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House of Lords: Appointments Commission

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will take immediate steps to provide a statutory basis for the House of Lords Appointments Commission that would empower it to take decisions on the size, balance and composition of the House.

My Lords, the Government will address this issue in their response to the recent report from the Public Administration Select Committee in another place.

My Lords, I welcome that Answer as far as it goes. My Question was, of course, prompted by the fact that the Select Committee had asked in the wake of the cash for peerages question not only that this be done, but that it be done with a proper sense of urgency. In view of that, will the response indicate whether the Government will introduce legislation themselves or give support to my Bill, which is wending its weary way through Committee in this House?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows—we had an interesting initial canter in Committee on Thursday—the Government in the House of Lords take a neutral position towards his Bill. We owe it to the Select Committee to give due consideration to our response to it. I ought also to say that we are engaged in a process that has led on from the votes of both Houses last year and the work of the cross-party working group. The Government’s aim is to produce a White Paper in due course.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that most Members of this House have rumbled the objection that setting up the statutory Appointments Commission puts off the day of the revolution? We all know that that red letter day has already been postponed not by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, but by the Prime Minister.

My Lords, there is certainly a lot of rumbling on this matter. All I would say to my noble friend, whose interest in this whole area is extremely helpful—

My Lords, this is your Lordships’ House, you know. We have free votes in both Houses. We see the work of the cross-party working group as a very important way of allowing the political parties to discuss these very important matters. Although the vote of the other place was not greeted with acclamation in this House, it has none the less set the circumstances in which one could look to cross-party consensus, which is surely the way forward for major reform of your Lordships' House.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the report of the Select Committee in the other place is of considerable interest to Members of this House? Can he give us an undertaking that there will be an opportunity to discuss the report and can he specifically comment on paragraph 181, which makes it clear that in the committee’s view much might be achieved without legislation?

My Lords, the allocation of time is not a matter for me but I have no doubt that if noble Lords wish to debate the matter, the business managers will be their usual accommodating selves and allow that to happen. As regards the Select Committee’s recommendations, it is absolutely right that it said that action could be taken in advance of legislation. But rather than responding to that I should say that we are considering it very carefully. We will respond to the Select Committee in due course and we will deal with that matter then.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the publication of a White Paper “in due course”. What does “in due course” mean in governmental terms—March of this year or December of this year?

My Lords, I do not want to be pushed on that question, even by the noble Baroness. We want to get a move on. The discussions have gone well and are constructive. I very much hope that we can see the White Paper published in a few months, but it is surely better that we get it right and that we get as much agreement as possible rather than rushing into publication.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he is absolutely right to resist the blandishments of the noble Lord, Lord Steel? Does he agree that the Question asks that a statutory Appointments Commission should take decisions,

“on the size, balance and composition”,

of this House? Those are precisely the matters that this House and the other place have to decide themselves.

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the point that the balance and size of a reformed House must command the confidence of Parliament. Obviously, these matters will need to be embraced in the forthcoming White Paper.

My Lords, have not the Government repeatedly said since 1999 that they think that the Appointments Commission should be put on a statutory basis? Given that it is obvious, not least from the proceedings in this Chamber last Thursday, that it is going to take a very long time indeed before consensus is reached on comprehensive reform of the second Chamber and, given that legislating without consensus would be a prolonged nightmare—worse even than legislating on the European Union treaty—why do the Government not grasp the opportunity presented in the Bill tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, adopt it as their own and legislate for a solid and useful set of reforms for which there is widespread consensus?

But, my Lords, I would have thought that our pleasant experience last Thursday show that nothing is easy when it comes to Lords reform. What set out, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, suggested, as a pretty straightforward and simple Bill, frankly, found many of your Lordships not in support. That is why it is much better, in view of the votes that have taken place, to attempt comprehensive reform based on a White Paper, which I hope will appear in the manifestos of the political parties at the next election, and quick legislation would follow soon after. That is the way forward.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we are dealing with two different issues? It is one thing to talk about establishing the committee on a statutory basis and to have scrutiny of appointments to this House; it is quite another thing to allow that committee to take decisions on the size, balance and composition of this House. Enabling an unelected committee to do that would be undemocratic.

My Lords, that is certainly an important point. The Appointments Commission has come in for a mite of criticism in the years that it has been established but, if one looks at the names of the Peers who have been appointed to your Lordships’ House—more than 40 have been—one sees that the commission has come up with some outstanding people.