s, Guatemala’s and mine. I drew his attention to the remarks that had been made in the debate and he asked me to make it clear to the House that he stays away as a matter of principle. When he was headhunted to take on the job, it was not intended that the chairman of the present Appointments Commission should be a Member of your Lordships’ House. He therefore thinks it entirely inappropriate that, holding that capacity, he should be here.

The noble Lord would be covered by Clause 12(2). So, too, would the Law Lords. This is an important matter, because at present when the Law Lords attend here in the mornings on their judicial business they do so as Members of the House. When in future years

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they move across the square to the other building, they will not be recording attendance here. It is important that they should have blanket exemption under Clause 12(2).

Part 4 is perhaps the smallest and least important part. It is simply to bring your Lordships’ House into line with the House of Commons so that anyone sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment should no longer sit as a legislator in the UK Parliament. That was a proposal in the last government White Paper. We have made a change: we have removed the retrospective element that was in the original Bill.

Those are the four proposals that the Bill contains. They provide for effective and immediate reform and updating of your Lordships’ House. In the debate in July, among the Back-Bench speeches we had the support of 46 out of the 49 speakers. Indeed, one of the three whom I thought was against spoke to me afterwards and said that he was only half against, so it was really 461/2 against two and a half.

The only people whom I do not include in that are the three Front-Bench speakers. How can I put this politely? They treated the Bill with quiet disdain. They reminded me very much of a speech made in the other place by the great Manny Shinwell when we were having an intense debate on Europe. He was king of the Eurosceptics before that word was ever invented. He was making a passionate speech from the very back of the Labour Benches when he said, “I’m not against Europe”. He paused long enough for incredulity to spread throughout the Chamber and then said, “I just don’t want to have anything to do with it”. That is rather the attitude that we had from the three Front Benches at the end of the debate in July.

There has been a change since then. We now know for certain that the future proposals for an elected or partly elected House cannot come about until after the next election, which will not be until at least 2010. We are looking at fundamental changes to this place perhaps by 2012, or perhaps by 2014—we do not really know. There is plenty of time for a debate in future about an elected or an appointed House, but that is not a debate for today; the Bill is not about that argument.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who is dealing with the Bill in this House, was kind enough to invite me to a private meeting in his office last week, when we had an amicable discussion on the Bill together with Jack Straw. I was struck by two things that Jack Straw said. I am not revealing any private confidences, because he said them publicly. First, he said that we will have a White Paper next year. That took me back to something that my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank said in the July debate. He said:

We are being promised William Again next year.

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The second thing that struck was Jack Straw’s emphasis on the support that he has from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and my own leader, the noble Lord, Lord McNally. The three of them are a little like a pop group: they are rehearsing away behind closed doors and we hear occasional noises, but the trouble is that none of us is rushing to buy tickets for the concert because none of us has the faintest idea when it will take place. In fact, because it will be after the next election, the group does not even know who its manager will be. They are a bit like the England football team. Jack is hoping to be the lead singer of the group and the other two are hoping that he will not be. It is an impossible situation. I have an affectionate name for the group: Jack and the TomToms.

To be quite serious, I do not believe that the issues that we are placing before the House in this Bill can wait that long. Perhaps I may paraphrase what the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said in our previous debate. There are those in this House who regard the measures in this Bill as necessary and entirely sufficient and there are others who regard the proposals as necessary but wholly insufficient. The point on which we should all agree is that they are necessary. Let us get on with it. I submit the Bill to the House.

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

10.22 am

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, on behalf of the other members of the Bill team, the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, on his exemplary leadership on the Bill.

Perhaps I may reinforce one point and urge my noble friend the Minister not to repeat on this occasion the mantra that he used in July, that our Bill is not fully “comprehensive”. Surely that begs every question in sight. What does “comprehensive” mean in practice? Translated, it means putting all your eggs in the basket of one Big Bang in the next Parliament—not very wise, I would have thought. In any case, I have no doubt that if the choice were put to both Houses, a majority in each—I challenge the Government to test this—would prefer “incrementalism”; in other words, “Take steps A and B now, without prejudice to future measures”.

In advocating this approach, I am speaking for the consensus of the Labour Peers group. The approach was set out in a letter to the Prime Minister a year ago and adopted by general consensus after a well attended meeting with him. It is not of course inconsistent with people disagreeing about future measures.

People may say that something has changed now that we have a new Prime Minister. Well, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, pointed out, one thing that has changed is Gordon Brown stating that the “appointment-versus-election” question will have to wait until after the general election. Another thing that has changed is that it is now as plain as a pikestaff that the so-called “consensus between the leaders of the parties” on anything like a Big Bang approach is a mirage. The leader of the Opposition has apparently said that he

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might get round to it in his third or fourth term. We could have a sweepstake on how many of us will be alive by then. Are there any other straws in the wind, to coin a phrase? Perhaps we should not read too much into it, but we are told that Ministers are now adopting “the normal stance of neutrality towards a Private Member’s Bill”.

If I were the Prime Minister, I would now say to myself, “Here I have a window of opportunity to transform the appointments system by making it totally transparent and removing all patronage. Secondly, I would finally be ending the hereditary principle after 1,000 years, and, incidentally, exactly 50 years after the first life Peers were appointed—an experiment which has worked rather well. These are measures which will go down in the history books, and we would take the credit for introducing them on my watch. What I may not say—even to myself—is that if we do not make these changes in this Parliament, we will, despite all the hoo-hah about reform of the House of Lords, have achieved absolutely nothing, and of course no one knows about the balance of forces in the next Parliament. So let’s go for it. In any case, it is not as dangerous as the Big Bang”.

Certainly, we do not need to wait for another White Paper, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said, for the points in the Bill to move forward with all due speed, because the analysis of these matters in the earlier White Paper in February this year still stands. However, it is for us and the political parties now to put some further flesh on the bones and for the Ministry of Justice to get involved with us rather than remain exclusively engaged in giving birth to its own baby some time later next year.

In the short time still available to me, I shall draw attention to some of the issues behind Clause 9, on the relationship between the statutory Appointments Commission and the political parties so far as whipped Members are concerned. The political parties’ constitutional bodies will need to balance the first stage of the trawl, where there will be a degree of transparency about how people are put on preliminary lists, with the second stage, when small, separate party panels, drawn from different hinterlands, do the selection, on the basis that we still wind up with 200 Labour Members and 200 Conservative Members, or an equivalent number in a smaller House. The Liberal Democrats will have to propose their own number over a run of years. I think that this will lead to a code of practice, agreed between the SAC and the political parties, on the modus operandi in relation to appointments. Voluntary changes would then be made to the party rule books. The code should also define a firewall—to use the latest vernacular—between nomination of candidates and any donations to the relevant party.

This exercise will also demonstrate that, although it will be for the SAC to look into any questions of probity, it cannot be for that small group of men and women to choose Members of our legislature by selecting from longer party lists. From my knowledge of the Labour Party, I think that that would be an impossible situation and that the same would be true for the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.

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We ask the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor not to look this gift horse in the mouth. I repeat for Jack Straw’s benefit that this is a gift horse and not a Trojan horse. I believe that our approach can and will, after further reflection, be taken up by this reforming Prime Minister and reforming Lord Chancellor when the Bill goes to the Commons and seeks sponsors early in the New Year.

10.27 am

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, the striking feature about the work of the so-called “cross-party” group has from the outset been a search for consensus. “Consensus” is defined in any dictionary as “general agreement” or “comprehensive agreement”. Against that background, we have heard many times from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that the search is not just for consensus between the two parties, but also for consensus, as it must be, between the two Houses. When I say that, I do not mean to cast any doubt on the principle of the primacy of the House of Commons. However, that was not the principle that we applied in 1999. A compromise was arrived at and consensus was reached in 1999. It surely must be right to seek consensus taking account of the views of this House. The views of this House must be being expressed—one wonders, by whom—in the discussions taking place in the cross-party group.

The only matter that is obstructing the progress of this Bill along the lines supported by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to whom I pay tribute, and the noble Lord, Lord Lea, is the argument about elected Members or not. I suggest that that need not inhibit the Bill’s progress. As to why this is still on the agenda, I must ask three questions. Is there any fault to be corrected by the arrival of elected Members? Is there any improvement to be achieved by the arrival of elected Members? One scours in vain all the documents about this topic that have been published for any evidence to support the answer “yes” to either of those questions. The third question is: what is the reason for any such change? Again, one asks that almost in vain, but one gets an answer; that is, that it is necessary to make this change to deal with the problem of legitimacy. That argument has disappeared since 1999. The reason for the sense of our illegitimacy was the fact that the House had a built-in Tory majority of an overwhelming size. That is why we hesitated ever to use our powers. There is therefore no reason to respond to that.

There remains the question: why then should we now be contemplating election as an added component? The curious answer is given by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee under the chairmanship of Mr Tony Wright, which said that any change that was made should take account of the,

because of the,

of the elected House.

The committee reached two conclusions: first, the need,

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