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12.33 pm

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Steel, introduced his Bill, he pointed out that this was a Second Reading for the second time. He also referred to the need to make running repairs to our House and that any repairs made did not pre-empt any further progress and evolution in how this House is constituted. It struck me, when listening to that, that we should really call this Bill a “reinforced Steel Bill”. We cannot have planning blight over putting our own affairs in order while there is endless ongoing discussion.

What has struck me about this Bill is that it sets out a baseline of three main factors: first, scrutiny of entry; secondly, contributing while you are here and being active and meaningful; and, thirdly, providing an honourable exit process so that people may leave by other reason than dying and thereby vacating their seats for others. It does not seem to pre-empt any further stage. We could argue whether this is stage one and a half or stage 2, but it does not matter at all; this is about moving on and doing the minimum that needs to be done.

I looked back through the attendance during the past 10 years to try to get a feel of this House. The average attendance, if I have got my maths right, was 382 Peers attending, with a range of 340 to 446. From the 2006-07 figures, there were 46 non-attendees; 73 attended three times or fewer and 82 attended five times or fewer. From this year’s figures, 23 were granted leave of absence at the beginning of this Parliament. That figure stood at 11 in October 2008 and, if I have got my information correct, still stands at 11 today. The people have changed, but the total number is the same.

As a medic, I have tried to look around your Lordships' House and do a rough tally of infirmity. I shall not name names but I would estimate that, if we had the ability for leave of absence, taking into account the non-attendees whom I mentioned and those who I would view as so infirm that I worry about them whenever I see them here, we would probably have about 100 places vacated in what I would term a quite painless way.

There is a sense of honour among those who hold a peerage and who are infirm, who feel that somehow they are letting the side down or it would be shameful to take leave of absence. This Bill gives them a very honourable way in which to take leave of absence and feel that they are serving their House that they treasure, rather than letting the side down. That would help to end the practice of wheeling people in for voting purposes, although I have to say that I, personally, have not witnessed that during my time here.

I turn briefly to scrutiny of entry. We need to ensure that everybody here is subject to the standards that you would expect of a public appointment and that everybody here is motivated for the right reasons—in

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other words, to serve the legislative process and serve their country—and that they have personal standards of probity. We must also ensure that there is a range of expertise. The Appointments Commission allows for that scrutiny of that range of expertise in a way that no other process can, because it can look at the whole geographical distribution of those present, as well as their backgrounds, at what they are currently doing as well as what they have done previously.

With the ability to contribute while you are here, I would suggest that attendance must be a minimum. It is very difficult to contribute to the legislative process here if you are not even present. Some people on leave of absence are indeed serving the process of this country well, and it would be quite appropriate to use the provision as outlined in the Bill that they should have leave of absence. They would then come back when they had finished serving time abroad, and so on. I have spoken about the exit process already.

Two speeches really struck me. First, there was the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who pointed out that this Bill complements previous reports, and it is either this Bill or do nothing. Then there was the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who eloquently reassured all those with a hereditary peerage why they are not excluded; they are simply being asked to be subject to the same level playing field, through an Appointments Commission, as all the rest of us. I personally do not understand why the Appointments Commission honoured me with a place here, but I value it enormously, and I believe that its process is really rigorous. It would seem right that we have a level playing field.

Election or no election—that is outside this Bill and these processes. This Bill is an urgent way in which to rectify the problems that we want to rectify. It is a Bill that a self-regulated House wants, and I believe that we should test it and do all that we can to take it through.

12.40 pm

Lord Lipsey: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has just demonstrated sharply how wise the Appointments Commission was to appoint her, even if she does not know it. I agree with what she said at the end: there is no logical link between the view that you take on whether this place should be elected and the one that you take on the Bill. It is perfectly possible to be in favour of election and in favour of this Bill. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, have taken that position. It is perfectly possible to be against election and for the Bill and it is perfectly possible to be against the Bill and still be in favour of election, which I suspect is the position that the Minister will take at the end of our proceedings. There is no logical link whatever between those views.

However, there is something paradoxical about being in favour of election—of radical reform of this place—and then being against this Bill, which is so clearly a first step towards it. In fact, I would say that it is a bit more than paradoxical. The words that spring to my mind are “cynical” and “immoral”. If you took a moral public policy approach to the Bill, what would you do?

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You would say, “First of all, let us get the appointed House into as good a shape as it can be got”—to the reforms in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, I would add the Oakeshott reforms and there might be other candidates—and there will be a case for a Chamber of that character.

Put against that the alternative—there is a powerful case for it—of a wholly or partly elected House. Let us then compare the best kind of appointed House with the best kind of elected House and let the country—the Government and the people—decide which of those alternatives they want. That is a logical and moral approach to the question. It is grubby to seek to keep this House with as many flaws as you possibly can in the hope that somehow the attractions of elections will be increased so that you smuggle out what may or may not be a desirable proposal under the camouflage provided by the manifest problems that the Bill is designed to address.

That is my fundamental view of principle and I am not going to change it. I have been a long time in politics and I find that people rarely change their views for reasons of principle. I just want to do a little crude realpolitik to explain to those who are opposed to the Bill why I think that they are mistaken in terms of the objectives.

I shall start with the result of the next general election. I do not know what the result will be, but I can tell you—I have not checked this morning—how a bookmaker would lay odds on it because I know a little bit about betting. I would say that the odds are 2:1 on a majority Tory Government, 5:2 on a hung Parliament, 6:1 or 7:1 on a small Labour majority and perhaps 33:1 against a Labour majority comparable to that which we currently have. That is not saying what I want; I hope that the outsider wins, of course. However, that is what I think the odds genuinely are on a dispassionate bookmaking analysis.

If we get a Tory Government, we will not have, in short order, an elected Chamber. That has been made quite clear. I will not go over what many noble Lords have said in the debate. Therefore, 2:1 on—two chances in three—you are not going to get root and branch reform just because of the coming of the election and the likely result thereof. Of course, if we are not going to have it, that makes it even more important that we should get what we can in these circumstances, which is a partial reform that would get us into a better position.

At first, you might think that a hung Parliament is a likely situation in which you could get root and branch reform. The Lib Dems support it and maybe they would make that a condition of coming into a coalition Government. There are two considerations. First, a hung Parliament would inherit an economic crisis of unparalleled severity. In itself, it would constitute a sort of political crisis, as we are not used to handling hung Parliaments in this country and a lot of adapting to it would have to take place. It would then be suggested that the Government might precipitate what is potentially a constitutional crisis by adopting root and branch reform of this place, when that Government would have no majority in Parliament and every party is divided about the issue. One can be wrong in politics, but my view is that it ain’t going to happen.

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A Labour Government with a small majority is most unlikely to go down this route because it would be far too controversial. Therefore, there is only one circumstance in which the great reform favoured by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and by many Lib Dems can take place: a Labour Government with a whopping great majority. Whatever my views as to the desirability of that, I have said that it is a 33:1 shot in my book. Very few outsiders win at those odds.

So there we have it. The Government are asking this Chamber and this Parliament to back a 33:1 outsider in order to get any progress. If they get their way, and I hope that they will not, the almost certain consequence is many years when the media can every day of the week plausibly represent our marvellous Chamber as a haven for tax dodgers, cronies and crooks. It must not be allowed to happen.

12.46 pm

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I am rather enjoying myself. This is exactly the sort of debate that I would expect to get from a mutual admiration society interested in self-preservation—light touches, nothing serious and nothing of any merit at all.

I have been here only since 1963 and therefore have spent 47 years of, I could say, wasted time. In that time, I began part of my career in the research world, doing the Labour Party’s research on reform of the Lords in 1968. Ever since then I have kept a sort of walking dictionary in my head of what we have here—740 members sitting on average 600 hours a day, 400 days a year, 40 per cent of the time based on scrutiny and 60 per cent of the time on revising legislation. That is not a bad set-up, but how did they all get in? I made a mistake last time and misconstrued something. Are we democratic? The answer is no. Are we undemocratic? Probably not. But is it worth it, and what do we actually cost? The Lords costs roughly £121 million a year, while the Commons is £388 million a year, which is not a very large amount. Even if there were tiny annual losses by just one bank, those would be in excess of it.

Lord Higgins: That’s one pension.

Lord Selsdon: It probably would be, my Lords. So it is not the money. Actually, a high proportion of the cost of your Lordships’ House goes on maintaining this great establishment, a historic building that no hereditary Peer would ever wish to have inherited.

Of the actual costs, 15 per cent are staff costs and 15 per cent are the costs of us. That is pretty low. Money is not the argument. What is it about? It is about party politics. The Liberals want to have more chaps or chapesses. However, we have more women here than they have in the House of Commons. We have more ethnic minority groups and more of those who are handicapped. We have more of everything. We have more people in the regions than does the House of Commons.

I was brought up to regard statistics as useless information, but I always make the point that they may be useless but one cannot think of anything more useful. We are not trying to prove anything; we are just asking where we go from here.

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I do not approve of the Bill. It should not be necessary. I approve of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. He is three months younger than me, but I first met him when he was on the Council of Europe. He has been in politics all his life. Rather like the mosquito, he has managed to have one foot in the water and one elsewhere, looking to sting people from time to time. He also joins those who go on cruises, which is an important business, because you get locked away with people for a while.

Certain things in the Bill I would come to and ask whether we need to change. First, I say to your Lordships: look at and read the code of conduct before the Ides of March.

Lord Strathclyde: Absolutely!

Lord Selsdon: It is a fantastic document, my Lords, and says everything that you could wish to have in it, except possibly something about conduct unbecoming a gentleman. So that document is already there.

It is strange how the old rules have changed. In fact, we had higher attendance in the House in 1999 than we do today. The interesting thing about those days was that, when you spoke, you stayed throughout the debate. Now, the more important people are, the more interested they are in committing incest: looking in the mirror at what they are going to say and sending it out as a press release before they have actually said it, and perhaps knocking others. Somehow there needs to be a little bit more of an esprit de corps.

I am a great believer in slow change but, because it has something of its own, I would like to see this Bill come back every Session for the next 10 years.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, it is much better than having a general purpose debate.

I get terribly hurt by being called one of the hereds. We are hereditary Peers who were elected under an Act of Parliament. We are technically exempted under the 1999 Act and then elected. Whether the election process is correct or not, it was not of our making and should be accepted. We are elected hereditary Peers. We therefore probably have more jurisdiction than any of those who are appointed, particularly those who are appointed by Prime Ministers—400 or more. If we start to pull ourselves apart, we will just creak at the seams and turn to dust.

The question now is what we do next. Let us look at a few comparisons. I dug out the other day that there were an enormous number of non-governmental departmental bodies that I had never heard of. I asked a Question about what they do and how much they cost because I thought that government departments were civil servants. These bodies cost £43 billion a year. Compared with that, the House of Lords is nothing. I have asked the Government to tell us what these people actually do. I suggested that we should see which Members of your Lordships’ House are on these things. Your Lordships have an outside relationship second to none in the world. We are also, from my own research, the most respected second Chamber.

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12.52 pm

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, it is almost 20 years since I was privileged to become a Member of your Lordships’ House, having been ennobled in the 1989 Birthday Honours List. My baptism of fire came quickly, as I was involved in debates on the then Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the first of many health service Bills and so on. However, I have been struck throughout this period by the quality of debate in your Lordships’ House, which exceeds that of any other chamber with which I have had any familiarity over the years, and by the fact that its membership embraces individuals with a huge range of experience, expertise and knowledge which it would be difficult to challenge in any other legislative assembly of which I am aware.

On entering the House I chose to become a Cross-Bencher irrespective of any previous political affiliations I may have had. I was here in 1999 when the amendment proposed by Lord Weatherill and the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—then Lord Cranborne—to retain 92 hereditary Peers was accepted by the House. It has not been mentioned that statistics revealed that 52 per cent of life Peers were over 70 at that time. It was thought that the presence of many younger hereditary Peers would enliven debates in your Lordships' House. I pay a major tribute to the way in which those hereditary Peers have contributed to our debates over the succeeding years.

When I first entered this House I vowed to speak only on medicine, science and education, with an occasional sideswipes at issues relating to my native north-east of England, such as dualling the A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh. Nevertheless, I decided then not to become involved in politics, so why am I speaking in this debate today? I do so because I believe that this Bill, so eloquently proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is a vital step in protecting and preserving the vitality and integrity of this part of the Mother of Parliaments. In my view its clauses are all admirable; for example, that regarding the establishment of a statutory Appointments Commission. Given the substantial influx of life Peers over the past few years, there is no need for by-elections to replace hereditary Peers who are no longer with us. The clauses relating to retirement are entirely acceptable. Nevertheless, as I approach my 87th birthday, I am mildly concerned that my Convenor has espoused the idea of honourable retirement so enthusiastically, but that admirable clause will be further considered. The clause relating to Peers who are convicted of a serious criminal offence is also admirable. However, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, I should like to see the Bill amended to enable the House to suspend any Peer who has been found guilty, after full appraisal, of a serious breach of the House’s rules and conventions.

I consider that some of the arguments adduced today against the Bill are unsustainable. If I may say so, I am aware that the Government do not consider the Bill satisfactory as a government measure, first, because it is interim legislation, and, secondly, because they believe that it would pre-empt any future major reform of this House if it were passed. If a lawyer says “with respect”, he means, “I don’t agree with you”. If

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he says “with great respect”, he means, “You’re talking nonsense”. If he says, “with the greatest possible respect”, he means, “You’ve gone off your head”. If I may say so to the Minister with the greatest possible respect, I believe that the Bill is a very helpful interim measure which the Government would do well to embrace as a first step for several reasons. First, it is clear from what has been said today that no further major reform of the House could possibly take place until after the next election. Secondly, there is uncertainty about which Government will be in power after the next election, and the views of the different parties on this matter are somewhat disparate. Thirdly, the Bill is so precise that it could in no way be regarded as pre-empting any subsequent major reform of your Lordships' House. Hence I invite the Minister to persuade his colleagues in government to undergo a damascene conversion to enable them to take on as a government measure this well respected measure, which has such wide all-party support. This House deserves no less.

12.58 pm

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on his excellent Bill, his patience in reintroducing it, and on his obvious persuasive talents that caused so many noble Lords on his Benches to change their minds.

There is an advantage and a disadvantage in being the 27th of 35 speakers. The advantage is that, undoubtedly, everything has been said and therefore you can sit down: the disadvantage is that you have spent a lot of time thinking about the measure but you do not want to impose views on noble Lords that they have heard several times already.

The truth is that many excellent speakers have carefully gone through the different parts of the Bill and have applauded it in full detail. There truly is nothing left for me to say, except perhaps to address my remarks directly to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who is so charming. He is not looking at me. Usually when I say something that he agrees with he nods, or vice versa; however, this time, until this very moment, he was deep in his notes.

There is absolutely no reason at all why the Government could not reasonably accept this Bill, as it certainly would not preclude any further proposals for longer-term reform at a later date. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is very well thought of on his Benches, in government and by the hierarchy, having done with excellence several different jobs on the Front Bench. However, this time he needs to urge the Government to take up what so many of us have said today—accept what is essential and immediate but is no more than a tidying up. I hope that the Minister this time might find that he could nod with me instead of shaking his head.

1.01 pm

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, I echo the noble Baroness and I hope that the Minister, if his brief currently states the usual claptrap about the White Paper representing an agreed position among all three major parties and pressing ahead with a joint commitment in all party manifestos at the next election,

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will have the good sense, if not to tear it up, to lose it quietly and find a form of words that indicates that he will go back to his colleagues and say, “Chaps, we’ve got to think again”.

This place is now overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has eloquently introduced. The number of serious conversions among those whose views are genuinely held in favour of wholesale election was notable. They recognise that this Bill is urgent and can be dealt with now. The case for postponing anything until we have a major reform would essentially kick the issue into the long grass and nothing will happen for a very long time.

If we are honest, the current White Paper is even vaguer than previous White Papers on Lords reform. That says nothing about its possible implementation. With the greatest respect to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and without falling into the trap that the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, laid for me, a majority of Conservative MPs in the other place voted against election. I might also add that a majority of Labour MPs voted against 80 per cent election. We must therefore look to—what was it?—the 33:1 chance of the Lib Dems winning the general election if there is to be a majority in the other place in favour of election. It is this Bill or nothing for a very long time, and that is not acceptable.

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