Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1422

Secondly, the committee’s fifth report says that the second Chamber must be,

and, therefore,

It is hard to see why at any stage in the future—although we are not at that point yet—a replica of another elected House, wholly, partially or at all, can be the answer to that problem. The truth is—and this is the important thing—that perhaps we have not recognised the extent to which the House has been transformed so that there is no need to go beyond the very clearly defined ground set out in the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. The reason for saying that was quoted to the House by none less than the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, when he spoke in the previous debate on this matter on 19 July. He said that,

That is the present position. The reason given for blocking this Bill—because a process is still taking place in search of some other consensus—is unfounded.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, closed by drawing our attention to what is necessary and added to that by quoting a sentence often quoted by my right honourable friend David Cameron:

No evidence is before the House or anywhere else to suggest that this House is other than good. If one asks the question, “What do we need to change?”, the answer is that embraced by the consensus supporting the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. It is necessary change that will remain necessary as long as the other argument lingers on. I should like to think that those representing any party in this House in deliberations as a cross-party group will represent those arguments in search of a genuine consensus that can be achieved while most of us are still alive.

10.32 am

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and all those who have so carefully nurtured this Bill over the past year or so—in particular the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for his willingness to incorporate amendments suggested by independent Cross-Bench Peers. There were some doubts, now resolved, and I think that it is fair to say that there is a significant measure of agreement on the Bill, and not in this House alone.

I am here indebted to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, for analysing the previous debate on the Bill in July. Of the noble Lords who spoke, 89 per cent were in favour of the Bill including Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats and, while one speech was definitely against the Bill, the remaining four were sufficiently unclear as to remain unallocated.

Reform of the House of Lords has been going on more or less for ever, and significant changes have occurred, including the 1958 Act and, most recently,

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1423

the 1999 reforms, of which I have spoken in previous debates. But it is worth emphasising that apparently small changes have had a major impact on the effectiveness of the House in its tasks of revising and scrutinising legislation. It would therefore seem logical to assume that the relatively minor reforms set out in the Bill would have a similarly significant effect.

Better provision for the retirement of Peers, entrenching the good work of the independent Appointments Commission by making it a statutory body and updating arrangements for dealing with those Members convicted of serious criminal offences seem to me to be sound and far from revolutionary changes. So, too, are the measures that maintain the benefit of the hereditary Peers’ experience while ending the application of the hereditary principle. If adopted, these reforms would reassure the public and at the same time neither preclude the opportunities for further reform nor introduce radical measures all of a heap.

It is widely acknowledged that the post-1999 House of Lords has been more assertive than previously, which has been good for parliamentary democracy. The independent Cross-Bench Peers have contributed to this; the so-called Stevenson’s Peers now constitute about 20 per cent of the independents, and the attendance and voting record of the 42 who have been appointed since 2000 is approaching 60 per cent. Moreover, many of the younger independents have full-time responsibilities outside this House and, therefore, come in only to contribute to specialised debates. Crucially, they play a significant role in committee work. In fact, their contributions are often disproportionately representative and their commitment to a career should be viewed as an advantage.

The appointments system works, demonstrably; it seeks to fill gaps in prevailing expertise and to nominate those who perhaps represent the wider community in terms of gender, ethnicity and geography. Much of the legislation in this House is not principally political but to do with difficult issues requiring the exercise of moral and ethical judgments. These are not party-political matters in their content but can become so if Members are required to vote according to party politics. It is in this context that the independent Cross-Bench Peers are valuable, even necessary, in that they vote according to conscience and could thus be considered as the ethical grouping. Those debates initiated by the independents can explore issues which parties may not wish to do or feel should be left alone, and which, although not touching directly on legislation, can promote and influence public discussion. Rarely have the independents in recent years crossed the boundaries of convention and initiated Divisions at Second Readings of Bills—on one occasion on the Constitutional Reform Bill. This too arises from conscience, rather than any political motives.

Finally, the capacity of this House to fulfil a scrutinising role which is genuinely independent and which manifestly has a political distance or neutrality is a vital element in its democratic credibility. It is for these reasons that I shall hold resolutely to the 20 per cent independent appointees as set out in the Bill.

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1424

10.36 am

Lord Tyler: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Steel has already referred to the unfortunate coincidence that it is today that we are having the memorial service for our late and much lamented colleague, Tim Garden. I regret that I shall miss some of the speeches in the middle of this debate for that reason.

On these Benches, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the obvious weaknesses and anomalies of the current composition of your Lordships' House. However, I do not consider that this Bill is a realistic basis for a sustainable reform. Indeed, my noble friend has made it abundantly clear that he does not regard it as anything more than a temporary expedient. On 14 March he did not vote against the substantial majority of Liberal Democrat Peers who supported a fully elected reformed second Chamber.

Ministers have repeatedly promised us a White Paper in the new year, which will, we hope, give a consistent and comprehensive message about what is to happen next. It will also take advantage of the fact that MPs have voted so conclusively for democratic legitimacy for the second Chamber, as well as of the commitment of all three parties in their election manifestos to the people of this country for such a reform. We believe that the White Paper should be followed immediately by a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses. That is particularly important because it would avoid the pitfalls of misunderstanding between the two Houses. That was the promise given by the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, many months ago.

There may be deeper concerns about sections of my noble friend’s Bill. For example, under Clause 8(2) on the Appointments Commission, it may be difficult to fulfil the requirements laid on the commission. Suppose—heaven forbid—that a large number of Conservative hereditary Peers are struck down by food poisoning at Royal Ascot, or some other calamity occurs. In the absence of by-elections, would the Appointments Commission then have to redress the balance of parties in this House? What would happen if the membership of the House of Commons changed dramatically at a general election? What would happen if a Cross-Bench Peer went to join a political party? All those are difficulties if the legislation is to be maintained for any length of time; it could be sustainable only for a very few months. My noble friend Lord Steel emphasised that in referring to this as a “transitional House” on a number of previous occasions.

Similarly, on the exclusion of hereditary Peers through by-elections, the original discussions never mentioned the by-elections; they were an afterthought, as my noble friend has already said. In the excellent Library note, it is made clear that the Weatherill amendment never anticipated that there would be a renewal process. There was never going to be a continuation in the long-term of the hereditary element; it was literally going to die out. Of course, the by-elections have been the subject of some ridicule, the most notorious being the one on 30 October 2003 when there were 11 Labour candidates and only three eligible electors. Imagine what would happen if all the eligible electors

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1425

suffered some sudden demise. There would be no electors, although no doubt there would be plenty of candidates.

This is only a very temporary expedient and so my noble friend Lord Steel is right to seek to end this anomaly. In his speech at Second Reading on 20 July, to which reference has been made, he pointed out that this was to try to fulfil Mr Asquith's pledge of 1910. The best way to do that is to move swiftly on to consideration of stage 2 of reform, which is what the Government promised and what all Members have looked forward to, just as my noble friend and everyone else have anticipated since 1999.

In summary, we recognise the value of this Bill as a timely reminder of unfinished business. That business is now urgent and this Bill should not be used by those who are in essence refuseniks to any reform to let the Government off the hook. Is this Bill a stepping stone to a long-promised stage 2 of comprehensive reform or is it merely an island from which further progress cannot be made? My noble friend Lord Steel clearly believes that it should be only the former. Therefore, he and his fellow promoters of the Bill should make that explicit in Committee by including a sunset clause to time-limit the provisions of the Bill to the first Thursday in May 2009. Incidentally, my noble friend referred to 2010 as the first likely date for an election. I hope that is not the case because it would suggest that the Prime Minister has other things in mind.

If there were such a sunset clause, it would be possible to ensure that this is indeed a transitory and temporary expedient. It would also ensure that the Government would know that they had to get on with implementing the firm decision of the other place, whose decisions all Members of this House believe should retain primacy in our Parliament.

10.41 am

Lord Richard: My Lords, I have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for some 40-odd years in different assemblies and I have usually done it with admiration and a great deal of respect. Were it not for that fact, I could perhaps be forgiven for feeling, gently around the edges and tentatively, that this Bill was a piece of constitutional mischief-making of the highest and most elegant order. One could go further, but perish the thought: that the whole object of the exercise is to entrench in advance the concept of a heavily nominated House into legislation before the Government have had the opportunity of producing their White Paper.

I am fortified in that suggestion by the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon. We know his position: he is against any form of election to this House. It is not a question of seeing this Bill as a step. As far as he is concerned—and as far as many of the people who support this Bill are concerned, including my noble friend Lord Lea sitting in front of me now, who made the same point—this is the end. It is the end because you have an Appointments Commission that is set up to do one thing—to produce an appointed House.

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1426

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, does my noble friend not recall that I used the word “incrementalism”?

Lord Richard: My Lords, I know that the noble Lord used the word “incrementalism”, but that does not destroy the point that I was making. The fact is that this Bill is grossly premature. It is inevitably and unpleasantly pre-emptive. The White Paper is forthcoming, as we know. The arguments on composition should take place in that White Paper and not in a Back-Bench Bill introduced into this House.

I have three points to make against the Bill: the first is that of pre-emption, which I will not labour any further; the second relates to the principles on which the Appointments Commission is supposed to operate; and the third is about the overall context and timing of the Bill. The creation of an Appointments Commission to recommend all new Members—and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, emphasised that it would do so—is frankly and obviously inconsistent with the views of the House of Commons. Indeed, it is inconsistent with the Government's policy in favour of a wholly or largely elected second Chamber. It is also inconsistent with the policy of the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats.

We have heard the argument that the commission will be created to recommend only life peerages and that that would not preclude the introduction of another basis of membership; namely, election. I do not accept that: it is not the case. The broad political impact of moving at this stage to a more permanently appointed House would cut across the direction toward an elected second Chamber.

More particularly, the detailed provisions of the Bill are based on the assumption of a 100 per cent appointed House. Moreover, several provisions are directly inconsistent with an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected model. Clause 8 goes some way to setting out rules for the party balance between the Government and the Official Opposition in an appointed House. Clause 8(2)(b) expresses the principle that,

Clause 8 (2)(c) states that,

a majority over the Official Opposition but that this,

Whatever the merits of the latter proposal, it is plainly inconsistent with a Chamber that is wholly or substantially elected; where the majority of one party over another inevitably cannot be predetermined.

I find Clause 8(4) an extraordinary proposition. It would give the Appointments Commission discretion to phase in the majority for the Government over the Opposition over a period of up to eight years. If there is to be a change in the relationship between the Government and the Opposition, this House should not take eight years in order to produce it.

Finally, this is a point that I really want to emphasise: the Bill grossly underestimates the votes and the implications of the votes in the House of Commons on 20 July this year. The Commons, by a large majority, committed itself to a wholly or mainly elected House.

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1427

If this Bill were passed, it would put the House of Lords on a direct collision course with the House of Commons. I cannot believe that that is what most noble Lords would wish.

One of the main arguments used over the years against elections is that it would confront the House of Commons and that there is a danger of encroachment by the Lords on the powers of competence of the other place. If anything were in that argument, I would have expected that the Commons would have been anxious to guard the competence and the powers of the House of Commons against the possibility of encroachment by the House of Lords. Not a bit of it. What do we have? We have the House of Commons saying—

A noble Lord: Time!

Lord Richard: My Lords, I will be brief and I will get on quicker if my noble friend Lord Lea is quiet and stops waving his arms about.

We now have an extraordinary position: the House of Commons has accepted the possibility of encroachment by this House on the powers of competence of the other House. Are we really going to say to the House of Commons that we know better than it how to protect its powers and its competence? That is nonsense. What it amounts to in those circumstances is patronising by us and also rather self-important. I have believed in elections for the Lords for a long time and I do not resile from that one bit.

10.48 am

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Richard, because I had feared that I might be the first person to indicate disapprobation of the Bill and I am delighted that he did so. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, and my noble and learned friend Lord Howe, referred to the cross-party group. That was set up in order to see whether there was a broad measure of support in the event of the Government producing legislation that was unpopular. It was never set up in order to promote legislation. The Government did not introduce a Bill and I was therefore surprised when this Bill was produced. Like the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I do not think that this is a suitable subject for a Private Member's Bill. If there were to be a Bill for reforming your Lordships' House, it ought to be a government Bill.

I am apprehensive about the proposed Appointments Commission. Its nine members will determine the future size and content of your Lordships' House for ever. They are then to be hide-bound by regulations and criteria about the diversity of the population, the percentage of party members and so forth, all intended to provide some mathematically perfect result. It will not, and we should avoid the temptation of trying to prearrange these things. At least under the present system we know that the Prime Minister is responsible for new Peers. In future, it will be some sort of headless amoeba.

I do not like Clause 15. The whole principle of the British judicial system is that if you are sent to prison, you serve your sentence and then you are returned to society a free man. Murderers and rapists are always

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1428

being let out. Under this system, anyone who has been sent to prison for a year will be removed from your Lordships' House. That seems to me like being punished twice and I do not think it is right. Apart from anything else, your Lordships are always concerned about prisons and prisoners, and it is quite useful to have one or two people who have been at the “coal face”.

Nor do I like Clause 10, which is a modest little insert, your Lordships may think, of some eight lines. The Government gave an undertaking that the hereditary Peers would not be removed until stage 2 of the reform was put into place. Stage 2 has not been put into place. Those in favour of the Bill will say that this is not the wholesale abolition of hereditary Peers. Of course it is not; it is merely quiet, gentle strangulation, getting rid of them one by one until they no longer exist.

Of course, I declare an interest as an hereditary Peer. It is a pretty modest thing to be nowadays. It is about the lowest form of political life there is, but I think—and always have thought—that the complete removal of hereditary Peers from your Lordships' House will have long-term and regrettable consequences. The life Peers have all been appointed by someone for some purpose. The whole essence of hereditary Peers is that they are here by chance. They are not here because they have friends in high places. They are not here because they have given or lent funds. They have not had to struggle to come to the attention of the powers that be. It is a way of getting young people into the House. I happened to come in when I was 25—just the other day. Your Lordships may think that that in itself is reason enough to get rid of hereditary Peers but the result is a mixture of talents. And, as has so often been said, it is presumably no worse to be appointed by the Almighty than by Mr Blair, or now by a headless commission.

I am not suggesting that hereditary Peers are the best thing since sliced bread, but they make a valuable addition to the House. My concern is that when they go—if they go—the pressure for the House to be wholly elected will be unstoppable and the pressure to change the name of the House will be unstoppable too.

This country, and the way in which it works, is founded on a long historical constitution. As the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, said, it goes back 1,000 years. But like a cat with a ball of string, we try to unravel it at our peril because we do not know where the ball will roll, in which direction or for how long.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, is no novice in this political jungle. He knows perfectly well that if this Bill goes to another place, it will be amended left, right and centre and nobody knows what on earth will turn up at the end. It is thoroughly dangerous and I hope that it will not get very far.

10.53 am

Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, I welcome this revised Bill so ably moved by its sponsor, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and I hope that the Government will grasp the opportunity that it offers. It addresses

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1429

the general wish for greater accountability that should be acceptable to all parties in this House and it can be enacted in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page