I beg to move amendment 60, page 16, line 39, leave out 'resign' and insert
'seek permanent leave of absence'.
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The Second Deputy Chairman:
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 61, page 16, line 40, leave out 'resigns' and insert 'obtains such leave'.
Amendment 62, page 16, line 40, leave out 'of the peer's resignation'.
Amendment 63, page 16, line 42, leave out 'resigning peer' and insert 'peer seeking permanent leave'.
Amendment 64, page 17, line 3, leave out 'resigning'.
Amendment 65, page 17, line 3, at end insert
'confirming the grant of permanent leave of absence.'.
Amendment 66, page 17, line 4, leave out 'resignation' and insert 'permanent leave'.
Amendment 94, page 17, line 4, at end insert-
Amendments 60 to 66 originally stood in the name of my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, who unhappily is in Northern Ireland today, for which he wishes to express his apologies to the Committee. However, I was pleased to add my name to the amendments, because I had in fact put down one similar to Liberal Democrat amendment 94. I therefore had no difficulty in supporting my hon. Friend.
Amendments 60 to 66 would prevent a Member from resigning from the other place so as to be eligible to stand for election to the House of Commons. By taking leave of absence, a peer would remain a peer, albeit one not able to attend the other place for the period of the leave of absence. My hon. Friend and I had the following broad motivations: first, I observe generally that one should encourage peers who feel that they are getting old to take a leave of absence, because there are far too many peers of a certain age in the other place, which is now very heavily populated. As has been said, there are too many peers of the realm, and a leave of absence would diminish their number.
Secondly, I want to address the question whether it is right for a peer to cease to be an effective peer for the purposes of standing as a Member in this House. On that, I share the view of the Liberal Democrats; I do not think that it is right. Or at least it might be desirable to have a gap of five years in the circumstances set out in amendment 94, which I shall support if it is put to a Division.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman may like to know that in the cross-party discussions on the future of the House of Lords, all parties agreed that it is undesirable for people to move from a reconstituted House of Lords to the House of Commons without an intermediate break.
Indeed, that is why I originally tabled my own amendment, why I am happy to support the Liberal Democrat amendment and why I feel comfortable with amendments 60 to 66.
One could advance several arguments in support of what Mr. Heath has just said. First, one would not be doing an injustice to any peer, because under the current composition of the other place, everyone sitting there is a volunteer: they are either hereditary peers who have chosen to stay on as one of the 90, or they have accepted a life peerage. So they are all volunteers. That is different from the situation before-I think-the Peerage Act 1963, when Anthony Wedgwood Benn, and, for that matter, my father, were obliged to go to the House of Lords. Therefore a nobility was created to be disclaimed, thus enabling them to come back here, but they were not volunteers; they were protesters who did not want to be in the House of Lords, so there is a difference in kind. Every Member of the House of Lords now is a volunteer.
The second point is this. If we allow swapping of the kind that we are talking about, it will diminish the dignity and standing of the other place. As I want the dignity and standing of the other place to be enhanced whenever I have the opportunity to enhance it, I am happy to move amendment 60. Allowing such swapping would also, I suspect, diminish independence. One of the most important things is that Members of the other place have jolly little to gain prospectively, unless they hope to be Ministers.
Incidentally, I agree with the points made in a previous debate by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. There is a powerful argument for saying that Members of the other place should not be Ministers, but that is a broader argument, which I suspect you do not want me to pursue now, Sir Michael. However, the point is that one does not wish to create in the other place any circumstances that could diminish the independence of mind of those who sit there. If their lordships think that by resigning they can come back to this place and perhaps occupy a prominent part in the affairs of this House, they may achieve great things, but that would diminish their independence, and I am very much against that.
I heard the Minister say earlier that there is nothing in clause 32 that is designed to benefit a particular person. I think that I know who that person is-Lord Mandelson, for whom in many ways, particularly because of his political skills, I have a great deal of admiration. However, he is a good case in point, because he has chosen to go to the House of Lords. It is not clear to me that we are doing him an injustice by preventing him from coming back here-and goodness knows, we do not want to create any further incentive, lest he should lose his remaining sense of independence. Although it is just possible that the clause was not crafted with Lord Mandelson in mind, if it is possible that it was, he is a good example of why we should not pass it.
My final point is that I think that either David Howarth is minded to press amendment 94 to a Division, which would be dependent on my not pressing amendment 60 to a Division. If I had the leave of the Committee to do so, I would be happy not to press the amendment standing in my name; and if you were minded to call amendment 94, Sir Michael, standing in the name of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I would personally be happy to support it.
To deal with the final point made by Mr. Hogg, I should like to seek the opportunity to press amendment 94 to the vote, if the occasion so arises. I also gratefully adopt his arguments for that amendment.
I would be surprised if the Government were to resist a five-year moratorium between resigning from the Lords and coming-or perhaps coming back-to this place. In the 2007 White Paper, "The House of Lords: Reform", the Government said that the Wakeham commission and the Public Administration Committee had both recommended a 10-year waiting period, while the "Breaking the Deadlock" paper, which Members might remember, went for a five-year moratorium. The Government commented on those proposals and said that they were minded to agree with the five-year period. In the 2009 White Paper, "An Elected Second Chamber", the Government also suggested a cooling-off period of five years, and seemed to accept the arguments in favour of that proposal that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just laid out.
In particular, the Government said that the House of Lords should not be used as a political base for a House of Commons career. The reasons for that are twofold. The first, as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham has said, is a matter of the dignity of the other place and of how it is regarded. The second is that relations between the two Houses would be enhanced if Members of the House of Lords were to go there in the knowledge that it was to be their political job for the foreseeable future to sit in the revising Chamber, to stick to their job, and not to harbour hopes of coming back to this House for a different role.
I, too, cannot speculate as to why the Government appear to have changed their mind about this matter. Perhaps it does involve the noble Lord Mandelson, or perhaps the House of Lords is teeming with potential Prime Ministers or potential Chancellors of the Exchequer-the convention being that those two offices may be held only in this House.
This leads us to another version of the first reason for a moratorium. That is that we do not want the House of Lords, whether appointed or elected, to be full of young men in a hurry-
Well, "young" is a relative term. The average age in the House of Lords is 68.
We do not want the House of Lords to be full of people who have an eye to a future political career at very high level. It is a virtue of the present House of Lords, which I wish to preserve in any future reforms, that it consists of people of moderate, rather than overwhelming, political ambition-
That, of course, is another reason why the House of Lords is a splendid place, and its virtues should be preserved in any reform.
For all those reasons, I urge the Government to re-adopt this policy. I shall be fascinated to hear whether they have indeed done a U-turn on this matter, and to discover the reasons for that. With that, I shall conclude my remarks, but I repeat my request that, if possible, we vote on amendment 94.
I suppose that I ought to declare that my wife sits in the House of Lords, although my remarks are not directed at her.
There might be a convention that the Prime Minister does not sit in the House of Lords, but-in answer to an obscure pub quiz question-it is less than 60 years since a Prime Minister did sit in the upper House.
I wonder whether we ought to have the same provision as that proposed in amendment 94 for ourselves. Perhaps we should say that no one may be appointed to the House of Lords for five years after ceasing to be a Member of Parliament. That would result in a convention, of which I would approve, that, were a Speaker to resign the speakership during a Parliament, they could continue to serve their constituents until the next election and become eligible to go to the House of Lords thereafter. However, that is slightly beside the point that we are considering at the moment.
I do not believe that permanent leave is desirable. I can think of one Member of the House of Lords who decided that he should not go on serving there and who took leave. Most of those in the House of Lords would like to have him back, however, and such people ought to be able to change their minds.
On a separate issue, what would happen to Members of the House of Lords who ceased to be Members of the House of Lords, because their position had come to an end? That used to happen in the case of Law Lords and, certainly, of most bishops, unless they were appointed to the House of Lords as a life peer. Would a retired Law Lord be eligible to be elected to the House of Commons? Would a retired bishop who had had the seniority to get into the House of Lords be eligible to be elected to this House? That might be set down in statute, but I do not know the answer. We should perhaps consider these questions as though they applied to Members of the House of Commons going to the House of Lords as well as vice versa. There is a proper convention that we refer to the House of Lords as "the upper House" as well as "the other place". It is the upper House, but we ought not to think of this as one-way traffic. I believe that a five-year gap would be better than a 10-year gap, and if the Liberal amendment were pressed to a vote, I would support it.
It has been a central feature of membership of the House of Lords in recent years that it carries with it a greater sign of independence from the constraints or pressures of Government or party. Generally, such a person may have had a distinguished career in this place first, but once they have gone to the other place, the implications are clear that their aspirations to the highest ministerial office disappear. I think that there has been a general view around the Chamber that that is a good thing.
I do not wish to take up too much of the Committee's time on the generality of the clause, because we will have a separate stand part debate, but may I say simply that the principle that a person may resign from the House of Lords and subsequently, according to choice, disclaim their peerage-it is a matter for them-is a novelty, irrespective of whether safeguards are introduced to prevent somebody using the House of Lords as an antechamber to entering this place. That has given me some anxiety, which is substantially curable if the amendment tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg, or the Liberal Democrat amendment, is accepted. On that basis, if the Liberal Democrats press amendment 94 to a vote, we will support them. It is essential to have a mechanism to ensure that a person cannot use an appointment to the House of Lords as an antechamber to a political career in this place.
The issue goes further than that. I would be grateful if the Minister corrected me if I have got it wrong, but it seems to me that nothing in the system of resignation under clause 32 would prevent such events happening on a multiplicity of occasions. The Prime Minister could promote a person to the House of Lords as a Minister-the current Prime Minister has appointed 11 since he came to office; they are the ones known mainly as GOATs-and if the Bill were passed on the last day of this Parliament, one could envisage them deciding to resign their peerage, standing for election to the House, and if elected, having a career. The Prime Minister could then say on a whim, "Actually you would be much more useful to me in the House of Lords at the moment. I am going to make you a peer." As the Minister knows, under the current untrammelled patronage enjoyed by the Prime Minister, that would happen automatically. They could go back to the House of Lords, and perhaps take on a new peerage title. In the case of the noble Lord Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, he might have to find a couple of other places where he has placed his seat at various times-
That is a possibility. Queen Anne's Gate also springs to mind. I am afraid that I cannot remember the place where he bought the flat under mortgage, but I think it was somewhere in Notting Hill, so that could creep into his title too. After another period in the House of Lords, he could decide to resign under the provisions, because multiple resignations are not prohibited. Not prohibiting multiple resignations is a lacuna in the Bill, to which the other place might have to return.
Having listened to the debate, which has latched on to the key issues, I am minded to urge my colleagues to support amendment 94. If amendment 94 fails to get the necessary support, my judgment is that we should oppose clause stand part. If the choice is between prohibiting resignation altogether, and a situation in which permitting resignation would allow the practices that I have outlined, I much prefer to stick to the current rules, which make resignation impossible. It is, after all, currently regarded as a life sentence and, apart from misbehaviour, I cannot think of a particularly good reason why that should not continue. However, I recognise that there has been an argument put forward in favour of resignation as it would enable those who feel that their useful time in the House of Lords has come to an end to go, thereby freeing up a place that might be taken more sensibly by somebody younger. That is the only argument that seems to me to have any validity.
Indeed it can, which is why my right hon. and learned Friend's amendment would be adequate. For exactly the same reasons as he has given, the Liberal Democrat amendment puts the Government on the spot, partly because it strikes me as being so reasonable. One could argue for 10 years without any great difficulty. We have to make absolutely sure that the sort of prime ministerial patronage that can allow somebody to maintain their career by bouncing down the Corridor from one end to the other is undesirable and should be stopped. If at the end of the day the price to be paid for achieving that is to get rid of clause 32 entirely, at present we would do that. If amendment No. 94 is not carried, we will certainly seek to delete the clause in its entirety.
We have had an interesting debate and it will not surprise hon. Members to hear me say that we will ask the Committee not to support the amendments. We ask for the amendment to be withdrawn, although I do not suppose that it will be.
I want to deal with the various points that have been made and then deal with a point of principle as to why we are objecting. Mr. Hogg said that, unless the amendments were accepted, the status of the second Chamber would be diminished. His colleague, Peter Bottomley, made the opposite point; he did not see why the movement of a Member from this place to the other place diminished the position of this place. He is absolutely right. A Member of the other place wanting to come here does not diminish the status of the second Chamber-it has a discrete and different function-any more than a Member of this place moving to the other place, as many have done over the years, diminishes the status of this place. Those individuals are at a different stage of their life and are seeking fulfilment in public service in a different way. That is the function of the two different Chambers.
The Minister is taking my argument down a direction that I had not intended; he is right to do so. People cannot stay here for more than five years as their term expires. Parliaments expire; I stop being an MP when they expire. People who go to the other place can stay there for life. That is a difference.
It is a difference and I am grateful for the elucidation but I do not accept that it diminishes the status of the second Chamber.
More generally, almost every Member who has spoken in favour of the amendments has made broadly the same point, which has then been amplified into a great frolicking fantasy by Mr. Grieve about Members switching endlessly between the two Houses. This is a serious point; we certainly do not want to see the sort of situation to which he referred, in which one House is used as an antechamber for the other. These two Houses have discrete and important functions and should be treated with equal dignity and respect. He is right to draw attention to any such risk but I simply do not believe that that will happen.
Most Members come to the appointed and partially hereditary Chamber at the end of a long and distinguished career in public service. I believe that David Howarth suggested in an intervention that the average age for someone's doing so is the late 60s. That is the position so, with all due respect, I must say that it is fanciful to think that there will be many, if any, Members of the other place who will use these provisions to resign and stand for election in this place. The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that he said that the debate has latched on absolutely to the main issues. To a large extent that is true, but he has missed out the most fundamental issue and the most fundamental guarantee. [Interruption.] I am glad to see that Mr. Robathan, who has suddenly turned up to hear-
Most grateful I am too. The fundamental guarantee is the British electorate. [Interruption.] I do not know why the hon. and learned Gentleman is laughing at his voters. That is not necessarily wise in view of an imminent general election, so I suggest that he just listens to this point. If somebody resigns from the other place to take advantage of these provisions and stand for election to this place, they will be judged by the electors. I have no doubt that if, as he fears, people were shamelessly to use the other place as an antechamber-those were his words-for this place, they would be judged harshly by the voters in the constituency for which they are standing.
That guarantee does not seem to amount to very much. Does the Minister not see that the Bill contains no provision to prevent multiple resignations? If he wished to stop that practice, one mechanism that he could use-even without resort to amendment 94-would be to say that someone can resign from the House of Lords only once. Even that is not in this Bill, so someone can resign from the Lords as many times as they have been appointed to it. The Prime Minister's powers of patronage are infinite, so why not do something about it to provide reassurance?
I was coming to just that point. I have heard no good reason as to why Members of the other place should be treated differently from every other politician in public life, and indeed everyone else in public life. They are all entitled to resign without being subject to the cooling-off periods being proposed in these amendments. I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman is so derisive of the voice of the electorate in this matter. I have no doubt that if the sort of scenario-he might wish to listen to this-that he has been conjuring up were to take place, the voters of the constituency for which that individual was standing would judge that individual harshly. The vote is the single most important guarantor of our liberties and our constitutional freedoms yet devised, and I am sorry that he takes it so lightly.
I would like the Minister to explain one simple fact. The argument that he is putting forward is the diametric opposite of what the Lord Chancellor put forward as an argument in the all-party talks on the future of the House of Lords. In those talks, we had a consensus on the merit of having a period when a person who had resigned from the House of Lords was not able to stand for election to this House. Why is the Minister putting forward the opposite argument to that advanced by his Secretary of State?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, although I will not be standing for election again and in a few months' time I will never again be seen at this Dispatch Box, my comments reflect the current views of the Secretary of State.
In France, it is rather normal to go from the National Assembly to the Senate and back again; it is done as a matter of routine. Once one starts corrupting the electorate's expectations so that they accept something as the norm, one gets away with it. As we do not think that such actions should happen, why do we not legislate to make sure that they do not?
I have been a Front Bencher for some considerable time, and I have heard the hon. and learned Gentleman level all manner of accusations at the Government, but he has never yet accused us of trying to replicate the French model of government. There is a first time for everything. May I just assure him that we are not seeking to replicate such a system?
I have not heard from any of the hon. Gentlemen who have intervened on me any reason why they have such a profound mistrust of the British voter. The scenarios that they all conjure up of people using the other place as an antechamber from which to springboard into here ignore the fact that British voters have, historically, taken a very harsh view of such exploitation of our democratic system. They have punished people who have sought to exploit the system in that way; there are many examples of that in recent political history. I have no reason to doubt that they will do so again. That ought to be a guarantee for all the hon. Members who are so worried about that scenario.
Does the Minister understand that we cannot accept that guarantee? Consider a person in the other place who decides to stand down and come to this place. His party parachutes him into a very safe seat. I can tell the Minister now that that person will be elected to that very safe seat.
I would usually bow to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's much greater political experience, but he need only look at the history books: often, particularly in the sorts of circumstances to which he refers, seats that party machines thought were safe have proved to be anything but safe because, in the end, there is only so much that the British public will stomach.
Well, I have much greater faith in the British voter than any of the Conservative Members present.
I agree; no one wants that, nor is there any realistic risk of that happening. For those reasons, I do not think that the amendments are necessary. They would put Members of the other place in an unenviable position, placing restrictions on them that are not placed on any other politician in democratic life in this country. No good reason for doing so has yet been advanced, particularly in view of the fact that Members of the other place would still have to seek election to this place. As I say, that is the biggest guarantor of all that the scenarios described would not arise. I ask hon. Members to think again about the amendments, which I do not think are necessary. However, I fear that I will not prove to be persuasive.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 94, page 17, line 4, at end insert-
'(6) A person who has resigned from the House of Lords under this section may not be nominated for election to the House of Commons for a period of five years after the certificate takes effect.'.- (David Howarth.)
For the reasons that I gave earlier, we shall oppose the clause standing part of the Bill. In its unamended condition, it will allow all the mischief that we have complained about to take place.
I am extremely sorry to hear the hon. and learned Gentleman say that, because the clause will provide a much-needed reform. I have already tried to explain to him why all manner of mischief that he is so worried about will not take place. I am sorry that he has so little trust in the British electorate. I am also sorry that the Liberals have absolutely no interest in the debate, but there we are.
It is worth taking a few minutes to spell out why the clause is necessary. [Hon. Members: "Oh no!"] Oh yes, oh yes!
We have indeed, which is why I said that my remarks will be brief. I say this in the hope that Conservative Members might rethink their opposition to the clause. It is ill considered and meretricious, but there it is.
There is no mechanism by which a peer can resign from the House of Lords. The clause will set such a mechanism in place. Resignation is available in all other walks of life. We can no longer deny it to the House of Lords. There are many reasons why Members might want to resign from the House of Lords and this provision provides them with an opportunity to do so. We think that is right and fair. I hope that Members on the Opposition Benches will rethink their opposition to the clause and support it.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.