House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:58 pm on 9th January 2002.

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Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Convenor of the Crossbench Peers 3:58 pm, 9th January 2002

My Lords, I start by making clear that my very elevated position on the speakers' list does not mean that I speak today for the Cross-Bench group. What I say reflects my own personal and very independent view.

My starting point is to agree with the Government that it would be quite wrong to attempt to clone another place. I accept that the Commons must be the pre-eminent Chamber of Parliament. Further, I fully support the concept that a significant proportion of the membership of your Lordships' House must be non-party political; that is, independent Members. I was pleased to note that the Government acknowledge that the independent element of the existing House of Lords is one,

"to which people attach the highest importance".

Consequently, I agree also with the Government that a reformed House of Lords should not be—indeed could not be—fully elected if these criteria are to be met.

However, whether considering the appointed or elected elements of the reformed House, it is important to ensure that the new arrangements prove attractive to individuals of quality and experience inside and outside the political arena. The White Paper and its supporting documents make a number of references to government concerns that no one of any substance will be prepared to stand and that this or that aspect of the options could discourage excellent candidates.

Not enough consideration has been given to what will make the reformed House, on the lines proposed in the White Paper, attractive to individuals with the expertise, the skills and the parliamentary commitment required. An entitlement to put ML after one's name does not strike me as sufficient.

The arguments advanced to de-link the peerage from membership of a second Chamber, still to be called the House of Lords, may have some weight. But that also leaves room for considerable confusion. I welcome the Government's intention to retain the title House of Lords. I recall encouraging them to make that decision during the debates in 1999.

I am concerned about the incentives and attractions for individuals to stand for election or appointment to this Chamber, particularly for those who sit on these Benches. These candidates will want to consider their expected period of service and their opportunities for re-election or re-appointment, as well as status and remuneration. The Government's proposal that,

"re-election and re-appointment should both be permitted", does not make clear whether that would be just once or more than that. I hope that the Government will give these aspects, which are so important in attracting the right quality of candidate, further thought before they finalise their proposals.

I turn now to the new statutory appointments commission. First, it is self-evident that the chairman and members of that commission should be familiar with the workings of the House. They must know how Members spend their days and time here, whether on the floor of the Chamber, in Select Committees or on other parliamentary activities. These commissioners will, after all, be responsible for identifying and selecting individuals to sit on these Benches as well as for a number of other issues of importance relating to membership of the House; for example, the Royal Commission excluded MPs as members. For those reasons I agree with that.

The proposals in the White Paper and supporting documents do not provide enough of a guarantee of the quality and experience required to sit on the statutory appointments commission. I expect those criteria to be set out in the Bill. The comparison with members of the Electoral Commission is not apposite. Their functions are not in any way similar, although there is a reference to the Electoral Commission as well as the appointments commission having responsibility for propriety, which may need further clarification.

The Royal Commission proposed that one of the eight members of the appointments commission should be nominated by the Convenor of the Cross Benches—not, incidentally as represented in the White Paper as,

"by . . . the cross-bench peers".

Moreover, the Government's proposal makes no reference to the Convenor being consulted, along with the party leaders, about the members of the appointments commission who would be appointed in response to an Address to the Queen. Bearing in mind the role of the appointments commission in selecting Members to sit on these Benches, I believe that there is a role for the Convenor, as envisaged by the Royal Commission.

Secondly, a number of references are made to "each round of appointments", but it is not clear whether the frequency will be left to the appointments commission or decreed by statute. A prolonged gap between rounds could lead to a reduced independent number. Twenty per cent will not adequately represent the value perceived for the contribution of independent Members to the work of the House.

The White Paper is also unclear about how those who choose to surrender a party Whip, or who would be classified, as happens today, as "Other", are to be counted. It has been suggested that that will be for the appointments commission to decide. But how should it do that? It is not acceptable that from the day a Peer surrenders a party Whip, or for those who are not independents—for example, Others or minor party members—that they should be included in the independents figure of 20 per cent. Those who surrender a Whip should still be counted within the percentage of their party for a period of time and not immediately added to the independent quota.

No mention is made of the future of the two hereditary office holders. It should be made clear what the Government proposes for these offices. Do they intend to make any changes to State Openings and other events involving the Crown where the present holders have responsibilities?

It is also unclear whether the Prime Minister's intent to,

"retain the discretionary right to make a small number of appointments—4/5—in each Parliament of people intended to work as Ministers in the Lords", is additional to the Government's share of the membership of the House. Will those appointed remain MLs for the period of that Parliament or only for the time that they hold office?

For retiring archbishops or holders of senior public appointments, such as the Governor of the Bank of England, the Cabinet Secretary or the heads of the Diplomatic Service and the Armed Forces, there appears to be no straightforward route to these Benches as in the past. Will they have to apply for membership and be considered by the appointments commission? I hope not for such individuals. The Prime Minister recognised this difficulty under the current interim Appointments Commission arrangement. He revoked his decision not to recommend peerages himself and proposed the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, for a peerage to Her Majesty. I hope that, on reflection, the Government will also consider how best to provide a path to this House for such individuals, who can bring invaluable experience and knowledge to these Benches and to the House.

I am also concerned about the abrupt loss of experience and expertise that we enjoy in the hereditary element on these Benches, if they are to be culled en bloc. The Convenor, who currently gets minimal financial assistance to provide him with support in a range of activities of importance to the Cross-Bench group—in dealing with accommodation needs or with the audit and other revenue requirements affecting the handling of the Cross-Bench's Cranborne money—is greatly indebted to the support that he receives from hereditary Cross-Bench Peers.

But Cross-Bench hereditaries, unlike their counterparts in the parties, who want to return as appointed MLs, will have to seek appointment through the appointments commission. It is already clear from experience following stage 1 that excluded hereditaries have returned to the House by the party route, but no former Cross-Bench hereditary has been able to do so other than by filling a vacancy due to death. It seems unfortunate that the detailed knowledge and experience of the House, which the remaining hereditaries have, should be lost overnight. I hope that the Government will agree that it is still within the spirit, if not the wording, of their manifesto commitment to allow the remaining hereditaries to continue as MLs, without further selection or appointment, for life or at least for the ten-year adjustment period. That would greatly ease the transitional arrangements and sustain the expertise of the workings of this House; for example in the role of Deputy Speakers.

I question—although I am not sure that there is a ready answer—why ethnic and faith representation should be in proportion to the population, while the threshold for minor parties is deemed to be 5 per cent of the votes cast, not 5 per cent of the whole electorate. There seems to be an inconsistent approach to those two important issues, especially as the parties will be subject to the requirements in relation to gender and ethnic origin.

The Government say that they are keen to seek consensus on further reform. I welcome that. I hope that they will hold themselves to that undertaking and will give adequate time to address and work through the many aspects of the change. I have addressed only a few of the issues relating to independents. They are important, but they are of course only one aspect of the whole. We seem no nearer a consensus on the issues concerning the elected element—their number, electorate, terms of office and so on—than when the idea of reform was first mooted. The Royal Commission itself was unable to agree a single solution. The White Paper seeks views and lacks a clear definition of the Government's position.

That is bound to prove the most difficult and contentious issue before both Houses of Parliament, yet until it is resolved many of the other issues, including those affecting the independent element, cannot be fully addressed in context, let alone settled. I urge the Government to allow further debate and discussion to concentrate on the complex issue of the elected element. The White Paper is not a good basis on which to discuss further reform of your Lordships' House.