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House of Lords

Friday, 27 February 2009.

10 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

House of Lords Bill [HL]

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill

Second Reading

10.05 am

Moved By Lord Steel of Aikwood

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): 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 Tunnicliffe: My Lords, there are 34 speakers signed up for today’s Second Reading debate. I should advise the House that if Back-Bench contributions are kept to six minutes, we should be able to rise this afternoon at around the target rising time of 3 pm.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: “I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time”; that ritual phrase has rather more meaning on this occasion because this is indeed the second time that we will have debated the Bill. With one exception, that I shall come to in a minute, the Bill is the same as the one we discussed in the previous Session. For that reason, I propose to be very brief in describing its contents, since I think these are familiar to the House. Instead, I want to concentrate on where we are on the whole subject of House of Lords reform.

In our previous debates the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde, and Lord Richard, joined together to say that this was not a suitable subject for a Private Member’s Bill. It may surprise the House to know that that is also my view and, I think, the view shared by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and all those who have been involved in preparing the Bill. It is intended as a spur to the Government, in the hope that they will take over these measures and proceed with them. It is a convenient vehicle, which they could easily take over. Recently, the Government have been busy taking over lots of other things at vast expense. This one is on offer for free as we are so generous.

I shall briefly remind the House of the Bill’s contents. There are four parts to it. The first part proposes the creation of the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis. That should be welcomed by the Government. I quote from the Labour Party manifesto:

“Labour supports modernisation of the House of Lords’ procedures to improve its effectiveness. We will put the independent Appointments Commission on a statutory footing”.

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That is a direct quote from the Labour Party manifesto, not of the last election but of the election in 2001, and we are still waiting for that pledge to be redeemed.

There is no suggestion in the Bill, contrary to some speeches when we last debated it, that the Appointments Commission should choose all the members in the political parties. It would certainly have to approve them and the Bill enables the commission to encourage the parties to develop transparent processes of their own in bringing forward nominations. The House looks forward immensely to the speech today of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, the new chairman of the Appointments Commission, to hear what he has to say on the subject.

The second part of the Bill abolishes the hereditary by-elections. We had a lot of fun on this subject on the previous occasion. I reminded the House that twice already members of the British Parliament have been elected by three or four people. It makes the elections to Old Sarum seem positively democratic in comparison. The creation of the hereditary by-elections occurred in 1999, during the reforms made then. It was clearly indicated at that time that this was a temporary measure to last perhaps a couple of years. We are nearing the 10th anniversary of that temporary measure. Perhaps we could combine it with a celebration next year of the 100thanniversary of the Asquith promise to replace this House with one on a popular basis. It really has been waiting around for a long time. The argument that we cannot abolish hereditary by-elections until stage 2 of Lords reform is an interesting one which we have heard many times. My argument is that if the Government were to take over the Bill, this would become stage 2, with stage 3 in the waiting, as promised in the Government’s White paper.

The third part of the Bill would enable the House to reduce its size from its existing 700 by encouraging the retirement of those who wish to leave after a certain age. If that came about, I believe that the pressure within each of the parties would be to take aside those who have served long and hard in this place and suggest that perhaps it was time for them to leave and make way for new blood in the House.

This brings me to the only new part in the Bill as against last year’s one. Clause 12 introduces a proposal that one way of reducing the size of the House would be to remove those who never come here, apart from those who have very good reason for not coming here because they are engaged in other public work. That is the only new part of the proposal before us today.

The fourth part was designed to bring the House of Lords into line with the House of Commons in removing those who have been sentenced to prison for at least one year. It was in the 18th century that the House of Commons passed a resolution making that its practice. At that time, the House of Lords did not do so. It is now agreed that it is time that we had some provision to enable Members to be removed from the legislature if, in fact, they are major wrongdoers.

Support for the measures in the Bill has grown since the debate in the previous Session and it has grown for three reasons. First, since that debate, we have had the publication of the Government’s White Paper on House of Lords reform. There were two major objections to

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that publication, echoed often in the other Chamber as well as here. One was that the proposals are all timeless: they are not imminent, to put it mildly; there is no indication of when they might be brought into effect. The other was that the White Paper is extremely vague on fundamentals. There was no decision about how the House would be elected, no decision as to whether it was to be 100 per cent elected or 80 per cent elected. They had not even decided on a name.

For that reason, the White Paper had an extremely cool reception. Moreover, the Public Administration Committee in the other place issued a report at the time of the White Paper’s publication, which said that,

That same committee has gone further and, just the other week, produced a report reflecting on the Government’s White Paper. At paragraph 8, it says:

“The introduction of a fully or largely elected second chamber would render the changes we propose obsolete. But that moment is some years off even at best. In the meantime, we have proposed changes that should be made with immediate effect to bring fairness and transparency to the interim arrangements between now and the completion of reform”.

It goes on to say, in the next paragraph,

That is the situation that we are now faced with, since we debated the Bill a year ago.

On the White Paper’s cool reception, I was in the Peers’ Gallery in the other place when it was introduced, and noted many Members’ comments. I quote only one, from a senior member of the Labour Party, Sir Gerald Kaufman:

“Having read the White Paper, I congratulate him”—

that is, the Lord Chancellor—

I am moderate in my views on the White Paper compared with the Government’s own supporters.

There is another factor, of course. I do not want to be in any way party political, so let me put this politely: it is by no means certain that the Labour Government will be re-elected. That is a factor that we have to take into account, and that brings us to the second reason why there is now more interest in these measures: the position of the Conservative Party. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has been vocal in his support of the proposals in the White Paper; a bit like the grand old Duke of York except that he does not have 10,000 men behind him. He has been quite seriously undermined, unwittingly, by the leader of his party. We had heard that he had told his MPs that it was a priority for his third term, but we had nothing on the record. However, now we have. Mr Cameron, in an interview for the magazine Total Politics this month, was asked:

“How much of a priority is House of Lords reform for you?”

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He replied:

“If you mean, can we please throw out people or suspend them if they are touting for business, then that’s a very high priority. In any legislature there has to be a way of suspending or expelling people who break the law. In terms of reform, having a more elected chamber, which is what I favour, to be frank it is not an urgent priority”.

So we have the situation that, even if there were a change to a Conservative Government, it would not be a priority. Let me say, just so that I am totally impartial, that it is equally uncertain that there will be a Liberal Democrat Government after the next election. If, of course, there were, my noble friend Lord McNally would make sure that it was high on the list of priorities.

The third reason why there has been a change of mood, and growing support for the Bill, is, of course, recent events. We do not want to go into those while inquiries are going on. However, there is no question that the newspaper stories revealed that this House has no procedure at all, unlike most legislatures, for dealing with people who ought perhaps to be considered, if found guilty, for suspension from the service of the House.

For these three reasons, the Government ought to pay much more attention to the proposals in the Bill. But what is likely to happen? We have the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, back with us again. I remember that, when he got his new department, he came to the Dispatch Box and said how relieved he was that he was no longer going to be dealing with House of Lords reform. But here he is again; like a bad penny, he has turned up. What is he going to say to us? Is he going to tell us that he is against a statutory commission? That cannot be, because of the manifesto. Is he going to tell us that he is in favour of continuing these hereditary by-elections? Is he going to tell us that he is against reducing the size of the House? Is he going to tell us that we do not need to consider any disciplinary measures in this House? No, he is not going to say any of these things. He is just going to say that the Government are doing nothing about it. That is an unsatisfactory situation.

I suspect that the blockage comes from the Lord Chancellor, Mr Straw. I have had discussions with him on this. He seems to be immovable. Well, he is not actually immovable: he has moved his position on elections to the House of Lords so often that he has more or less said, “These are my principles and, if you don’t like them, I have others”.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, in all seriousness, if we are looking forward to an elected House at some point in the future, it is better that we put this House in order first so that we prepare the way for the fundamental reform that is to come. The House is becoming really quite impatient that we are not doing any running repairs at all. We glory in our reputation. We have a high reputation in the country, but it could and should be better. I beg to move.

10.20 am

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I have not spoken on House of Lords reform in your Lordships’ House for several years but I say at the outset that, not

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through a lack of interest but, rather, possibly through an excess of hope, I had hoped that we would by now be considering a comprehensive Bill of reform including a consideration of the roles and powers of this House for the 21st century and its composition, which in my view should include an element of elected Peers.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, said that we are coming up to the tenth anniversary of the House of Lords Act, which achieved a limited, but none the less very important, reform: abolishing the automatic right of hereditary Peers to sit in your Lordships' House. As the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said, this has been followed by hours of inter-party consultation, many long discussions between party leaders and a succession of Green Papers followed by White Papers. I had hoped, probably naively, that by now this would have led to concrete proposals being brought forward by the Government. However, as your Lordships are well aware, and as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, rightly emphasised, nothing has emerged. I am afraid, therefore, that it is mainly in a spirit of frustration that I welcome the noble Lord’s initiative in bringing forward the Bill for a second time. He describes its provisions as running repairs. I consider they are more than that, but they are incremental and concerned exclusively with an appointed membership. But at least they are here; at least they are on the table; and at least we can debate them. I certainly support in principle most of the reforms that he advocates. It is a beginning and it may well be—in spite of what he said about the Government picking up this Bill—that gradual change led by private Members may be the way to start the process running again.

I, too, particularly welcome the proposals for a statutory Appointments Commission to select new Peers in Part 1. I emphasise to my noble kinsman Lord Jay of Ewelme that this in no way undermines my confidence in his voluntary Appointments Commission, but I think the time has now come to move on to a more significant and statutory body with significant broader powers. We will need to consider in Committee whether these proposals would unnecessarily fetter the Prime Minister’s ability to appoint Ministers to sit in your Lordships' House. However, at first reading, Clause 4(1) seems to allow what I consider a useful practice to continue. I hope that it will be possible in Committee to include in Clause 5, headed “Nominees to meet specific criteria, an explicit provision on the tax status of those nominees. I appreciate that Clause 5 allows the Appointments Commission to propose additional criteria beyond those listed, but I should like to see some of the elements of the Bill recently introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, included in this Bill.

I support the proposals on hereditary Peers and leave of absence in Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, but on these and some of the other proposals I found it very useful to go back to the Royal Commission report, which, unlike the House of Lords Act, is only nine years old. That commission was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who is not in his place. However, I am glad to see that some of the members of the commission are present. The Royal Commission report is still an extremely valuable touchstone of an attractive approach

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to reform. It is worth mentioning in this context that the report devotes nine chapters and 59 recommendations to the powers and functions of the second Chamber before it discusses membership. I remind your Lordships that its proposals on membership include a proportion of elected regional Members. However, I have acknowledged that the Bill we are debating today is deliberately narrowly focused on appointed Members. None the less, I consider that it could echo more closely some of the Royal Commission’s other proposals. The report’s proposals on a statutory Appointments Committee are very similar to those of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, but it goes further. For example, Recommendation 72 of the Wakeham report proposes that,

Recommendation 75 states:

“Members of the reformed ... chamber should be able to retire”.

I support both those proposals and would be happy to see them included in the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel.

Although I welcome the provisions in Parts 3 and 4 on regulating membership, particularly those relating to permanent leave of absence in Clause 12—the noble Lord, Lord Steel, rightly described the latter as the only new part in the Bill as against the previous Bill—and to the consequences of serious criminal offences in Clause 15, I should like the Bill to go further and include some of the Royal Commission’s recommendations in this area. For example, Recommendation 77 states:

“The reformed second chamber should establish a procedure for expelling members whose continued presence would otherwise bring the chamber into disrepute”.

There seems no prima facie reason why such a proposal—it presumably would be couched in terms of compulsory and enforced leave of absence in this Bill—should not be included in Part 3.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, drew our attention to the events of recent weeks. We have all suffered from the negative spotlight turned on this House, which has again led to the circulation of the calumny that we are an irrelevant, out-of-touch body with no place in a 21st century Parliament. That is, of course, totally untrue, as even the most casual observation of your Lordships’ work will reveal. None the less, we have a more accurate negative reputation for dragging our feet on transparent regulation and on further self-reform. This Bill gives us an opportunity to achieve some important incremental changes that should in no way preclude further and wider reform in the future. Taking action now, taking an initiative to break the decade of stalemate may properly influence external perceptions of a House which may be seen, inaccurately, as frozen in a rather complacent paralysis. I hope that the Minister appreciates this and will at least be able to offer some encouraging response. I am sorry that he is the recipient of my frustration because I know, from working with him for 10 years ago and since, that he is always a doughty and very thoughtful advocate of reform. I hope that he will take that reputation forward in the future.

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I am sure that this Bill can help us to make further progress on this very important issue. I welcome it and I look forward to further progress.

10.27 am

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, for many reasons it is a pleasure to follow the brief but important speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. I will follow her example and speak for six minutes. Although I may appear to sit on a Front Bench, we are both essentially Back-Benchers, so six minutes should be enough. I second her proposition that we should enthusiastically support the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. It has been through the mill once already. I do not think that anybody challenges its provisions. There may be room for amendment and change and that could well happen, but all the other propositions that the noble Baroness discussed are further steps, so to speak.

The most important thing to recognise is that reform of this House, like many other things in this country, takes place through an incremental process, and never more characteristically than in this House, which started the process in 1911. In more recent times, there were two important steps: the invention of life Peers and the removal—if one has to use such a harsh phrase—of the majority of the hereditaries. The remainder have given such value to the House in this period of transition, by ensuring its continuity, manner, tradition, style and, for that reason, civilisation and authority. So we all favour incremental change. We all appear to favour—I say “all” but it applies to most of us—all the propositions in the Bill. Most importantly, it has the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. Therefore, I wonder profoundly why the Government do not now join the incremental crew and help to get the Bill through.

The virtues of this House were endorsed in the very first government White Paper (Cm 4183) produced by the noble Baroness. It stated:

“The most valued features of the present House”,

and added that they were summarised by the following epithets:

Those epithets were endorsed in the fifth report of the Commons Public Administration Committee, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which stressed the,

and set the objective of:

“Building on the strengths of the present Chamber”.

There have been similar endorsements of the incremental process from the government Front Bench in this House. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for example, on 7 February 2007, expressed his belief,

The House is not in need of other areas of reform. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, when presenting the last-but-one government Statement on this issue on 19 July 2007, stated that,

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One can hardly start from a more auspicious premise, which, I dare to say, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, helped to create. That is why we should welcome her support for the proposals that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is putting forward.

The case for further deliberation on the one fly in the ointment, if I may mix a metaphor or two—the possible role of elected Members—remains a case that has not been put. There are three questions that many of us have posed time and time again when challenging that case.

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