House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:58 pm on 9th January 2002.

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Photo of Lord Cobbold Lord Cobbold Crossbench 8:58 pm, 9th January 2002

My Lords, from all the contributions today there appears to be agreement on all sides of the House and, indeed, in the country at large that we need a second Chamber. There is also broad agreement that it should be a revising Chamber charged with scrutiny of new legislation and holding the Government to account. It should not seek to, or be put in a position where it could or would, pose a threat to the House of Commons as,

"the pre-eminent voice and representative of the people", to quote the Prime Minister in the introduction to the White Paper.

There is also general agreement that the second Chamber should be less political, that it should accommodate Members with outside careers, that it should operate on an expenses-only basis, and that the qualities needed for membership are expertise, experience, diversity, independence and a willingness to contribute to the workings of the Chamber, albeit in many cases on a part-time basis. Is that not a description of the House that we have at present? So why should we change it? Why indeed?

The main arguments for change are that the existing House lacks democratic legitimacy and that its membership should be more representative of society as a whole. Many noble Lords have addressed the question of legitimacy. Many argue that the only source of democratic legitimacy is through election. If that is the case, then logic requires that the second Chamber should be 100 per cent elected. Many favour this option. But it is ruled out because it clashes with the accepted need to preserve the primacy of the House of Commons. However, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor told us today that election is not the only basis of legitimacy.

In the House Magazine of last November, the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, claimed that it is a curious myth that elections are the only source of legitimacy. He argued:

"We regard bishops as legitimate and certainly judges. Legitimacy clearly has something to do with how people get to positions, but also with the definition of these positions, with the way in which decisions are reached, and even with history. Having a portion of elected members from huge constituencies and for long periods of time is probably a mistake, which the electorate will see as deception rather than empowerment".

The larger the elected element, the greater the threat to the House of Commons. The smaller the element, the more it is an ineffective sop to electoral principle. It is unlikely that the elective process would attract a wide range of expertise and experience. Elected Members are to be closed-list party nominees, making the House much more political.

Unlike the previous two speakers, I believe that we should reject an elected element and accept that appointment is the best option for this House in that it is the best way of assuring the desired quality and spread of membership. We should concentrate on making the appointments process as transparent and as effective as possible and thereby more acceptable to the electorate. The constitution and role of the proposed statutory appointments commission is therefore of the utmost importance.

Unfortunately, the temporary Appointments Commission got off to a bad start. It raised public expectations. It attracted over 3,000 applications. It then chose only 15 new Members, all of whom might readily have been appointed under existing mechanisms. The proposed statutory appointments commission must not make that kind of mistake. It must earn public acceptance and therefore legitimacy. It will stand or fall on its perceived ability to make membership of the House more representative of society as a whole than it is at present and better able to execute its functions than it does now. That is not an easy task.

The proposals for the statutory appointments commission set out in paragraphs 65 to 68 of the White Paper seem by and large sensible. I have one or two suggestions. I believe that consideration should be given to establishing the appointments commission as a committee of the Privy Council. I think that the proposed statutory cap of 600 Members is a mistake. I propose a more flexible guideline because I believe that the term of employment should remain as it is now—for life. In any case, the 600 cap looks to be unworkable in practice under the White Paper proposals as they now stand.

I believe that there should be an option for retirement at any time and a statutory retirement age at, say, 75. In that event, there should be an "emeritus" category of membership, by which at the end of the Parliament in which a Member reached retirement, he or she could put their name forward for re-appointment. It would be up to their fellow Members to decide on their re-appointment by secret ballot. Candidates receiving the requisite number of votes would qualify for continued membership for the next Parliament.

If there is to be an elected element, which I do not advocate, I would support a suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that Members of the European Parliament should be that element. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, combines the role of MEP with representation in this House. He was very much anti the election process being associated with the European elections; but if candidates at those elections were to be elected for both roles, I think that that would increase the interest of the electorate. However, as I say, I am not in favour of an elected element, and I bring that in only if it becomes a necessity.

As a Cross-Bencher I support strongly the proposals for the maintenance of a strong independent representation. As an hereditary Peer, I wanted to see a provision for some continued residual representation of that peerage. After all, we are one of the country's minority communities. That would acknowledge the historical evolution of this great institution and provide an element of continuity. But I guess it is not to be.

My points are relatively minor reforms that could be introduced without radically changing the existing House. A much more radical proposal in the White Paper is to separate membership of this House from the peerage. But would it really help to make the House more representative of society as a whole if it was divorced from the peerage and the sense of duty and public service that traditionally goes with it?

This, it seems to me, is a matter for you life Peers and life Peeresses to decide. There are 587 of you, although not many are here at the moment. But you are all experienced achievers in your respective fields. You form a unique pool of expertise and experience. Casual research reveals that 20 per cent of you came from the other place, including two former Prime Ministers, five former Chancellors of the Exchequer and more than 60 other former Ministers; another 20 per cent come from business, international commerce and financial services; and some 14 per cent are lawyers and judges. Other well represented sectors are local government, the Civil and Foreign Services, trades unions, teachers, professors, doctors, nurses, the voluntary services, the armed forces and police, agriculture, the religious faiths and the media.

The future of this House is now in your hands. Your successors, if the White Paper proposals are implemented, will be designated "Members of the Lords" or "MLs". Only you can answer this question: would you be sitting in this House today if you had been asked to become an ML, rather than being given a life peerage? It must be your judgment and yours alone if this proposal makes sense. It seems to me to be a high-risk strategy from which there would be no turning back.

As so many noble Lords have said, this House is a treasure trove of expertise, experience, independence and diversity. The noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House confirmed that. He said that,

"there is expertise in your Lordship's House on all conceivable topics known to the mind of man".—[Official Report, 13/12/01; col. 1414.]

My Lords, why change it?