Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

As always, I am pleasantly surprised to be here—10 years after a Labour victory and 34 years after I made my maiden speech. That is not a bet I would have taken 10 or even 34 years ago. The Bill lets the Government off the hook and I do not believe that it should be supported.

11.47 am

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, with constitutional reform it is a reliable maxim that the best is the enemy of the good. We can have our grand dreams of reform, but one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. Experience tells us that comprehensive reforms do not work. We do not have a Jacobinical tradition in this country. Lord Holland was asked by the Neapolitan liberals if he would supply them with a new constitution to replace the arrangements under the Bourbon regime. He replied that they might as well ask him to design a tree. Whether you consider that the British constitution develops organically or providentially, the observable fact is that it develops gradually. Largely undefined, our constitution adapts to new circumstances. That is why this Bill is so useful. It seizes the opportunity presented by immediate political pressures and sufficiently wide consensus. It addresses limited but important issues that everyone agrees need early remedy, and it offers sensible solutions.

We cannot respectably carry on with the present Appointments Commission. In their 2001 White Paper the Government accepted the case for a statutory appointments commission. In the 2003 Queen’s Speech they said that they would legislate to create one. The present Appointments Commission was created in 2000, avowedly as a transitional arrangement, not by Parliament but by the Prime Minister. It has now been reappointed, the Library tells me, three times. For all the good work it has done, it lacks authority. Its terms of reference do not permit it to determine the size, balance and proportionality of membership of this House, which remain at the determination of the Prime Minister. The last reappointment—last January—was for just 18 months. We need to legislate in this Session.

The Government are exercised, rightly, about legitimacy of the second Chamber. This Bill is well designed to confer legitimacy upon the procedures for appointment to the second Chamber. The Bill would place a new appointments commission on the basis of statute. Its membership would be proposed by the Speaker of the House of Commons, together with the Lord Speaker, and would be approved by a vote of the elected House. The Commons would also approve the criteria and guidelines for the commission.

The Bill provides the assurance that the public want that all Members newly appointed to the House of Lords would be people fit for the purposes of scrutinising legislation and advising the elected House

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1444

of Commons and the Government. The procedures for party nominations would be transparent. Only people of conspicuous merit who were committed to doing a proper job would be appointed. There are provisions for disqualification and retirement. The size of the House would be contained, while the continuation of a strong element of independent Cross-Bench Peers would be assured. Diversity would be encouraged. It would be assured that experienced politicians would continue to be appointed, which is important for the good functioning of the House.

The Government party would be the largest, but there would be a balance of the political parties. No party would have an absolute majority in the second Chamber. That has effectively become a constitutional principle in recent years, in one of those decisive developments of opinion that characterise the process of constitutional change in our country. Dr Russell has made a strong case that the membership of one Chamber should be on a proportionate basis if the membership of the other, the House of Commons, is on a majoritarian basis, and she notes that proportionality can be achieved by appointment. Among the virtues of this Bill is that it does not foreclose more radical options, such as elections, for the future. Many of us will have our own ideas about further reform. Personally, I do not think membership for life of an appointed House can now be justified. But those debates are for later on.

The Bill deals also, meanwhile, with a second absurdity: the by-elections to this House of hereditary Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, has pointed out that at present we have elections in which there are fewer voters than in the pre-1832 rotten boroughs. Hardly anyone now attempts to make a serious case for the retention of the hereditary principle for entry to the legislature.

The specific measures in this Bill are widely viewed as necessary. If we do nothing until we have genuine consensus on comprehensive reform we shall wait, on the Government’s admission, until the next Parliament, which must mean five to seven years. More likely, we shall wait for ever. David Cameron has said that for a Conservative Government Lords reform would be a third-term issue. That will not do. We should proceed, incrementally, and the time is now ripe for the reforms in this Bill.

11.52 am

Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market: My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord because I agree with everything he said. In advance of this debate, seeing the number of speakers, given that we have already had a Second Reading and having been involved in all the details of the Bill, I wondered whether I should put my name down because I was not sure I had anything fresh to say. My main reason was to indicate in the absence of a vote that I strongly support the Bill.

Having listened to the debate so far, I am bound to say that I profoundly disagree with those who oppose it for whatever reason. I agree with my noble friend Lord Baker that further reforms of the House of Lords certainly will not happen before 2012 and I

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1445

think that it will be a long way beyond that. The differences we have heard in today’s debate about what that further reform should be underline that. I believe that we are long way from getting that further main reform. These are important and much needed reforms for the Lords, and it is right to do them now.

Two of the merits of the Bill are that it helps to promote the distinction that the Government have advanced between the peerage as an honour, like, but beyond, knighthoods, and Peers who will not only be Members of this House but will be working Peers. I believe that Clauses 11 and 12 help to achieve that. I say “help” because they do not achieve it completely, but they go some way to achieving that. Secondly, the Bill goes some way, especially through Clause 12, to reducing the number in the House to make it closer to the number in the Commons, which is the Government’s objective. I have to say that they have not helped their objective because ever since they claimed that that was their purpose the former Prime Minister appointed so many new Members to this House that we have gone further and further away from the number of Members in the House of Commons. I understand that the number of Members of this House in October was 746, which is exactly 100 more than the House of Commons. That is why I believe that Clause 12 is important. I do not know how many Peers Clause 12 will remove. Perhaps the Minister can tell us, based on recent experience of non-attendance how many he thinks it will be. Judging by the numbers attending every day, it could be substantial. I recognise that there is a flaw in that Members who attend only once every three months in order to register that they are still here could escape the purpose of that clause, but we will, no doubt, debate that in Committee. Unless Clause 12 produces significant reductions in numbers, it will either take a very long time through the Appointments Commission to get to the Commons number or there will be very few appointments in the early years. I share the view of my noble friend Lord Baker that we need to look closely at Clause 12 to see whether it can be strengthened.

I now turn to the proposal in relation to hereditary Peers and non re-election. This is widely supported, and is the neatest and fairest way of dealing with this problem. In passing, I note that those affected by permanent leave of absence and conviction for serious criminal offences will under the Bill be entitled to vote for the House of Commons. I am not quite sure why those groups in particular have been chosen to be able to vote for the House of Commons. I would have thought that the right reform is for all Members of this House to be entitled to vote for the House of Commons, and I now see no logic in our not being able to do so.

I wonder whether Clause 4 means that the Appointments Commission could ignore altogether the recommendations made under paragraphs (b) and (c). I hope that is not the case because it would be regrettable if that happened. However, this is also a point for debate in Committee.



30 Nov 2007 : Column 1446

I believe that the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has introduced this debate and listened to the previous debate and adjusted the Bill indicates that the Committee stage will be very productive. I commend the way in which he has done so. We are some way from the wider reforms and this is therefore an important step to put right the things that need to be put right now. I am told that the Government are going to be neutral and I hope that it will be benevolent neutrality.

11.56 am

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, when they launched the White Paper in February, I was impressed by the Government’s determination to move ahead with reform under a new Prime Minister, but months have passed. There is always a temptation with Lords reform for Peers and others to assume that it is drifting into the long grass. I am not one of those who would prefer that option, and I think it would be a great mistake to make that assumption. That is why I am a member of the group which supports this Bill as a means of helping the Government towards a second-stage solution during their lifetime. I do not believe that this Government will leave a major reform such as this for another day, and they badly need the support of this House to get their agenda through.

As my noble friend Lady Saltoun and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said, the second stage represented by the Bill does not follow the logic of the Weatherill amendment, which called for only two stages, and which, at that time, secured the majority of this House. However, we have moved on, and the second stage is what we are now offering. If the Government take it over, it would be stage 2; if not, the third stage would be the creation of a substantially elected House. This is not the time to debate that, but the Minister must recognise that there would now be such opposition to that proposal in both Houses and such political uproar during the debates that it would almost certainly lead to stalemate and use of the Parliament Act, and in no way could such a reform be the product of consensus. This is why I argue that while the Lord Chancellor, who is a 50:50 man and, I believe, sincere in his search for consensus, has the opportunity of finding consensus through this Bill, he should seize it. By setting aside elections, he would satisfy the manifesto and the desire of a large majority of both Houses put together to reach agreement.

Beyond that, I have one misgiving about the proposed number of independent Peers. The figure of 20 per cent originally suggested by Wakeham and accepted in the White Paper will have to take account of party political nominations. Clause 8(2)(a) repeats the figure, but points out that the 20 per cent will be independent of any registered political party. There has been some conversation about that. Under the new Appointments Commission, it is argued that there will no longer be party political Peers, except through this process, yet the pressure to appoint former political figures will remain the same. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, made this point in the previous debate, at which I was not present. As a result of the political character of Parliament, the pressure would become stronger in a reformed House, and I can think of a number of Peers

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1447

who would disguise their political background on the Cross Benches with some difficulty. Independence would clearly be compromised. Cross-Bench Peers may well make representations on that when the time comes.

The White Paper goes back on another undertaking given by the Government, through the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, at the time of the 1999 reform. She committed the Government to a higher figure corresponding to the present number of independents, which includes Bishops and retired Law Lords, although they are sometimes listed separately. That figure was then about 26 per cent, but it has risen since. The White Paper refers to the figure of 28 per cent, including the hereditary Cross-Bench Peers. I suggest to the Government that in the case of any further vote, there should be an alternative of 25 per cent appointed and 75 per cent elected, for both the reasons that I have given. The Government made a great mistake in going back to the seven options on election before we had achieved consensus. I expect that they are regretting that now.

Finally, on a more personal note, I never expected when I joined the House 12 years ago that I would be standing here today. There must be a lot of Labour electors and other people in the country who share that surprise and would now like to get on with the second stage, but there will be many more who value the House as we are presently composed and who have seen it in action. We must acknowledge the role of the elected hereditary Peers who, although their heads were on the block, are, almost as much as life Peers, now welded into an interim House and seem set to remain. They are not often mentioned, but all of us have made a contribution to the House and at least some are experts in their field and would be electable or appointable to any House.

I hope that the Government now see the wisdom of the Bill.

12.01 pm

Lord Higgins: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl. We are indeed fortunate to have him here and to have the benefit of his wise words, with which I entirely agree. When the matter was debated in the summer, it was stressed that the Bill ought to be one that everyone could support, regardless of their views on the future composition of the House. If we are to get consensus, we ought to be able to achieve consensus on this Bill. I have therefore been somewhat disappointed by some of the speeches made against it, which I believe are wrong. In particular, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, seems to suppose that it in some way pre-empts what happens eventually. That is not the case. It improves the situation between now and when, if ever, that decision is eventually taken. It is important and urgent that we make the changes proposed by the noble Lord. Lord Steel.

A great deal of damage has been done to this House by the cash for peerages scandal. Therefore it is important that we change from the present appointment system to one that is clearly impartial and not subject to undue outside pressures. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, is not in his place, but he is wrong to say that this ought not to be done now; it should be done now. The case for that is overwhelming.



30 Nov 2007 : Column 1448

This is a modernising Bill. My right honourable friend the leader of the Opposition, Mr Cameron, says that he is in favour of modernisation. It moves us forward in the right direction, regardless of what eventual decision is made on composition.

There is an excellent Library note on the Weatherill amendment. It depicts the dramatic events in 1999. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement that ensured that stage 2 took place. We could not have clearer evidence that it has failed in that objective. At the same time, it has created a certain number of problems. I stress one particular point. Lord Weatherill himself introduced a Bill in 2003 to get rid of the system with which his name had been associated. The other important point is that, as far as I am aware, there is no reason why the hereditary Peers who were removed from the House in 1999 could not have been made life Peers to allow them to re-enter the House.

It is essential to get the Bill on the statute book as early as possible. It has been suggested that long-term reform, in the sense of composition, may be many years ahead. We do not want to go on meanwhile with the present appointment system unimproved—in particular, with the problem of non-attendance of Members and the fact that the House is getting larger and larger. The Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, seeks to deal with that point, which is very important.

I make two final points. First, it has been suggested that we must take account of the vote in the House of Commons. We must certainly take account of it, but it was advertised—if I may put it that way—as an indicative vote. I believe that opinion in the other place on the issue of composition is changing. Gradually, Members in the other place are beginning to appreciate the radical changes that have taken place in this House since 1999, which have vastly improved the way in which it operates. As that opinion changes, over time—I hope that the White Paper will take account of this—before the eventual decision on change of composition, we will get a greatly better situation.

Secondly, the vote for 100 per cent in the other place was flawed in various respects by tactical voting. If the proposal were indeed to have a 100 per cent- elected House—effectively abolishing this House as it now is—we have at some stage to question whether the basis on which constitutional change takes place in this country is really as it should be. I do not go for a referendum, because ignorance of the work of the House of Lords in the country as a whole, despite the efforts of the Lord Speaker, is probably almost as great as that in another place. I am mindful of Ted Heath’s remark that a majority of one is enough, but we must consider whether a larger majority may be more appropriate if we are going to undertake a fundamental constitutional revolution.

12.07 pm

Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I crave the indulgence of the House for my voice, which at least means that I will be brief.

Fortunately, reforming this place is difficult. I say “fortunately” with a pang of regret, because I would like to change this House in many ways to make it more effective. The only way in which I do not want to

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1449

change it is by introducing election. Although a reformer at heart, I do not think it is wise to rush into reform or to take it in giant bites without seeing what are its consequences as we go.

In particular, I cannot think that it is wise to base the case for reform on a single vote—a pretty confused vote, too—in the House of Commons as if that were the end of the story. For one thing, the electoral system under which the House of Commons is chosen is very flawed. Two MPs in three got fewer than half of the votes in their constituencies. That is some mandate. Although I believe in the primacy of the Commons, I do not believe in the dictatorship of the Commons or that we should be cowed by that single vote.

Just how difficult reform is was spelt out to some Members of your Lordships' House by Dr Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit when she addressed the Leader’s seminar on 13 November. Dr Russell is a former adviser to the late Robin Cook. She has long been a fervent and articulate advocate of election to this place, albeit that some of us detect that she is not as fervent as once she was. Looking to the future of reform, she asked the gathering, “What can really honestly be achieved?”. Her answer was, “I am a lot less convinced than I used to be that large-scale reform is possible. If Robin Cook couldn’t do it, with his brain, what hope is there for anyone else?”.

This is what makes the Government’s position on the Bill—public neutrality, private hostility—so infuriating. Behind it stands Jack Straw, the Minister responsible in another place. It will be 40 years next year since I first met Mr Straw, when he and I were summoned by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, to meet the then Home Secretary Lord Callaghan and to tell him what young people thought. Unlike me, Mr Straw has myriad great achievements behind him—he is a man whom I applaud—but if he has a flaw, it is that there is about him something of the student politician yet. Let us face it, he is against the Bill for one reason only; he thinks that if he gets rid of the obvious flaws in this House, his chances of getting it elected will be weakened.

As I said, I do not think that election is a good thing. If, however, like Mr Straw today, not Mr Straw two years ago when he took a quite contrary view, I did think that election was a good thing, I hope that as I lower myself into the bath each morning I will remember the old saw quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport: “Do not let the best become the enemy of the good”.

12.11 pm

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, unlike my usual habit, I did not come to the House prepared with any particular speech because I wanted to listen to the debate. I was not present at the debate in July. Although I read it, it is by listening to noble Lords that one gets the flavour. Those who oppose the Bill seem to have one particular reason for doing so—I should make it clear straightaway that I support the Bill as I believe that it is right. They say that it somehow pre-empts the decision on the final reforms, which are sometimes

30 Nov 2007 : Column 1450

referred to as stage two, which may eventually emerge. I am totally against that argument because it simply is not true. Nothing in this Bill in any way pre-empts the decision that Parliament may in the end be invited to take and may vote on. The argument is trying to escape from what the noble Lord, Lord Steel, rightly said at the beginning are agreed reforms. They are not agreed in every detail—that has been made clear; we need a Committee stage—but the four reforms in the Bill seem to be things that most noble Lords agree should and could be done.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page