New Clause

Orders of the Day — House of Lords Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 10th November 1999.

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Lords amendment: No. 2, after clause 1, to insert the following new clause—Appointments Commission—

  1. ".—(1) There shall be an Appointments Commission ("the Commission") which shall make proposals to the Prime Minister for recommendations to Her Majesty for the conferment of life peerages in accordance with the Life Peerages Act 1958.
  2. (2) The Commission shall be an advisory non-departmental public body and shall—
    1. a) be appointed in accordance with the rules of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and may seek his advice about best practice in attracting and assessing potential nominees;
    2. (b) operate an open and transparent nominations system for peers not belonging to, or recommended by, any political party ("the Cross Bench peers");
    3. (c) actively invite nominations by the general public and encourage nominations from professional associations, charities and other public bodies that it judges appropriate;
    4. (d) publish criteria under which it will determine a candidate's suitability for nomination;
    5. (e) reinforce the present function of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee in vetting the suitability of all nominations to life peerages by the political parties; and
    6. (f) scrutinise all candidates for life peerages on the grounds of propriety in relation to political donations, as proposed in the 5th Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
  3. (3) The Commission shall appoint its own Chairman.
  4. (4) It shall, at most every 6 months, and at least every year, make proposals to the Prime Minister for nomination as Cross Bench peers, sufficient at least to fill any vacancies among Cross Bench peers that may occur through death, disqualification or a decision to join a political party represented in the House of Lords.
  5. (5) The Prime Minister may not refuse to submit to Her Majesty the names of those recommended as Cross Bench peers by the Commission, and shall not seek to influence such nominations, save in exceptional circumstances, such as those endangering the security of the realm.
  6. (6) The Commission, in considering nominations as Cross Bench peers, shall not give any additional weight to recommendations from the Prime Minister or the Leaders of other political parties.
  7. (7) Following the passing of this Act the Commission shall make a report annually to Parliament on the recommendations made to Her Majesty by the Prime Minister for the conferment of life peerages, in which it will declare if the following criteria are being observed, namely that—
    1. (a) no one political party commands a majority in the House of Lords;
    2. (b) the Government has broad parity of numbers with the main opposition party;
    3. (c) the proportion of the Cross Bench peers to the total number of peers in the House remains the same as the proportion of the Cross Bench life peers to the total number of life peers in the House on the day before the passing of this Act; and
    4. (d) more than half of the total membership of the House of Lords is composed of peers who in the opinion of the Commission have experience of, and expertise in, fields other than (or in addition to) politics.
  8. (8) The Commission shall consist of eight members of the Privy Council, of whom four shall be appointed by a special Commission of the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Lord Chairman of Committees of the House of Lords.
  9. (9) One Commissioner shall be appointed from each of the three largest parties in the House of Commons on the nomination of the Leader of each such party. and one shall be appointed from the Cross Bench peers on the nomination of the Convenor of the Cross Bench Peers."

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 13 and the motion to disagree.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

The amendment places the appointments commission on a statutory basis. I remind the House of the Government's commitment to an independent appointments commission set up in accordance with guidelines issued by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and that the commission will be responsible for identifying Cross-Bench peers. The Prime Minister is the first to relinquish his powers of patronage. [Interruption.] It would be interesting to know if any future Tory Prime Minister would do the same; certainly none has done so in the past.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

Following that assertion, will the Minister say how many peers the Prime Minister, who is supposedly relinquishing that power of patronage, has created?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

It is clear that our proposal is to move towards broad parity with the other parties. We believe that no party should have overall control of the House of Lords. I contrast that with the history of the hon. Gentleman's party.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Liberal Democrat, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross

The White Paper went beyond broad parity between the parties. It also referred to the principle of proportionality, reflecting the strength of the parties in the House. Can the Minister confirm that that remains the position?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I can confirm that and I shall speak about it at greater length later.

The Government have been consistent in their commitment to reducing their powers over the House of Lords. We do not intend the transitional House to be under the control of the Government. It would have been absurd to suggest that because 500 life peers have been nominated by eight Prime Ministers, mostly Conservatives, over the past 40 years. Our manifesto was explicit on that point: we said that no one party should seek a majority in the House of Lords and that the system of appointment of life peers would be reviewed, and we committed ourselves to maintaining an independent Cross-Bench presence of life peers. We also said that, over time, party appointments should more accurately reflect the votes cast at the preceding general election.

8.30 pm

We have been absolutely clear about the fact that we intend to deliver quickly on our commitments. That is important. Our proposals have three elements. First, there is the principle that will determine the numbers in the transitional House; secondly, there is the introduction of an independent appointments commission to nominate Cross-Bench peers; thirdly, there is the undertaking to forward to Her Majesty the Queen, without interference, the recommendation of other party leaders and the commission.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Will my hon. Friend explain how peers who are not Cross Benchers will be appointed?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

That will be a matter for the party leaders, which contrasts with the present arrangement. The Prime Minister has made that clear, and, indeed, has already started to forward recommendations for appointment without any interference.

Let me explain the principles of our approach. We have publicly committed ourselves not to seek more than broad parity between the Government and the main opposition party. As our manifesto stated, our objective was that, over time, party appointees as life peers should reflect more accurately the proportion of votes cast at the last general election. We gained 48 per cent. of the votes cast for the three major parties, while the Conservatives gained 34 per cent. When the House of Lords returned after the recess, we composed only 41 per cent. of the membership, while the Conservatives composed 45 per cent.

On the basis of our manifesto, we would have been entitled to an increase of 40 per cent.—roughly 240 more if we start with the Conservatives' 172 life peers. Instead, we have said that we are seeking about the same number that they have. We have gone much further in restraining our ambitions than we needed to, maintaining our manifesto commitment. We are also committed—this answers a point made earlier—to proportionate creations from the other parties.

The White Paper spelled out our commitment to a continuing independent Cross-Bench element. That not only involves a commitment to maintain the relative strength of that element, but distances my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister from the process of selection.

That brings me to the question of the appointments commission, which has two important aspects. The first is the concept that the commission is an indication of the Government's continuing commitment to the idea of independent Members of the House of Lords, which also highlights our commitment to the idea that they should be working Members. The second is the reduction in patronage that will clearly ensue.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I assume that the Minister is serious about the concept of a commission, so why would he not include it in the Bill? If the terms of the amendment are not currently acceptable to the Government, the Minister can easily cure that by tabling his own amendment.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

Of course that is true, and that is what this decision is about. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will wait a little while, I shall explain why we do not intend to include it in the Bill.

As has been explained many times, we intend the appointments commission to be an advisory non-departmental public body. It will include members of the three main parties, and a majority of independent members. The appointment of the independent members will be in accordance with the guidelines for the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Those guidelines include a number of principles: that appointments should be on merit, that all appointments should be subject to independent scrutiny, and that there should be an open and transparent selection process.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

Is the Minister aware that the same guidelines apply to appointments to health authorities and trusts? In that context, since 1997 some 232 Labour councillors have been appointed to such bodies, as against 20 Conservatives and 30 Liberal Democrats. The guidelines clearly give no guarantee at all.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I will not stray from the terms of the amendment, but I will answer the question—it is quite simple. In previous years, there was a serious imbalance on health bodies and trusts, but the commissioner will look at the matter. There is nothing to hide. We will look forward, and act on the commission's recommendations.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

In regard to representation, the Minister mentioned the three main parties. It is not for me to defend the position of the Scottish National party or that of the parties from Northern Ireland, but will there be no representation for those minority parties?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

It is not intended that they will be represented on the appointments commission, but they will be proportionately represented in the other Chamber.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Liberal Democrat, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross

I thank the Minister. It will save him from having to make the point later.

The Minister will have noted that the new clause introduced by the Weatherill amendment results in some movement towards proportionality. There has, however, been an increase of a mere 2 per cent. in the representation of the Liberal Democrats, as opposed to a 10 per cent. increase in Labour's representation.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

The right hon. Gentleman merely demonstrates how much more needs to be done. If he takes that view, it might have been helpful if he had voted for the way forward rather than sitting on his hands and taking no part in the debate on the earlier amendment.

How the parties choose their members is, of course, a matter for them, but I hope that they will follow our example of openness. The appointments commission will be encouraged to seek nominations from a wide field, including nominations from members of the public—the so-called people's peers. [Interruption.] Traditionalists groan at that—traditionalists who, perhaps, have not moved on from the 18th century, and have continued to support hereditary peers. How much better it must be for people to be appointed to the House of Lords because of what they have already achieved, and what they can do for the country.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

Is not the proper procedure for choosing "people's peers" a proper election with universal suffrage?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I hope that we shall discuss that point soon. I hope very much that the royal commission will stick to its timetable, and that the House will have an opportunity to express a view on its report during the lifetime of this Parliament. I hope that we can discuss the issues vigorously, and find a solution that will give us a better system than the one we have now.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

When the Labour party made its submission to the Wakeham commission, why on earth was there no mention of any proposal to use election as a means of selecting those who will sit in the upper Chamber?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

The Labour party has expressed its view. I was fortunate enough to hear the Conservative party express its view to the Wakeham commission. I will not be drawn on what the Wakeham commission will recommend. I hope that it reports quickly and that we can move on very quickly to the second stage.

We are asking the appointments commission to vet nominations for political peerages, which is currently undertaken by the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The Minister told the House that he would be kind enough to say why, if he is so keen on a commission, he will not put it in the Bill. Will he now answer the question?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

The right hon. and learned Gentleman must restrain himself a little. He has been in the House for many years. I told him that I would address the issue and I will.

The third element of our proposal is that the Prime Minister has publicly committed himself to relinquishing control of the nominations and will not interfere with the nominations from other political parties. That process has already started.

We are already going much further than any Prime Minister has ever gone. In debates in both the House of Commons and the other place, there has been an attempt to suggest that, although the present Prime Minister's promises can be accepted, one cannot be sure of the future. I am confident of the honour of any Labour Prime Minister, but is the Conservative party saying that it cannot have the same certainty? By backing the amendment, it must doubt its own integrity.

Another question has been frequently addressed: if our commitment is clear, what is the objection to putting the provision on a statutory basis? That is the basis of the amendment.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I want to deal with that question after giving way to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Conservative, Rushcliffe

The Minister has said that the Labour party is against election and prefers nomination. If he has doubts about any future Government not following the practice of nomination, the way to protect against that is by putting it on a statutory basis. So far, all his arguments are entirely consistent with the contents of the amendment that he is inviting the House to strike out. Will he now move to the actual point of the debate: why are the Government rejecting proposals which they keep claiming they are in favour of?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is my neighbour, of what I said: I want to deal with that question. Like the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), he should restrain himself for a moment.

Our main contention is that such a move is inappropriate and unnecessary: there is no need to have legislation to establish a body of the type that we have in mind. Advisory non-departmental bodies are normally established without statutory provision. That does not affect either their standing or effectiveness. The Neill committee itself is such a body. Debate on the issue has frequently confused the question of the Prime Minister's role in the matter. The two are separate issues. We can take the Prime Minister out of the process, as far as it is possible to do so, without any statutory provision.

We are also talking about a transitional process. Why make elaborate statutory provisions for something that is only temporary? Why introduce one form of appointments commission by statute, when it is possible that we may receive recommendations for a different approach? The royal commission's terms of reference give scope for that. The clause is elaborate and raises as many questions as it answers.

Legislation, by necessity, needs to cater for all foreseeable circumstances. A non-statutory arrangement can lay out the broad principles, which can be developed and adjusted accordingly, which cannot be done as easily with legislation. As I have said, there are many gaps in the provision. For example, what would be the terms of service for commission members?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

One of the attractive features of the Lords amendment is that it proposes an annual report to Parliament by the commission. We do not have that under the Nolan, or Neill-style committee—not automatically. We will want some guarantee that, in the appointment of legislators—the appointment of Members of Parliament—an opportunity is built into the system whereby we can scrutinise the appointments commission and ensure that it is doing its work and has not been manipulated in any way. It must be the subject of scrutiny. That is our role here. The amendment contains that provision.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

It must be the case that the appointments commission, whether it is a statutory or a non-departmental public body, is accountable. It will produce reports. I am confident that hon. Members on both sides of the House will review its operations and challenge it if it is not effective.

8.45 pm

Our proposals in the White Paper were not developed to be statutory. They cannot simply be lifted verbatim and put into statute, as Lords amendment No. 2 attempts to do. The new clause itself is wrong and deficient. It is also internally inconsistent. To take the most obvious example, how can a requirement that members of the appointments commission be recruited under the Nolan principles seriously be reconciled with the requirement that they are all to be Privy Councillors? The reference to the Privy Council is also a statutory innovation: no other position in public life has a statutory right or requirement to Privy Council membership.

We believe that it is neither necessary nor worth while to pursue that particular amendment. No one has tabled amendments that address the new clause's internal problems. The current version of the new clause is the only one that is available. The House should not legislate to include in an Act of Parliament a provision that we know is as internally flawed as the current one.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

If the hon. Gentleman does not like Privy Councillors, he is at liberty to amend the new clause to specify a different group—perhaps anyone but Privy Councillors. 1 am sure that Opposition Members would accept that.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

I am entitled to recommend and advocate the approach that I believe in, which is an appointments commission established as I have described.

Were it not for Lords amendment No. 2, substantial progress would already have been made in establishing the appointments commission. Treasury permission to begin implementation of the commission has already been secured. Indeed, work had already begun in establishing it. However, Lords amendment No. 2 has brought a premature halt to that progress. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] It would have been inappropriate for progress in establishing the appointments commission to be made while we were considering an amendment from the other place that proposed dealing with the matter in statute.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Conservative, Rushcliffe

With the greatest respect, so far no reason that the Minister has given to reject the amendment has made the slightest sense. If the Treasury has authorised establishing an independent commission, the fact that the other place—entirely in line with the Government's proposals—has proposed a statutory basis for the commission should not stop preparations. Which feature of the proposals no longer attracts the Government? The argument about Privy Councillors was incomprehensible. The Minister has not given one reason why all the members should not be Privy Councillors. It is also entirely irrelevant that the Bill has made no mention of Privy Councillors. What is the Minister's objection to any part of the proposal, and why should any part of the proposal stop the Treasury financing preparations for the commission?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks why we have not made greater progress. I take the view that it would be an insult to Parliament—to the Lords and to the Commons—to proceed with our own plans while we were considering an amendment proposing establishing the commission in statute.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

No, I shall not give way again—I have already given way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman plenty of times. He also asked why the appointments commission cannot be statutory. As I said, our own proposals will work.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

What is important is what works, and our proposals will work; they are well tried and well tested. The appointments commission will operate initially during the transitional House, and it may well be that, in the light of the royal commission's report, we shall want to adjust the process. However, that will depend on the Wakeham report.

As I said, I should have hoped that we could make greater progress on establishing the appointments commission. Unfortunately, a stalemate has developed. Our desire quickly to implement an appointments commission has been unnecessarily delayed by an insistence on its statutory basis. Today, however, we shall have the opportunity to break the logjam. If the amendment is rejected, the way will be clear to set in motion again the process of establishing the commission.

Whatever the critics may say, we want and are determined to make quick progress. Our proposals will work; our route is well established; our desire is absolutely clear. We will reduce the powers of patronage in the interim House. With that, I ask the House to reject the Lords amendment.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Minister (Constitutional Affairs)

I have heard some speeches in my time, but never have I heard such a threadbare speech from someone on the Government Front Bench. It was an extraordinary speech. The Minister, who is an amiable cove, was blasted out of the water by his constituency neighbour, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). It was an Alice in Wonderland speech—if I say it three times, it is true.

If the Prime Minister genuinely wants these appointments to be conducted by an independent appointments commission, what is the logical objection to having a statutory commission? The Minister has not advanced one plausible reason to vote against the amendment. Is he saying that because the House of Lords passed the amendment, the Government were suddenly struck by legislative paralysis, totally incapable of tabling amendments of their own and of making it a little more workable if they thought it not workable? Are they totally incapable of making any progress with their own appointments commission, so that the Minister could stand at the Dispatch Box tonight and tell us a little more about that? The whole thing is absolutely incredible.

The Lords amendment seems very modest. Our colleagues in another place have taken the Government at face value. They have said that they accept and welcome the fact that the Government are going to have an independent commission and that that is a good idea. They have therefore said, "Let us put it on the face of the Bill, set it up on a statutory basis and, what is more, go to the Government's White Paper to select the criteria for the commission." I cannot for the life of me understand what is objectionable or wrong about that.

The faces of some of the Minister's hon. Friends were studies indeed. Their looks of amazed incredulity as he stumbled through the reasons for not doing so were wonderful to behold. No one in this House who has studied the question could attach any credibility to what the hon. Gentleman said.

Even tonight, amendments were tabled to Lords amendment No. 1. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) withdrew them, but they had tabled them and they were debated. If the Government had chosen to table some amendments, they would most certainly have been selected and debated. If they had done so, the Minister could have told us why Privy Councillors were not appropriate, or why the new clause did not fit and where we could improve it. But no—the hon. Gentleman merely turned the amendment down, without giving any sensible reason.

The hon. Member for Thurrock made a good point about the annual report to Parliament. The Minister replied that there are other annual reports to Parliament. What he seemed not fully to understand is that this is a unique—for once, I use that word totally correctly—situation. We are talking about the appointment of legislators, not of members of health trusts or anything else, important as they are and valuable as the work that they do is. We know from the previous debate that there is considerable anxiety among Labour Members—including the hon. Member for Thurrock, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews)—about the power of patronage and the influence that the Prime Minister will have.

The Minister's comments about the Prime Minister's appointments commission did not address the central issue that it will be appointed by the Prime Minister.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

What is more, did not the Minister speak about adjusting the situation, should developments require it? Who would adjust the remit of an independent appointments commission?

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Minister (Constitutional Affairs)

There are only one or two people who could do that—the Prime Minister or the all-knowing, all-seeing, fingers-in-everything Mr. Campbell—and by Jove, they would if they did not like the situation. The Prime Minister has appointed one quarter of the strength of the House of Lords as it will be next week. He has created 171 peers—some of them a trifle odd—in the past two and a half years. That is more than the previous Prime Minister appointed in seven years. Those are facts, not just things that I am dredging up from the back of my mind. Against that background, is it any wonder that there is a credibility gap in the House—on both sides—and outside?

Let us say that we trust the Prime Minister. I believe the Minister to be eminently honourable and trustworthy. I say that entirely without sarcasm. However, that is not sufficient. Who is to say that there will not be others who will manipulate? We have seen certain examples over the past two and a half years of the skills of manipulation in high places. If we had a statutory body set up as the amendment suggests—the Minister knows that it was passed by a substantial majority in the other place—those fears would not exist. People would believe that the body was transparent. It would be set up for a specific purpose.

It is a very weak argument to say that the interim House of Lords will not last for long. As we said in the previous debate, we do not know how long it will last. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield thinks that it will last for at least 25 years. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) thinks that it will last for a fair time. There are others who think that it will not last for so long. There are some who do not want it to last for very long. However, it is clear that for the immediately foreseeable future—I choose my words with great care—that will be the second Chamber. It is crucial that it should have the respect of the nation. For all that has been said about the House of Lords that we are getting rid of and all the blemishes that some may think it has, it has certainly enjoyed the respect of the nation.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Minister (Constitutional Affairs)

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but let me concede for a moment that he may be right. If he is, it is all the more important that the new House should have such respect, untarnished by suspicion.

It is crucial that we accept the amendment. It would not damage the Government's legislative plans or solutions. It would not alter the Bill or the composition of the other place from 17 November. It would merely ensure that future appointments were made by a statutory body that could not be manipulated, tinkered with, messed around, suspended or adjusted for political reasons by anybody who felt that the situation might be a little uncomfortable at the moment.

I am sorry that not more hon. Members are present this evening. I urge every hon. Member who wants to have respect for the integrity of both Houses of Parliament to support the amendment putting the commission into the Bill, so that, when the Queen gives the Bill her Royal Assent, we can all feel that, although we have an imperfect body—we would all agree with that; some of my right hon. and hon. Friends want radical change, others more minor change—we at least have confidence in the system that will exist for the immediate future.

9 pm

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Is it not rather irrelevant whether the measure is in statute? Is not the appointments commission a fig leaf for what we know, from Lady Richard's diaries, to be the attitude of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, which is that they do not want an elected second Chamber? What we really want is an elected second Chamber.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Minister (Constitutional Affairs)

My hon. Friend speaks for himself, and it is a view which is shared by many. We do not yet know what the Wakeham commission will recommend. The official position of the Conservative party is to wait to see what the Wakeham commission has to say, after which we shall debate it and come to a considered conclusion. It may or may not be that advocated by my hon. Friend.

For the foreseeable future, however, we know what we have, and this is more than a fig leaf. The appointments commission should be a statutory body in which people can have confidence so that they at least feel that the second Chamber cannot be packed in a manipulative way by unscrupulous politicians. I urge the House to support the amendment.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I failed to follow the argument of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). He makes a passionate plea for the commission's independence, but, according to the amendment, it would have such limited powers as to be meaningless. It could nominate only Cross-Benchers. What about nominations from other parties? If the whole point of the commission is to ensure confidence and independence, it should scrutinise and nominate all the appointments from all the political parties.

If the hon. Gentleman were to persuade us to carry the amendment, cronyism would simply spread from all the political parties. It is not clear what the amendment means by political parties. Does that include the Referendum party or the Green party, or some new party that can nominate itself? The amendment is ill thought out and ill drafted and will not achieve the ends that the hon. Gentleman, I think with all sincerity, believes that it will. It will not provide independence and confidence in the new process.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman does no more than say that the amendment does not go far enough, and 1 agree. If it went as far as the hon. Gentleman suggests, doubtless he would support it.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Absolutely. As hon. Members know, I am strongly in favour of a totally elected Chamber. But if for the foreseeable future we are to have a Chamber for which all new appointments are nominated, not elected, it is essential, to avoid accusations of cronyism by any party or by anybody, that those nominations should be made and scrutinised by an arm's-length, independent body that is not in the grip of any political party or of the political process. Surely nothing else will do. We have to have an independent commission with complete powers over all nominations.

The political parties, like everyone else, can make recommendations and nominations to the commission, but the commission should have the power of appointment. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition or the leader of the Liberal party should not have those powers; otherwise, we should have a rigged and manipulated second Chamber.

On one level, I should be glad to see an appointed second Chamber discredited in that way, but the pain and suffering for the democratic process in the interim are not worth the winning of the point that an appointed second Chamber is completely unsatisfactory. If we are to have an appointed second Chamber, let it be the best that we can have. We must have an independent commission.

I fear that my hon. Friend the Minister is rejecting the proposal for other reasons. He does not want a totally independent and arm's-length commission. However, it is unclear what he is asking us to reject the amendment in favour of. The Government have not published guidelines, and we do not know what sort of commission they are intending. Could the Minister say when the Government intend to publish the proposals for the commission? What powers will it have? On what grounds will it be able to reject appointments? What will happen to the non-Cross-Bench element? The Government's position seems as unclear as the amendment is unsatisfactory.

The only way to resolve the problem is to reject the amendment but for the Government to give an undertaking that they will publish guidelines as soon as possible and will make no nominations or appointments to the second Chamber until those guidelines have been published, debated and approved by this Chamber. Otherwise, the second Chamber will be open to the accusation of cronyism.

That may cause problems with the new year's honours, as I am sure the Government want to get on with appointing new Members to the second Chamber. However, it would be wholly unsatisfactory to have another round of nominated people—by the Opposition and the Government—in the second Chamber. We need the commission to be up and approved by this Chamber before there are any more nominations to the second Chamber.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Liberal Democrat, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross

I very much agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). The Government's case for not accepting the amendment would have been much strengthened had they been more firm and active in explaining their intentions. The principle has been enunciated before, but the detail has not.

I found uncompelling the argument that we had to wait on the conclusion of the House before setting out the machinery to give effect to the Government's principles. That has not been operated by Governments before. Preparatory steps of an Executive kind are often taken by Governments to enable them to take action as soon as the House has reached a view. It does not pre-empt the decision, but enables one to be made in a timely way. On this occasion, we have not had that action from the Government.

I hope that, as a result of the debate, we shall at least prise from the Government an indication of how and when they intend to deal with the appointment of Cross-Bench peers. As soon as the legislation is enacted, this problem will be a live one.

I disagree entirely with the view that it is either appropriate or necessary for the arrangements to be based upon statute. If it does not need to be the result of statute to operate effectively, I see no reason why that is required. The precedent is far from clear. We have an arm's-length scrutiny committee which is not a statutory body, and we have other means of making appointments. We need not clutter the statute book, or go into detailed consideration of precisely how this measure is to operate, and then set those deliberations in stone prior to the recommendations of the Wakeham commission.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The right hon. Gentleman says that he is not persuaded that the commission should be put on a statutory basis. Surely the answer is that appointments and the use of patronage are matters of great sensitivity which Governments can misuse. It is extremely important to make it more difficult for Governments to misuse such powers than it would be if the commission were not on a statutory basis.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Liberal Democrat, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross

I am not clear how making the process statutory would necessarily make such misuse more difficult. It is important not to get this out of proportion. We are talking about the Cross Benchers, who form only 20 to 25 per cent. of peers. The amendment does not cover the bulk of appointed peers who will be nominated following the enactment of this legislation.

There is some implication that a statutory arrangement confers special legitimacy on those who are appointed under it— legitimacy that they might not have had under another system. I do not regard that as a desirable outcome. The appointed Cross Benchers would be no more legitimate than those appointed by other means, and a great deal less legitimate than elected members of the upper House would be.

My final point reinforces what the Minister fairly said about this being intended not as a lasting arrangement but as an interim scheme pending stage 2 of Lords reform. I reiterate that that should not be too long delayed. In the meantime, we can put flexible machinery in place that could be adjusted and adapted according to recommendations from any source. That is a sensible way to proceed and will carry considerable clout and credibility if Ministers say more precisely, as soon as may be, how and when they wish to do it.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Under any sensible legislative process, we would have had this debate at the House of Commons Committee stage of the Bill. It is worth noting again that the Bill that was presented to us was, to use the term offered by the Clerk, tightly drawn. It did not allow amendments in the House of Commons, so we could not probe or suggest improvements. That was demonstrably a large flaw in our process. The Lords were able to table amendments such as the one that we are debating, flawed as it might be. The measure has not had the scrutiny that it would normally have had in the Committees of the two Houses. In a sense, we have been denied our Committee stage. I make that point in case any colleagues not in the Chamber are irked that some of us are detaining the House. It is an important issue, and we have a duty to scrutinise and examine it.

I have grave misgivings about the legitimacy of so-called Cross Benchers in an appointed House. Whom do independents or Cross Benchers represent but themselves? In this place, we are distinguished because we have the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), who has a demonstrable mandate. He can justifiably be proud of that; he has faced an electorate. The Cross Benchers in the House of Lords, however, do not attract me at all. However, I find common ground with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), and disagree with the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), in that the issue of selecting Cross Benchers is indivisible from the appointment of peers from political parties.

My great concern about what has been proposed is no personal criticism of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition or their successors, but a matter of human nature. People do not appoint to bodies persons who can be an irritant—or at least, it takes a very special person to do it.

One of the interesting things about an electoral process, albeit a flawed one, is that some of us get under the net and manage to get elected. One of the strengths of the House of Commons is that it contains mavericks, loose cannons, the bloody-minded, the irascible, the eccentric and, sometimes, the bad. Taken together, that cocktail of personalities adds up to a strength.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Not for a minute, because I am on a roll.

It is in the nature of an appointed House that it will contain those who match the image and likeness of the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. It is naive to suggest otherwise. I therefore reluctantly, and with regret, conclude that, for however many years we have the interim appointed House, we need the Cross Benchers to provide that which would be denied by appointments made through the patronage of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

I have said publicly elsewhere that it is still within the powers of the current Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition to ensure a degree of transparency in the party nomination processes. No doubt the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats could have some form of regional procedure, and I cannot see why that process would not throw up people for consideration by the party leader. For that matter, we in the Labour party should make similar provision.

The case for that can be found in my surprise at the elevation to the other place of certain people nominated by the party leaders. I should like to conduct an audit of some of those people to discover, for example, how long they had been members of the Labour party; of which Labour party they were members; for which Labour party they had delivered leaflets; and for which Labour candidates they had been prepared to sit outside in the rain taking numbers at the polling station. Although some of them would qualify, others would find it a great strain to demonstrate that they had stood by Labour in bad times as well as good.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Minister (Constitutional Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of us suspect that the audit conducted is of a different nature?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am lost for words, but 1 recall promising to give way to my hon. and distinguished Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham).

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham Labour, St Helens South

Perhaps my hon. Friend would care to consider a thought that crossed my mind as he gave his accurate appraisal. Will he define what qualities a person would need to have to be appointed to be a Cross Bencher, if he was not someone who had served a party?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

My point is that nominations by party leaders will result in clones—I do not use that word in an extravagant sense, but such a result is in the nature of things. A good parliamentary debate requires people who are able to tell the Government that they have, on occasion, got it wrong. One of the great flaws of Margaret Thatcher's period was that there was no one left at the Cabinet table to tell her that the poll tax was a daft idea. In a parliamentary Chamber, such people are needed, but the selection procedure for party nominees as drafted will not provide them. I reluctantly conclude that the Cross Benchers are needed.

The reason for my feelings on the subject is that I recall discussing with a member of the current Government the democratic deficit in respect of Gibraltar. The Minister said I probably had a point, but then realised what I was up to, looked me in the eye and said, "You don't mean that bloody fool Bossano, do you?" Joe Bossano is no fool, but he is certainly an irritant, and I do not believe that party caucuses or groups will result in the appointment of irritants.

The Lords amendments are flawed: for example, I find it repugnant that they require that the members of the commission should be Privy Councillors. Although I do not mind people holding the title—I do not lie awake at night worrying about it—I want the Privy Council to be abolished. Any further institutionalisation of that club would be wrong. Even now in the House of Commons, we sometimes see a two-tier system comprising those who are Privy Councillors and those who are not, and that irritates me.

I think that the Lords amendment is flawed, but not fatally flawed. In addition, it states that the appointments commission will not consider for nomination to the Cross Benches peers who are members of a political party. That is too prescriptive, for the reasons that I have explained earlier. It is possible to be act independently while remaining loyal to a political party.

I listened carefully to the Minister's explanation of the Government's proposals. I was attracted by his idea that the body should exercise the function of the political honours scrutiny committee. That would cheer me a bit if I thought that there would be an annual report to Parliament. I look the Minister in the eye: if nothing else happens tonight, it is surely not beyond his mandate—granted by those who are not in the Chamber but who will want an account of the proceedings—to give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that the commission will give an annual report to Parliament. There should at least be a reasonable chance of allocating some parliamentary time to debate that report on the Floor of the House.

We have an obligation to scrutinise the appointments commission. The gravity of this matter is sometimes lost: we are talking about the appointment of Members of Parliament, albeit in another Chamber. That duty cannot be taken lightly, and we must build in guarantees that we will oversee the commission's work.

I have a feeling that this independent body will comprise the great and the good, and a few of the glitterati. That troubles me greatly. I rarely use the term "class"—I certainly would not have used it during the previous debate. However, I believe that Parliament—even this Chamber—has an increasingly narrow social base. One of my party's strengths was that it threw up people who used to be called blue collar workers. Such people had to learn the tools of their trade and had some experience of life outside; that enriched the Chamber.

If we are candid, we will agree that today's Members of Parliament are pretty grey. We are of a similar ilk. In a democracy, we should try to ensure that our legislative assemblies are a microcosm of the nation. Therefore, we should work hard to guarantee a mix of Members—and that is not happening at present. Although there may be divisions between left and right—the divide is pretty narrow nowadays—hon. Members come from similar social groupings. We must reverse that trend.

I do not see how the appointments commission will do that. The issue is extremely important in an unelected House. In our democracy, the party system still sometimes provides some variance from the increasingly grey membership. This is a challenge for those who serve on the appointments commission. We must not forget about the people from our industrial areas: the working class people who often do not have the opportunity to be represented in politics. [Interruption] This is an important issue, despite the levity on the opposite Benches. This House of Commons was more representative a few years ago than it is today. That is due partly to social changes, better education opportunities and the changing nature of political parties. I deeply regret that there are few grandees left in the Tory party—I can see only one. Where have all the nice people gone? And where are the people who represent the working class traditions of the Labour party? They are greatly diminished in number.

We have to be mindful of that point, particularly in relation to an unappointed House, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board when he replies. I hope also that he will not forget about the annual report to Parliament.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Conservative, Rushcliffe

As I follow the speech of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), with whom I largely agreed on some points, I shall begin by agreeing with him about the extremely unsatisfactory way in which this matter has been debated. This serious subject has had to be considered at this late stage, in a debate on a Lords amendment, because the House has not previously been able to address it.

The reform of the upper House is in danger of producing a so-called transitional House that has even more elements of Gilbert and Sullivan that the one that it will replace. This has been a complete dog's breakfast from beginning to end. The Bill was introduced by a Government who want simply to abolish hereditaries and replace the upper House with a wholly nominated House within prime ministerial patronage. To move on from that, they are now, without having clear views about their objectives, putting everything in the hands of a commission that will make recommendations. We are discussing a key feature of an interim reform that may last for many years.

I echo the hon. Member for Thurrock's point that we are talking about how large numbers of people will become Members of Parliament. We are discussing the appointment of legislators, not health authority chairmen or magistrates, although they are important. We are talking about people who will play a role in the government of this country.

It is only by accident that we are able even to debate how the upper House should be nominated, because the Bill was so tightly drawn that the matter could not be debated in the House when the Bill was first considered. Because the upper House passed this amendment—which, for the lack of anything else, I approve of—we are now able to discuss the matter in an interesting debate, but, it has to be said, in a perfunctory manner, at the last moment, at the end of a Session. Obviously, everyone assumes that the Government will trundle through, giving themselves a free hand in how to proceed, and that they will come back to us later and tell us what arrangements they will put in place for the nomination of Cross-Bench peers.

I agree with most of those who have spoken so far. I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) that the amendment is, in any event, second best. I am in favour of a wholly elected upper House, but we face, in the interim, an upper House that will now be dominated by patronage, which I regard as second best.

Their lordships have given us the opportunity to say that at least a small part of that patronage should be free of prime ministerial control and partisan or party political control. Unlike the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, I think that we should grasp at that, because it would be nice to have some Members of the upper House going at least some way towards independence, which would give them a little more legitimacy as legislators than those who simply come through the party machines that will nominate all the other peers. I therefore support the amendment.

What astonishes me is why, given that the House has got round to discussing this matter, the Government want to remove the proposals for ensuring the independence of the nomination of Cross-Bench peers. I understood that the proposals were made by the Government. Their lordships have taken the Government at face value and done them the courtesy of including the Government's proposals in the Bill. However, the unfortunate Minister is, with the greatest respect, left doing his manful best to persuade us, without giving us any serious reason whatever, to remove from the Bill, at the Government's behest, their only proposals—and what I thought, until this evening, was their preferred route for producing Cross-Bench peers.

It would be ridiculous to withdraw the proposals, which, faute de mieux, are the best that we have. The House should not lightly dismiss the proposals and wait to see what the Government come up with next. We should not say, "Let's leave it to the Government. We do not want the House to have any legislative say in the process."

I have already dealt with my response to the speech by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), who, I think, agreed with some of my criticisms. The idea that it does not matter whether the commission is statutory, because one can compare it with the Nolan committee or the scrutiny of the honours list, falls, because we are talking about how Members of Parliament should be nominated.

The most tedious details of the laws determining how Members of this House are elected are rightly subjected to interminable debate and considerable controversy whenever any changes are made. It is no good for us simply to accept the measure. There should be a legislative proposal in the Bill for the nomination and appointment of Cross-Bench peers, but this measure is the best one we have.

9.30 pm

I turn to the feebleness of the Minister's arguments. I respect the Minister, who represents a constituency that borders my own, and I know him to be an able man, but the poor man was equipped with no arguments whatever in favour of the proposition that he was instructed to tell us we should support. As I recall, he deployed only two arguments; I shall deal with them briefly.

The first argument was that we should trust the Prime Minister. I do. Not even the Prime Minister could easily go back on his word and say that he had changed his mind and that he would, after all, nominate all the Members of the other place. However, I should like to hear a little more detail before I am asked to trust a Prime Minister. The Minister shot himself in the foot when he made it clear that he would not trust a Conservative Prime Minister. He made a few partisan remarks about what might happen if our present, noble and trustworthy Prime Minister were to be replaced by someone from the Conservative side of the House—there might be changes.

The answer is clear: if one has suspicions of any kind, one puts the preference of the House into legislative form. In that case, any subsequent Prime Minister—even the present Prime Minister—must at least introduce substantial legislation to change the proposals. Why should it be a matter of trust in the Prime Minister? In this case, we could include provisions in the Bill that reflect what the Prime Minister appears to have endorsed in the past. As far as I am aware, these are the only proposals that the Government have ever produced on this subject—they have not been changed since they were introduced.

However, I suspect that there may have been changes. The Minister's second argument was that the noble Lords made a terrible error when they included the Government's proposals in the Bill, because that meant that the Government had to stop working on their proposals. Apparently, once the proposals were put in statutory form, the work that was already under way to prepare the arrangements for nominations for Cross-Bench peers had to stop. The Minister produced the extraordinary argument that it would have somehow been an affront to the other place or to Parliament to carry on spending money on preparing the arrangements.

The Minister said that the work was halted and that that had caused delay. Plans were being made to have everything in place by 1 January 2001, but the upper House passed the amendment and the work had to stop. I do not understand that argument, especially if the work in hand was in line with the Government's only announced proposals, which are the ones before us. If the Government were preparing proposals for a commission to nominate Cross-Bench peers, and the other place passed an amendment to give them a statutory form, why did the work have to stop?

It sounds as though the work that was in hand did not match these proposals. The Government had work in hand—with Treasury approval—for some other system of nominating Cross-Bench peers, but they stopped it because the upper House put their proposals into statutory form. If work was in hand, why cannot the Minister tell us on what it was based? How did it differ from the measure before us? If he tells us that it was not different, why did it have to be stopped just because the other place passed an amendment?

The whole argument is a complete non sequitur. The Minister seems to be arguing against what he was really aiming at. He wants the Government to be given a completely free hand to devise whatever system they want. They do not want to be tied to their first proposals, or to the current proposals. Even when the Minister was pressed to tell us which feature he found objectionable or otiose, and what he might have to remove, he could not think of anything. The best he could come up with—he received a little support from the hon. Member for Thurrock—was that currently the measure requires that every member of the commission should be a Privy Councillor. That is apparently a shocking suggestion—although not because the Minister is against the members being Privy Councillors; he did not say that they would not all be Privy Councillors. He produced an amazing precedent, which someone in the Cabinet Office must have dug out for him, to the effect that no one has ever mentioned Privy Councillors in a Bill. This is a moving moment; for the first time, we are mentioning Privy Councillors in a Bill. However, for the life of me, I cannot see why that is fatal to the whole proposal.

If the Government do not like the present Privy Councillors—I declare an interest; I am a Privy Councillor—they could easily appoint others when they put them on the commission. So it is no great shakes whether Privy Councillors are mentioned or not. That was the one and only feature of the Lords amendment which the Minister could think he might not want to follow in practice.

The whole matter is an absurdity. With great respect to the Minister, his speech was an absurdity. It compounded the ludicrous way in which the House has been asked to handle a very important feature of constitutional reform. We are, for heaven's sake, talking about the second Chamber of the British Parliament, yet the matter has been handled in a Mickey Mouse fashion from beginning to end. Even at this late stage, we are being left to imagine what the Government will propose—later than they intended—for nomination of Cross-Bench peers. None of us is allowed to know today what the Government intend if they are indeed to depart from the proposals in the amendment.

The House is not being treated with any respect. An important issue is being brushed aside. Somebody should have found some arguments for the Minister to use. Given that supporting the other House in the amendment is the only way in which we may at least reduce the potential for some patronage and guarantee some independence in the appointment of temporary peers who will form the second House, we should support it and not allow the Government to wheel through the House, using their majority, a proposition for which they have no sensible argument.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

I should like to ask the Minister a couple of questions. Before I do so, I offer my apologies to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), for interrupting his comments on the respect that people have for the other place. I should point out that all recent opinion polls in Scotland on the subject of the governance of the United Kingdom have shown that there is diminishing respect for the other place as it is currently structured. Incidentally, a more recent opinion poll suggested that 80 per cent. of Scots believed that Scotland would be independent within 20 years—but that is another thing.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) that, as a former shipwright to trade, I find it a great honour and privilege to be in this place.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Alas, my hon. Friend is a dying breed.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

No, Lord Dixon is another former shipwright. I hope that he stays on despite the changes.

I have some concerns about the Government's proposals. I support totally the perspective of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and the views of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). If we are to have a bicameral system, the second House must be elected and must represent the multinational state in which we live. I shall come to that point in a minute.

Unless the proposals are amended, hundreds of thousands of voters will be deprived of having their concerns expressed during the commission's deliberations. Am I right in thinking that Scottish judges are given the privilege of becoming Cross Benchers, and that that will not change?

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock that the commission should not be composed of Privy Councillors. We should move on from electing the great and the good to deliberate on such profound matters. The role given to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to deal with areas of conflict between the Scottish Parliament and the United Kingdom Parliament was a major mistake under the Scotland Act 1998. That, however, is another story.

Subsection (9) of the amendment says: One Commissioner shall be appointed from each of the three largest parties in the House of Commons". That means that the hundreds of thousands of electors in Northern Ireland are excluded from this scheme of things. As a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland—as chairman of the parliamentary Labour party's Northern Ireland committee—I find that unacceptable. We have a number of MPs representing the 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland; we have Ulster Unionist Members, Democratic Unionist Members and my hon. Friends representing the SDLP.

I do not hold any brief for the Scottish National party, but say what you will about that party, a substantial minority of people in Scotland actively support it. I hold no brief for SNP Members; they absent themselves from the Chamber when we are discussing all sorts of issues that are of paramount importance to the people of Scotland, such as defence or international relations. However, the views of very many Scottish voters will not be represented as they should be.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman is not wholly right. If he looks at the proposed new clause, which may of course be defective, he will see that the commission must consist of eight members, of whom only three are specified. That leaves considerable discretion as to who makes up the five.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

I am exceedingly grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I would hope that these minority parties might be represented among the other five representatives. Somehow I doubt that, given the way the new clause is drafted, but I make a plea to the Minister that especially at a moment like this, when things are not going too well with the negotiations in Northern Ireland on the Good Friday agreement, we do not want to send a message to people in Northern Ireland that we are not really concerned about their representation on a body as important as this.

I envisage that we shall go through a transitional phase before the House debates—I hope thoroughly, and in a tough-minded way—the recommendations of the Wakeham commission. From there, we should move on to legislation. I hope that some of us will be there to argue the case for an elected second Chamber, but, in the meantime, the Minister and his ministerial colleagues really must reconsider the composition of the appointments commission, because it is not good enough to be seen to push to one side the people of Northern Ireland and elsewhere in this multinational state of ours.

Photo of Mr Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman). He and I are members of the British-Irish parliamentary group. We frequently visit the Province together. We therefore experience mutual exposure to revolutionary fervour. I was prevented from speaking on the Weatherill amendment by the meeting of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, and I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said in that regard.

I declare an interest, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) did, as a member of the Privy Council. I should be entirely prepared to disclaim the involvement of the Privy Council in the amendment, although I am more sensitive about the future membership of the Privy Council than is my right hon. and learned Friend.

The question at the heart of this serial legislation, as it will become because of the limited nature of the Bill, is what the future powers of the House of Lords should be. I do not share the confidence, expressed by the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) in the previous debate, that the Government will necessarily have the stamina and the courage to proceed to a second Bill.

9.45 pm

It will be to the shame of the Labour party if its self-stressed modernising ambitions are limited to the relatively simple task of abolishing the hereditary principle when there is a Labour majority of almost 200 in this House, and if the Government do not proceed to the more serious and ultimately more worthwhile and demanding task of redefining the powers of the second Chamber.

Reform of scrutiny by Parliament is already the constitutional flavour of the next decade—the first in the new millennium. Two bodies, of one of which I am a modest member, are examining the issue. Although the Government may not like it, the campaign enjoys considerable intellectual support outside Parliament. An appointments commission, which is the subject of the amendment, established by statute is an important underpinning of the whole process.

The Lord Privy Seal said that the Government have no quarrel with the underlying principle and purpose of the amendment, but the Government's reluctance to accept it at this stage, as demonstrated by the Minister's speech, is profoundly ominous. The Government may imply that the amendment would impede a ready transition to stage 2, and I dare say that they regard that as evidence of their commitment to stage 2. However, in the previous debate, the hon. Member for South Thanet was not widely supported on the Labour Benches in his confidence that we would move to stage 2.

The Government cannot be surprised if some of us think that one constitutional bird in the hand is worth an infinite number in the new Labour bush, and that the Bill will be improved by including a solid constitutional innovation, on top of the more idiosyncratic Weatherill amendment. I had no difficulty in voting for the Weatherill amendment, pragmatism being the heart of Conservatism, but I was a little surprised—Conservatism not being the Prime Minister's present flavour of the month—that the Government also put pragmatism first. We live in strange times.

I have already sketched out the skeleton of a first-class political thriller based on the Weatherill amendment, involving a Genghis Khan-like figure, an Ian Fleming villain in the lonely places of Mongolia, seeking to use the provisions of the amendment, particularly its by-election principle, to avenge the passing of the hereditary principle.

The Weatherill amendment's very bizarreness made it a highly traditional increment to the British constitution, but amendment No. 2 would add something solid to the constitution and would not need bizarreness to recommend it.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

We should not pass the evening without noting the hypocrisy of Opposition Members, who, for 18 years, managed to hide their principled objection to patronage, and supported a system under which they already held a Conservative majority of 3:1 over other parties. Under the system of patronage that they supported, their Prime Minister even vetoed proposals from other political parties. It ill suits the Opposition tonight suddenly to discover that, because there has been a change in political control, what they supported in the past is urgently in need of repair.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

The hon. Gentleman says that Conservative Prime Ministers vetoed nominations from leaders of other political parties. That may be true; I do not know. I should be grateful if he could provide an example.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

Specifically, no. It was a feature of the past 18 years that the patronage of the Prime Minister was complete in that respect. Conservative Members did not complain then. There is a goodly element of hypocrisy in the case that they bring tonight.

After 365 life peers were appointed, of whom 173 were Tories, even though they had an overwhelming majority in the other House, it ill becomes the Opposition to complain when the present Prime Minister has appointed only marginally more than 50 per cent. That does not reflect the proportions of elected representation in the House. The amendment is inadequate for the purpose and, if the House is genuinely to address how to prevent patronage from having in future the importance that it had in the past, we must return to that issue.

I make it clear to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is important that we now deliver on our commitment to ensuring that there is a brief period between phases 1 and 2 of the reform of the House of Lords. We should consider what power the commission should have after we have made up our minds about what not only the function of the House of Lords, but its make-up, should be.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Scotland)

The hon. Gentleman is developing a most extraordinary theme. Would he care to explain how putting the commission in statutory form impedes moving on to the next stage of the reform of the other place?

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

The point has already been made that what we are being asked to add in by statute addresses but a tiny portion of the problem. We do not know what will be the constitution of the new House that we want to establish in the second phase; nor do we know what its functions and role will be. When we know the purpose of the new House and from what sections of society its Members come, we shall know what form of scrutiny the commission will need to undertake.

Many different views are held by hon. Members about the make-up of the future House. When we have decided that, and what its functions will be, we must return to the issue of scrutiny to ensure that we get rid of the ills of patronage.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The majority of hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have rallied round one proposition: the Minister's speech disappointed. It did so for this reason. He said that the Prime Minister wants to divest himself of patronage and wants to set up an independent commission. He said quite a bit about what the independent commission will be like, although that is not set out in any formal documents, and, as it happens, his remarks were almost identical to the provisions of the Lords amendment. Therefore the House is entitled to say, "If that is the case, why not put it in the Bill?" The arguments advanced by him are simply spurious. He does not want to include such a provision because he knows that, were he to do so, his ability to change his mind and the Government's ability to handle patronage would be diminished. They want to retain flexibility.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham Labour, St Helens South

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I shall proceed a little more.

I do not want the Government to retain flexibility because I want to stop Governments having great powers of patronage—for that matter, not only Governments, but all parties. The objection of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) to the Lords amendment is wholly right. The genuine criticism is that it does not go far enough. As he said quite correctly, it touches only on the Cross Benchers, which is a pity. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke): it is better to have what we have than to have nothing at all, but it would be better by far if the restriction on the power of patronage extended to the party appointments as well.

I say that for two reasons, and one is that I want the power of the other place to be enhanced, so that it will constitute a much more effective brake on the activities that take place in this Chamber. I do not believe that we can enhance the authority of the other place until it has greater legitimacy, and that is why I agreed so strongly with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) when he spoke of an elected Chamber. I believe in that, and always have. Until we can secure it, however, we must underpin legitimacy in a different way—and one way to do it is by removing the smell of patronage from the process. I believe in democracy.

The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) sniggers. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is a Whip."] I know that, and it brings me to my second point. The other reason why I am against patronage is that it demeans the House of Commons. We all know—I have been here for 20 years, and know far too well—the ways in which the party machine controls this House, not just my party but, more particularly, the Government party. One of the ways in which it does that is by exercising its power of patronage. I want to take that power away from the party machine, so that we can increase the independence of hon. Members. I also believe that the power of patronage is demeaning to public life. There is a deeply rooted belief, which I consider to be justified, that people can secure preferment in terms of membership of the other place in return for services rendered to the Government of the day.

For all those reasons, I support the Lords amendment. It does not go far enough, but it represents a small step forward, and on that basis, we should welcome it.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

It is an honour to follow my neighbour, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who, as the elder son of a most distinguished peer, speaks with great knowledge of these matters.

Debates on this subject are always characterised by arguments between what I term the radicals and the ministerialists—or the proto-ministerialists. Radicals can be found on both sides of the House, and, in these debates, I agree with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) when he argues for an elected House. I fear, however, that Chesterfield is the home of lost causes, in the context of this issue and, indeed, others.

It is sad that, on this historic day on which 800 years of history are coming to an end, we should debate one narrow little amendment that could only improve the Bill, and that even that fig leaf should be rejected by the Government. On a day when we are ending 800 years of history, we should create something of which we can be proud: an elected Chamber, a democratic body. Instead, we are debating whether the Government are prepared to include in the Bill provision for a commission to appoint a few Cross-Bench peers—and the Government are rejecting even that on the grounds that it goes too far and is too democratic, on this historic day.

What is so sad is that the establishment—new Labour is the new establishment—will be happy. Everyone is happy. The hereditaries, who have been treated appallingly, have got something out of this. I support the retention of a small number. There should be more—we should have asked for more—but at least some will remain to retain some kind of democratic credibility in the other place. [Interruption.] After next week, they will be the only people in the other place who will have been elected by anyone. At least there will be a few there, and they are happy.

The political parties are also happy, because they preserve their right to appoint, through patronage, their own people. I suppose that the Cross Benchers will be happy, whether or not there is an appointments commission. One very large body of people will not be happy: the public. Only the public are excluded. We are talking about half the British Parliament. After this week, a quarter of it will have been appointed by this Prime Minister. If we were talking about Latvia or Estonia, people would consider it an extraordinary state of affairs, but we are talking about the mother of Parliaments. The Government will continue to appoint three Members a week, until half the membership is appointed by the current Prime Minister. The appointments commission is no more than a fig leaf.