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House of Lords: Appointments Commission

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 23 April 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When the current term of the existing House of Lords Appointments Commission is due to expire; and what proposals they have for the status and terms of reference of a House of Lords Appointments Commission thereafter.

My Lords, the current terms of the chairman and members of the House of Lords Appointments Commission end on 30 June. A recruitment exercise is under way to find a new chairman and independent members. To ensure continuity, the chairman will continue until the autumn. The status and terms of reference of the commission will remain unchanged.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that although the Government have repeatedly, since at least 2000, declared their view that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be placed on a statutory basis, they have all the same on three occasions so far—in 2003, 2006 and 2007—reappointed it as a non-statutory quango? My noble friend now tells the House that they are going to do that for a fourth time. Why will the Government not take this opportunity to legislate at long last to reconstitute the Appointments Commission and to give it democratic legitimacy? Is it because the cross-party working group is ignoring the widespread consensus that, without prejudice to further eventual reform, this would now be the proper thing to do?

My Lords, I wondered how long it would be before the cross-party group was mentioned. My noble friend raises an important point about the future of the commission. Certainly, in looking to appoint a new membership we have been minded to ensure that, should we decide to put it on a statutory footing, it would be a very simple process. The difference fundamentally is that we would turn it, by statutory provision, into a more independent body; but I hope that noble Lords will accept that the functioning of the commission, to which I pay tribute, as I do to all those who have participated in it, has indeed been independent. My noble friend is wrong to suggest that the cross-party group has not thought about these issues. Indeed, it has.

My Lords, this week the Appointments Commission announced that three more Cross-Bench Peers would be created. You had to look quite hard to find the announcement—but one was made, none the less. Who decides on the timing of these creations? Does not the Prime Minister have a very important role to play in issuing guidelines on the disposition of the numbers of independent Cross-Benchers and Members from other parties? What are these guidelines and does the Prime Minister take his role seriously?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister takes his role very seriously. There are three new appointees, whom I am sure we will look forward to welcoming to your Lordships' House. In discussing the future role of the commission, we will have to think about how best this has worked up to now, and to congratulate the commission on the quality of the people who have joined us on the Cross Benches, which we have benefited from enormously. In the broader context of the working group and the future of the House of Lords, we will need to consider further with the commission how best to take forward the numbers and timing of such appointments.

My Lords, is not the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, quite right? Although some of my best friends sit on the Cross Benches, they are rather like the mops and buckets in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”—they just keep on coming. That means that Benches such as the Liberal Democrat Benches continue to be grossly under-represented. Have the Government any idea of the proportion of this House that should be Cross Bench, and how will the Minister manage to massage their numbers down now that they are so formidable?

My Lords, I do not think of them as mops and buckets, although I notice that the sorcerer’s apprentice is on his feet once again. The numbers on the Cross Benches have actually increased by only eight in the past few years. People have died and been replaced, so the actual growth over the past eight or nine years has been by only eight Members. None the less, we all pay tribute to the quality of those who have joined the Cross Benches and the quality of their contributions to our debates—and I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was not suggesting anything other than that. In future we will have to consider all those issues. I know that noble Lords are awaiting with great interest the further deliberations of the cross-party group, but we shall also have to consider how best to take this forward.

My Lords, we are just about to appoint to the commission. We have talked with a headhunting firm, and we have looked at the issues.

My Lords, noble Lords may smile, but we will do this by advertising on the website and in the Sunday Times public appointments section next weekend and by talking to appropriate recruitment agencies. Noble Lords who have experience of business or public appointments know perfectly well that one uses a variety of means to find the best and the right people. There will be a variety of views about the qualifications of those who sit on the commission. My views, which have been taken into account, are that they should have an understanding of the work of the House of Lords and of legislation, and that there should be a desire to ensure breadth from those who contribute to what are often incredibly important debates.

My Lords, the last time we discussed this issue in your Lordships’ House there was considerable concern that the Appointments Commission would be responsible for deciding the composition of the House. Your Lordships expressed a good deal of anxiety about that. In answering the Question, the Minister from the Ministry of Justice said that perhaps it would not be like that. Has further thought been given to this issue, and can my noble friend reassure the House that the unelected commission will not be responsible for deciding the composition of your Lordships House?

My Lords, as far as I am concerned the unelected commission will not be responsible for deciding the composition of your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I speak as an elected Peer who would like the principle to be increased. Should not the Appointments Commission act with much more transparency so that we can see how and why it arrives at its decisions? Sometimes people’s Peers have been announced and the mind has gone into overtime boggling over it.

My Lords, my mind has never gone into overtime boggling; I have always been extremely pleased with the quality of the people who have been put forward. Transparency is important. However, we are dealing with people coming forward to be made Peers and as the noble Earl will realise, it is also important to respect confidentiality.