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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his speech and, above all, on his determination in this matter. I may disappoint him a little in his hope that the debate will not stray on to other issues but I shall at least seek to take his broad advice on this.
It can hardly be denied that the debate on my noble friend's Bill takes place in the shadow of the Bill introduced by the Government on Wednesday. The reaction to those government proposals was heartfelt and I am sure that Ministers took great comfort from that. Not since we introduced the community charge has a political and public response been so unequivocal.
The two Bills bring into sharp relief the different ways in which we approach Lords reform. Do we do what the Government are doing and introduce an omnibus Bill which changes the whole basis of the House of Lords, or do we follow my noble friend's approach and make changes which enable the House of Lords to run more effectively? Frankly, I am strongly in favour of the approach of my noble friend Lord Steel.
I hear that some members of my party are writing to the Chief Whip to say that they will not be supporting the Government's approach. I think that it would probably be more relevant to know that members of my party are writing to the Chief Whip to say that they will be supporting the Government's approach. However, it will come as no terrible surprise to the Front Bench to hear that I am one of the many Conservatives saying to the Government that they cannot rely on my support. I say that for two reasons. First, I strongly agree with the approach, if I can call it that, of my noble friend. It is much better to carry out reform in that way rather than through the defective blunderbuss approach of the Deputy Prime Minister. Secondly, as far as I know, my party has never carried out any public consultation on this issue.
Above all, it seems to me that the debate is not about whether there should be reform but about what kind of reform there should be, and my noble friend's Bill concentrates on some of the issues that should be tackled. In particular, I pick out that of non-attendance. The Bill meets one of the main criticisms of this House-namely, that there are too many Members. On paper, the total number is 775 but in practice the number who take an active part is considerably lower. Currently, according to the cost figures in the Government's document, the average attendance is about 63%. There are some who, frankly, are seen as rarely as crested eagles over the Thames. They take part neither in the House nor in any of the Select Committees. However, the fault there lies not with this House but with successive Prime Ministers who have appointed the absentees without getting any kind of assurance that they will turn up to take a part in this House. There is absolutely no reason whatever why we should perpetuate that position. I strongly agree with my noble friend that if a Member does not turn up in a Session, unless there is a very good reason for that, he should cease to be a Member of this House. In fact, I will not make a point of this but I think that my noble friend Lord Steel has set the bar rather too low and that the test could be stiffer. Appointment to this House is a very great privilege and with it come opportunities and responsibilities. I would certainly expect a Member to be here at the very least for 10% of the time and obviously much more than that in order to take a full part. Therefore, I acknowledge that there are some absentees but that is an issue that we can deal with, and the House should not be judged by that minority.
The Members whom I rate are those who are here on most days and who work conscientiously on a whole range of subjects, issues and roles. Here, I come to a serious complaint about a number of the interviews given by the Deputy Prime Minister. For example, in a radio interview last Friday, which I heard, he twice in a few minutes suggested that a characteristic of the Lords is Members coming into the House for a few moments to collect their £300 a day-"immersed in sleaze" is the half-suggestion. It is like saying that all Members of Parliament are fiddling their expenses when they are not indulging themselves in Annie's Bar. The truth, of course, is that the vast majority of MPs are utterly conscientious and work extremely hard, and I do not see why the Deputy Prime Minister cannot accept that similar considerations also apply to the Members of this House.
Members take on demanding and unpaid roles, not least the hereditary Peers. There are Lords Ministers in the Deputy Prime Minister's own coalition Government who are totally unpaid. They do it because they think that it is important and that there is a contribution to be made. To give my own minor example, over the past six or seven years I have been the chairman of three Select Committees in this House. In the other place, chairmen of Select Committees are paid extra for that role; here, we are not. I make absolutely no complaint about that and I would not want to change the position. However, I think that the real situation should be recognised and that the vast amount of entirely unpaid work that takes place in this House and when the House is not sitting should be recognised.
Frankly, I would not mind if the smear tactics aimed at the Lords had been carried out by some obscure Back-Bencher desperate for attention. What is unacceptable is that they should be indulged in by the Deputy Prime Minister of this country, particularly in a coalition Government, who doubtless-I say this to my own Front Bench-expect us to hold our nose and say nothing when a Secretary of State breaks all the rules on acting independently in a quasi-judicial capacity on the BSkyB bid. That is not a very good deal so far as this side is concerned, and I say to those on my Front Bench that, if I say that, they can be sure that there are many more who feel rather more strongly.
The final irony is that, under the Government's proposals for the new House, payment for elected Members will be on the same £300-a-day basis as the Deputy Prime Minister has been criticising. The only difference is that it will be taxed, but a kindly Government have said that "guidance on taxation" will be available, which I think refers to the earnings you can claim against tax.
I support the other measures in the Bill of my noble friend Lord Steel. I certainly believe that those convicted of an offence and sent to prison should have the opportunity, and be encouraged, to rebuild their lives, but it makes no sense to have a disqualification apply to the House of Commons but not to this House. Obviously more could be added to the Bill concerning the appointments process, but essentially I think that my noble friend's approach to reform of the Lords is sensible. Some people will doubtless criticise the Bill on the basis that it is step-by-step reform; I simply claim that over the past 30 or 40 years step-by-step reform in Parliament has probably been the most successful. I think, for example, of industrial relations reform.
The Government's proposals are the big-bang approach, leaving us with Members elected for 15 years and with no prospect of re-election. Whatever else that does, it certainly will not produce democratic accountability. Frankly, it will lead to a perpetual conflict between one elected House and another which no legislation will be able to eliminate.
For my final point, I return to Mr Clegg. In his outside speeches he has made much of the fact that retired politicians make up more than half of the House. He should at least get his insults right. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, pointed out, about one-quarter of Members are retired MPs. What Mr Clegg means is retired MPs, not retired politicians. If the Deputy Prime Minister were to lose his seat at the next election-and who can say how likely that it is?-he would be a retired MP, not a retired politician. If he came to this House-and stranger things have happened-he would find that there are opportunities here for a Back-Bench politician to influence law that are not available on the Back Benches of the House of Commons. I have managed to achieve two changes to the law here-and if the then Government had listened to what I, my noble friend Lord Crickhowell and the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said on the Communications Bill in 2003, we would not be stuck in the media swamp in which we are stranded today.
I warmly support the Bill. I support the detail of it and I support the approach that my noble friend Lord Steel has adopted. The Government would be much better advised to adopt the approach of my noble friend rather than to continue on a course that will lead to conflict and division-and all to no benefit for the public.