House of Lords Bill [HL]

– in the House of Lords at 11:07 am on 20th July 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office) 11:07 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the House of Lords Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I am cheered to see so many Members here on a Friday. At the beginning, I make it clear that this is not a Liberal Democrat Bill, as no doubt my noble friend Lord McNally will point out later. We on these Benches remain committed to a fully elected House. Nor is the Bill strictly speaking mine, even though it has been called the Steel Bill. It is the result of a lot of work by an all-party group that has been greatly concerned that the years of debate about long-term reform are obscuring the need for what we call effective, immediate reform of your Lordships' House.

I pay tribute to that group, chaired by Sir Patrick Cormack, a Member in the other place. It included the Father of the House, Alan Williams from the Labour Benches, and many of your Lordships attended. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth—Professor Norton—who was mainly responsible for drafting the Bill and the Explanatory Notes. He has done that in such a lucid way that I do not propose to weary the House with an introductory speech spelling out all the details in the Bill, as it is quite easy to follow by simply reading it. Members may ask why I am doing this. The answer is breathtakingly simple. I missed the meeting at which it was decided who would propose the Bill.

Yesterday, we had a Statement from the new Lord Chancellor on the long-term vision of reform of this place. In referring to this Bill, he said that it did not contain the comprehensive reform that he was seeking. That, of course, is true, but if we are to achieve that comprehensive reform, we need a series of steps. First, we need agreement on all the party manifestos, which as we saw from the exchanges yesterday is not all that straightforward; we need new conventions between the two Houses—the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, unanimously and emphatically made it clear that an elected House would require different conventions; we need agreement on an election system, because the party list system did not find much favour in either House when it was last debated; and we need legislation on the Floor of both Houses, which will take time, including for the financial arrangements of an elected House. Those of us who were present during the 1968 and 1969 debates on reform know how complicated that can be.

Then there is the holding of elections. Yesterday, the Minister agreed with me that we are looking at 2014, if we are optimistic. There was a delightful moment in the other place yesterday when Jack Straw chided the Leader of the Opposition for saying that, if he came to government, this would be a third-term issue. As was pointed out, that was a bit rich coming from a Government who were clearly making it a fourth-term issue. That was a neat point to score.

This Bill offers the prospect of limited but early reform. I shall deal with the four parts of the Bill. Part 1 is very topical and brings to an end the controversy over cash for peerages. Let us be quite frank: despite the decision that we all heard this morning, the damage that has been done, particularly to this House but to the political world in general, by the cash-for-peerages allegations has been substantial. There is a strange symmetry about this in party-political terms. The Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats can point the finger at the Blair Government and say, "Ah, no smoke without fire"; the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats can point to the Conservative Party and say, "What about your tax exiles?", one of whom was recently appointed as a working Peer and then applied for leave of absence so that he could stay in his tax haven; and the Conservative and Labour parties can, in turn, say to this quarter of the House, "What about Mr Lloyd George?"—the song is,

"Lloyd George Knew My Father", and he probably sold him his peerage as well.

All parties have been tainted by this matter. It is not modern. One can go back to the days of James VI and I, who was well known to dispose of peerages to people who in the school books of history were euphemistically called his favourites. The fact is that appointment to this place in return for favours of different kinds has long been a blot on the landscape. The Bill does away with that by saying that in future there will be a single-entry system into the House as a result of the appointment of a statutory appointments commission. Even those Peers who come here by virtue of the Prime Minister's continuing right to appoint Members to be Ministers should be subject, even if only briefly and automatically, to the scrutiny of that commission. The commission would be appointed by Mr Speaker, who according to the Bill would have to consult the Lord Speaker and others, obviously including the party leaders. The appointment of a statutory commission has been promised and awaited for some time, so I hope that this proposal will commend itself to the Government.

The second part of the Bill brings to an end hereditary by-elections. Much has been made of the statement made in 1999 by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, that hereditary Peers would remain until stage 2 reform took place. He said that stage 2 reform "will" take place, but he was talking in 1999 and I do not think that he was contemplating 2014. I do not think that any of us thought in 1999 that we would be having an endless series of hereditary by-elections. The Bill does not propose that the hereditary Peers be dismissed from the House; it simply proposes that no new ones should come in. Therefore, it brings the principle of entry to this House by heredity to an end, which was foreshadowed in the Labour Party manifesto and was part of Mr Asquith's pledge back in 1910.

It is necessary to do this because, although the by-elections that we have had may pass muster in the Conservative Party and, indeed, on the Cross Benches, on these Benches the process was ridiculous: we had six candidates for a by-election and four voters. Before the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the rotten borough of Old Sarum had at least 11 voters. In the Labour Party, there were 11 candidates and only three voters, and we had the spectacle of the Clerk of the Parliaments declaring to the world that a new Member had been elected to the British Parliament by two votes to one. That should not be allowed to continue and my Bill brings it to an end.

Part 3 enables Members to retire from the House. That is a very modest proposal, but an important one. When I was a student of constitutional law at Edinburgh University, the late Professor JDB Mitchell banged into our heads—and it became an examination question—that the House of Lords is the only manmade institution that is kept efficient by the persistent absenteeism of the majority of its members. That is not quite as true today as it was then, but it is still partly true. This House has some 750 Members, and our average age is over 68. That means that the great majority of us, including me, are bus pass holders. We do not exactly represent the broad sweep of the nation. The ability to get the numbers in this place down to below the numbers in the House of Commons is an important part of the Bill. It can be no function of a Private Member's Bill or of this House to make financial provisions, but the hint is there that the Government should come forward with some scheme—it cannot be a pension because we are not paid, but perhaps a gratuity or an annuity—to encourage Members over a certain age to retire if they so wish. The House might decide in those circumstances that such Members should keep the social rights that we have allowed the hereditary Peers who disappeared.

There is one other important consequence of this part of my Bill that I draw to the attention of the House: the European Parliament has decided that, as from the next election, it will not permit any Member of a national Parliament to sit in the European Parliament. This House has benefited from having Members who have been in the European Parliament or who currently serve there. They will be debarred from serving in the European Parliament for another term unless we pass the Bill, because temporary leave of absence does not remove membership of this House. That has already been determined by the European Parliament. It is therefore important that we include this provision in the Bill. There is nothing to prevent a Member who has retired from being reappointed at some time in future. This provision would bring down our numbers and the average age.

Part 4 is the least important part of the Bill, but I introduce it as a matter of principle. In the Commons, if a Member is guilty of a serious offence involving a year's detention in jail, he is expelled from Parliament. The principle is that lawbreakers should not be lawmakers. I believe that that principle ought to apply in this House and that it is an anomaly that it does not. I know that this is topical, as one of our number is awaiting sentence, but I do not want the debate to be ad hominem; I want it to be a matter of principle that applies equally to both Houses. The provision in brackets in this part has a tinge of retrospection about it and I await to hear comments from other noble Lords, especially the Minister, on whether it should remain or be removed.

In conclusion—I want to be brief and encourage brevity throughout the day—let me reiterate the main point of the Bill: its proposals provide an opportunity for consensus on a more limited range of reforms than those that were outlined to us yesterday. It has the potential to unite a majority in all three parties and in both Houses. Most interesting of all, it has the potential to unite those who seek an elected House and those who are happy with an appointed House. Yesterday, in a timely intervention, the Constitution Unit said:

"Whatever the plans for more large scale reform, the government would be well advised in the meantime to consider proposals such as these, which could move things on, whilst improving public trust in parliament".

That is the basic case, and our plan is to listen to the voices in this debate and reintroduce the Bill, possibly with amendments in the light of comments today, early in the new Session. It would then be possible for the Government to pick it up in the other place and for legislation to be in effect next year. In his answer to questions yesterday, Mr Straw made it clear that he is in a listening mood. We should take advantage of that. The Bill is not the comprehensive reform that he seeks; it does not pretend to be.

I am aware that during the past few weeks it has become politically sound to parade one's credentials as a son of the manse. I happily do so, and end with two lines from a well known hymn:

"I do not ask to see

The distant scene; one step enough for me".

I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Steel of Aikwood.)

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour 11:19 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has presented an impeccable case for the Bill. I associate myself with his remarks about Sir Patrick Cormack, who is here, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. Since we put forward the idea about a year ago they have had an indispensable role in making such progress with it. I also thank my noble friend the Leader of the House for her courtesy. I will refer later to a letter that she circulated to every Member of the House last night. Finally, I thank my noble friend the Chief Whip for his long-standing advice on procedure and in particular for making provision for this full day's debate today before the Summer Recess.

I underline just one point made in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Steel: that the two main planks of the Bill meet not only the great consensus of this House but the consensus of the House of Commons as well. They were in the White Paper and I have heard no one oppose the broad principles. So something peculiar is going on in the doctrine enunciated in yesterday's mini-Statement: the doctrine of unripe time, the doctrine that the Bill could be incompatible with the final solution. We should address that point head on.

Yesterday's Statement refers to the role of the cross-party committee eight times in four pages. That is the group to give us guidance on democracy. The group needs to give us answers to some questions at this stage. I will come to the membership of the group in a moment. It has now lifted the veil on its secret talks for the first time—the first veil. By the way, I have not found any minutes in the Library. I ask my noble friend: is this the beginning of the dance of the seven veils, because the results would be of interest? In particular, may we see the minutes of the discussion that led to the conclusion that the Bill would be a hindrance to what will happen after the election? Was that point raised by the Convenor of the Cross-Benchers? He has a chance to explain that in his speech. Or are such members not really full members but merely "useful members", in the terminology that many Members of the House will recognise.

What are those involved in opposing the Bill frightened of? For example, why does the statutory Appointments Commission have to wait until after the next general election? It is now very timely to engage the Labour Party and the Conservative Party apparatus in consideration, which would follow the Bill being enacted, of what is required to introduce greater transparency and buy-in by the political parties to these appointments. Or is buy-in by the Labour Party in that way the last thing that Jack Straw wants? The same applies to the 92. Is removal of the causus belli of the 92 something that the Government do not want?

Finally, I ask my noble friend the Leader of the House to think again about the membership of the Joint Committee to include Members of this House from the Labour Party and the Conservative Party who are clearly at odds with their field marshal—overwhelmingly so. The other essential request is that the Steel Bill proposals should immediately be made part of the agenda for consideration, so that there will not be just a rubber stamp and an agenda that excludes those questions.

I think that I speak for nearly the whole House in saying that we have always tried to be constructive, but there would otherwise be great resentment in the House.

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip

My Lords, it was made absolutely clear at the beginning of the debate that it was the will of the House that all Back-Benchers should stick to four minutes.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 11:24 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, my mother used to tell me that I spoke too quickly and I may now be about to prove it.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on the powerful and, I believe, compelling case that he has made for the Bill. The Bill delivers on those parts of the Wakeham report and the White Paper that are generally agreed as being desirable. Indeed, there is no part of the Bill that does not relate to proposals embodied in the February White Paper. Support in this House for the proposals is clear from the survey results published yesterday by the constitution unit at University College, London, to which the noble Lord referred. There is overwhelming support for a statutory Appointments Commission and ending the by-election option.

Given that, it is difficult to see how the Government could do other than welcome the provisions of the Bill. What could be the arguments against the Bill? Some may accept the ends, but question the means. I think that that is principally a case for Committee. I want to focus on ends for reasons of time. Looking at ends, there are those who may argue that the Bill goes too far. They may do so on the basis that the House does a fine job as it stands. I believe that the House fulfils its functions extremely well, but to argue that something is good is not to argue that it could not be even better.

People may argue that the Bill goes too far by ending the link with the hereditary peerage. Those coming in through the by-election route do so because they hold a hereditary title, but not because they have inherited a seat in this House. Their birth places them in an exclusive pool of candidates, but they are selected—indeed elected—for reasons that are particular to them. If one closes off the by-election option, that does not prevent hereditary Peers from being selected on merit for life peerages. There are as many hereditary peers sitting on the Labour Benches as life Peers as there are sitting under the provisions of the House of Lords Act 1999. Holders of hereditary peerages can—and, I have no doubt, will—continue to be nominated on merit. The argument used to justify the existing arrangement is addressed by Part 1.

Of course, some may argue, as does the organisation Unlock Democracy, that the Bill does not go far enough. They want wider change. To argue that is not to argue that the Bill is not necessary. There are those who will regard the Bill as necessary and sufficient. Others will argue that it is necessary but not sufficient. The point of agreement is that it is necessary. Acceptance of the Bill does not foreclose discussion on wider issues of reform.

The Statement yesterday on Lords reform appeared not to grasp the significance of that point. The Statement appeared contradictory. I gleaned two points from it. First, the Government wish to proceed by way of consensus. Secondly, the Government do not propose to act on proposals on which consensus exists. That is not a tenable position. The Statement made clear that there will be no substantive measure on wider issues of reform between now and the next election. In short, the alternative to the Bill is the status quo. If there is to be movement, the Bill is the way forward.

Photo of Lord Williamson of Horton Lord Williamson of Horton Crossbench 11:28 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. Do not blink, or you may miss it. After all, there are 12 Cross-Bench speakers, who will speak in a moderately co-ordinated manner. In the light of all the discussion on the composition of the House, this is obviously a partial Bill. We accept that, but it is none the less very welcome in tackling the related issues, such as the future of the Appointments Commission and the question of permanent leave of absence. In a debate involving almost 60 speakers, I cannot comment on all the points, so I shall comment on two only, but from the perspective of a welcome for many points.

It is vital for the independent members who will be part of the 80 per cent elected, 20 per cent appointed House—if that ever comes about—that the definition of independent, non-party members will be watertight to avoid political creep. I am not sure that the phrase "non-affiliated" or, to use the exact text,

"not affiliated to any registered political party", which appears in the Bill, would achieve that. Even the phrase "independent non-party Peers" could well be substituted, but it might need further definition. It is important for us that that is correct.

Secondly, the principal criterion for recommending a peerage would be conspicuous merit. As I look around the Chamber, I am glad to see that it is already true. It could be true again, and there is nothing wrong with that, but we need some reference to a declared willingness to participate in the work of the House. This is very important for us. The nomination should look forward as well as back to past ability and merit. I know that the commission in the Bill can propose additional criteria, but that is not enough. The willingness to participate in the work of the House is fundamental. This should be explicit in the Bill, and should not depend on the commission's possible proposal of additional criteria.

Photo of Baroness Shephard of Northwold Baroness Shephard of Northwold Conservative 11:30 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I will also be very brief. The aims of the Bill have already been admirably set out. Yesterday's Statement by Jack Straw was somewhat dismissive of the Bill, although in fairness to the Minister, his replies to questions were rather less so. The Bill is indeed limited in its ambitions, but the reforms that it proposes are both useful and necessary. My noble friend has already quoted Dr Meg Russell of UCL, and we know that a restoration of public trust in governance is needed. So, too, do the Government, if we are to believe the proposals in the very comprehensive document, The Governance of Britain.

Many in this House will feel that the reforms proposed in the Bill are not only necessary but enough. Others will feel that they are necessary but not enough. That divergence of view is a matter for another day. The point of the Bill is that it has achieved what the Government, and Ministers in this House, say they wish to achieve but have so far signally failed to achieve; all-party consensus on reform of the House of Lords. In that sense, the Bill is historic, although its scope is modest. Those working on it set out to achieve consensus across the House on reform, where that could be done without upsetting the balance between the Houses and without in any way threatening the supremacy of the elected House. It demonstrates that progress can be made on the basis of consensus when a real effort is made to accommodate all honestly held convictions and to take account of them. For that reason, it should be welcomed and not belittled.

Consensus is the new watchword in constitutional reform, as even a cursory examination of The Governance of Britain should reveal. The aim of that document is an "inclusive national debate". It does somewhat grandly claim that the cross-party talks on Lords reform have built up,

"a significant degree of consensus".

That is obviously not the case, as the vote on 14 March overwhelmingly demonstrated. The Government have now offered consultation on Lords reform with the majority of Members of this House, who support an appointed Chamber. That, in the spirit of the Bill and today's debate, is to be welcomed. It will, I know, be welcomed by members of the Association of Conservative Peers. General progress on further reform may be made if the Government's desire is backed up by practical arrangements. In the mean time, the Bill deserves support, not only for what it proposes but for what it has already achieved in the spirit of real consensus.

Photo of Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Liberal Democrat 11:34 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, until the appearance of this admirable Bill, I had reached the reluctant conclusion that my first preference among the current options for reform of the Lords was for no more White Papers, no more parliamentary Statements and no more working groups. I thought that it was time for a moratorium for at least five years. The latest phase of reform started 10 years ago. We have had many hours of debate in the House and in the Commons, and there is a huge bibliography of books, articles and research documents. From the beginning, we had Modernising Parliament Reforming the House of Lords in 1999, The House of Lords — Completing the Reform in 2001, Next Steps for the House of Lords in 2003, then simply The House of Lords: Reform in February 2007, and yesterday's Statement, which might yet be called The Way Ahead. I am reminded of books by Richmal Crompton, which I greatly enjoyed in my childhood: Just William, More William, William Again, and 35 other similar titles. Documents on Lords reform have been quite like that.

Since the royal commission's report of 2000, we have had two general elections that have brought in more than 200 new Members of Parliament and as many new Peers, some of whom are speaking in today's debate. A whole new political generation has arrived, and the familiar issues are coming full circle. In 1999, as we all know so well, the number of hereditary Peers was reduced from 700 to 92, and we currently have rough parity in 215 Labour Peers and 204 Conservative Peers. We also have 77 Liberal Democrats, which is not enough but is more than 10 years ago. We also have a non-statutory appointments body, which has done excellent work in sending first-rate new Members to the Cross Benches.

The Prime Minister's Statement of three weeks ago and the bulk of the White Paper, The Governance of Britain, especially on the powers of the Executive, are more relevant to running the country effectively than are the few paragraphs on the reform of the Lords, yesterday's promise of never-ending cross-party discussions and the Government's remodelling of our work under the Secretary of State for Justice. Almost every Member of your Lordships' House has a personal agenda for reform: of the size of the House, the name, the number, the future of the bishops, remuneration, composition, and, if there are to be elections, by what method. Some Members of the House and, it seems, the Government, say, "All or nothing", where "all" means an elected or partially elected House. However, the limited objectives of the Bill are not inconsistent with comprehensive reform. It closes no options. I support it on merit, as a step in the right direction, and as the last best chance before my preference for a moratorium.

Photo of Viscount Bledisloe Viscount Bledisloe Crossbench 11:37 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, the Bill is very welcome in principle, with its provisions for an all-appointed House at least 20 per cent of whom are to be non-affiliated and all of whom are to be appointed by a commission. I have one point to make about a commission that has been mostly overlooked or ignored in the furore about cash for peerages. Now, for the first time, we have someone in the commission who has taken action and prevented the granting of certain peerages that were alleged to have been recommended in return for payment. This is surely a very welcome development, for which the commission deserves credit and recognition, and is a very strong argument for putting the commission on a statutory footing. Although I believe, as do many on these Benches, that the Bill's principles are welcome, several of its provisions cause considerable concern, particularly to those who regard as vital the preservation of a substantial element of genuinely independent Members. Those points need to be made, especially if we are not going to reach the remaining stages of the Bill. I make it plain to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that these are comments not about lucidity but about the effect of some of the provisions.

The sole test of eligibility as an independent—a word that sadly is not used—whether as a Member of the House or as a member of the commission, is that one is,

"not affiliated to any registered political party".

This is too vague and too weak. It relates only to the situation at the moment of appointment.

According to the United States Supreme Court, there is no definition of the rather vague word affiliated. The only exception is in the very specialised field, such as insolvency, where it is used to describe bodies corporate both of which are in the same sort of control. It certainly is not sufficient to exclude people who have been actively speaking on behalf of a party or have made substantial donations to that party but are not a member of it. In my view, the definition needs to be very much strengthened to exclude such people.

The second point concerns who is to do the selection and the rule-making for the commission. As the Bill stands, appointment to the commission is solely in the hands of the Speaker of the House of Commons. The approval of the criteria for selection by the commission is solely in the hands of the House of Commons. While there may well be no objection to a substantial degree of participation by the Commons, it seems strange and wrong that this House is not also to play a substantial part in these vital functions. Under the Bill as it now stands, one could end up with a commission which had on it not a single Member of this House, which I would suggest is wrong.

The Bill rightly and desirably allows one to retire by taking permanent leave of absence, but that can be done only by people who apply for it. We all know that there are a number of Members of this House who are now too old, infirm or whatever to make and execute a decision to retire. Surely, there should be a provision that, if a Member does not come for a year and does not answer, say, three or four letters asking, "Are you coming?", you are deemed to have retired without the need for a letter.

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour 11:42 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lea provided for me what I thought was the nightmare scenario; that is, the unrobing of Jack Straw's committee by some sort of seven veils striptease. However, at the end of his speech, I merely reflected that, however this committee is described, it does not represent me or, I suspect, the majority of my Labour colleagues on the Back Benches. It has no authority to speak in our name.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour

My Lords, therefore, whatever it concludes will be subject to the same level of criticism as anything else that appears from the ether without a good pedigree.

This Bill reflects the capacity of all parts of your Lordships' House to collaborate in the best national interest. I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for his endeavours to bring us together. The bigger issues concerning House of Lords reform which preoccupy some will meander along at an appropriately slow pace, still directed by my right honourable friend Jack Straw, albeit in a different manifestation from when he made his last endeavours as Leader of the House.

However, the pace of change is too slow for many of the radical Members of your Lordships' House, who are impatient for its reform and change. We cannot await the leisurely approach of Mr Straw hoping that he can produce a grand solution; we want change more rapidly: we want it now and to have effect. We cannot wait for the House that Jack plans to build. We want something real and of substance now.

Action is therefore needed. This Bill provides the basis for action on which the overwhelming majority can agree. It does not close off any future deliberations or ideas should perchance Mr Straw come up with some which he thinks will command a majority. He still has every opportunity to pursue them. However, here and now we can do several things, and I do not think that any sensible person would object to the statutory appointments commission as the sole source of new peerages and the right to sit in a second Chamber. On that basis, it is axiomatic that the hereditary principle that Governments have tried to grapple with over many years will disappear.

The other two major provisions in the Bill are common sense, and I do not think that I need to detain your Lordships' House any longer, other than to commend them to the House. I congratulate the noble Lord on his endeavours and hope that we will make progress. I look forward to hearing very clearly from my noble friend on the Front Bench the intentions of the Government.

Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative 11:45 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I take pleasure in echoing precisely the case just made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson. It is important that we focus on the consequences of the Statement made yesterday, underlining as it does the contents of the Green Paper, because that is the task on which apparently our leaders are engaged. As the noble Lord has pointed out, it is not a task for which there is support, nor on which they should be engaged.

The discussions of this House start on three premises, which have always been the same. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said yesterday,

"this House has performed very well since the major changes made in 1999. We need to build on that and on the incredibly valuable role of this House as a revising and scrutinising Chamber".—[Hansard, 19/7/07; col. 396.]

That is the premise on which we start. The second premise is to identify the objectives of reform. Not one word written or spoken by the self-describing "reformers" is critical of any aspect of the current performance of this House.

The third premise is that, again, not one word written or spoken by these so-called reformers suggests any significant improvement that would be made to the performance of this House by accepting their changes. The only word on which the case that is distracting so many people is founded is the mystical word, "legitimacy"; but it is quite clear from investigations of that, that there can be only one consequence of this House being endowed with and being able to claim legitimacy: an increased risk of conflicts, in two different ways. Elected Members of the other place will be competing with a second tribe of elected colleagues claiming equal legitimacy, and there is a risk of conflict between the two Houses. The risk of gridlock would be bound to increase as this House claims comparable legitimacy. No longer would we hear the magically healing words used as a closing call to a game of ping-pong, "We have got to face it. They are the elected House".

Finally, I remind the House that for 12 months, now some eight years ago, the commission under my noble friend Lord Wakeham addressed itself to all these matters. Paragraph 10.3 of the report spells out in great detail the qualifications and qualities necessary for the effective working of this House. They are all there already, but they will be put in jeopardy if the great dream of the reformers is pursued beyond that. It is that composition which makes this House incredibly valuable.

Beyond that, the premise which appears to have commended itself to the Front-Bench committee has been expressly considered by the Wakeham commission, which at paragraph 11.36 of its report states:

"Our primary judgments are that we could not recommend a wholly or largely directly elected second chamber".

Paragraph 11.9 states:

"Putting it bluntly but accurately, a wholly elected second chamber would in practice mean that British public life was dominated even more than it is already by professional politicians".

The truth is this. Going back to the cash for peerages matter, why was cash being traded? It was because cash was needed to fight elections. How was this illegitimate trading identified? By the wisdom and response of the commission appointed to control entry to this House. The logical conclusion from that is that we would be far better off with a fully appointed lower House rather than a fully elected upper House.

Photo of Viscount Falkland Viscount Falkland Liberal Democrat 11:50 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, by whichever path one comes into this House, one is immediately made aware of the importance of this institution in our parliamentary democracy. What concentrates the mind even more when one comes into this House is when one is asked to explain either to individuals or to groups exactly how this institution works. It is my view that, together with the other pillars of our democracy—the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers—we need to be very wary of something that has not happened but which has been mentioned by other noble Lords, and that is hasty change. The composition of this House has taken rather too much pride of place over the powers and functions which govern our proceedings. It is the powers and functions of this House—they are immensely subtle and effective, particularly in our relationship with the other Chamber—which need to be secured and safeguarded.

We had a smooth and effective change from an hereditary House. I thoroughly approved of that, although the methods used to do it were somewhat questionable; I would have preferred something between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the House to have been chosen from hereditary Peers sitting as life Peers, but that was not the case. Having 92 hereditary Peers who are re-elected in by-elections is a ludicrous situation, and is admirably dealt with in my noble friend's Bill. Now, Parliament must come to a consensus without being hustled along by the Executive. The most important thing to bear in mind is the power we have in Parliament to hold the Executive to account. That is paramount and something that I always stress when asked—rarely, these days—to talk to schools and other gatherings. There is no reason why we should not continue to do that in a reformed House. The composition of the Chamber, so long as the Members are reasonably intelligent, committed to coming here and independent, matters less. Such Members are likely to make a good job within our powers and functions.

The Bill gets us out of a position of quite undesirable delay. It rather reminds me of when I was in the Army. I used to get stuck in a thing called a scout car which would slip into something called a forced neutral so that it could move neither forward nor backward. Luckily we do not have to go backwards, but it is desirable that we move forwards. My noble friend's Bill takes us forward in a sensible way until a completed reform is put before us in whatever turns out to be an acceptable way. Our views on that are clear, and anyone can find out how we feel by looking at the voting lists on the White Paper that we debated some months ago.

I am grateful to my noble friend for this sensible Bill. It gives us optimism for the future that we will finally arrive at a solution, and I hope that it will be before 2014.

Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench 11:54 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I am in favour of this Bill, so admirably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. It would introduce limited reforms of the House of Lords. Reform is vital, but it must be done to improve the functioning of Parliament, to invigorate the parliamentary process, and to help make Parliament more relevant to the British people. The Bill does all this and would introduce a limited set of reforms through consensus, which is very important. It will need some amendment, but it can achieve many of the above goals.

I hope that noble Lords and Members of the other place would acknowledge that an enormous amount of change has already taken place. Certainly in the time that I have been in the House, I have seen the active participation of many recently appointed Peers from very diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country. They bring expertise and specialist experience to the second Chamber and contribute in a remarkable way to its work. Like many other people, I would not like to see as an unintended consequence of change this breadth of skills and experience lost, but that could happen. However, it could be enhanced and the public's trust in Parliament increased if the appointments system were changed so that it becomes an independent statutory body, as suggested by the Bill. That would increase transparency and ensure that the House openly reflected in its membership the regions, the sectors and the diverse communities which make up our country. This would in no way conflict with the other place, where Members are accountable primarily to their constituents and are therefore elected for quite different reasons. The Bill would also avoid the need to introduce yet another layer of elected politicians to our country, where the emphasis is shifting towards local and regional elected members having more powers and autonomy.

A statutory commission could insist on securing a commitment from future Members to work actively in the House and not to be given a peerage purely as an honour. The Bill would provide a means by which people could take permanent leave of absence and, if necessary, be expelled, and it deals with the question of the by-election process for the remaining hereditary Peers. It would gradually achieve, through a consensual process, a means of ensuring the complementary working relationships of both Houses and enabling the valuable roles played by each Chamber to continue and to be enhanced.

Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour 11:56 am, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for introducing this Bill and thus giving me the opportunity to comment for the first time on Lords reform. In view of yesterday's Statement, I will not go into the detail of the Bill, although some matters need considerable exploration. However, I support it as it deals with the urgent need—I emphasise that—for a statutory appointments commission which otherwise is not on the immediate political horizon, given the Government's timetable of 2014. It also deals with some of the rather ludicrous consequences of the machinery for by-elections.

The history of the reform of the House of Lords is littered with promises unfulfilled, and in the mean time it would be most useful to have this Bill under our belts. I shall now go a little wider and comment on the Government's proposals, which are dismissive of this proposal. I fear that the House of Commons—and after nearly 42 years' service in it, I remain a House of Commons man—believing in its paramountcy, has not realised that once there are elected Members in this House, things will never be the same again. There will be a tension fuelled by the demand for more powers. We have seen that in Brussels, Cardiff and Edinburgh, and it would be strange if it did not happen here. Moreover, there are no means of permanently enshrining the status quo.

I want to make five brief points. First, the Statement ignores the element of tactical voting in the Commons on this issue. Secondly, consensus is commended, and there is no actual mention of the Parliament Act. The threat of the latter is in the words, "the will of this House", which contradicts a consensual approach. The Government say, "We are looking to build on a consensual approach". Their chances would be much higher if all duress were removed. Thirdly, why should the all-party group consist of only Front-Bench representatives when, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, said only a few months ago, the Leader of the Conservatives in this House is a "captain with few troops"?

Fourthly, promises have been made about the position of existing life Peers. Now they are only to be discussed with a range of issues to be considered. Is this a watering-down of previous Statements? Perhaps my noble friend Lord Hunt will deal with that matter. Lastly, I welcome the Government's aim to ensure in a constitutional Statement the "current balance of powers", for what it is worth.

I commend the Bill. It will be most useful; it is urgent, and we cannot wait until 2014, which I understand is the Government's timetable.

Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative 12:00 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on introducing the Bill, which must clearly be put in the context of the Statement which was helpfully made by the Government yesterday.

On that occasion I raised the question of representation on the cross-party group, and I have received a "Dear Colleague" letter this morning from the Leader of the House. She describes the group as bringing together representatives of the main parties. In fact, of course, it brings together representatives of the Front Benches of the main parties and not of the Back Benches. In the letter, the noble Baroness goes on to ask for comments on how Back-Bench views might be taken into account without the cross-party group becoming in any way unwieldy. I have a simple question for the noble Lord who is to reply: what is the size of the group and how does it compare with the size of the Joint Committee on Conventions, which everyone agrees was a great success? It did not seem to me, having had the honour of serving on it, that that committee was unwieldy. The cross-party group's recommendation will have no authority if it proceeds in the way that the Government are proposing. I hope the Government will think again about that matter.

My second point on the Bill and the Statement is that too much weight is being put on the recent vote in the House of Commons. We all know perfectly well that the first attempt at getting any consensus, or even a vote, took a long while. It is well known that the last vote, the one for a 100 per cent elected House, was a result of tactical voting by those who were actually in favour of a wholly appointed House. Even on the 20/80 vote, the crucial point is that opinion is changing in the House of Commons. Increasingly, both there and elsewhere, there is a greater understanding of the change which has taken place in this House since 1999, particularly in relation to the balance between the various parties. So we must not put too much weight on that opinion, recently expressed, which was, after all, described as an indicative vote.

I shall now comment on the two other main points in the Bill. On the case for removing the by-elections, if one reads back on the events of the time one will find that an amendment was suggested by one of our committees to limit the process to five years. That amendment was not carried, unfortunately, but it was certainly never envisaged that it would go on for as long as it has. If the object of the by-elections was to ensure that reform took place on stage two, it certainly failed in that respect. The system has long outlived its usefulness—if it ever had any—because what stage two it was supposed to promote was never made clear. I do not think that the Statement made at the time by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine—we have moved on to several Lord Chancellors since—is relevant in the present context or, in particular, in the context of this Bill.

The case for an appointments commission is overwhelming. Mr Gordon Brown is seeking to dissociate himself from much of the past 10 years. There are many things, not least tax credits, from which he certainly cannot dissociate himself. But, whatever the results of the investigations into cash for peerages, it has undoubtedly done great damage to this House. Therefore the case for him dissociating himself from that issue by going along with the Bill is very strong indeed.

At Cambridge I was once told by my tutor that he did not mind his students looking at their watches; it was when they got them out and shook them that he got worried. In a digital age that no longer applies. I commend strongly the noble Lord's Bill and I hope that it will go on to the statute book as soon as possible.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 12:04 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's Bill as an important step which leaves us in a better place from which to move to a fully reformed House.

I imagine there will be consensus around the fact that we do not want in this House those convicted of a serious criminal offence. The Bill could be an opportunity to break the link between honours, titles and the second Chamber and, after the recent cash-for-peerages issue has, as noble Lords have said, brought the whole political process into disrepute, this is important. Cash for the right to scrutinise does not have the same ring to it.

Nor should this House be regarded as a retirement home for those who have done a great job in industry, in the community or in the other place. I do not refer to those who have experience and time to offer and who would play an active role here. I was very attracted to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, that a willingness to participate could be an element of the Bill because, certainly, one grand speech a year can be made in any setting.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Falkland that some of the debate has begun in the wrong place yet again. It is critical to debate the powers of this House—for example, the right to scrutinise international treaties—the increasing load of secondary legislation and the inability of a scrutinising Chamber to amend any such legislation. Public understanding of the powers of the House and what it should be doing is an essential first step before asking the public to decide on its composition—if, indeed, we include that in our manifesto. I congratulate the Lord Speaker on her programme of going out into schools, universities, organisations and the public generally to explain what the second Chamber does and why it is so important. I hope that more of our energies will be devoted to that debate before we ask the public to decide who should be conducting the business which complements the work of the constituency MPs.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench 12:07 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, the Bill provides the reform needed at one fell swoop by building on the consensus of views about how the reformed House of Lords should function. It creates a House that is appointed against clear, transparent criteria, with accountability for all aspects of the process. This House functions as an excellent revising Chamber precisely because it is a House of wide expertise, and the Bill ensures further diversity to enhance this.

The current commission, of which I am a product—sometimes when I disagree with people they may claim I am a by-product—has established open criteria and transparent annual reporting of its processes and decisions. The proposed commission builds on these and goes further, ensuring independence and careful, open criteria, with the ultimate decision over commissioners resting with the other place.

So who should be in? Experts of proven track record, across all sections of society, who are demonstrably committed to contributing to the revising of legislation and the committee inquiries that complement the work of the other place. It is that diversity of lifetime experience that the commission will bring into the House. No one will bypass the scrutiny process through party patronage, birth or any other reason whatever. It will establish a level playing field for people from all walks of life to bring their major contributions to our society right into the heart of our Parliament. Legitimacy of role is ensured by matching the appointee's proven characteristics to the work to be done; by transparency in the commission's processes and by its complete independence.

Who should be out? Those convicted of serious crime and those who are not active. Permanent leave of absence will allow those who, through infirmity or other reasons cannot actively contribute, to leave. Based on the 2005-06 figures, if those who attended for less than 10 per cent of the time voluntarily took permanent leave of absence, the number would be only five more than in the other place.

Nationally, the electorate appear disillusioned; the turnout can at times be lamentably low. Sadly, we have seen that in Wales. The Bill could rapidly restore confidence in Parliament and its processes. It is commendable. It brings reform and matches structure to function.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour 12:10 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, the Statement yesterday rejected the Bill because it did not offer comprehensive reform. Other speakers have argued today that the Bill is compatible with comprehensive reform and that it is a step on the way. I shall argue against the whole concept of big-bang comprehensive reform, with its huge opportunity costs and its unanticipated consequences. I favour incrementalism, not as a step towards comprehensive reform but as an alternative to it.

Fifteen years down the line, we may or may not have strong regional bodies that, together with the devolved Administrations, might allow an approximation of the federal structure that underpins almost all elected second Chambers around the world. By then we may have a different relationship with Europe and we may or may not still have an established church—we do not know. Any such change, however, would require significant constitutional adjustment. In the absence of a written constitution, such adjustments cannot and will not happen in the other place. Only a flexible, adaptive second Chamber has the headspace for such incremental change, and we should value that flexibility highly. We should expect to return to questions of the composition, function and powers of this House over time as new constitutional pressures emerge. We owe that to the citizens of this country.

I state my opposition—in a very conservative way—to big-bang comprehensive reform. I value the process of incremental change for its learning loops and its adaptive quality, and as a way of ensuring that the constitution between the two Houses of Parliament best fits the emerging needs of this country and all its citizens.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative 12:12 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I shall omit the conventional opening compliments to the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, but even if they are unsaid they remain heartfelt.

We now have a Prime Minister who is a historian and who has borrowed an earlier 19th-century title for his Administration. The Ministry of All the Talents served for 13 months between February 1806 and March 1807. By superstition, 13 is an ill fated number, but in this instance it may be a calendar pointer to coming events. Although that Administration's most talented figure, Charles James Fox, was dead within seven of those months, happily no similar omen should be read into that fact, for Fox had specifically declined to be First Lord of the Treasury at the inception of the Government.

What is an echo of that era, however, is that the ministry initially consisted of three Earls, a Viscount and three Barons, assisted by five Ministers in the Commons, one of whom, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was the son of a Peer. That imbalance was further distorted when Fox died and he was replaced by his kinsman Lord Holland in your Lordships' House. I notice that our historian Prime Minister has read his history and created three new peerages to help to give his ministry the sobriquet of two centuries ago by an instrument of creation still, happily, available to him.

The Bill is the living embodiment of the proverb, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush". As the speakers list shows, it is the epitome of a cross-party measure and is, in that respect, an index of good intent. It also possesses that most excellent of British virtues in being an exercise in gradualism. We are seeking to help the nation to cross a river, stone by steady and sturdy stone, without taking a cold bath in the process. Cold baths are invigorating but hazardous both for Governments and for constitutions. Pouring cold water on a constitution is never regarded as a compliment.

Fabius Maximus Cunctator was one of the heroes of ancient Rome, a harbinger of that great republic whose administrative logic could be comprehensibly derived, one classical scholar has pointed out, from the logic of the single construction of "ut" with the subjunctive. I understand that that ancient hero has more recently given his name to a society dedicated to the virtues of gradualism.

The Bill has four other virtues. It does not require a referendum; it underlines both the advantages of and the need for transitional arrangements; to borrow the patois of 1910, it is couched in the language of hedgers, not of ditchers; and it improves the chances of a statutory appointments commission being afforded to us long before we get a Civil Service Act.

Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Spokesperson in the Lords, Transport 12:15 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, one thing unites many of the radical Members to whom reference has been made: their ignorance of the work that is done in this House. The Lord Speaker is doing a great deal to correct that, but I do not want to be a Member of a House that is often subject to the caricature of consisting of old men—women are rarely mentioned—who are asleep, some with ear trumpets and some dressed in wigs. I have seen that in a parliamentary publication in the past six months. Many people, including many in another place, are totally ignorant of the work that is done here.

I am a member of a county council, an interest that I have declared in the past. If I do not attend the county council for a few months—I think that it is three—without good cause, I am dispossessed of my seat and there is a by-election. If I were a member of a school governing body and I failed to attend four consecutive meetings, I would be dismissed. My noble friend—whom I congratulate, as has everyone else—should address the issue, which has been raised by several noble Lords, of the need for people who come here to actively participate in the work of the House. I am totally against the idea of celebrity Peers, or peerages given in reward for something else but where the person concerned does not appear. I would support some sort of gratuity paid to people who voluntarily relinquished their membership of the House. I realise that that may be difficult, but, if these things were done, this place would be seen for what it is: somewhere that concentrates on doing hard, unglamorous, sometimes boring but very necessary work.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 12:17 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I shall say a few words of welcome for the Bill, concentrating on specialism. The appointment of Peers permits the House of Lords the opportunity to secure a good range of specialisms to assist its consideration of legislation, as my noble friend Lady Greengross has said. Appointment makes your Lordships' House one of all the talents. The depth of specialist knowledge and experience in your Lordships' House can prevent Governments from repeating the errors of the past or wasting their efforts.

The opportunity for specialist contribution distinguishes this House from the other place. While professional politicians increasingly have a sole career in politics, appointment allows this House a different kind of legislator, lacking the benefit of the experience of constituency casework but having had the responsibility of running a business, of leading soldiers in conflict or of attaining the highest level in medicine or science. Election might still permit the appointment of specialists, but it is doubtful whether many of the most distinguished of them would wish to go through such a process.

While specialist experience withers as one withdraws from day-to-day practice, Peers can and do seek to sustain elements of their practice while in Parliament and derive current information from the network of contacts that they have forged over many years. Of course legislators can take evidence from specialists to inform Bill work, but to truly benefit from such evidence one needs eyes to see and ears to hear; one needs to know how to prioritise. To have the tenacity and the passion to change the law, one needs deep knowledge and personal involvement, the commitment that comes with many years' involvement in one area.

My noble friend Lord Laming has had many years' experience of social services, including his time as Chief Inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate. While in this House, he has led the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, and he was perfectly suited to advise the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, when she took the Children Act 2004 through this House. She acknowledged how greatly she benefited from his advice. My noble friend used his expertise to stand against the call from all sides, including the charities, for the power of the Children's Commissioner to extend to pursuing individual cases. The commissioner has regretted this restriction on his powers, but it seems as though we have avoided the pitfall of the Welsh commissioner's experience. The commissioner's role is increasingly recognised as being effective in voicing the concerns of children throughout this country.

My noble and gallant friend Lord Bramall spoke in the debates prior to the Iraq invasion. He said:

"Finally, I hope that war will not become inevitable. Whatever success there may be early on, any—even temporary—occupation of Iraq will, I believe, create more problems than it solves ... we would be asking men and women to risk their lives for reasons which, to say the least, are more obscure and contentious than those which prevailed in World War II, Korea, the Falklands or the Gulf. So the Government had better get it right".—[Hansard, 28/11/02; col. 942.]

It is easy to be wise after the fact. The appointments process made available to your Lordships the specialist knowledge to give the House the possibility of being wise before the fact. I warmly welcome the opportunity that the Bill offers to continue the ability of this House to secure a good range of specialisms to inform its considerations.

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 12:21 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, this Bill proposes two of the principal reforms needed to re-establish the second Chamber as an effective and legitimate House of Parliament. Courteously and gradually, but inexorably, it would remove the remaining hereditary Peers from our legislature. We would hear not the rumbling of tumbrils, but time's winged chariot, as, with the discontinuance of by-elections to replenish the complement of hereditary Peers sitting in this House, their numbers gradually dwindled to extinction. No one with a feeling for British history and no one who has observed the practical work in Parliament of hereditary Members of your Lordships' House will contemplate this change without some sadness, but the changed character of our society, its power structures and our modern polity make inescapable the conclusion that no convincing case can now be made for the hereditary principle for entry into the legislature.

The Bill would also legitimise an appointed second Chamber. The appointments commission would be established by parliamentary statute. Its membership, duties, criteria and procedural guidelines would all, too, be established by the House of Commons from time to time, thus vesting the commission and its work with democratic legitimacy while confirming the primacy of the democratically elected House of Commons. The Bill does not preclude moving later to an elected second Chamber, but those who suppose that it is undemocratic for there to be an appointed House of Parliament are wrong. Where, as provided by this Bill, the composition of the House is established by statute and by resolutions of the elected House of Commons, there is no democratic deficit.

The role of the appointed Chamber would be advisory and no more than that. The existing conventions, recently approved by the elected Chamber, would persist and would not be threatened by an appointed Chamber as they undoubtedly would be by an elected second Chamber. The appointed second Chamber would have its familiar powers to amend and delay, but these powers would only be enough to ensure that the elected House and the Executive took seriously the advice of the appointed House; they would not in the end thwart the will of the House of Commons.

The criterion of conspicuous merit, which under the Bill would be the determining consideration for appointment to the second Chamber, would ensure that the elected House and the Executive would be better advised than they would be by a second elected Chamber. This Bill would create a better informed and better functioning democratic legislature.

They are wrong who think that our democracy should be renewed from the top down rather than from the bottom up. No value would be added by having the second Chamber elected. If the primacy of the House of Commons were somehow to be entrenched in a so-called constitutional settlement as adumbrated by the new Lord Chancellor in the Commons—nothing in our constitution is permanently settled—what serious or able politicians would offer themselves for election to the second Chamber? Who would bother to vote for party placepersons unable to exercise any significant power? If the primacy of the House of Commons were not entrenched, we would have a recipe for endless sterile conflict. How much better to renew our democracy at the level of local government, but that is a debate for another day.

My one criticism of this Bill is that, in its provisions for leave of absence, it does not go far enough. I hope that I shall not be disharmonious in saying that I cannot see that we can today justify membership of the legislature for life any more than we can justify the hereditary principle. The Government have been right to propose that membership of the second Chamber should be for a fixed term—let us say 15 or 20 years from the point at which the new basis of composition is established. If we can introduce that, too, we shall have a comprehensive reform.

This Bill is a serious and major measure to reform the House of Lords for the 21st century. We should approve it in principle today and it should be reintroduced, modified as I have suggested, early in the next Session, when I hope that, with the Government recognising its common sense and usefulness, it will pass through all its stages both here and in another place.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 12:26 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I declare an interest as a hereditary Peer, although it is a diminished interest since my son has not so far shown any interest in pursuing me into this House. Nevertheless, I am provoked by my noble friend Lord Higgins to say that the rearguard of hereditaries was retained not to ensure that change came, but to ensure that, when it did come, it did not by one featherweight reduce the power of this House to call the Government to account. That is what we were left here for.

Therefore, I have one reservation about this otherwise excellent Bill, which is the proposal to terminate the arrangement that keeps the hereditaries here. Your Lordships may expect that all this will be resolved in a year or two, or perhaps by 2014. Many of your Lordships expected that the law would be resolved five years ago; it has not been. In 1911, many of your Lordships expected that it would be expeditiously resolved. The Bill even had a preamble—the only one that we have ever had to a Bill—stating that the legislation was a temporary measure until a more democratic means of electing a second Chamber was found. Eighty-eight years later, the next step was taken. Therefore, to remove the means of keeping the number of hereditaries significant in this House is premature.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, on an admirable speech and echo his request that we be told who sits on the cross-party working group and that the Government and members of that group take on board the fact that they do not represent the members of their parties in their sentiments. It therefore follows that their work is superfluous and possibly misleading; it should be overtaken by the work of the whole House and the whole of the other place as well.

I congratulate, because I actually have time to do it, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on a tremendous piece of work, helped by many others, and I congratulate every other Peer who has said what I agree with.

Photo of Lord Cobbold Lord Cobbold Crossbench 12:28 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking and congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on producing this Bill, which gives us the opportunity of expressing our views on Lords reform.

Happily, the Bill is firmly based on the principle of a wholly appointed House, an option that was ruled out by the Government in yesterday's Statement, in spite of their expressed wish to achieve consensus. A fully elected House would get rid not only of the hereditary Peers, but also of all life Peers, spelling the end of this House as a unique reservoir of expertise and experience, as my noble friend Lord Listowel pointed out.

In the short time available, I shall comment on two aspects of the Bill, the first of which is the Appointments Commission. While I fully agree with the need for a statutory commission, its members, including the chairman, should not be nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons, albeit in consultation with the Lord Speaker of this House. It would give too little influence to this House. The commission should be composed entirely of serving Members of both Houses. It should be made up of three Members of the House of Commons, one from each party, plus five Members from this House, one from each party and two Cross-Benchers. It would have eight members in total, each chosen by their party or group. They should appoint their own chairman.

Secondly, serious consideration should be given to whether service in the House of Lords should be for life, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has just mentioned. The alternative would be to have a limit of, say, 15 years for length of service, and/or possibly an age limit of, say, 80. That would generate a larger turnover and would make controlling the size of the Chamber much easier. A special emeritus category could be introduced to which those exceptional personalities who are continuing to provide valuable service at the end of their term could be selected by their fellow Peers to give them an extension of up to, say, five years. Finally, looking into the future, there will be nothing to prevent the Appointments Commission appointing, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, suggested, one or more hereditary Peers on their personal merit. They would not need to receive a life Peerage, and would provide a link with the past.

The real reform of this House of Lords took place in 1999. The second stage is one of tidying up, which the Bill seeks to address. To replace the present House with a 100 per cent or 80 per cent elected chamber would be an act of vandalism, destroying a unique institution which serves this country well.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 12:31 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, like every other speaker in the debate so far, I hugely welcome the Bill but am rather puzzled as to why the spokesmen for the Government in both Houses yesterday did not seem to. Why is this?

I offer a slightly roundabout explanation. My politically formative years were during the era when the country was plagued by Marxists and Trotskyites of various kinds. They did not agree on much— remember, there were a thousand minor splits in their ranks—but they were agreed on one thing: they were totally opposed to any ameliorative legislation to improve the condition of the people. They said, "We must fight this to heighten the contradictions of cap-it-alism"—that was how they pronounced it—"and advance the revolution".

Far be it from me to accuse present Ministers of any affinity with Marxism but, in the same way, the opponents of the Bill are not against it for anything that it does. They agree with what it does, but oppose it for one reason only: they think that if it passes, it will remove their most plausible, popular arguments and complaints about the present House. Put simply, they want to preserve the bad things about this place to help them to destroy the good thing about this place: its expert membership.

That position is both disingenuous and immoral. Without wishing to be controversial, let me cite a current example. Wholesale reform will not take place until 2014, even by the Government's plans. By then, it may be that the noble Lord, Lord Black of Crossharbour, will have served his sentence. Unless this Bill, or something like it, is passed, he could then sail back into this House, install himself on the Cross Benches—since the Conservatives have wisely expelled him—and opine on what laws this Parliament should pass, laws which a jury has found him to have utterly flouted. Yes, that would be a great propaganda coup for the root and branch reformers, which is why we should proceed today to make it impossible.

Photo of Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market Conservative 12:34 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I, too, warmly support the Bill. In view of the shortness of time, I will not elaborate any further on the details, except to say that some of the comments I have heard on them, particularly Clauses 1 to 5, are for the Committee stage or the later stage of the second Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I hope that those who hold those views will put them to him.

I want to dwell on the wider reforms, and make two points following on from what my noble and learned friend Lord Howe said. First, there is that general agreement that this House should be complementary to, and not a clone of, the other place. Those of us who have spent many years in the other place are the first to recognise the merits of that argument, and this is probably the best place to understand them. In coming to this place, we understand that the wider expertise available in this House on all the key issues—such as scrutiny of legislation, which this House is increasingly taking on where the other place does not, Select Committees and many of our debates—makes it so different from the other place and one of the great merits of our parliamentary system. I fear that a wholly or largely elected House would become, in many ways, a clone of the other place. Those of us who fight and have fought elections at local level are well aware of that kind of pressure, and our expertise would be lost. It is myth to argue that the political parties will select people who are prepared to work full time on a salaried basis in this House to replace the expertise that would be lost. They would not do it.

The Cunningham Commission itself recognised that a wholly or largely elected House would mean that the powers would have to change. It is inevitable that there would be a challenge from this place because of its so-called democratic accountability. That brings to me to my second point. Stripped down to it, the advocates of a wholly or largely elected House have one argument: election brings democratic accountability. However, they are also increasingly recognising, including in the other place, the point of my noble and learned friend Lord Howe: at the local level there would be considerable competition, challenge and difficulty if Members were elected to this House, whatever the constituency arrangements, as well as to the other place. The experience of Scottish MPs underlines that very point.

To address this, the Government, in their previous proposals, came forward with the argument that the election system should be different and that Members to this place should be elected for 15 years without the possibility of election after that. That proposal immediately destroys the argument of democratic accountability, because there is nothing to prevent a Member being elected and ignoring his constituency from then on. It is not a proper democratic accountability argument. That brings me to two of the important points referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, in his admirable speech. The election system and the powers of both Houses, with a wholly elected House, are not detailed points of implementation but fundamental. They will take time and it will be extremely difficult to reach consensus for a workable solution on those sorts of issues. That is why, meanwhile, I believe that this Bill strengthens the complementary nature and authority of this House. That is why it should be supported.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 12:37 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I declare an interest in that my own appointment to this House was instigated by the current Appointments Commission. My stance in general is that this House is as legitimate a part of the constitution of this country as the Queen and the judges. The judges, for example, are not elected—for good reason—but may claim to change more law in their time than your Lordships' House.

The Bill strengthens the case for non-election, and I therefore support it. Every Government need checks and balances, especially when there is no written constitution. Our checks and balances have been unsettled by recent government action. The judiciary feels threatened by the Home Office rearrangement. The position of the Lord Chancellor has changed; the position of the Attorney-General has been questioned; and further announcements have been made about constitutional reform that might also undermine the bulwark of this House still further.

We do not want a House built of straw, especially when the Parliament Acts will cease to have much of their purpose if this House is to be wholly or largely elected. In my view, there is nothing but your Lordships' House standing between the so-called "elective dictatorship" of a slim majority in the other place and the people. Therefore, the criteria for appointment to this House should be, first, the ability to contribute by way of expertise. One need instance only recent government appointments to this House in pursuit of expertise to illustrate the role and value of that ability to put Members in this House because of their expertise. Secondly, the representativeness of different strands that make up this country is not a feature that can be ensured by election but it can be, and has been, by an Appointments Commission. Thirdly, an independence of spirit that comes from not seeking salary or office. Fourthly, Members of this House should be willing to be followed up to ensure that they are making the contribution they were appointed to make. That seems to me to represent accountability.

In my view the existing Appointments Commission has done well. It has not shied away from difficult questions, has taken no shortcuts, is transparent in its process, has kept confidentiality and has achieved diversity in its appointments. The reformed commission, were it to come about on a statutory basis, as I hope it will, should resemble in its own make-up and choice other public service appointing bodies. The choice of the commission members should not be left largely to the Commons Speaker. There should be no limitations, for example, to Privy Councillors, as exists in the current Bill. It needs a strong chair who will not bend to party pressure. There should be no line management by a department or by the Prime Minister. It must be able to challenge nominations made to it.

This Bill can sweep away all suggestions of an inappropriate choice process and can render this House even more expert, confirming its position in our constitution as influential but not powerful, useful but not used.

Photo of Lord Bilston Lord Bilston Labour 12:41 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I share with my noble friends the aspiration felt on all sides of the Chamber to campaign for and encourage the development of a modern, effective second Chamber. This can be substantially achieved by Parliament approving this House of Lords Bill, moved very ably by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, which I hope will receive its Second Reading today on what is a very auspicious parliamentary occasion.

I, too, wish to emphasise the consensual nature of this legislation, which if my right honourable and honourable friends in the other place could or would admit it, charts a reforming and refreshing up-to-date model of our noble House of Lords as Parliament's second Chamber, dedicated to the scrutiny and improvement of government legislation and regulations, and as a composed restraint on any over zealous Executive power.

Those of us who believe in the sovereignty of the House of Commons can wholeheartedly commend this Bill in the sure knowledge that the manifesto commitment of my beloved Labour Party on an end to the archaic inclusion of hereditary peerages in the House of Lords will finally be completed at some stage.

Secondly, the creation of a new statutory Appointments Commission for appointing Members of your Lordships' House could achieve the desired effect of bringing in citizens from a wider range of backgrounds and interests. However, this process should legitimise the role of the political parties in continuing to nominate candidates to give service to this noble House.

There is much more to say on these important constitutional issues, including a more structured and dignified permanent leave of absence for Peers who wish to retire from active service. However, I am conscious of the shortage of precious time at my disposal today. I conclude my remarks by urging noble Lords to help build the links between the two noble and honourable Houses of Parliament and seek to promote the understanding and good will, which I contend still exists with our parliamentary colleagues in another place, and in so doing bring this constructive legislation on Lords reform into law.

Photo of Lord Goodlad Lord Goodlad Conservative 12:44 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on so ably moving the Second Reading of this Bill and in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Norton for his contribution to the drafting of the Bill following the meetings chaired by Sir Patrick Cormack. I had some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, when he referred to Richmal Crompton's books, Just William, More William, and William Again, in continually returning to the charge on constitutional reform along with his wish for a moratorium. I recollect that William's dog was called Jumble. We have seen quite a lot of jumble in all this. I also recollect that when William, Ginger, Douglas and Henry, who were called appropriately enough The Outlaws, tormented Violet Elizabeth Bott, she used to say, "I'll scream and scream and scream till I'm sick". I suspect that many noble Lords will share that feeling.

I share in the growing consensus that the provisions of this Bill are in the public interest. It is timely to enact a statutory commission as was proposed by the Government and was in the Queen's Speech. The non-statutory appointments process chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, has worked effectively, as my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon pointed out. The House's composition now reflects the variety of British society and many of its skills. But the time has surely come to put the commission on to a statutory basis so that the House can act as an adequate check on the Executive and contain people from all walks of life, experience and expertise.

I agree that the part of the Bill empowering your Lordships' House to make provision under its Standing Orders for Peers to be granted permanent leave of absence, as opposed to the present arrangement for purely a Parliament, or the remainder of a Parliament, is sensible. This would clearly make it easier for the commission to calculate the number of life peerages that it may wish to recommend in any year. I find myself, as so frequently, agreeing with the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, that some help should be given to people who are infirm. Indeed, were one to remove by one means or another those who had zero attendance in this place in a given year, or less than 10 per cent of the sittings, that would go a very long way to meeting the aspirations as regards the numbers that are generally thought to be appropriate.

Clause 10, which closes off the so-called by-election procedure for the hereditary Peers, is now timely. The 92 excepted Peers are universally acknowledged to have made a distinguished contribution towards the proceedings of your Lordships' House since 1999, and it is surely right that in future hereditary Peers should have the same right as anybody else to be nominated for a life peerage. However, this Bill would constitute stage two of Lords reform, as envisaged by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who I am glad to see in his place.

If the Lord Chancellor produces further suggestions for reform and consensus can be found on such issues as powers, electoral systems, financial packages, the balance and size of the House and diversity and gender, so be it, but these have proved more elusive and I suspect will continue to be so. Let us take the opportunity of acting now so that your Lordships' House can continue for the time being as an effective revising and deliberative Chamber. I am no son of the manse but I echo the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, and say to the Minister, we applaud your listening stance, "Lead kindly light throughout the encircling gloom".

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative 12:49 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I have the advantage of having heard many speeches with which I have agreed and quite a few with which I have not. I accept the premise accepted by the Minister and my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon, and spoken to by the noble Lords, Lord Cobbold and Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, and many others, that there should be no need for a hasty approach to reform. One could well ask to what constructive end we are to toil in this vineyard—to tilt at a windmill as yet to be set up by the Government, according to the Statement, before it has ground the corn. That seems nonsense.

Albeit that the Bill seeks to pre-empt what is generally understood to be the business of government, the Statement is welcome as affording a snapshot of four aspects of presumption, and as to hearing what the Government have to say about the setting up of an appointments commission. So far as I am aware, my party has not accepted that it is committed to a substantially elected Chamber, but perhaps I am not always totally aware of what is going on.

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative

My Lords, so far as I am concerned, the hereditaries may well remain by different arrangements when the Cranborne deal comes to an end.

The first of the four aspects of pre-emption is the exercise of the royal prerogative on the grant of life peerages under Clause 1(1) which are not for life. There is no time to go into it, really, but what about affinity with the monarch? That has at all costs to be retained, albeit reset constitutionally from time to time. Nobody seems to say anything about it.

The next pre-emption is foreclosure on the Cranborne deal. During the passage of the then Bill in March and May 1999, and again in March 2007, it was accepted by the Government that the deal was to end at stage 2 reform. I have the quotations, but there is not time for them. Whatever anyone else may think, there is no doubt that the Government are still the Government. They are committed to what they have agreed.

The third element of pre-emption is the wanton disregard—

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench 12:53 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, like others in your Lordships' House, I welcome the Bill and the opportunity that it gives us, once again, to express the widespread view that the House of Lords is not irretrievably broken and thus need not be radically fixed.

I would like to address honours in general and membership of this legislative House in particular, issues addressed in Part 1. It seems that there is a rational case to be made for dissociating the two positions. Honours are a good thing; people should be rewarded for excellent service in whatever field of endeavour. Providing that people meet the criteria of achievement and probity, a peerage may be a fitting honour. However, that does not necessarily qualify those so honoured to become Members of this House. Even in my short time here, the House of Lords has become an ever more professional body charged with the serious task of scrutiny and revision. The criteria for membership have also become increasingly well defined, and include expertise, availability and commitment to attendance. While it may be appropriate to confer a peerage for achievement, it may not be sensible to do so on those who either cannot or are unlikely to meet those criteria.

There is a further aspect to this proposed course of action. If the two become disconnected, the risk of corruption creeping in is significantly reduced. For example, if even large donations to a party would not in any way assist the passage towards a place in the House of Lords, the House could not be tainted. A peerage would be a high honour given to whoever the Government or opposition parties nominated, but a place in this House would be increasingly reserved for those willing to undertake the work of the House.

In time, a different title which adequately distinguished working Peers and honorary Peers could be agreed. I fear that until there is a separation between honours and legislators, this House will continue to be regarded as somewhat outdated and somewhat less than professional.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Labour 12:55 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on introducing the Bill, which is the product of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. I declare an interest as one of its founder members, and I pay my own tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who has worked tirelessly within that group to achieve the cross-party consensus that we see in the Chamber today.

It is on the subject of consensus that I want to concentrate, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard of Northwold. One of the most welcome features of Gordon Brown's first few days as Prime Minister has been his stated wish to achieve consensus where possible. I shall give an example. Your Lordships may have seen that, at Prime Minister's Questions nine days ago, he announced the effective abandonment of the super casino policy. He did so in these words:

"It is true to say that this is an issue on which no consensus is found within the two Houses of Parliament".—[Hansard, Commons, 11/7/07; col. 1438.]

That grants complete legitimacy to the vote by this Chamber to reject the casino order on 28 March. If it is appropriate for government policy to be affected on casinos by consensus, surely on something as fundamental as the future of this House consensus is also desirable.

In earlier debates on House of Lords reform, a number of my noble friends speaking from the Front Bench talked about the desirability of proceeding by agreement. The House has made absolutely clear, by huge majorities, what it feels about the composition of this place. The vote for an all-appointed House was carried by 361 to 121 votes on 14 March. That is the Back-Bench view of this House, and it would be an outrage if it were not represented on the new cross-party talks, about which the Leader wrote to us last night. That vote did not say that there should be no change. There is still unfinished business so far as the 1999 reforms are concerned, and the Bill provides an excellent basis for completing that stage of reform. In particular, by removing heredity as a criterion for membership, it implements successive Labour Party general election manifestos. The most recent of those, in 2005, said:

"Labour believes that a reformed Upper Chamber must be effective, legitimate and more representative without challenging the primacy of the House of Commons".

This House's effectiveness is not in question and has not been criticised. As we have heard from other speakers, legitimacy can come in a number of ways, of which election is but one. The statutory appointments commission proposed in the Bill would certainly confer legitimacy. It would in addition be able to ensure that the third aim in the manifesto—a more representative House—could be fulfilled, as the commission would be able to choose Members from all parts of the United Kingdom, achieve an equal balance between men and women, ensure that ethnic minorities are properly represented, guarantee places for people with disabilities, and so on.

The Bill is of course not the last word on House of Lords reform, but it is an excellent first step that we must go for. It is one that I believed that the Government were going to support until very recently, and I was very disappointed to learn yesterday that they appear to have changed their mind. I hope that we can persuade them to change their mind back.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Hendon Baroness Miller of Hendon Conservative 12:59 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, noble Lords may remember that at the Third Reading of the House of Lords Bill in 1999, I sat weeping the whole time. I am certain that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde will not forget, because he had to give me his hankie. All I can remember is people around me saying, "What's the matter with you?". I explained that I had either hay fever or an allergy. But that was not believed, because actually I was heartbroken. Having said that, I warmly welcome this Bill, so my noble friend Lord Strathclyde need not be frightened. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood—indeed, all noble Lords who have put the case for the Bill very strongly, none more than the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, from whom we have just heard.

The fact is that we are not going to get consensus on yesterday's Statement—that is an impossibility. Some people may think that the Bill goes too far, or not far enough. It reminds me of the Big-Enders in Gulliver's Travels. You cannot please everyone all of the time, but in this Bill we have got rid of certain things that make it easier for us to consider what should be done. For example, the statutory appointments commission will get rid of a problem that all parties have had—particularly given the news today. I do not understand why they would risk going another way.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that I had not intended to talk about the advantages of appointment over elections, but I must say two things. How could we expect some of the people with the expertise that they have gained over years in industry, academia, science and so on to stand for election? We will lose immediately our top-quality people. But how could Members of Parliament in the other place, who clearly have not thought this through and who represent areas where they want to be the big dogs, actually believe that they want more Members of Parliament representing bigger areas pushing those Members out of the way?

I have said enough. I wish the Bill every success and hope that the Minister will see it through, so that it at least goes to the other place and gets the hearing it should have. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde said yesterday that there was a previous agreement that we could not change. If he thinks that that is the case, we should go back to the time of King John and the barons and what they agreed to in the Magna Carta. I believe that my noble friend Lord Onslow will agree with me that if that were the case, we would never do anything.

Photo of Lord Grenfell Lord Grenfell Other 1:02 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I am a very enthusiastic supporter of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, because its proposed measures to take reform forward are apt as to timing and purpose, they are well thought through and relatively uncomplicated. For that, we owe a great debt to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I have been a Member of this House for long enough to say with some confidence that this House is working very well. The measures proposed in the Bill add something of particular value. They will help ensure that the effectiveness of this House is rendered sustainable over the long term.

I wish to focus my brief remarks on just one clause—Clause 5, relating to the specific criteria that nominees must meet. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if for a moment I draw on my experience as chairman of your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Union. Proper national parliamentary scrutiny of European legislation is a matter of very high constitutional importance. Currently, 77 Members of your Lordships' House work week by week, day by day, scrutinising the 1,200 or more European Union documents deposited in Parliament every year. The quality of the analysis is extremely high, because the knowledge and expertise that is brought to bear is as broad as it is deep. I am, therefore, particularly heartened that Clause 5 identifies the principle criterion for recommendation for a peerage as "conspicuous merit", for, to me at least, that encompasses knowledge and expertise in a chosen field or fields.

I also believe that the statutory appointments commission must be proactive. It must not sit back and wait for persons of conspicuous merit to come knocking on its door. It must identify the gaps in the House's store of knowledge and expertise and seek to fill those gaps by finding those best qualified to fill them and committed to do the work. No aspect of your Lordships' duty to hold the Government to account will benefit more from that proactive approach than the scrutiny of European legislation.

This is a good Bill, enabling us to make progress on the basis of cross-party, bicameral consensus. We should give it our fullest support. I wish it a fair wind on its progress through the legislative process, which it merits, and for which the Government must give time.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 1:05 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, the spotlight is on this House in two very different ways today because of the Bill of my noble friend Lord Steel—I hope that I can all him that—which I basically support, and the announcement by the Crown Prosecution Service, following which questions must be asked and answered. How can the Metropolitan Police have been taken in by what was, in fact, a political stunt by the Scottish National Party? It is quite astonishing that, as a result of that, without apparently any prima facie evidence, the police launched an investigation that lasted 16 months and cost £1 million. Some apologies are due to people who have suffered extensively in the past 16 months.

As far as the Bill on the future of the House of Lords is concerned, there are only three logical options. One option, which, not surprisingly, has not been mentioned today, is abolition—unicameralism. It is logical. It happens in many other countries. It happens in Scotland, where pre-legislative scrutiny works well—there is no demand for a house of lairds, I can tell you—but I do not think that I will get much support for that option here today. I voted for it in another place, but I am being slowly convinced regarding that way forward.

The second option, of course, is a totally elected House. I agree with my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport that Jack Straw is totally naive if he thinks that an elected second Chamber is not going to seek additional powers. Look at the Welsh Assembly. Look at the Scottish Parliament. Learn from them. Although I have a habit of getting elected, whether I want it or not, I am not going to stand for a senate, which this House might become, and then be dictated to by the House of Commons. For a variety of reasons, that is not a way forward.

The third option, which I support, is what I might describe as the new, improved appointed Chamber, with transparency, accountability and a great deal of what has been suggested here. Perhaps I may make one addition. I find it rather bizarre that the chairman of the current Appointments Commission is a Member of this House who never turns up to this House. Would it not have been of great advantage to him to listen to this debate? Okay, he can read it tomorrow, but you do not get the same feeling and the same atmosphere. I look forward to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, joining us and telling us what he thinks from time to time.

The third way forward is the most easily achieved. It is consistent with our history and holds less danger and turmoil. I am particularly looking forward to the replies to this debate, because, since almost everyone who has spoken and most of the people who are going to speak support my noble friend Lord Steel's Bill, it will be interesting to hear what the noble Lords, Lord McNally, Lord Strathclyde, and, above all, my noble friend Lord Hunt, have to say in reply.

Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 1:09 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I wholly endorse the Bill. It represents an excellent opportunity to make progress and I wish to make only two points. The first is that the Bill has clear cross-party support among Back-Benchers. That is obvious. The need to move ahead on the basis of consensus between the Houses and between the parties has been emphasised. I just hope that we shall also achieve consensus between the Front and Back Benches of all parties and none—echoing the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, and my noble friend Lord Elton. I also hope—perhaps in vain—that representatives of the Lords spiritual will take part in the discussions. I am very sorry that we have no contribution from them today.

My second point relates to Part 1 of the Bill. A statutory appointments commission is essential. The present arrangements may have worked well, or tolerably well, but there has been continuing uncertainty about the appointments commission. Even the chairman of the commission was initially uncertain about whether it would have responsibility for vetting any nominations made in the Prime Minister's resignation honours list. The system is not well understood—there is much confusion—and, as I have said in this Chamber on many occasions in the past, perception is all. The commission is independent, yet appointed by the Prime Minister.

During a debate in the other place earlier this year, Bill Cash declared:

"Unfortunately, the appointments system does not stand scrutiny. It is based on patronage and, at its worst, is corrupted by the whiff of scandal".—[Hansard, Commons, 7/3/07; col. 1578.]

A statutory, independent commission is clearly the answer and is widely recognised as such. It will be seen to be detached and as an independent body operating with statutory protection according to published criteria. The provisions of the Bill will force the parties to appoint people of conspicuous merit and to be open about their procedures. The provisions are also timely in that they are consistent with the Prime Minister's recent Statement on constitutional change. They would ensure that peerages were no longer seen as the product principally of prime ministerial patronage. They would put the process on a clear, consistent and independent basis, which is both desirable and necessary.

The Bill makes provision for the appointments commission in some detail. I know that some may want to question the method by which the commission is appointed or the criteria to be applied. Some may want to ensure that one or more Peers serve on the commission. However, as my noble friend Lord Norton has stressed many times, these are questions about means and not about ends. In any event, I do not believe that we should be convinced that we have an exclusive perspective on what makes a good candidate for membership of this House.

Those are matters for other stages of the Bill. Suffice it to say now that the ends embodied in the Bill are wholly admirable, and we have to thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for presenting it in such a wonderful manner. I am firmly of the view that we should grasp this opportunity and support it.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 1:12 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, as one of the very first batch of the new breed nominated by the Stevenson Commission for the Cross Benches, it will not surprise any of your Lordships to know that I support the Steel Bill wholeheartedly. In addition, I suppose that I could call on my experience of 50 years and more as the kinsman of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon. That has given me an extensive, close-up, spectator experience of politics and politicians.

Against that background, your Lordship's House stands out as the most effective and civilised political scene that I have ever encountered. I have witnessed mutual respect, balanced thinking and an astonishing and hugely valuable diversity of expertise and experience, which are all very necessary as we scrutinise the Bills that come before this House, together with a shared determination to find the best possible answer to difficult questions. Its aim is to complement and not compete with the other place.

The Bill rightly tries to enhance what is best about this House. The old army of hereditaries did us a great service by selecting the 90 or so who are with us today, and excellent they have been in many ways. By all means, let us build them into the system by making them life Peers like the rest of us.

A statutory appointments commission is essential—I agree with what has just been said by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain—especially its duty to monitor every appointment to this House and ensure the continuance of a 20 per cent independent sector. But I should like to see its remit a little more clearly defined in two particular respects. The first is the specific need for regional diversity, as well as the other form of diversity, which has been mentioned frequently in this debate by other noble Lords. Your Lordship's House should indeed reflect life from all parts of this country. The second is the need for a far better balance between the sexes than is the case in the House's present composition. I say in support of this—without fear of contradiction, I believe—that some of the brightest stars in every part of this House are women. A number of them would have stood for the elective system but, alas, I suspect that they would not have been appointed at that time. The recent appointments to the Front Benches vividly illustrate that point.

Female membership of this House is, of course, much higher than when the hereditary Peers were still here. The percentage has been rising since they left, but slowly—from 16 to 19 per cent. However, it still remains one or two percentage points behind the other place. Fifteen of the commission's 42 appointments— 36 per cent—have been women, but I should like to see the need for that "catch up" specifically included in the objectives of the statutory commission as a constant reminder of the gap that remains.

That is one of the many ways in which the Bill can help to consolidate and, indeed, enhance the present high standards that we try to set in the present House. That is why, as a fully paid-up supporter of a wholly appointed House, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, can count on my enthusiastic support for his Bill.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative 1:16 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I start by reminding your Lordships of Macaulay's comment on the Plantagenets. He said that the Plantagenet kings were restrained by a powerful and hereditary aristocracy. The hereditary aristocracy was there not because of heredity but to stop an appointed House. Macaulay and the Norman barons were right, but I understand that the whole House is arguing for appointment. In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, "They would, wouldn't they?"

Elections would mean that a very large number of noble Lords would be on their bikes, so, not surprisingly, that may influence their thinking. We all love it here, but I am afraid that there is no modern justification for exercising power and bossing your fellow subjects about other than by popular election of one sort or another. This was what my great-grandfather talked to Salisbury about; it was said in the 1911 Act; and it was said in 1999. With regard to privy counsellors, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, said that we should stay here until the House was democratically elected, but since when has privy counsellors' honour been subject to a statute of limitations? I did not think that it ever had been.

I am here not because my forebear got tight with Pitt or because one of my great-grandmothers slept with Charles II—she did but it had nothing to do with a peerage; that was another one—or because one of my forebears was Chancellor of the Exchequer to Walpole; I am here to ensure that the promises of an elected House are delivered. I am essentially a totally ridiculous character in that context. I may try to make up for it in other ways but, essentially, I am a ridiculous character in the modern world, and I am here to remind your Lordships of promises unfulfilled. I look around me and see lots of very able people, all of whom contribute in the way that has been described. But, in a modern world, we cannot have power exercised other than by popular vote.

Much is made of the supremacy of the House of Commons. In 1340-something-or-other, this House said that it would not have anything to do with tax. This House is restrained by the Parliament Act; another place's votes apply. Under those circumstances, this House is already, and has been for a very long time, subordinate to the House of Commons. Therefore, the argument about gridlock is relatively feeble. As a democrat and as someone who loves the concept of parliament, I am afraid that I see nothing wrong in gridlock from time to time. Can we honestly say that every single Act of Parliament, every clause, every subsection and every statutory instrument passed over the past 20 years will go down in history as immutable and unchangeable and that it will be quoted as being as perfect as the law of the Medes and the Persians? That is self-evident rubbish. We should resist the parts of the Bill that make it easier for us all to stay here and feel self-satisfied about the benefits of an appointed position.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 1:20 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, it is good to follow a self-confessed ridiculous character in the modern world but one who nevertheless adds very much to our deliberations. He spoke on the generality of the principles. It is clear that the Bill does not rule out an ultimate stage. This is a staging post; some will wish to stay at that staging post and some will wish to go further, as the noble Earl has done. Having heard a number of the speeches, I am inclined to say that everything that can be said has been said, and to suggest simply that one adopts what has been said by the prevailing wind in this House, but I will add one or two comments.

I was present yesterday for the Statement in the other place, and I came to various conclusions. First, reform of this Chamber is not a government priority. I suspect that the Government are very well aware of the time around 1968 and 1969 when Michael Foot and Enoch Powell were able to clog the legislative progress, and they do not want a repeat of that. Secondly, the Government will try for consensus in the party manifestos, but the murmurings that one hears, like the children of Israel in the desert, from the Conservative Party, suggest that consensus might be difficult to obtain. Equally, the Liberal Democrats have very proper concerns about the method of election; but that is for another stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, emphasised that Mr Straw said that he was in listening mode. I hope that the chorus of approval for the Bill from this House will convince someone who is in listening mode. The noble Lord said that the Bill does not contain proposals for comprehensive reform. It did not set out to do so, so that is a wholly true proposition. The question is: what can be achieved now? What is the current consensus? In my judgment, the Bill is pretty close to the current consensus in this House.

Of the proposals, the statutory commission is much needed. One thinks of the news today about the alleged cash for honours and the way in which those who wish to raise cynicism about our political process have had a field day over the past 14 months. The statutory commission will, I hope, allow us to ensure that that is very much less likely. The idea that the hereditary Peers will wither on the vine is a very British way of doing things; rather than root and branch reform and a painful cut-off, this will happen over time. The other two main proposals appear to be very worthy. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said, there will be debates about the details. As a Welshman, I was particularly concerned about the definition of diversity in Clause 5(4). I feel that we in Wales have been hard done by, and I hope that some people, including Jack Straw, might be listening on that. In essence, the Bill does not obstruct comprehensive reform. It removes much of the undergrowth that is now agreed, and it allows one to pursue the key strategic areas of debate. As I say, it is a very British way of doing things, and in my judgment it is worthy of support.

Photo of Lord Northbrook Lord Northbrook Conservative 1:24 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, this Bill is highly preferable to the proposals in the Statement yesterday and the forthcoming White Paper for a predominantly or fully elected House. Looking at the Bill overall, I approve of the establishment of a statutory Appointments Commission, a facility for a permanent leave of absence and measures to exclude Peers who have committed a serious criminal offence. However, amendments are necessary to all of the above. Is it not the case that the Appointments Commission proposed in the Bill would actually do very little to take the influence of the Prime Minister and the political parties out of the independent Peers' appointments process? Why should the four Members who are commendably not to be affiliated—I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, that "affiliated" is too vague—to any political party be nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons? They should be nominated by another independent body.

I would like to see an additional subsection in Clause 5 to make the commission mindful in the selection process that expertise in areas such as industry, commerce, finance, law, academia and the arts should be grounds for consideration for the non-political appointments. Is it really reasonable to require the leaders of political parties to provide any information on their proposed appointees that the Appointments C4ommission requests? It is arguable that the provision is drawn too widely and could become extremely intrusive.

In the clause on permanent leave of absence, it is not clear whether the facility of temporary leave of absence will continue or whether permanent leave will be the only option. Also, when a Member seeks permanent leave of absence or dies, should there not be an automatic top-up procedure, rather than leaving the matter to once a year under Clause 8(1)? There may be an argument for having a limited term of appointment or an age limit.

I have two areas of concern in Clause 13. First, I understand from my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth that this may have been a drafting error, but to make the offence retrospective is wrong, as it would catch noble Lords such as my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu who was convicted of an offence that is no longer illegal. Secondly, I find Clause 13(2) rather bizarre. If such a person was renominated, would he not automatically be excluded even if his appointment were confirmed?

Overall, this is a sensible Bill. The Government's insistence on ploughing on with proposals for a fully or partially elected House will only lead to trouble, and I give notice that they will be subject to the most serious scrutiny in this House. It is naive to believe that just because there may be consensus on a Front Bench working group of all the parties that the Back Benches will sit idly by. In this respect, I welcome the letter received at the eleventh hour before this debate from the noble Baroness the Leader of the House inviting Back-Bench Members to suggest ways of having input into the cross-party group. However, there remains the enormous problem that this House does not want the Government's proposal of a fully or mainly elected House. The current House, which we have got to by default, is working very well. If we have an elected House, as the Cunningham report has stated, there will need to be a review of its powers. The Lord Chancellor is wrong in trying to enshrine in the constitutional settlement the current balance of powers and different roles, because if there is an elected House, it will want much more power. Is that what the Government want?

Photo of Lord Clyde Lord Clyde Crossbench 1:27 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I welcome the Bill as a positive, timely and useful initiative towards making progress on a problem that has been outstanding for so long. It is not going to go away, and we should grasp the opportunity now to make real progress towards a solution. The Bill recognises the pre-eminence of the other House. It strengthens the legitimacy of this House. The work of the commission, when appointed, will secure a membership that will reflect the diversity of society and a diversity of expertise, all under the pre-eminent criterion of merit. It will not be representative in the strict sense of membership; that result is plainly not desirable. The reflection of the diversity of society and the collection of expertise is a result that no electoral system could ever achieve. Of course, there may well be details in the Bill that will require attention at a later stage. I just noticed that while there is power in the commission to determine its rules and procedures, there is no provision for its support, administration, financing or staffing. It may be that some provision would be needed for that.

Life peerages will now carry with them a responsibility, not just an honour. That is not a new idea. The precedent was created in the 19th century on the creation of the Law Lords. They were appointed as life Peers to do the judicial work of this House. When we see that all life Peers will be working Peers, it is simply a development of that principle, which was started 150 years or so ago. The question is whether that needs to be expressed. The responsibility will come with the appointment.

Another parallel perhaps with the Law Lords is compulsory retirement. Judges now have a compulsory retirement age; and judges who are as old as I am are now considered incompetent to form judicial decisions. There may well be a precedent there for the introduction of an age limit for life peerages.

While these parallels are there, it is a curious irony that the Law Lords, who provided the model or the precedent for the working life Peers, are now to be removed from this place to start a new life elsewhere. I strongly approve of the Bill in principle. Let us get on with it.

J

Lord Clyde's states:

Another parallel perhaps with the Law Lords is compulsory retirement. Judges now have a compulsory retirement age; and judges who are as old as I am are now considered incompetent to form judicial decisions. There may well be a precedent there for the introduction of an age limit for life peerages.

I sincerely hope he is not serious. The idea of a compulsory retirement age for Judges is direct discrimination and as such is abhorrent. It goes against the idea of fairness, employment based on merit rather than irrelevant and arbitrary personal characteristics. It also goes against the grain of the European Union's quest for equality and diversity in employment. It is bad enough that somehow a law forcing good judges to retire simply because of their age was allowed to pass. That is no reason to introduce another modelled after it barring more people simply because of his age. One bad law is enough. Lord Clyde should have mentioned that perhaps it is time to change it rather than using it as a reason to create another.

Submitted by Joyce Glasser

Photo of Lord MacKenzie of Culkein Lord MacKenzie of Culkein Labour 1:31 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I am delighted to speak in support of the Second Reading of this Bill. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, for the timely Bill and for the manner in which it is framed.

Yesterday, the Bill was dismissed, first, as not providing a comprehensive reform and, secondly, it was described as "interesting". It is clear that there never was any intention that the Bill would provide for a comprehensive reform, and I think it deserves better than to be described as just interesting. The Bill is important; it is timely; it is necessary; and it has the potential to be historic.

In addition to providing for a very sensible solution to the continuing by-elections for hereditary peers, the Bill provides a mechanism to put the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis and to deal with a number of matters which have damaged this House and the whole of the body politic. We are all scarred by media speculation and comment about matters such as alleged cronyism and topical matters such as alleged cash for peerages.

I thought of all the things that my noble friend Lord Lipsey said. I thought of saying them but perhaps I did not have the bottle to be quite so blunt—but I agree with everything that he said. We cannot wait until 2014 when there is, I believe, a great groundswell of support for the Bill. The Government should do more than just take note, and should provide time for its passage on to the statute book.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative 1:32 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for introducing the Bill. I offer my support to it. And I pay great tribute to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for all the hard work that he has done to make all this possible—drafting the Bill and so on.

I would like to pick up on some remarks made by my noble friend Lord Onslow. I have two points to make on what he said. First, it would have been better if he had managed to address the Bill and not talk about other things regarding the composition of your Lordships' House. Secondly, while he is telling us of the charms of an elected Chamber, it might have been better if he had actually served in one. He might have spoken with rather more authority.

On the Appointments Commission, the Bill makes it clear that the number of Cross-Bench Peers we should have in your Lordships' House should be not less than 20 per cent. It is worth pointing out that the Cross-Benchers now number over 200 and are in excess of 25 per cent. I gather that that is because the Appointments Commission has been continuing, on the advice of Downing Street, to turn out more Cross-Bench Peers, while at the same time indicating that its view is that the House should be composed 80:20, where 20 per cent would be Cross-Benchers. It seems rather odd to be pushing up the percentage of Cross-Benchers the whole time when the Government's long-term plan for the Cross-Benchers in this House—there is still a long way to go—is for them to be 20 per cent. Furthermore, there are now so many Cross-Benchers that there is not enough space for them to sit at Question Time. There seems to be a conflict here with what the commission is doing. It is very welcome to have a new one.

I am rather sad that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is not in his place. He made the point that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, never turns up. That is not precisely true. Between May 2005 and November 2006 there were 206 sitting days. He came here once. When interviewing potential Cross-Bench Peers, presumably he emphasises to them how very important it is that they attend the House regularly. Does he then cross his fingers under the table and say, "I hope to God they don't ask me how often I come here", because he would have a little difficulty explaining what he did?

On the question of who should be the chairman, I share many of noble Lords' reservations—we are not sure that we should leave it all to the Speaker of the House of Commons. I think that the chairman of the commission should be a Cross-Bench Peer, preferably someone with legal experience and law behind him. I think that it is very important that your Lordships' House is well represented on that committee.

The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, made the point that we should not merely be talking about leave of absence, but should say to people who have not been here that maybe they should not come here any more. During the period May 2005 to November 2006, 52 Peers did not attend at all. There are certainly a number of people who could be asked not to come here anymore if they have not been here anyway. I do not think that it does the image of this House any good at all if some of its Members do not bother to come. This legislation is urgently required and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that gradualism is essential in constitutional reform.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 1:37 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I say at the outset that my attitude towards the Bill is broadly positive and supportive. Almost all of its provisions seem likely to strengthen the House, to increase its legitimacy and to remove some of the misunderstandings that stand in the way of a proper public appreciation of its role. It is the kind of pragmatic approach to reform that, in a world where common-sense prevailed, would ensure a rapid passage on to the statute book. Whether we are in fact living, so far as House of Lords reform is concerned, in a common-sense world is, unfortunately, open to doubt.

Another major asset of the Bill is that it would neither necessitate nor even offer the temptation of revisiting the issues so fully and recently covered in the work of the Joint Committee on Conventions chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham. That committee reached a consensus, which was subsequently endorsed by all parties and by the Government, and which now provides the basis for the relationship between the two Houses. One might have supposed that having so laboriously reached a consensus and having set aside certain initial approaches by the Government, on which it would not have been possible to reach a consensus, would be sufficient reason to let the matter of the respective powers of the two Houses in the legislation rest for a substantial period. I wish I believed that that was so, but there is plenty of evidence that it is not. Wisely, in my view, this Bill does not venture into that minefield, so there is no need to say more.

There are, however, one or two points in the Bill which I would like to question which could, I believe, be improved. The Bill provides for,

"not less than twenty per cent of the membership of the House" to consist of members "not affiliated" to any party. That is most welcome as a global principle. It seems rather widely agreed that the presence in the present House of a substantial non-party element is one of its strengths. But I am not sure that the phrase "not affiliated" to any party is sufficiently precise for the purposes of legislation, quite apart from the fact that it is hardly a compelling label to wear; "independent" is both more positive and easier for the public to understand. It has, indeed, misled the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Epsom, because the 25 per cent of Cross-Benchers conceals the fact that not all Cross-Benchers are not affiliated to a party.

I am quite sure that the absence from this legislation of any clear detailed definition of what would be required for someone to be judged as falling into this category, and the absence of any machinery for adjudicating the practical application of the broad principle of independent representation in the House would be a recipe for confusion and dispute. It cannot simply be left to the tender mercies of the usual channels. It needs to be clear and transparent on the face of the Bill and capable of objective application. I hope that further reflection will lead to those issues being clarified.

Several noble Lords raised the quite different matter of "conspicuous merit" being the main criterion for membership of the House. Surely, that criterion is too backward looking, and leads us back to a House whose membership is regarded as an honour for past performance, rather than a job for the future. It seems that a strength of a number of recent proposals for reform has been that they sought to break the link that has hitherto existed between the honours system, which has an important role to play in our society, and membership of the second House of the legislature, which needs, above all, to be a job of work. Would a criterion of "capacity and commitment to contribute effectively to the work of the House" not be a more valid one in future than that of "conspicuous merit"? Perhaps that too could be looked at.

My third and last point relates to the composition of the statutory Appointments Commission. That is surely too heavily slanted towards the other place, whose Members do not seem to be conspicuous by their comprehension of and sympathy for the way in which we do our work. There needs to be a strong element in the commission with knowledge and experience of this House. Would it not also be wise to give the Convenor of Cross-Bench Peers a consultative role which would enable the commission to be made aware of his or her views or any gaps or weaknesses in the representativity of the group of independent Members and at the same time to be consulted about new appointments when they are under consideration? I conclude by wishing the Bill a speedy passage.

Photo of Lord Pendry Lord Pendry Labour 1:41 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, such is the strength of the views of this House as expressed today that I believe we must support the Bill. By doing so, we would do much to mirror the Labour Party's manifesto commitment, which the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, pointed out: a belief that a reformed upper Chamber must be effective and more representative without challenging the primacy of the other place. I am already beginning to feel sorry for the Minister who is to reply to the debate. It reminds me very much of doing my national service and taking part in the passing-out parade, when my mother turned to another member of my family and said, "Look at them, they are all out of step but my Tom".

A broadly based statutory Appointments Commission, preventing the possibility of another cash-for-peerages scandal, would ensure at a stroke for the Government a Chamber that, although not representative of the British people through the ballot box, was nevertheless representative of the British people in many important respects.

I suggest that there is no real appetite for a massive change in the way that the House exists. I have asked many of my colleagues in the other place how many letters they have received from constituents regarding reform of the House of Lords, and not one had received any. I certainly have had no such representations and I suggest that no one in your Lordships' House has either.

With the eventual ending of hereditary peerages and the introduction of the Appointments Commission, we would stand to benefit from a system which, by its very nature, would be an expert revising Chamber and an appropriate check on the Government of the day. The Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, said at a recent Select Committee hearing that there is a real feeling in the country for change. I think he is simply wrong about that. There is no such feeling. As your Lordships know, it is difficult enough to get people to vote at local and regional elections without expecting them to turn out for yet another additional costly tier of government, which would be the case. I believe that the best interests not only of this House but also of the other place and certainly of the nation would be served if this Bill were supported today.

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative 1:45 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I support the question put by the noble Lords, Lord Tomlinson and Lord Lipsey. Why are the principles of the Bill, but not its timing, right? More than seven years is quite a long time, and another seven years are in prospect. The Government have a justified reputation for amending legislation by new Bills with much greater frequency than once every eight years. Indeed, it remains somewhat odd that the merits of the Bill were not spotted in 1999. When I left the House in 1999, I did not expect to be able to return in 2005. I would have been disappointed but unsurprised.

Two suggestions have been made in this debate which should be possible for a combination of the statutory commission, with its criteria and code, and the self-regulating skill of Parliament to resolve. They are the questions of appointment not being honorary but demanding due diligence and of the hereditary peerage and its children, male and female, being put to no disadvantage but being left in equal competition with all. Those are, no doubt, matters for consideration in Committee on this welcome Bill.

Self-regulation and a careful study of the terms of appointment would enable a voluntary redundancy procedure to evolve. I am with Edmund Burke, who advised that if you see a sensible and timely measure, you should not hesitate but should pass it into law.

Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative 1:46 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, when I was nominated for a peerage in September 2005, the leader of the Conservative Party informed me that I should not discuss the matter with anyone. Subsequently, there were press leaks, and although the attention was uncomfortable, I continued to maintain discretion, which was not easy. Furthermore, I understand that at the time certain nominations were not approved by the Appointments Commission, and the police undertook a thorough investigation to examine if there was any wrongdoing. My appointment to your Lordships' House was confirmed in April 2006, so there were considerable delays and difficulties. I feel it is important to avoid similar situations in future.

The Prime Minister currently has certain powers in regard to the composition of your Lordships' House and the appointment of Peers, and it is desirable that reforms are now undertaken in keeping with current thinking on constitutional changes. The Bill provides for the creation of a statutory commission completely independent of Downing Street, which will rectify difficulties that have occurred recently. The commission will be of value to any Prime Minister, as he or she will not be accused of appointing cronies. It will also be of value to Parliament, as the procedures will be clear and independent. I also welcome the proposed membership of the commission, which I believe will be correct and will enable it to undertake its duties fairly. I am satisfied with the provision that proposals for new Peers may be made to the commission by individuals, leaders of political parties and the Prime Minister.

The Bill will ensure that all new Peers are appointed on the basis of merit, that not less than 20 per cent of Members are not affiliated to any party and that no party will have an absolute majority. By adopting these practices, we will ensure that there is a correct balance in the make-up of your Lordships' House. I am pleased that one of the proposed additional criteria that the commission shall have regard to is the diversity of the United Kingdom population. As chairman of the Conservative Ethnic Diversity Council and the Conservative Muslim Forum, I feel that it is very important there is appropriate representation of ethnic minorities in your Lordships' House. The present make-up of your Lordships' House does not totally reflect our diverse society, and I hope that the Bill could be a positive step towards achieving that.

The Bill also makes provision for the removal of any Member of your Lordships' House who is convicted and imprisoned for a serious offence. I endorse that proposal.

The Bill will enable desirable changes to be effected without disrupting the relationship between the two Houses.

Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 1:50 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, Westminster is known the world over as the Mother of Parliaments, and the mother of the Mother of Parliaments is the House of Lords. Parents nurture their children, who grow up and eventually break free. In 1911, the other place broke free and the primacy of the House of Commons was well and truly established.

I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for his Bill. There is much to commend within it. As many noble Lords have said, a statutory House of Lords Appointments Commission is a must. There are existing models that we can learn from in terms of structure, composition and procedure of the Appointments Commission, such as the recently constituted Judicial Appointments Commission chaired by my noble friend Lady Prashar. Sadly, the Bill will stand no chance of being enacted unless the fundamental merits of an appointed House of Lords are understood not only by the other place but by the country at large.

My noble friend Lady Boothroyd spoke powerfully in our debates about reform back in March. She said that reform of this House was never once raised during the 12 elections that she contested in her long and distinguished career as a Member of the other place. She gave three reasons for that. First, the proper battleground for our political parties is the House of Commons, not the revising Chamber. Secondly, the supremacy of the Commons was settled in 1911 and should not be put at risk. Thirdly, the House of Lords is good at the job that it does, and the country knows it.

I agree with everything that my noble friend said—except that our country does not know it. It does not know the crucial function of this House, nor the way in which we serve our country. The public perception is that only elections equal democracy. The reality is that this unelected House is the cornerstone of our democracy. That has not been understood at all.

There is also the danger of change for change's sake. The White Paper produced prior to the debates that took place in both Houses earlier this year was, in my humble opinion, not fully thought through. To me, logic dictates that to bring an elected element into this House will take us back 100 years, prior to 1911, and the supremacy of the House of Commons will definitely be challenged.

The strength and foundation of this House lie in the independence, objectivity and integrity of its Members, who bring world-leading expertise to this Parliament, as we have heard. The whole world admires Britain for its rich heritage and traditions. During the past 25 years, we have also shown ourselves to be an open and vibrant nation. With hindsight, there was a need for reform of this House eight years ago. Since that reform, drastic though it was, the effectiveness of this House has been better than at any time in living memory. It is credible and is a listened-to voice.

In the entrepreneurial business world in which I live, even when things are going absolutely swimmingly, we believe in restless, non-stop innovation and non-stop change. Where this House is concerned, the belief is exactly the opposite: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I am proud to be a Member of this House. This House is precious. This House brings out the best in Britain; this House is also the best for Britain. The House of Lords is the guardian of our nation, the guardian of the values and principles that we stand for, the guardian of our very foundations in this country.

As I have said before, let us not shake those foundations. We always need to remember the rules of home improvement: we can change the layout of the House, we can add or remove walls, but when we meddle with the foundations we risk bringing the whole House down.

Photo of Lord Howard of Rising Lord Howard of Rising Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport 1:54 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, the wish to open the Pandora's box of Lords reform is a mystery to me. There is no public demand for it, and the resulting confusion, ill will and acrimony will in no way match any benefit. As has been said today, this House performs perfectly well as it is at present. The House of Commons should also take care; as Gilbert and Sullivan said, with a House of Peers composed exclusively of people of intellect, what is to become of the House of Commons? I am concerned about vacancies among the hereditary Peers not being filled. This would involve reneging on the firm agreement made by the Lord Chancellor, who said that it was,

"binding in honour on all those who have come to give it their assent".—[Hansard, 30/3/99; col. 207.]

Slow progress makes it no less dishonourable to resile from an agreement.

If your Lordships did wish to alter the hereditary element in this House, I have an alternative suggestion which your Lordships might like to consider. As with the football league, a league of Peers could be created, with a number of divisions along the lines of current divisions of barons and earls, and so on. Performance would be assessed at the end of each Parliament, and those at the top and bottom of each division would be promoted or demoted as appropriate. So, for example, the best performing barons would move up to viscounts, and the worst performing viscounts would be demoted to barons, and so on and so forth. There might be difficulty with marquesses and dukes, but that is quite appropriate; after all, as the premier division is more desirable, it should be more difficult to get into. If so desired, sophistication could be added. For example, the expenses that we claim could be adjusted in line with the divisions, so the weightier the coronet, the greater the expenses. Another possibility would be for the bottom-performing life Peers to have their peerages removed and made available to the Labour Party for suitable recycling. I hope that your Lordships will find this idea just as helpful as that of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and that the honour and integrity of this House will be preserved.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 1:57 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, there is a fair variety of opinion on this side of the House. I am totally in favour of an elected House of Lords and am optimistic as a result of yesterday's Statement that we will move in that direction. That is why I so thoroughly support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. Whether one views it as the opening shot in negotiations or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said in her absolutely excellent speech, as the necessary first step, the Bill is an extraordinary offering and deserves to be treated much better than it was in yesterday's Statement when reference to it was dismissive and derisory.

If this Government believe in consultation and consensus, they must show it, they must speak it and they must act on it. If the ears of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde are burning when I say that, so they should be, because that remark applies as much to those on my Front Bench as it does to those on the Benches opposite. We as a House deserve our opinions on this to be taken seriously and, although my opinions happen to be the same as those of Front-Benchers, Back-Benchers must be included in this operation. The idea until yesterday that they should not and that consensus should involve Front-Benchers only is ridiculous and must be stamped on.

The Bill is built on consensus in this House and now seeks to achieve consensus outside it. From the point of view of someone in favour of an elected Chamber, it is a tool of negotiation and an astonishingly generous first statement of position. It proposes some undoubtedly good changes to this House. It will get rid of the incentive for political parties to put into this House placemen or money men and it will concentrate the quality of this House on people who will make a real difference. It will improve the balance of this House and bring it much closer to the electorate, because the system of appointment will be much more closely tied to the results in general elections.

This Bill is only a clause away from being a Bill for an elected House of Lords. All you have to do is add a clause saying that parties must publish their list of Peers before any election. Then we would have something indistinguishable from the current system for electing Members of the European Parliament. That system may not be to everyone's taste, but the Government and the Commons consider it to be a system of election. This House, with its rooted objection to a wholly elected Chamber and with its love of an appointed system, has moved to the borders, towards the Commons.

We are right to expect that the Commons will respond, include us in its discussions and discuss seriously how we should take this forward. I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, the conviction that passing this Bill is the best first step towards an elected House of Lords. It gets us into the position where we would be much closer to election. The uncertainties that would come from moving towards an elected House of Lords would be much less. It would become much easier to experiment with election, to take it gently and to think carefully about how we deal with all the many remaining difficult questions faced by people like me who favour election, many of which are being canvassed today. This Bill deserves the support of the Government and, particularly, the wholehearted and unambiguous support of my Front Bench. I hope that it will get that.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader, House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 2:01 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the skill and tact with which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, introduced this Bill, making it clear that it was an independent initiative but deftly keeping within the realms of party policy as well. I noticed yesterday that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, spoke to the Statement in this House, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for the Labour Party, and my noble friend Lord Tyler for these Benches. Today, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is in the lead again. I am not sure whether that is because he wishes to have a Stalinist hold on this policy or whether he is the only Member on the Conservative Benches willing to advocate it. We will see.

I speak from a certain position of strength in that I am the only party leader who, when we debated this in March, had the majority of his flock voting for party policy. It is worth reminding the House of that. Although I address this House with some trepidation, the most hostile Chamber that I addressed was during my early days in your Lordships' House when I gave my opinion that fox hunting should be banned. I remember the waves of hostility, particularly from my left, on that day. Today, I feel more like a fox hunter addressing a House of foxes, and I know that some very foxy people are dealing with this issue.

The balance of how this Bill will be judged was put very well by the wise commentator Peter Riddell, who said in the Times:

"The Government is wary about the Steel Bill partly because most of its supporters favour a wholly appointed House".

However, he fairly went on to say:

"There is a strong case for an interim measure to address anomalies, not least in the light of the cash-for-peerages affair. But this cannot, and should not, be seen as an alternative to resolving the basic question".

That is really where we are. Are the Government willing to see this measure, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has argued, as a useful first step or, as Peter Riddell hints, will it be used as a cunning ploy by the refuseniks to try to close the matter to further debate? Frankly, if a number of years pass without the issues being addressed, I worry that this House, which is held in high repute, will lose some of that respect. I worry also that because so many Peers have been appointed in the last 10 years—and as we have been reminded today, the average age is 68—we could quickly become a House of nearly 1,000 Members with the majority of that membership aged over 70. A House of Struldbrugs is not going to be attractive to the British people or be seen as particularly representative. Also, as the Bill rightly reflects, there is the continuing problem of the linkage between the peerage and the need of political parties to raise millions of pounds to conduct their affairs. We have to break that linkage once and for all.

The Bill has considerable merits, although it is a matter of political judgment whether it is carried forward within the lifetime of this Parliament. But what is not reflected in the debate today is an awareness that a political Rubicon was crossed when the Commons voted for 80 or 100 per cent. I have heard the rationalisations, but I have not seen them reflected in opinions down the Corridor. Members of this House have to realise that when you get a number of factors coming into play—a Prime Minister committed to reform, all three major parties committed to reform and an overwhelming vote of the House of Commons committed to reform—there is a need to move on from working out how to delay reform to working out how it can be facilitated.

I add to that one more thing that is contained in the Statement and certainly would be reflected in my own party. We will take to our party conference in September a restatement of our policy, which will, if carried, go into our party manifesto. What will this House do if all three major parties fight a general election committed to reforming this House on the basis of a largely elected Chamber and that proposal is carried in the other place? What will the reaction of this House be to such a progression of events? We have had, as they say, a very good 100 years of discussion but, for those who absolutely refuse the idea of progress on the matter, I think that the time has come to draw stumps and look at some of the practicalities that would allow reform to go ahead.

I would like to see wider consultation. One of the best ways would be for the Government to bring forward as soon as possible, certainly within this Parliament, a draft Bill that could go to a Joint Committee of both Houses for proper consideration. There are other ways, as the Leader of the House has shown with her initiative today, where we can involve Back-Benchers in both Houses and thus widen the discussion. So I hope that the Lord Chancellor reads this debate carefully and that some of those who have contributed will think hard about the realities outside what is often the rather cosy cocoon of this House. We must look at the scenario that I have set out, in which political parties go through the democratic process, first internally and then with the electorate, and bring a mandate to this House that has been carried through the democratically elected House of Commons. That could be a very short time away.

In the mean time, perhaps I may be permitted one commercial. In the spirit of public service broadcasting, at 4 pm next Tuesday in Committee Room 4A, the Liberal Democrats will be reshowing the film made by my noble friend Lord Glasgow about the battle for reform of this House in 1968. I invite noble Lords along. They might hear some of the same arguments, made, indeed, by some of the same people.

M

"waves of hostility" for suggesting fox hunting should be banned? And they call this the civilised house!

Submitted by Mike Hobday

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament 2:10 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, has been holding this great day over us for a long time. The long list of speakers confirms our long experience that nothing provokes your Lordships more than a debate on the future of the House.

The future of our House remains uncertain still, though we can be proud of our performance in recent years. One has only to look at a whole range of issues on which this House has operated in these past few years—defending the right to vote by secret ballot, regional assemblies, closed lists, licensing, jury trial, detention without trial, gambling, compulsory ID cards—to realise that time will show that your Lordships' House has been right and the other place wrong on many occasions. So when it comes to reforming Parliament, I do not think that reform should begin and end in your Lordships' House; indeed, I do not think it need necessarily begin here at all. But we have what the Government call "unfinished business" and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, offers us a way, he hopes, to finish it.

Let us set aside for a moment that an appointed House is precisely what the other place recently voted against and the question of whether this is, therefore, the right Bill at the right time. I welcome the Bill and I welcome the debate. The reason that I welcome the Bill is that in the working group meeting last year I favoured working out in detail models for an appointed and an elected alternative for your Lordships' House so that the debates in both Houses would move away from the rather sterile 80:20 or 100 per cent or 50:50 discussions and we could see exactly what we would be faced with. That work still needs to be done, and this Bill is part of that process.

Let us also set aside the fact that had Part 2 of the Bill been in effect since 1999, we would have 10 fewer colleagues in the House, with the biggest relative gainers being Labour and the Liberal Democrats and the biggest relative losers being the Conservatives and the Cross-Benchers.

I would be failing in my duty to those Peers who voted for and accepted their own removal in 1999 if I did not remind the House, if it needed reminding, that the undertakings given in 1999 remain, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, "binding in honour" on all, including the overwhelming majority here who came to give it their assent. The noble and learned Lord was equally quite right to say that stage 2 need not be an appointed House or an elected House or a "hybrid" one; but it has to be a stage 2 that is satisfactory to both Houses and which takes the views and interests of both Houses into account. If it does not, it cannot carry the consent or convey the stability that is required. It has to be a stage 2 which strengthens the ability of Parliament to control and scrutinise the Executive; it also has to uphold the independence of your Lordships' House, secures that independence and sustains its powers and its confidence in using them.

The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, offers architecture towards an alternative solution: an all-appointed House. It covers a number of the issues that would need to be addressed, but it leaves uncovered substances of great issue—powers, role, conventions, pay and retirement provisions among others. It offers a sketch of a solution to the extremely complex question of reconciling a cap on the size of the House, securing party balance and reducing the size of the House while retaining its essentially "amateur" status—and I use that word with the affection that it currently holds in the House.

But the Bill does not solve any of those problems. For example, in Clause 8(2), how does one define "party affiliation"? How would one treat those noble Lords who go to the Cross Benches while they hold quango appointments but still vote for the party line? In working for party balance the Bill offers broad parameters, but on what basis does the commission decide how many seats each opposition party will get? Are election results taken into account, the number of votes cast or what? I have no doubt the noble Lord has considered these issues and may well have the answers, but should all this be left up to nine wise men, even if four of them are privy counsellors? Should this House not define that in a Bill? Has the existing commission not worked so well that we are sure that nine wise men should determine the make-up of half of Parliament? Questions need to be asked that will probe far more carefully than has been possible today.

I have a final reflection. Surely we all share one unswerving purpose: that we should have a strong and independent second Chamber capable of calling upon the House of Commons to do its work. In the Bill, however, who chooses the nine wise men who will populate this House? The Speaker of the House of Commons. My respect for Mr Speaker Martin is unbounded, but what qualifies him to take on that role and what does that mean for the independence of this House? Can we conceive that the other place would accord sole responsibility for determining anything affecting that House to a Member of this one?

Who decides the criteria under which the commission will choose Members of this House? The House of Commons. Who determines the guidelines by which the commission must act? The House of Commons. Who can change those criteria and guidelines? Yet again, it is the House of Commons; an unreformed Commons in which all decisions are made by whipped government majority. The noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, has pointed a way but, with the greatest respect, this is still work in progress, not stage 2.

The Government have set up a working group process that, as yesterday's Statement made clear, will lead in due course to a White Paper or possibly even a Green Paper that will be debated and voted on by both Houses. Since then the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has asked for suggestions on a process to include the wider range of opinions represented in this House. I welcome that.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting my noble friend. On the subject of the composition of those groups, to which a number of speeches have alluded, and given my noble friend's enthusiasm for the legitimacy that comes from election, might it not be a good idea for parties to elect their representatives to take part in that group?

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, that pre-empts the debate that the noble Baroness has put into train. It is only one solution of many that I expect will land in her post box over the next few weeks. However, a decision on this should be taken quickly. If there is so much strength of feeling in this House that noble Lords are not being listened to by the Front Benches, surely it is right that we react to that and do so quickly.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative

My Lords, there is that feeling, and there has been for some time.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, I am well aware of that. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, was the one who said I always spoke in these debates. I venture to suggest that in the past 10 or 11 years—perhaps even longer than that—that we have been debating House of Lords reform, I have always taken part. I am well aware of the views of this House, not least of my own Back Benches. That is precisely why I believe that the groups should be allowed to do their work.

I have found it interesting that over recent months people have called for consensus and consideration of the details, but today there is a message of haste: "Let's do this quickly. So great is the problem that faces this House that we need the Bill passed and put in place at once". Consensus and taking the trouble to get this right are not compatible with speed.

The groups should be allowed to do their work, and if then there is still a desire for the Bill or something like it—I venture to suggest that there will be—it should in the first instance be introduced in another place to hear the views of the elected House, rather than the extremely well enunciated views that we have heard in your Lordships' House today.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 2:20 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I straight away congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and his colleagues on their initiative in bringing this Bill before your Lordships' House. I am very much aware of the tremendous amount of work that has been undertaken in so doing. The Bill has certainly set the stage for some very interesting discussions, and I acknowledge both the speed and quality of our debate today. My noble friend Lord Pendry expressed some sympathy for my position—I have certainly found myself a mite short of support—and I am not sure in which league the noble Lord, Lord Howard, would put me to start with.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, made it clear that the Bill should be seen as a tidying-up of the House as it is now. I acknowledge that that is his intention, and I certainly do not criticise him for it. I acknowledge also that the Bill contains a number of important matters. Three of them, the statutory Appointments Commission, disqualification from membership following conviction for an offence, and the granting of permanent leave of absence, were contained in the Government's 2003 consultative document.

As is normal practice, the Government will not oppose the Bill at Second Reading.

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Well, my Lords, I thought I should say it just the same.

My right honourable friend yesterday said in another place that we would see what the Lords had to say about the Bill, as we will. He said also that it has to be clear that such a reform cannot be an alternative to the major reform to which that House is now committed. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, made that point very well.

I say at once to the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, my noble friend Lord MacKenzie and my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon that we do not seek to belittle this Bill. We will follow its process with considerable care. I echo in a sense the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in saying that I suspect that if this Bill, or a similar Bill next Session, completed its passage in the other place, its shape might be different from how it now appears. Noble Lords need to consider that matter carefully.

The context in which we debate the noble Lord's Bill today has to take us to the Government's Green Paper on the governance of Britain, which committed the Government to enacting the will of the other place, which, as your Lordships will recall, voted for an 80 per cent or a 100 per cent elected second Chamber. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, described it as the "political Rubicon". I know that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I know that it has been suggested that in the past, and the Government have themselves proposed, that a gradual approach to Lords reform might be the best way forward. However, life has moved on. We have now had a very clear steer from the elected Chamber of this Parliament; namely, that it thought that the right answer to Lords reform was for the House to be substantially or wholly elected. My right honourable friend Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government will respect that view by saying that we should proceed in line with the wishes of that House. I say to noble Lords opposite that both the other parties are committed by their manifestos to seeking a substantially elected House of Lords. The Conservative Party manifesto of 2005 stated:

"We will seek cross-party consensus for a substantially elected House of Lords".

The party of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, stated that it wished to plan for,

"a predominantly elected second chamber".

I know that there are concerns about the timing. The reason for the year 2014 having been mentioned goes back to the White Paper of February this year, which gave a preference for the European elections as being the time when elections to a second Chamber would take place. Much further discussion must be had before we can be certain that 2014 is the date. I know that my noble friend Lord Tomlinson is impatient for change, as he said today. On that basis, noble Lords are saying that it is better to take the step in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, as an interim measure before major reform takes place.

However, we have the prospect of agreement between the parties on the way forward. Many noble Lords here are connoisseurs of the history of reform of your Lordships' House. Surely the prospect of that party agreement, in the mechanism that we have made clear to your Lordships' House, is how we will take it forward. Surely that suggests that we must put our efforts into completing Lords reform and ensuring that it takes place as part of a comprehensive approach. That is why—

Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative

My Lords, since the Minister presses the necessity for cross-party agreement, will he answer two questions? Should that cross-party agreement not include respect, in these circumstances, for the views of this House? Should it not be accompanied by at least one sentence from him describing how movement in the direction of an elected House would improve the functioning—the functioning—of our constitution in any way? What benefit would redound to this House, Parliament and the nation from this ill considered, hot-headed reform?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the original work of the cross-party group on reform of your Lordships' House paved the way for free votes in both Chambers of Parliament in March this year. This House voted by a large majority for an appointed House. The other place voted for both an 80 per cent and 100 per cent elected House. Noble Lords have today repeatedly emphasised the primacy of the elected House. The elected House has made clear its position on how Lords reform is to be taken forward. The cross-party group, which consists of leaders of the respective parties and a representative of the Lords Spiritual and the Cross Benches, is the mechanism by which we will have those discussions.

The noble and learned Lord asked how the views of Members of this House can be brought to bear. The letter from my noble friend the Leader of the House yesterday made it clear that we are anxious to set up a number of mechanisms to allow the views of Members of this House to be brought to the attention of the cross-party group. I accept the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—and I am sure that my noble friend will be keen to respond to it—that these arrangements are made known as soon as possible.

Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative

My Lords, that mechanism is not at all the same thing as Members other than party leaders being represented on the group. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House's letter suggests that there will be a problem if the membership is increased. Can the Minister answer the question which I posed to him? What is the size of this group and how does it compare with the size of the Joint Committee on Conventions, which had 22 members and operated very successfully? It is clearly important to extend representation on that group, which is currently only of the leadership. It is not the same as the group consulting people outside.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the cross-party group has 11 members. I am happy to read out the names, if noble Lords wish. They consist of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice, Ms Theresa May, Nick Herbert, David Heath, Simon Hughes, the Leader of this House, myself, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, that sounds like an in-house stitch-up if ever I heard one. Surely, first, the number should be increased and, secondly, there should be people on it who do not agree either with me or with the noble Lord and who come from the Back Benches in all parts of the House so that it can be a real parliamentary occasion and not just a stitch-up.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, in-house it may be, but stitch-up it is not. The context is very clear. We have enabled free votes to take place in both Chambers of this Parliament. The other place, the elected Chamber, has made clear its intent that the second Chamber should be wholly elected. The manifestos of the political parties support that. This group is working to take forward that intent and to make concrete proposals. In that context it is entirely appropriate that the representation should be from the leadership of those parties together with the representatives of the Cross Benches and the Lords Spiritual. Alongside that, there clearly needs to be thorough consultation and discussion with other Members of both Houses. That is what we intend and that is what we will put into action.

Photo of Baroness Shephard of Northwold Baroness Shephard of Northwold Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He will know that yesterday when the Statement was made the notion that people other than the leadership of the parties should be involved in discussing how matters should be taken forward was much welcomed. Given his definition of how things will be taken forward—that is to say, by the group, in the light of the votes—is there any point in other groups being set up for their opinions to be ignored?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, of course there is every reason for allowing Members of both Houses to take part in discussions about the way forward and about the many details that will have to be discussed. The discussion that we have had on the noble Lord's Bill suggests that there is much to be brought to bear in the detailed considerations of how we move forward. I hope that all noble Lords who wish to will take part in that process. I repeat that the intent is to produce a White Paper in a matter of months if we can reach—

Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour

My Lords, before we leave that point, will my noble friend answer this simple question: why cannot there be wider representation on the group?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I do not want to repeat myself. The group contains representatives of the three main parties.

Noble Lords:

It is the leadership.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader, House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, because the noble Lord has been barracked from his own Back Benches, can I suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, goes to a Labour Party conference and dares to make some of the speeches that are made from the Labour Benches in this place? This is how democratic parties make policy. They go to the conference, get policy and put it before the electorate in a manifesto. The fact is that noble Lords want a veto by the House of Lords, and it is a disgrace.

Noble Lords:

My Lords—

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, I do not think that we can let the word of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, be the last word on this; that would be unfortunate. It has been a kind-hearted and good debate till now, and we want to keep it that way. I am not noted for being a critic of the Government, and I am a particular admirer of the Minister. However, I am aware that he is reading from a brief that was prepared before the debate. The Secretary of State—the Lord Chancellor—made it absolutely clear that he was going to listen to the debate. The very least that our Minister can do is to say that he will put on hold the question of the membership and come back to the House after he and the Lord Chancellor have properly and carefully considered the debate. That will get him off the hook and make him a statesman in all our eyes.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I agree that this has been a good-humoured debate, and I hope that we continue in that vein. My noble friend should know that I do not just read from prepared briefs; I listen to debates, and am listening to this debate with a great deal of interest. All I say is that we have established the group. It has been meeting for a number of months. As a result of its work, we have had the opportunity of the free votes. The group will continue to meet. The aim is to produce the White Paper, but my noble friend the Leader of the House made it clear in her letter to all Members of your Lordships' House that there will be many opportunities for them to make their views known.

Photo of Lord Bilston Lord Bilston Labour

My Lords, at the moment, there is no commitment in the Labour Party manifesto for an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House. That is still to be obtained. It is incumbent on our Ministers to listen to a large and powerful group in the House of Commons, as well as in the House of Lords, who are opposed to an elected House of Lords.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, our 2005 election manifesto allowed a free vote on the composition of the House. That free vote has taken place. We have agreed a mechanism for moving forward. We hope that the work of the cross-party group, leading to a White Paper, will then lead to our manifesto commitment at the next election and the manifesto commitments of other parties.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, the Minister is placing great emphasis on the free votes in both Houses. Can he help me? What was the point of having a free vote in this House if his position is that whatever the Commons decides is what should happen anyway? In terms of the composition of the committee, surely he must recognise that the representatives on our side are all committed to a position opposed to what this House voted for on a free vote.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

None the less, my Lords, the vote of the House of Commons is extremely significant and influential in deciding the Government's further action, as has been acknowledged. Noble Lords readily acknowledge the primacy of the Commons; we respect that primacy on this matter.

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour

My Lords, do my noble friend and other members of the cross-party group appreciate that, if this House becomes elected, there will be no more primacy of the elected House of Commons?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

No, my Lords, I do not accept that at all. Our intention is that the reform of the House's composition should not alter its role as a revising and scrutinising Chamber, nor alter the balance of the relationship between both Houses.

Photo of Lord Blaker Lord Blaker Conservative

My Lords, the noble Lord continues to say that the all-party committee has been meeting for a considerable time. That is where the problem arises. That committee is not satisfactory; it needs to be widened. It is a perfectly elementary point and the noble Lord has not explained why that is not acceptable.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the cross-party group brings together people appointed by the leadership of those parties to see whether agreement can be reached between those parties. Individual parties' discussions might have to take place between Back-Benchers and the leadership, but surely it is not unexceptional for a group discussing such matters to reflect the leadership of those parties.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative

My Lords, cannot the Minister see that that is the trouble for the Back-Benchers? The appointment is of the leaders of the parties. There is no form of representation and representation is supposed to be—I hate to use the word—democratic.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I do not think that we will get any further on this matter. We should move on.

I want to respond to my noble friend in relation to primacy. We do not intend to undermine the primacy of the Commons. All parties and all reports on Lords reform in the past 10 to 15 years have emphasised the continuance of the primacy of the Commons. As the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, suggested, aside from the discussions around the conventions, it is the case that the Parliament Act, the fact that the Government must retain confidence in the Commons, the fact that the Prime Minister and senior Ministers are Members of the Commons, the fact that the Commons have control over supply are all fundamental contributors to the primacy of the Commons.

We have had a pretty good debate. As I said at the beginning, no matter whether it is sensible to take an interim course or to go for comprehensive reform, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has done a great service to this House in bringing this Bill before us. Clearly, some technical matters will need to be discussed as the Bill proceeds through your Lordships' House. I have said that the Government will listen very carefully to the comments made by noble Lords on the Bill and, indeed, on wider matters of Lords reform, but I must, in all fairness, say to noble Lords that the Government have set out the process by which they seek to achieve a White Paper that brings forward comprehensive proposals in light of the vote in March in the other place for an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House. We do wish to engage and listen to all Members of Parliament on these important matters, but, equally, the prospect of party agreement, of manifesto pledges and of comprehensive reform is in reach. It is important that we do everything that we can to achieve that.

Photo of Lord Grenfell Lord Grenfell Other

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he would care to recall Winston Churchill's words about Stanley Baldwin. He said that he was a man who often stumbled across the truth but would quickly pick himself up and hurry on as though nothing had happened. It seems that today the Government have stumbled on the truth that Back-Bench opinion in this House is very strong and is not being heard. It is not being heard for one reason: it is one thing to hold those views, which the Minister has said the Government will listen to, but it is another to have those views represented in a body that will have some influence. Therefore, I ask the Minister to take away with him the thought that he has stumbled across the truth but has hurried on as though nothing had happened.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I certainly understand that many Members of your Lordships' House are not particularly happy with the model of reform which the other place has voted for and which the Government have said they wish to put into operation. Of course, I understand that Members of this House wish to have an important input into those discussions and on the way forward. Equally, to be fair to all noble Lords, I must restate the way in which the Government will take this forward. Our intent is to seek cross-party agreement on the basis of the vote taken in the House of Commons in March. It would be unfair of me not to restate that position.

Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat 2:46 pm, 20th July 2007

My Lords, I shall seek to be fairly brief in replying to the debate. I begin by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in what I think has been a most constructive and, until a few moments ago, congenial debate.

In reference to cross-party matters, as I said at the start, the Bill is the product of a cross-party group of both Houses of a somewhat larger dimension than the one that we have just been discussing. I say with the greatest respect to the Minister, whom I greatly admire, that he made by far the longest speech of the entire debate, lasting 26 minutes, 75 per cent of which had nothing at all to do with my Bill but was about yesterday's government Statement. I think that we should stick to the measures before us in the Bill as we move to consider it.

Mr Straw said yesterday,

"let us see what the House of Lords says about it".—[Hansard, Commons, 19/7/07; col. 455.]

We can now see. We have had 49 Back-Bench speeches, of which 46 were in favour of the Bill and three were opposed to it. The three opposed to it slightly damaged their weight, one by saying that he did not quite know what was going on, another by saying that he was a ridiculous character, and the third by suggesting that we have transfers between titles in the House. Never mind; the ratio in favour of the Bill was 46:3.

I disagree with the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. I do not regard him as a ridiculous character; he is a distinguished ornament in this place. However, he was wrong on one thing: the Bill does not create an appointed House. We have an appointed House at the moment, but the Bill seeks to create a better appointed House, without prejudice to the longer discussions which have already engaged the House and which we will be very lucky if we finish by 2014, judging by the exchanges that have taken place so far.

Perhaps I may refer to some of the remarks in the debate. The noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Hannay, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, were unhappy about the imprecise definition of a "non-affiliated Peer". Indeed, some argued that the definition of "conspicuous merit" was not a sufficient qualification for membership of the House and that there should be some reference to commitment to working on the proceedings. I regard all those comments as valuable but they are drafting matters. They are not points of substance relating to the Bill; they seek to improve it. I think that I can speak on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who drafted the Bill. Certainly, I, as promoter, am sympathetic to these views and would be happy to try to accommodate them when the Bill is reintroduced.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, was not convinced that the word "diversity" was sufficiently precise and she wanted reference to regional diversity. Again, that is a drafting matter that we should look upon sympathetically. I note in passing that one of the great glories of this place is that, in terms of gender balance and ethnic balance, it is infinitely more diverse than the elected House. That is one of the points that we must bear in mind.

There was a second category of comment of much more substance than these drafting elements. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, the noble Lord, Lord Clyde, and my noble friend Lord Bradshaw all queried whether we should not include in the clause dealing with retirement some kind of automatic retirement for those who do not attend. That is a point of substance—it is not a drafting point—and the House should return to it if we proceed to later stages of the Bill. I am quite sympathetic to it and I would welcome discussion of it.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, suggested that it was wrong to have the criteria for membership of this House simply in the hands of a resolution of the House of Commons. That is a point of substance, but there is no reason why the drafting could not be amended to include a resolution of this House as well. If Members detect in the drafting of the Bill a slight bias in the direction of the elected House, that is deliberate. We have to convince the elected House that this is a sensible measure that retains an acknowledgement of that House's supremacy.

The noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, wanted a divorce between the award of peerages and service in this House. Again, that is a valid point, but I say with respect that it goes well beyond the limited purpose of the Bill. It would be a controversial measure. Personally, I am sympathetic to it, but we have to recognise that the Bill is designed to carry consensus with it and not to go into these more argumentative areas.

On the membership of the appointments commission, there is a reference in the Bill to consultation. That does not need to be spelled out any more clearly. From my experience, during the time when I was one of the three party leaders, I was regularly consulted, even though that is not provided for in statute, on issues such as the appointment of members to the Boundary Commission or to the committee that appointed justices of the peace. The process of consultation is one of the well known conventions in this place. The Speaker of the House of Commons would clearly be required to consult not just the Lord Speaker but others, including the party leaders.

With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, I disagree with his suggestion that all the members of the appointments commission should be politicians from both Houses. We need to bring in people from outside, whether members of the judiciary or people from the world of academia, the professions, or business, who can help to give public confidence that the appointments commission is not an internal political matter. That is why the Bill is drafted as it is.

One or two Members had some fun at the expense of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, who is the current chairman of the Appointments Commission. It so happens that I had a letter from him yesterday inviting me to dinner with him in Edinburgh during the Summer Recess. I suspect that that was in my capacity more as a customer of his bank than as the promoter of the Bill. I assure noble Lords that I intend to take up the invitation. I shall convey the views of the House and I look forward to discussions with him.

It is important that we press on. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, had a certain flavour of festina lente, if my Latin is correct—that we should hasten slowly on this matter. That is not the right attitude. The noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, asked whether the provisions for permanent leave of absence would abolish the present provision for temporary leave of absence. The answer is no. At present, some 13 Members of the House are on temporary leave of absence. Some of them might wish to convert to permanent leave of absence, but there is no reason why the present procedures in the House for temporary leave of absence should not continue, and I propose that they do.

My suggestion on how we proceed is this. Given the overall welcome for the Bill, it is nevertheless obvious that we cannot expect it to pass into legislation in this Session; we are too near the end of it. Rather than get bogged down in a lengthy Committee stage in the few days that remain, I would like the House to be encouraged to have a formal Committee stage, a further short debate at Third Reading and then secure a vote in this House on the principle of the Bill, knowing that it will have to be reintroduced in the new Session with many of the amendments in it that I talked about earlier.

In a full Session of Parliament, we can then have a really serious discussion on the details of the Bill and amendments that might need to be made to it. If we do that, and if we succeed, it is for the Government, having listened to the views of the House, and then having listened to the views of the public and the Members of the other place, who, by then, will have taken this Bill seriously, to decide whether to pick it up and move forward. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 2.55 pm.