House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:07 pm on 9th January 2002.

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Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative 9:07 pm, 9th January 2002

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. He and I have been friends for nearly 50 years; he will remember sitting one cold winter in the depths of Canada, in Moosejaw, when we were learning to become Royal Air Force pilots. It is interesting that he speaks today not just as an hereditary Peer but as a re-elected hereditary Peer. He was unlucky on the first ballot but, under our current system, when one of our colleagues became deceased, he came back. I agree with much of his contribution.

I shall make a few remarks, some of which I hope are original; some will find an echo of consensus; and some may well find total rejection. I make them against the background of what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, called in her speech a crisis of confidence in the parliamentary system. She is quite right. From this debate should come the blueprint for the United Kingdom's second parliamentary Chamber.

First, the second Chamber should contain men and women of independence, experience and expertise who give a commitment to this country, in particular to protect its democratic foundations—men and women who recognise that the House of Commons is the pre-eminent House because its Members are elected by the people and it is they who create the government of the day. The second Chamber cannot represent the people. It is there to be the guardian of our constitution and to revise and scrutinise legislation, as so many of your Lordships have said.

Set against those criteria, I see little merit in a hybrid second Chamber, with 20 per cent elected Members. If the elected element is to be sent here by the party list system on what, by all evidence so far, will be a tiny turnout, it will have little democratic legitimacy and, frankly—I do not mean to be too abusive—will lead to party hacks coming to this Chamber. If it were to be elected by a different system—maybe the first-past-the-post system or some form of proportional representation—it would be more legitimate but nevertheless, because its electoral legitimacy would be stronger, its contest with the primary Chamber of the Commons would be the greater. Some of your Lordships believe that the proportion should be a third or a half. The higher we go, the more the competition will increase and the greater the difficulty.

In my judgment, a wholly appointed Chamber selected on the basis of the Royal Commission's proposal could find favour with the great British public if we in this Chamber and those who succeed us were to sell to the public what we are about. We get coverage only during the passage of major Bills such as the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. But that is our fault. We are not prevented from communicating. We ought as a body corporate to be able to communicate what we are about. As I go up and down the country—I have for only four years had the privilege of serving your Lordships—when I talk to people I find the beginning of a recognition of and thankfulness for the job that this House does. The challenge is to communicate what we do as an appointed Chamber.

My conclusion is that, if 600 is the ideal number of Members, it would be far better to increase the independent, Cross-Bench element than to elect 20 per cent of Members.

Secondly—I recognise that this may be a little controversial—I draw attention to the Law Lords. When I first came into Parliament, I was taught that Parliament creates the laws and the judiciary interprets and disposes. Surely in today's world—let us consider other countries—the judiciary should be totally independent of Parliament. That leads me to the conclusion that all the Law Lords should go. That does not mean that those who have served as Law Lords and demonstrated an independence of mind should not return as appointed Members, but we should at least consider changing the position of the Law Lords.

Thirdly, much play is made of the need for party balance. I recognise that the government of the day should be the largest single party in the upper House. However, the mechanics of that appear horrendously difficult. I have wrestled with them, and I will make one proposal to the Government. One way round the problem would be for a number of ministerial positions to rest with the government of the day. That may be 20 or whatever number is chosen; it could even be a band. Those positions could automatically go to the Government, so that, automatically, the Government of the day would be able to increase the number that they have. Of course, when the Government changed at the next election—assuming that they lost the election—they would lose those people.

I want to raise a fourth point. It is a small point, but I have raised it every time that I have spoken on this subject. The Royal Commission considered the position of the dependent territories. I realise that the Government appear to want to find a new status for Gibraltar, but, leaving that aside, I believe that this House would be strengthened if we had appointed persons with specific knowledge and expertise of Gibraltar, the Falklands and the other significant dependent territories.

Finally, I shall echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. We have had a House of Lords for centuries; we had one long before there was a House of Commons. Why must we reject the name? That is a modernisation idea that has gone too far. I am one of the life Peers on whom he believes that we should have a viewpoint, and my view is that it should remain the House of Peers, whatever happens.

The issue of functions is not covered in much depth in the White/Green Paper. Nevertheless, in the introduction, the Prime Minister places some emphasis on the matter, tasking us to be better able to perform. We are to be better able to scrutinise and revise—I see a distinguished former member of the Public Accounts Committee, under whose chairmanship I had the privilege of serving—and that scrutiny and revision can be done exceedingly well, but we must have strong people of independent mind on the committee.

I view the way in which we handle secondary legislation here with amazement. I cannot see why any Government should resist allowing this House to amend, reject or delay secondary legislation. All three options should be within the compass of the Chamber. I remind noble Lords that we are dealing with secondary legislation, not primary. A delay of up to three months is hardly an advance. When I was Chairman of Ways and Means, there were thousands of statutory instruments going through that department every session in the other place, not just a few hundred. Given that number, the second Chamber will not wish to amend, delay or reject many. Any Government should recognise that it is a serious matter if a question is being raised about that. We should be able to do all three things. The same applies to regulations.

It may be an oversight, and I accept that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor could not cover every aspect in his introductory speech, but the Quinquennial Act is very important to our parliamentary democracy. I hope that when the Leader of the House winds up, he will make it clear that there is no proposal to alter that Act.

My final point is not controversial. In making my suggestions, I emphasise to the noble and learned Lord that there is nothing personal in what I want to say. I am thinking about the control of our proceedings in a modernised House. I have been here for only four years, but, as I understand it, things are done through the usual channels, the Chief Whip, the Whip on duty, the Leader of the House or some combination of those noble Lords. There seems to be little or no control by the noble Lord or noble Baroness sitting on the Woolsack. I emphasise again that there is nothing personal in this, but to me, as a democrat, it was—I am not sure what the right word is—wrong or upsetting that the Lord Chancellor, the quasi-Speaker, took prayers, rightly; presided over three questions, rightly; and then, for the fourth, stepped aside, still wearing the wig of office, and answered a political question. Not only did he answer a political question, there was almost a mini-political debate between the Lord Chancellor and the Liberal Party. I believe that that is wrong.

After the mini-debate, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor takes off his wig and goes to the Dispatch Box to sell the Government's policy on the reform of your Lordships' House. In my judgment, such a partisan role is not compatible with the role of whoever is to preside over the proceedings of this Chamber, if it is to be modernised. After all, it is to that person each of us and anyone else who is appointed or elected to this Chamber, particularly those who are elected, will look to defend their rights and ultimately protect this House and the nation's constitution.

Therefore, if there is a crisis of confidence in Parliament, and I believe that there is—