House of Lords Bill [HL]
Lord Strathclyde (Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament; Conservative)
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.
In that vein, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and others asked about the view of my right honourable friend David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party. It was put that he has decided that House of Lords reform should not be his primary priority. There were questions about why that should be. The answer is very simple. What are his priorities? He is preoccupied by the plight of families who face losing their jobs and having their homes repossessed, by being the Prime Minister of a nation that is collapsing in near bankruptcy, and by a financial crisis, caused by failed regulations and muddled monetary policy, that has led to an asset price boom and now a credit bust. He wants to face up to the problems of a broken society and an education system in which 20 per cent of children leave school without getting even a C grade at GCSE. At the end of that we may well turn our minds to parliamentary reform. I must confirm to this House that our fundamental views on reform have not changed. I want to see this great old House playing a larger, not a lesser, place in our Parliament. In my opinion and that of my right honourable friend Mr Cameron, that can come only by allowing the public to elect political Members of this Chamber.
I opposed Mr Blair's plan to entrench an all-appointed Chamber in 1999. I seem to recall large numbers of those who are present today with me in the Division Lobbies. The late Lord Weatherill's amendment won overwhelming majorities in both Houses, including many noble Lords who now back the noble Lord, Lord Steel, in removing elected hereditary Peers' by-elections without securing any commitment to future reform. I opposed the Bill in 1999 because it was incremental. We would have saved ourselves a great deal of bother if we had done the fundamental reform then, as well as a great deal of time on these endless debates. I recall the dignity with which hundreds of former Members of the House left in 1999 without a murmur in the expectation that this House would keep its word that stage 2 reform would come. Many of those who voted on that day believe we should keep our word. I believe that Part 2 breaks that word and I therefore cannot support it.
I was flabbergasted by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, who claims his seat here by betraying his party and his electors, and somehow regards himself as superior to my noble friend Lord Caithness who was elected by his Peers and is here by virtue of statute.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, asked about stage 2. Perhaps I may say that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, spent far too much time as Chief Whip on the Front Bench. He always speaks with tremendous eloquence and, in the main, very good sense. His question on stage 2 was answered very effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has rightly said that stage 2 need not be an appointed House, an elected House or a hybrid House. But stage 2 has to be satisfactory to both Houses and take the views and interests of both Houses into account. If it does not do that, it cannot deliver the stability that many noble Lords seem to hope and think this Bill will.
It is also easy for Liberal Democrats, such as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to ignore the political disadvantage that would disproportionately affect Conservatives and Cross-Benchers if Part 2 should come into effect. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Caithness explained with great care what has happened since 1999.
Notwithstanding the observations of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, Conservative Peers are on average much older than most Members of this House. Actuarially, they are, sadly, likely to die faster. Under the terms of this Bill, it is very hard to work out whether every time a Conservative Peer dies, one of Labour's Peers will have to go too in order to maintain the proportions. That, of course, could leave the Liberal Democrats sitting pretty. That is the problem of any mechanistic scheme of numbers. It will always hurt the party whose membership is older, more infirm and less able to attend. If decisions on composition are to be made on the slide-rule suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on the basis of numbers alone, that would ignore a major reality of our House which has affected both governing parties, Labour and Conservative, in their time; namely, that of age, as recognised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Someone talked about a geriatric House, which is a problem. In fact, a paradox of the 1999 Act is that the average age of the House rose by five years after that Act was passed.
I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, does not propose a retirement age. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is in favour of it. But the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Cobbold, suggest that there should be terms of appointment—either 15 years in line with the royal commission or 20 years as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. Perhaps we should have a debate about retirement age. What are our views on that? Should it be 80, 75 or 70 years-old? I have to warn the House that if the retirement age was 70, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, would not be with us today.
Some want this Bill because they think that it is the piece of paper that will bring about an appointed House and will solve the House of Lords question in our time. Others genuinely see it in incremental improvements that they think will help the House. As I said on a previous occasion, the Bill provides architecture towards an alternative solution: an all-appointed House. I pay the noble Lord the compliment of saying that he and his expert advisers have at least changed the Bill marginally since last year, but his changes do not address some of the fundamental problems that we will have to consider in Committee.
Some of these questions I posed to him 12 months ago. For instance, in Clause 8(2), how does one define party affiliation? How would one treat those noble Lords who go to the Cross Benches while they hold quango appointments but still vote the party line? In working for party balance, on what basis does the commission decide how many seats each Opposition party will get? Are election results taken into account, or are the votes cast, or number of seats in the House of Commons, or what? What is meant by a public appearance or public speaking in support of a political party in Clause 8(4)(b)? For instance, if the Conservative Party were to organise a rally against the Heathrow third runway or against ID cards, and a distinguished environmentalist or civil libertarian came and spoke, would that mean he would then get the black spot under the Bill? How will it work? I am sure that is not the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, but it could be one of the effects.
What is meant in the Clause 9(2) about making procedures for the various parties' nominations for peerages consistent? The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, spoke rather well on this point. Our systems are rather different from the Liberal Democrats, who hold elections, inevitably, by the most complex PR system known to man. I have here the results of their last election to the so-called interim Peers panel. You could not make this up. There were 44 breathless candidates and there was a grand total of 1,188 electors. I gather that 21.32 votes were transferred away from the unfortunate Mr Mohammed Shafiq and therefore he was excluded in the last round, which was number 31. Why on earth should the other parties be consistent with this nonsense? Why should we adopt a lunatic system with 1,188 electors when there is a tried and tested one with 40 million?
There is much else in the Bill that we need to probe. I shall not say a great deal about leave of absence for disciplinary matters. There is a mood in the House that something needs to be done but we need to wait for the reports of the sub-committee and the Privileges Committee before we move forward on that.
Clause 12(1) on the so-called failure to attend is an interesting way of dealing with the issue of Peers who do not attend. I do not know who the noble Lord, Lord Steel, had in mind—the proposal is to exclude a Peer who does not turn up in one Session—and so I have done a little research. I have discovered that in the 2006-07 Session, the last Session for which figures are available, there was a Peer who did not attend for a single sitting day. Who was that? None other than the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham. He would then, perversely, be sent out to find a Peer to replace him, who would then be obliged to come. Another perverse effect is that it would encourage Peers to come in who would be better staying away. It does not deal with the problem of long-term illness or Peers who go and run Bosnia or work in the European Union and so on, but these are detail points.
On the issue of permanent absence, Clause 11(3) leaves unspoken the question of whether there should be inducements to leave. It raises the issue of bonuses for departure, very much like Sir Fred Goodwin of the Royal Bank of Scotland. It is rather odd that we set ourselves up as being here for life, there is an expectation of being here for life, and yet we want to have in the Bill a reason for leaving. I am not quite sure how that will be explained.
On the size of the House, there is a complete tension between Clause 8(2) and Clause 8(6). Clause 8(2) sets out how the numbers are calculated. Before the Labour Party gets enraged, perhaps I may put forward the small proposal that the Conservative Party will win the next General Election and then look at the figures. Automatically, with the current composition of the House, the Conservative Party would be entitled to an extra 42 Members. The House would then increase to 732, and that is without any dissolution honours, retirement honours or any other honours—yet, under Clause 8(2), the House has to be reduced to below 646. There is no system now for doing that, and we should discuss how to do it. There are proposals that in every Parliament the House should be reduced by 10 per cent. We could do that by election; we have done it before, and there is no reason why we should not do it again.
I have one final question: what does "normally" mean in Clause 4(2) when it says that the commission would normally consider nominations from leaders of parties with six seats in the House of Commons? If, God forbid, the British National Party won six seats in a general election—under PR, for instance—would the commission say, "Sorry chaps; we would normally, but not for you"? If we look at the present House of Commons, does a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Jay, from the SNP, which has seven members, get opened while one from Plaid Cymru, which has three, gets sent back? In Northern Ireland, would the Democratic Unionists, with nine seats, get the red carpet treatment while Sinn Fein, with five, and the Ulster Unionists got nothing? If not, again, on what basis does an unelected commission decide what part of the people's voice can be heard and what part can be ignored?
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, and this was echoed by many others, that this is not a comprehensive Bill and that it does not try to answer all the difficulties. Clearly it does not, but I detect in the House—this is the difficulty for the Minister—that there is impatience and a head of steam; great pressure is building up on all this. I shall voice one small warning, which I know will be ignored: supporters of the Bill may find that when it gets to another place Members there will be equally yearning for it, but they will have very different views on how an appointments committee should operate and may send back a very different Bill from the one that its supporters imagine. When we debated these issues with Mr Straw some time ago, it was clear that there was a substantial view that a statutory appointments commission should include provisions for decisions based on regionalism, gender, ethnicity, age, retirement, terms of office and all the complexities of religious representation that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, discussed, as well as many other things.
I welcome the Bill going into Committee. It will need a great deal of discussion and possibly revision. If it goes to Committee, I will join noble Lords in playing my full part in the subsequent debate.