Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

What is the reason for any such change? The only reason that goes up is the cry of “legitimacy”, but there is no unique quality about that. I have never heard an answer, when one thinks of all the other functions carried out by non-elected people from High Court judges to chief constables. There is no answer to that question.

Is there any fault in the performance of this House that would be corrected by the arrival of elected Members? The burden of proof remains upon those who advocate the change. They have not begun to discharge it.

Is there any improvement in the performance or authority of this House that would be achieved thereby? No wonder we are pausing at this point. This particular incremental step is lying there ahead of us, and all we need to do is to step up the support of most of this House, with the benefit of clarification that its consideration could contribute.

The other question could remain. I have no enthusiasm for its early solution but I have huge enthusiasm for the rapid passing and enactment of this Bill.

10.33 am

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, it is thought by some that there are just too many Cross-Benchers. That may be the case but it may also be that the political party groups are not recruiting or have not recruited new Peers as regularly as has been the case among the Cross Benches. It may also be true that existing Cross-Benchers are attending more regularly, and there is some evidence for this. Whatever the perceptions, the fact is that this House is bigger than perhaps it needs to be, so I want to address the aspect of the Bill relating to the number of Peers.

The size of this House is likely to increase, possibly greatly, following the forthcoming election. We could see a House of approaching 1,000 Members. In the current political climate this is not wise and could even be seen as very unwise. Something must be done to prevent the House of Lords becoming a large, untidy and unnecessarily expensive body, thereby allowing itself to become the target of more unwelcome public criticism. The average daily attendance at present is approximately 415 Peers, and although clearly the individual Members vary from day to day this number appears to enable the House to do its work.

The Government have conveyed their intention radically to reform this House. One of the key aspects of the White Paper published in July last year was a

27 Feb 2009 : Column 439

much smaller Chamber with perhaps between 400 and 450 Members. This figure was arrived at as being commensurate with international comparisons; and whatever formula is eventually decided upon, the key point is that the Government have signalled their intention to significantly reduce the size of this House.

Another clause in the White Paper proposes changes to the present convention that the only way a Peer may resign is by taking leave of absence. Resignation is firmly in the White Paper, as is the possibility of suspension and/or disqualification. However, these seemingly small changes are set within the context of radical reform. Is this likely to happen in a hurry? I really think not, and meanwhile we are left with an unwieldy stalemate.

What we have is a ready-made solution in the Bill before the House today, Part 3 of which addresses permanent leave of absence. I would wish to see additional clauses at a later stage allowing honourable retirement. Were these simple mechanisms to be enacted, many might avail themselves of the opportunity to retire. Details such as dining rights could be negotiated and even a small retirement package could be included. Perhaps all those who are at present too infirm to attend regularly or too occupied with outside interests, or who have not attended in the past few years, might then be persuaded to step down.

This could amount to a sizeable number of Peers—some estimate it to be up to 250—and we would be left with a more scaled-down House which is less expensive for the taxpayer and less open to criticism. I do not believe that the serious work that this House undertakes would be compromised by having a leaner workforce. Surely this would please and accommodate many of your Lordships, the public, the other place—in particular the Public Administration Select Committee—and possibly even the Government.

Finally, I once again remind your Lordships that the seemingly small, partial changes of 1999 have had a profound effect and one could therefore anticipate that similarly small adjustments such as those set out in a slightly amended Bill could in due course have an exponential effect. It is difficult to know why exactly the Government would not seize upon this chance to undertake speedy and effective reform that could only enhance the work and reputation of this House.

10.37 am

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I strongly support this Bill and I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, characteristically presented it in a masterly way. I agree with everything he said, apart from his speculation about the result of the next general election. The Bill has characteristics that should be admired in almost any Bill. First, it is short. I, perhaps more than any other Member of this House, am passionately in favour of short Bills. It has specific, limited and attainable objectives. Again, I much prefer those kinds of Bills than those that try to put the world right. Much as I am in favour of doing that, this is a model Bill of that sort.

I shall emphasise during the next two or three minutes that the Bill has very wide support; in fact I have heard hardly anyone object to any of its provisions

27 Feb 2009 : Column 440

in principle. That is not to say that we will not hear one or two objections today, but the Bill has as wide support as you could hope to achieve. I have to say that it represents a much better approach than that in the White Paper presented last year, which I shall not spend any time on, other than to say that it contained a fundamental problem and flaw, which unless it is addressed will bedevil any attempt towards Lords reform. The fundamental problem is that the White Paper assumes that you can make a huge change to one part of our constitutional arrangements without having a very big impact on all the rest of the constitutional arrangements.

I pray in aid of that the Cunningham committee. I remind this House that it was a committee of both Houses whose report was, uniquely as far as I remember, approved unanimously by both Houses and made it crystal clear that, before any move towards an elected House is made, the nature of the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses must be a settled matter. That is the first job, which has not been tackled or attempted, and it is certainly not in the White Paper.

What needs to be said about possible objections to the Bill? In the time that remains, I shall mention two. One objection involves stating, “The Bill is not bad but it does not do enough; it is in no way comprehensive”. To me, that is a virtue of the Bill. If we adopted that approach to legislation generally, we would not have, for example, a criminal justice Bill until someone brought forward a criminal justice Bill that solved comprehensively the problems of the criminal justice system; we would be waiting a long time for a criminal justice Bill, although some might think that that was an advantage. That surely applies to all aspects of legislation. The three Front Benches have slightly got into the position of saying, “We should not really do this until we can do everything”. They have a kind of proprietorial feel towards the White Paper; that is understandable because long discussions went into establishing it. I hope that they will acknowledge that since the White Paper was published, there have been, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Hunt a couple of weeks ago, 150 responses to the White Paper. I do not know what level of response would be described as wild enthusiasm but I would not have thought that 150 responses comes too close. My view very much is that it is a mistake to say that we must not do anything until we can do everything else.

I know that a lot of hereditary Peers—including the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, although not as a hereditary Peer but in his present capacity—are attached to the other objection that I want briefly to deal with, which is frequently raised. It involves the agreement about stage 2. That seems to have two flaws, which we should be honest enough now to acknowledge after 10 years. The first flaw is that it does not spell out, so far as I am aware—I was not here but I have read a lot about it—who determines when stage 2 has been achieved. There is no adjudication about when that is done. Until that is spelt out, everyone will have their own interpretation of it.

The other objection is that it involves the notion that there can be a conclusive determination of the constitutional structure and position of the House of

27 Feb 2009 : Column 441

Lords. That is not how constitutional change takes place—there never is a conclusive determination of anything. Even if the whole of the White Paper were enacted tomorrow, the debate would continue about the role and functions of second chambers. It happens everywhere; the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has said that on a number of occasions. The final constitutional settlement has not been achieved in respect of the House of Commons. Some people—not me—want a different electoral system in the House of Commons. Others argue that it should be much smaller; that may have been in the Conservative Party manifesto. We have no final constitutional settlement of the local government structure. There are constant debates about the monarchy—whether there should be succession through the male line—and the role of the Church of England. The nature of constitutions is that they evolve and change. To think that the White Paper or any other document will be the conclusive word on this is to misread how the issues have been and will be dealt with.

I conclude with a plea possibly to everyone but to the Front Benches in particular. Please, in addressing the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, do not go beyond thinking about whether or not, in principle, you object to the four specific proposals being made. If you do, fine; do as anyone in that position would do, and try to block the Bill, but please explain why, in principle, the proposals are wrong before you oppose them. That is quite a difficult thing to do, and that is why we should strongly support the Bill.

10.44 am

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I had some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Steel, when he told us last year that he was elected as a spokesman for a group of people at a meeting at which he was not present but I say to him that I have changed my mind. He loves what he is doing and he would probably have volunteered for the job had he been in the room. I think that he is trying to out-do the author Richmal Crompton. Those who in future will research reform of the House of Lords will need to plough through the Steel Bill, the More Steel Bill, the Steel Bill Again and doubtless when this Bill fails, we will, in the next Session, have Steel Bill the Fourth and, after that, Still the Steel Bill. I look forward to taking part in all of those.

As noble Lords know, I disliked the Bill last year. It did not get very far in Committee. I disagree with my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon that it has been through the mill; it certainly has not. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that reform of the House should not be done by a Back-Bench Bill, however well intentioned but flawed. Any reform should be a government measure.

I shall start with Part 4. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, said that its purpose is to bring us into line with another place. That has not yet been discussed in Committee. Many believe that a person who has paid his dues to society should not be penalised again. We are different from another place—we are not salaried—and the fact that they do something does not necessarily mean that we must do it too.

27 Feb 2009 : Column 442

Part 2 breaks a fundamental plank of the agreement reached in 1999. We were promised that the removal of hereditary Peers would occur only after stage 2 of reform. This Bill is not stage 2. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that that is a matter of fundamental principle to me. It should not be broken by a Back-Bench Bill.

Before I turn to the detail of Part 1, we should have a look at the question of whether to put the commission for appointments on a statutory basis before we have thoroughly assessed the current Appointments Commission, how it has worked and where its weaknesses are. I note that the current commission vets all nominations for peerages, including those of political parties, for propriety. I cannot find that in this Bill.

I turn to more detailed points. It is easy—dare I say usual?—for Liberal Democrats such as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to ignore the political disadvantages that would affect Conservative and Cross-Bench Peers if Part 2 came into effect. Interestingly, if it had been in effect since 1999, the composition of the House would already be in breach of Clause 8(2)(c). There would be 216 Labour Peers and 192 Conservative Peers—a Labour majority of 24—which is over the 3 per cent provided for in relation to the House’s total composition, which would have been 721 without the by-elections.

Would the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who I am delighted to see in his place—I never quite understood that the first qualification for the post that he holds should be that the postholder should never attend the House—have to get his calculator out every time a Labour or Conservative Peer died? Had Part 2 been put into place in 1999, which two Labour Peers would be forced out today to correct the illegal representation? Would it indeed be on an electoral basis, such as the hereditary Peers suffered in 1999? Or would the noble Lord, Lord Jay, have got on the line to the Prime Minister and told him in his best diplomatic voice that he could not have the noble Lord, Lord Myners, or the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, because the Labour Benches were full? That would be a good story. We can imagine what spin the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, might have put on it.

But, with the best will in the world, who is the chairman of an unelected commission, however eminent, to tell the elected Prime Minister that he cannot advise Her Majesty that he would have at his side in a world crisis the person he wants? Some noble Lords may argue that it would not work like this. It may be that some old boy or girl could be found to make way, like they do in the other place, but what would they be offered?

Let me take the specific case of the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, who was appointed by the Appointments Commission and transferred to the Labour Benches, as he is entitled to do and where he is doing a very good job; I have no disagreement with that. However, if the House were illegally constituted, as is required by the Bill, and the Government won a vote by one in this House in which, for example, the Cross-Bench Peers, as a result of a case like that of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, had dropped below 20 per cent or in which it had a bigger majority than is allowed for in the Bill, how would we stop someone going to the courts to challenge the legitimacy of the

27 Feb 2009 : Column 443

vote? Would the government proceedings be suspended? Could no more legislation be enacted? This part of the Bill is a recipe for allowing the courts to intervene in the internal privileges of our House, and it is a very retrograde step to start codifying it all in this way. What might a Supreme Court say?

We will discuss the Bill, if it goes to Committee, in some detail. It is a House of Lords reform Bill and there will be, just like last time, a considerable number of amendments.

10.50 am

Lord MacLennan of Rogart: My Lords, it has been observed that there is nothing new to be said about the subject of House of Lords reform but I respectfully beg to disagree. More important, however, than novelty is the quarter from which the opinion comes, which is why we shall be so interested in listening to the Minister at the end of the debate. I only regret that he is not able to give us an indication of where the Government are coming from at the beginning. It might have been unconventional but it might also have enabled us to focus on the Government’s reasoning during the debate, which would have been valuable.

Talking about where opinions come from, we had to sit up and take notice when another place recommended an all-elected second Chamber—we have moved a very long way from 1968 and the rejection of Dick Crossman’s proposals for reform. What it says to me is that the other place must modify its commitment to the dominance of the other place over this Chamber, as an all-elected upper House would plainly have legitimacy to develop the use of its powers.

I believe that the Bill before us today—I did not speak at the introduction of the previous measure by my noble friend—should be judged by two broad tests. First, would the proposed changes improve the workings of this House? There is no doubt that they would. They certainly address a number of the perceived weaknesses of our present structures and lacunae in the law. Secondly, would the Bill’s enactment impede further reform? My conclusion is that it would make no obstacles to later reform. Since the agreement between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats in 1997 to have a joint programme on constitutional reform, including reform of this place, I never had any doubt that we would have to proceed incrementally through three stages, which seems to be the Government’s position. My only objection to that is the time that it has taken to get from one stage to another.

However, it is right to consider whether the final stage—that does not mean the end stage in the sense that reform would not come further down the track—of the conceived democratisation of the second Chamber is consonant with the Bill that we have before us. Does this Bill advance or hold up that process? In my opinion, it is an improvement but it makes no impact on the wider case for reform.

The Bill addresses some very important current issues—for example, the size of this House. I do not believe that it is possible to justify 1,000 Members being elected to Westminster. Those of us who sit in this House could not conceive of such a gross body, particularly if we were concerned to strengthen local representative government.

27 Feb 2009 : Column 444

Arguably, the Bill makes a change in the provisions for permanent leave of absence, which I consider to be helpful. However, I do not believe that they will enormously alter the structure or size of the House, and I am not entirely sure that I like the implication that Members might be strong-armed by their own parties into standing down under the arrangements envisaged in the Bill.

Another broad consideration is the widespread awareness that the central problem of our constitutional architecture is the over-mighty power of the Executive. Governing with the consent of their party supporters in the House of Commons—the putative beneficiaries of their patronage—there is little that a British Government cannot choose to do. Does the Bill before us advance the prospect of more effective accountability being realised? In so far as it might enhance the moral authority of this place, I believe that it could make a useful contribution, but it does not address, even by inference, the powers of this place. Perhaps the longer-term goal of the present Bill—it is a very fair one—is to enhance the reputation of this House as a forum of wise, experienced and not unduly partisan people. However, the Bill leaves the balance of power undisturbed under our constitutional arrangements. To many, that may be commendable but I ask whether it is enough.

In my opinion, whatever strengthens the ability of this House to discharge its present revising role, and its scrutiny role, particularly of European Union matters, is to be welcomed, but later reform must provide for those needs as well. There is more to do. What is required is more than the burnishing of the reputation of this House, whose work is valued by those who notice it. The goal of reform needs to be to rebalance the power of the legislature and the Executive, giving greater representative authority to the second Chamber by freeing it altogether from Executive patronage. If that Chamber is to be truly distinguished and command respect, it must be small—as small as the German Bundesrat, as was preferred by the late Robin Cook, or as small as the United States Senate, as I would personally prefer.

That smaller size precludes the full deployment of oversight and revision that is exercised at present by this Chamber, and that deficiency would need to be made good. In my opinion, it could be made good by the appointment of a council of state with an experienced and distinguished membership, not to block government but, through its wisdom, to offer advice that would be difficult to resist.

These changes are for later consideration. I believe that the Bill before us today should command widespread respect and support, and I hope that it will be seen as an indication of the House’s willingness to move, and to move now.

10.58 am

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I am a member in this House of a very small, distinguished and select band of people. That is not because I sit on these Benches but because I was one of those who voted for a 50 per cent elected House when last we voted. I think that we were the smallest group. I have also been part of the group that worked with the Lord

27 Feb 2009 : Column 445

Chancellor on the White Paper. Without any criticism of the Lord Chancellor, who chaired the operation brilliantly, I think that that, in itself, illustrates the difficulties of tackling some of the fundamental issues that are around when you start to enter the politics of the subject. Although I have not changed my fundamental view on the possibilities for the future, I thoroughly support this Bill. I think that it is the right move at this time, and I hope that the Government will look on it sympathetically. I want to comment on only two things.

First, it has been suggested—I have heard it quite widely—that if the three main political parties stitch up the next election in their manifestoes by having sufficiently similar themes on House of Lords reform, it will be possible for Parliament to act. My first difficulty with that is that I think that elections are about choice. What choice will the people of this country have if that is the case? My second problem with it is that I suspect that the vast majority of people entering the electoral booths to cast their vote in the next general election will probably not have a clue what the three political parties have put in their manifestoes on this issue, and they will certainly not have it as a high priority in determining how they vote. My third problem with it, which has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is the comment of the Leader of the Opposition—I am sure that all Members of the House will have him and his family very much in our prayers at this difficult time for them—that, according to the newspapers, should he form a Government after the next election, and I do not comment on those issues, the issue of macro reform of this House will not appear on the agenda of the next Parliament. If that is the case and we work on the basis that we cannot proceed unless we settle all the issues, we will have to wait eight years for reform.

My second point, which supports the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, relates to the hereditary peers issue. It has sometimes been suggested in popular language that we cannot act on that until we have settled the whole issue. That is what I call the final solution theory. It seems to me that the noble Lord is entirely right: constitutional reform happens by evolution and step by step. You cannot have a moment when you say, “We have now settled that issue and can forget about it”. The issues of constitutional reform have to progress step by step.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page