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In a year when we are celebrating Darwin’s anniversary, the evolutionary approach has found more favour than ever before, and I echo what my noble friend Lord Grocott said. It is noticeable that with the exception of some hereditaries arguing about the 1999 Act, there has been no objection in principle to any of the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I should point out that the deal on the 1999 provisions was that the 92 hereditaries who remained would simply go at the end of the second period; I presume that would mean that those who succeeded them by by-election would in fact, under the noble Lord’s provisions, remain in this Chamber as long as their maker wishes them to. The Bill is considerably more generous to the hereditaries than the 1999 Act.

I would not go as far as my noble friend Lord Lipsey went in imputing base motives to those in the Government who oppose the Bill, but one cannot resist the conclusion that people who wish for a radically different House will find it easier to convince people, if the goad of hereditary by-elections remains in place, to whip up support against the House of Lords. It would be plumbing new depths in political cynicism if you deliberately inhibited progress in this House towards an improved House simply to gain another objective later on at some point. I should counsel the Government very much against abandoning that course, and they should adopt the Bill.

1.04 pm

Lord Northbrook: My Lords, I support in principle those parts of the Bill that would establish a statutory Appointments Commission, a facility for permanent leave of absence and sensible measures to exclude Peers who have committed a serious criminal offence. There are, however, problems with the Bill’s details and with Clause 10.

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The Appointments Commission proposed in the Bill would do very little to take the influence of the Prime Minister and political parties out of the appointments process. Why should the four members, who are, commendably, not to be affiliated to any political party, be nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker? In my view, they should be nominated by another independent body.

In Clause 5(2)(a), the principal criteria for recommendation for a peerage are too vague. The clause should spell out a wide range of expertise in different areas, such as commerce, finance, the arts, public and private service professions and the Armed Forces. Staying on the subject of Clause 5, the Delegated Powers Committee said in its first report this Session—the Minister also said this in November 2007 at col. 1477—that Clause 5(5) should be subject to the affirmative procedure. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, said:

“As an offer that comes from the government Front Bench, I shall grab it immediately”.—[Official Report, 30/11/07; col. 1482.]

That would be welcomed by the House as a change. However, he seems to have forgotten his grab.

Clause 8 is unsatisfactory in a different way. It fails to put a definite cap on the size of the House. I feel that subsection (6) is too vague on that. It also does not make it clear that Liberal Democrats are part of the Official Opposition or how many new Members they may have. In the mean time, their numbers under the Bill are uncertain.

Clause 10, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, is completely unsatisfactory. The Government said that the undertaking by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, in 1999, which was repeated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in March 2007 and by the Minister in November 2007, was that the 92 hereditary Peers were to remain until reform is complete. As the other place has voted for an elected House—I disagree with that fundamentally—I believe that it is right to wait for government legislation on constitutional reforms, not a Private Member’s Bill, however worthy a lot of it may be.

Clauses 11 to 13 are on permanent leave of absence. It is not clear whether the facility of a temporary leave of absence will still continue or whether permanent leave will be the only option. Also, when a Member seeks permanent leave of absence or dies, should there not be an automatic top-up procedure rather than just leaving the matter for an occasion once a year, under Clause 8(1)?

I have three areas of concern about Clause 15. First, what is the definition of a serious criminal offence? Does setting fire to hotel curtains come under that or the recent driving offence of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed? There needs to be much more clarity of definition. Secondly—I now understand that this may have been a drafting error but it still has not been addressed—to make the offence retrospective is in my view wrong because it would catch noble Lords such as my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who was convicted of an offence that is no longer illegal. Thirdly, I find Clause 17 rather bizarre. If such a person were renominated, would he not be automatically excluded even if his appointment were confirmed?

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The Bill, many of whose principles appear attractive, has a lot of problems in detail. There is much to recommend sticking to the status quo until we have governmental legislation.

1.08 pm

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, one of the things that one notices about debates in your Lordships’ House is that words that are frequently used here are used in a sense that is other than the normal sense. I refer to the term “reform” of the House of Lords. Most people who discuss reform of the House of Lords actually want the destruction of the House of Lords in its present form. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, may shake his head but the nature of this House would be totally changed if an elected element were introduced; that is what he wants. Why he should want it is beyond me, but there you go.

As has rightly been pointed out, the Bill does not address any of the arguments for or against the Government’s—or anybody else’s, for that matter—proposals for an elected element in the House. What it does is remove a whole lot of silly irritants, which should have been removed a long time ago and are advanced as reasons for changing the composition of this House. When those irritants are removed, those who wish to change the composition of this House will have to argue, in total nakedness, the case for making this place a second-class edition of another place down the Corridor, and I think that they will find their position very much weakened as a result. Therefore, I totally welcome the Bill and I cannot wait for it to come into effect.

I want to say just one other thing. I am wholly in favour of patronage. This country would not work without patronage, and its greatest supporter is the present Prime Minister. He has found himself quite incapable of governing this country without, over the past few weeks, appointing a collection of very distinguished people to this place, and he has been quite right to do so. It just shows that in the Prime Minister’s view the electoral process does not produce people of adequate quality to govern this country. That is obvious. I do not want to see anything limiting the power of patronage in Prime Ministers, and if a Prime Minister uses patronage in a stupid way, the remedy is the ballot box.

I have no great affection for what the House of Lords commission has done, although I know that it is showered with eulogies. I think that some of the appointments that it has made are, frankly, idiotic. I do not say that the people who come here are idiots but the reasons that have been advanced for appointing some people to this place are idiotic.

Finally, there is one thing that I should like to see that is not in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. If we are to have a commission, which we probably will, it should be given guidance to the effect that no one who has sought to lobby to come here should ever be considered.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Gilbert: Yes, indeed, my Lords. That is all that I wish to say.

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1.12 pm

Lord Lucas: My Lords, has not the climate changed? Last time we debated the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, every time someone said something in favour of it, the next speaker snowed on him. Now, we are in spring. There are flowers blooming everywhere, even on the noble Lord’s own Benches. There are a few snowflakes left in the wind but spring has arrived—everywhere except in Jack Frost’s castle, where winter remains supreme and a few remain to serve him. Sadly, Jack Frost has in his thrall one of our own: a young boy imprisoned by his own fibs about wanting an elected House of Lords.

These stories are usually resolved by blood sacrifice. In the absence of Aslan or Sir Fred Goodwin, I suspect that my noble friend Lord Astor and others believe that that blood sacrifice will be us. I imagine that they are right, but we were put here to be the placeholders for stage 2 reform, when it comes, and I think that we should accept that role and accept the end of our part in it when the Government produce a Bill. They can do that quite well by taking on this Bill. As many noble Lords have said today, this Bill answers a great number of pressing problems in this House. Those problems should not be left but should be dealt with now, particularly under the current circumstances, as that would greatly improve the way in which this House operates.

As the noble Lord knows, I support an elected House, but the arguments of principle are difficult, as is getting it right. If there is a change in government, such a reform will take a very long time to come through. We should not let this House carry on in its current state of known imperfection in the expectation that some time in the next quarter-century we might get round to doing something about it. I do not suppose that the noble Lord takes that attitude to his car. I suspect that he sends it to be serviced regularly, rather than waiting until it is so broken down that he has to get a new one. That is not a sensible way to run a car, let alone a legislature.

On 28 January, Peter Riddell published a very insightful article in the Times, in which he listed eight reforms that this House ought to make. I think that we have addressed most of them today. We should take that sort of direction and support from outside seriously. We are not being asked to immolate ourselves; we are being encouraged to reform in sensible ways. Peter Riddell advocated, among other things, breaking the link between the peerage and a place in this House. That has already been done in the case of hereditary Peers and there is no reason why it should not be done with life Peers also. Perhaps you would not have to break the link absolutely, but you could just break the right to vote in this place, so that those who have particular expertise and want to attend only very occasionally could give us the benefit of their opinions. If that is not necessary, at least we could break the link so that the honour of a peerage is no longer confined to those who are then expected to do a job of work in this House.

There have been discussions about the proportions, particularly of party Peers, in the House. An obvious proportion is the percentage of votes cast in general

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elections for successfully getting Members elected to another place. Of course, that is not acceptable to my noble friend on the Front Bench in the context of an elected House. I agree with him. I think that a very unstable situation would be produced if we were to have a PR House of Lords when that was not the pattern in another place. However, I do not think that there would be an objection to having an appointed House on that pattern, because we would not have the legitimacy to challenge the other place anyway and, to my mind, it would produce the fairest and most sensible result.

Since the last war, there has been a stability in the proportion of votes cast for parties in general elections, which would mean that we could manage the size of this House and keep it within proper proportions on the basis of a 15-year term, with Peers being appointed every year. That level of turnover would allow us to adjust between one election and another. Following every election since the last war would not have caused a problem of inflation in the size of the House in relation to keeping the proportions of parties in the House right. We could tackle the transitional problems in many ways and how we deal with the House as it is. There is no lack of inventiveness. I have seen several suggestions. We need not be bamboozled by problems that, when one thinks about them, are not there.

The last point mentioned by Peter Riddell, and one that we should absolutely roll into this reform, is expenses. These days, it is not satisfactory to have such an obscure and unexplained method for Members of this House to reclaim the costs of being in this place. We must move to a transparent system and, along with these other reforms, now is the time to do it.

1.18 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, my first duty is to compliment noble Lords on keeping to the stricture of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, about speaking for no more than six minutes. They have done it so wonderfully that I calculate that we three Front-Bench speakers have just over half an hour each to reply. On behalf of my colleagues I thank you all for your self-discipline.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, both questioned the propriety of the case for reform being put by these Benches. I would claim that no Benches have a greater right to keep the flame of Lords reform alive than these ones. As my noble friend Lord Steel so rightly said in his extremely eloquent introduction, this Bill takes forward a pledge first made nearly 100 years ago by the then Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. So, that is a little unfinished business.

I assure the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that there is no hidden agenda. Like so much with the Liberal Democrats, we say what we mean and we mean what we say. If we get the votes at the general election, we will deliver Lords reform. On that we are sure. It may be of interest to noble Lords to know that the 1910 reforms were finally carried when noble Lords gave up the fight on 10 August 1910. One wonders what it was that caused them to go home on that day. But that is the nature of the thing.

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I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Steel for introducing the Bill. He has done a great deal of work backstage to get the kind of cross-party support for this measure that we have heard expressed today. I have to confess that I have changed my mind. I suspected that this measure was the work of what Harold Wilson once described as a tightly knit group of politically motivated men, a few of whom have contributed to the debate today; but, like Keynes, I change my mind as the circumstances change. The challenge of what the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, described as the reputational crisis facing this House dictates that we can no longer play this long.

Despite the fact that we have the least heavy legislative programme since 1945 and there is ample time for a Lords reform Bill, the Labour and Conservative parties are not willing to bring forward a reform Bill. Indeed, the way in which the two parties have set out their commitments would put Lords reform occurring somewhere between 2014 and 2020. But given the reputational crisis referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, we will have to be more realistic and look at some of the real issues that could be addressed by this Bill and similar ones. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, that my commitment to Lords reform is as firm as ever, and I do not believe that the Bill will weaken the case for it. I have known the noble Lord for nearly 40 years, and I count him as a very dear and close friend. However, I cannot think of one major issue on which I agree with him. It just shows how friendship can triumph over even the greatest of adversities.

The case for reform now is before us. The Bill’s key point, the statutory Appointments Commission, has been dealt with by my noble friend Lord Goodhart. As for hereditary by-elections, we on these Benches were no part of that, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said. I suspect that history will judge that the ever wily Cecil—the then Lord Cranborne—outsmarted that simple Scottish advocate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, a decade ago. I think that we got help there from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who said that the Bill is not the betrayal of the hereditaries that has been suggested.

Retirement and non-attendance need to be addressed. My only problem, apart from the years themselves clocking up, is that I was always and still am in favour of a retirement age, but last night we had a party to celebrate the 80th birthdays of my noble friends Lord Avebury, Lord Taverne, Lord Rodgers and Lord Tordoff—four of the more active members of my flock. The day before, we had an ever perceptive question from 90 year-old Lord Ezra, and yesterday, in the foreign affairs debate, we had yet another contribution from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. That makes the idea of a cut-off date a little difficult to justify.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I know how to win over an audience, do not worry.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, often glowers at me when she says, “I know that some of you do not like the Cross-Benchers”. I do—I love them. But a

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little statistic may interest the House. Creations since 2005 include 12 Liberal Democrats, 17 Conservatives, 32 Labour, including 10 who have transferred straight to the Front Bench, and 41 Cross-Benchers. When the Cook-Maclennan committee, which has been referred to and which I served on, was considering the matter before the 1997 election, we were considering a House of Lords of about 450 in size with 20 per cent Cross-Benchers. That makes 90 Cross-Benchers. There are now more than 200; they are the second largest group in the House. I remember no discussion or debate that suggested that the House should be changed so fundamentally in that way. I very much admire the Cross-Benchers but like my former workmate, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, I think that the party-political Benches in this House do the work revising and advising on legislation in a way that the Cross Benches do not. We must face the fact that to make this place function properly, all the political Front Benches must be able to be refreshed with people who will take up that difficult and time-consuming task.

I briefly turn to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, who I thought was wandering out onto very thin ice when he talked about manifestoes. I challenge some of my former comrades in the House of Commons. The House of Commons must have supremacy on this. When we go through Lords reform, it would be unthinkable that this House should have a veto on it. It is right that all three parties should clarify and include specifically in their next manifestoes their views on Lords reform. If they happened to coincide, so much the better, and I do not see the danger to democracy that the right reverend Prelate speaks of.

Other than that, my only forward look is one of eager anticipation to see how, as my noble friend Lord Tyler pointed out, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, performs his usual escapology. I also look forward to the Minister’s reply. Lords reform—constitutional reform—is difficult. Evolutionary consensus is possibly the best way. However, I point out that constitutional reform sometimes comes through struggle and decisive action. If we had waited for consensus in 1832, a Member for Old Sarum would probably still be sitting in the House of Commons. If we had allowed the Lords to dictate on the Budget in 1910, instead of threatening to create 600 Peers, the Lords would still have an unacceptable control over government expenditure. Sometimes Governments have to be brave. I understand the problems of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, today, but I say to him only that there is a famous precedent. Robert Peel, when listening to the debate on the corn laws, turned to a colleague halfway through the debate and said, “You must answer them, for I cannot”. I wonder what he would do if he was to go back to then. There are direct parallels in our careers.

In our youth, Jack Straw was one of the most radical of student leaders. He is now fast becoming the most conservative of constitutional reformers. The Minister has a duty, having listened to this House, to go back to Mr Straw and say, “You must answer them, for I cannot”.

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1.30 pm

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, this is fast becoming an annual occasion. It is not quite so grand as the state opening and not quite such fun as the doorkeepers’ Christmas party. Nevertheless, it is a fixed part of the House of Lords calendar. Once again, the long list of speakers testifies to your Lordships’ interest in our own future, and I propose to the Government that instead of creating divisive Private Members’ Bills to discuss these issues, we should set aside a week at the start of every January to debate the future of your Lordships’ House.

We have had a series of good speeches today. Indeed, there have been many excellent speeches; I have enjoyed every single one of them. I even learnt a new fact in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who told me that his noble friend Lord Steel is in favour of a 100 per cent elected House. I had no idea that he despised the Cross Benchers quite as much as that, and I pledge myself to defending their right to sit in this House for so long as I have breath in my body.

Since the general election, and until the publication of the White Paper, there was a useful process in the cross-party working group on the future of this House. It took some time. As a result of that, there came a thoughtful White Paper: albeit, I admit, one with many gaps in it. Incidentally, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, that I made it clear before, during and after that process that nothing was done to involve Back Benchers in this House in that process or to share papers with this House, and that I thought that that was wrong. I even proposed a parallel committee to review the work of the group. Surely, if we are going to discuss the future of your Lordships’ House, it should not be in a debate on a Private Member’s Bill on a Friday but in a full debate on the White Paper organised in government time. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, will tell the House whether, and then when, we will have a debate on the government White Paper. The voice of this House ought to be heard on that White Paper before we prepare programmes to present to the public in a general election which, for the sake of the country, cannot come too soon.

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