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.
“I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time”; that ritual phrase has rather more meaning on this occasion because this is indeed the second time that we will have debated the Bill. With one exception, that I shall come to in a minute, the Bill is the same as the one we discussed in the previous Session. For that reason, I propose to be very brief in describing its contents, since I think these are familiar to the House. Instead, I want to concentrate on where we are on the whole subject of House of Lords reform.
In our previous debates the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde, and Lord Richard, joined together to say that this was not a suitable subject for a Private Member’s Bill. It may surprise the House to know that that is also my view and, I think, the view shared by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and all those who have been involved in preparing the Bill. It is intended as a spur to the Government, in the hope that they will take over these measures and proceed with them. It is a convenient vehicle, which they could easily take over. Recently, the Government have been busy taking over lots of other things at vast expense. This one is on offer for free as we are so generous.
I shall briefly remind the House of the Bill’s contents. There are four parts to it. The first part proposes the creation of the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis. That should be welcomed by the Government. I quote from the Labour Party manifesto:
“Labour supports modernisation of the House of Lords’ procedures to improve its effectiveness. We will put the independent Appointments Commission on a statutory footing”.
That is a direct quote from the Labour Party manifesto, not of the last election but of the election in 2001, and we are still waiting for that pledge to be redeemed.
There is no suggestion in the Bill, contrary to some speeches when we last debated it, that the Appointments Commission should choose all the members in the political parties. It would certainly have to approve them and the Bill enables the commission to encourage the parties to develop transparent processes of their own in bringing forward nominations. The House looks forward immensely to the speech today of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, the new chairman of the Appointments Commission, to hear what he has to say on the subject.
The second part of the Bill abolishes the hereditary by-elections. We had a lot of fun on this subject on the previous occasion. I reminded the House that twice already members of the British Parliament have been elected by three or four people. It makes the elections to Old Sarum seem positively democratic in comparison. The creation of the hereditary by-elections occurred in 1999, during the reforms made then. It was clearly indicated at that time that this was a temporary measure to last perhaps a couple of years. We are nearing the 10th anniversary of that temporary measure. Perhaps we could combine it with a celebration next year of the 100th anniversary of the Asquith promise to replace this House with one on a popular basis. It really has been waiting around for a long time. The argument that we cannot abolish hereditary by-elections until stage 2 of Lords reform is an interesting one which we have heard many times. My argument is that if the Government were to take over the Bill, this would become stage 2, with stage 3 in the waiting, as promised in the Government’s White paper.
The third part of the Bill would enable the House to reduce its size from its existing 700 by encouraging the retirement of those who wish to leave after a certain age. If that came about, I believe that the pressure within each of the parties would be to take aside those who have served long and hard in this place and suggest that perhaps it was time for them to leave and make way for new blood in the House.
This brings me to the only new part in the Bill as against last year’s one. Clause 12 introduces a proposal that one way of reducing the size of the House would be to remove those who never come here, apart from those who have very good reason for not coming here because they are engaged in other public work. That is the only new part of the proposal before us today.
The fourth part was designed to bring the House of Lords into line with the House of Commons in removing those who have been sentenced to prison for at least one year. It was in the 18th century that the House of Commons passed a resolution making that its practice. At that time, the House of Lords did not do so. It is now agreed that it is time that we had some provision to enable Members to be removed from the legislature if, in fact, they are major wrongdoers.
Support for the measures in the Bill has grown since the debate in the previous Session and it has grown for three reasons. First, since that debate, we have had the publication of the Government’s White Paper on House of Lords reform. There were two major objections to that publication, echoed often in the other Chamber as well as here. One was that the proposals are all timeless: they are not imminent, to put it mildly; there is no indication of when they might be brought into effect. The other was that the White Paper is extremely vague on fundamentals. There was no decision about how the House would be elected, no decision as to whether it was to be 100 per cent elected or 80 per cent elected. They had not even decided on a name.
For that reason, the White Paper had an extremely cool reception. Moreover, the Public Administration Committee in the other place issued a report at the time of the White Paper’s publication, which said that,
“the failure to find consensus on a comprehensive reform package can prevent progress on the running repairs that are needed now … the next stage of Lords reform should not wait for a consensus on elections”.
That same committee has gone further and, just the other week, produced a report reflecting on the Government’s White Paper. At paragraph 8, it says:
“The introduction of a fully or largely elected second chamber would render the changes we propose obsolete. But that moment is some years off even at best. In the meantime, we have proposed changes that should be made with immediate effect to bring fairness and transparency to the interim arrangements between now and the completion of reform”.
It goes on to say, in the next paragraph,
“that a decision has been taken that there should a fully elected second chamber—albeit one that will come into being to an undetermined and probably lengthy timescale”.
That is the situation that we are now faced with since we debated the Bill a year ago.
On the White Paper’s cool reception, I was in the Peers’ Gallery in the other place when it was introduced, and noted many Members’ comments. I quote only one, from a senior member of the Labour Party, Sir Gerald Kaufman:
“Having read the White Paper, I congratulate him”—
that is, the Lord Chancellor—
“on producing a masterpiece of imprecision, vacillation and obfuscation that cannot possibly lead to meaningful legislation—a consequence entirely to be desired”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/7/08; col. 28.]
I am moderate in my views on the White Paper compared with the Government’s own supporters.
There is another factor, of course. I do not want to be in any way party political, so let me put this politely: it is by no means certain that the Labour Government will be re-elected. That is a factor that we have to take into account, and that brings us to the second reason why there is now more interest in these measures: the position of the Conservative Party. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has been vocal in his support of the proposals in the White Paper; a bit like the grand old Duke of York except that he does not have 10,000 men behind him. He has been quite seriously undermined, unwittingly, by the leader of his party. We had heard that he had told his MPs that it was a priority for his third term, but we had nothing on the record. However, now we have. Mr Cameron, in an interview for the magazine Total Politics this month, was asked:
“How much of a priority is House of Lords reform for you?”
“If you mean, can we please throw out people or suspend them if they are touting for business, then that’s a very high priority. In any legislature there has to be a way of suspending or expelling people who break the law. In terms of reform, having a more elected chamber, which is what I favour, to be frank it is not an urgent priority”.
So we have the situation that, even if there were a change to a Conservative Government, it would not be a priority. Let me say, just so that I am totally impartial, that it is equally uncertain that there will be a Liberal Democrat Government after the next election. If, of course, there were, my noble friend Lord McNally would make sure that it was high on the list of priorities.
The third reason why there has been a change of mood, and growing support for the Bill, is, of course, recent events. We do not want to go into those while inquiries are going on. However, there is no question that the newspaper stories revealed that this House has no procedure at all, unlike most legislatures, for dealing with people who ought perhaps to be considered, if found guilty, for suspension from the service of the House.
For these three reasons, the Government ought to pay much more attention to the proposals in the Bill. But what is likely to happen? We have the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, back with us again. I remember that, when he got his new department, he came to the Dispatch Box and said how relieved he was that he was no longer going to be dealing with House of Lords reform. But here he is again; like a bad penny, he has turned up. What is he going to say to us? Is he going to tell us that he is against a statutory commission? That cannot be, because of the manifesto. Is he going to tell us that he is in favour of continuing these hereditary by-elections? Is he going to tell us that he is against reducing the size of the House? Is he going to tell us that we do not need to consider any disciplinary measures in this House? No, he is not going to say any of these things. He is just going to say that the Government are doing nothing about it. That is an unsatisfactory situation.
I suspect that the blockage comes from the Lord Chancellor, Mr Straw. I have had discussions with him on this. He seems to be immovable. Well, he is not actually immovable: he has moved his position on elections to the House of Lords so often that he has more or less said, “These are my principles and, if you don’t like them, I have others”.
My Lords, in all seriousness, if we are looking forward to an elected House at some point in the future, it is better that we put this House in order first so that we prepare the way for the fundamental reform that is to come. The House is becoming really quite impatient that we are not doing any running repairs at all. We glory in our reputation. We have a high reputation in the country, but it could and should be better. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have not spoken on House of Lords reform in your Lordships’ House for several years but I say at the outset that, not through a lack of interest but, rather, possibly through an excess of hope, I had hoped that we would by now be considering a comprehensive Bill of reform including a consideration of the roles and powers of this House for the 21st century and its composition, which in my view should include an element of elected Peers.
The noble Lord, Lord Steel, said that we are coming up to the 10th anniversary of the House of Lords Act, which achieved a limited, but none the less very important, reform: abolishing the automatic right of hereditary Peers to sit in your Lordships' House. As the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said, this has been followed by hours of inter-party consultation, many long discussions between party leaders and a succession of Green Papers followed by White Papers. I had hoped, probably naively, that by now this would have led to concrete proposals being brought forward by the Government. However, as your Lordships are well aware, and as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, rightly emphasised, nothing has emerged. I am afraid, therefore, that it is mainly in a spirit of frustration that I welcome the noble Lord’s initiative in bringing forward the Bill for a second time. He describes its provisions as running repairs. I consider they are more than that, but they are incremental and concerned exclusively with an appointed membership. But at least they are here; at least they are on the table; and at least we can debate them. I certainly support in principle most of the reforms that he advocates. It is a beginning and it may well be—in spite of what he said about the Government picking up this Bill—that gradual change led by private Members will be the way to start the process running again.
I, too, particularly welcome the proposals for a statutory Appointments Commission to select new Peers in Part 1. I emphasise to my noble kinsman Lord Jay of Ewelme that this in no way undermines my confidence in his voluntary Appointments Commission, but I think the time has now come to move on to a more significant and statutory body with significant broader powers. We will need to consider in Committee whether these proposals would unnecessarily fetter the Prime Minister’s ability to appoint Ministers to sit in your Lordships' House. However, at first reading, Clause 4(1) seems to allow what I consider a useful practice to continue. I hope that it will be possible in Committee to include in Clause 5, headed “Nominees to meet specific criteria”, an explicit provision on the tax status of those nominees. I appreciate that Clause 5 allows the Appointments Commission to propose additional criteria beyond those listed, but I should like to see some of the elements of the Bill recently introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, included in this Bill.
I support the proposals on hereditary Peers and leave of absence in Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, but on these and some of the other proposals I found it very useful to go back to the Royal Commission report, which, unlike the House of Lords Act, is only nine years old. That commission was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who is not in his place. However, I am glad to see that some of the members of the commission are present. The Royal Commission report is still an extremely valuable touchstone of an attractive approach to reform. It is worth mentioning in this context that the report devotes nine chapters and 59 recommendations to the powers and functions of the second Chamber before it discusses membership. I remind your Lordships that its proposals on membership include a proportion of elected regional Members. However, I have acknowledged that the Bill we are debating today is deliberately narrowly focused on appointed Members. None the less, I consider that it could echo more closely some of the Royal Commission’s other proposals. The report’s proposals on a statutory Appointments Committee are very similar to those of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, but it goes further. For example, Recommendation 72 of the Wakeham report proposes that,
“members should serve for fixed terms of 15 years”.
Recommendation 75 states:
“Members of the reformed … chamber should be able to retire”.
I support both those proposals and would be happy to see them included in the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel.
Although I welcome the provisions in Parts 3 and 4 on regulating membership, particularly those relating to permanent leave of absence in Clause 12—the noble Lord, Lord Steel, rightly described the latter as the only new part in the Bill as against the previous Bill—and to the consequences of serious criminal offences in Clause 15, I should like the Bill to go further and include some of the Royal Commission’s recommendations in this area. For example, Recommendation 77 states:
“The reformed second chamber should establish a procedure for expelling members whose continued presence would otherwise bring the chamber into disrepute”.
There seems no prima facie reason why such a proposal—it presumably would be couched in terms of compulsory and enforced leave of absence in this Bill—should not be included in Part 3.
The noble Lord, Lord Steel, drew our attention to the events of recent weeks. We have all suffered from the negative spotlight turned on this House, which has again led to the circulation of the calumny that we are an irrelevant, out-of-touch body with no place in a 21st century Parliament. That is, of course, totally untrue, as even the most casual observation of your Lordships’ work will reveal. None the less, we have a more accurate negative reputation for dragging our feet on transparent regulation and on further self-reform. This Bill gives us an opportunity to achieve some important incremental changes that should in no way preclude further and wider reform in the future. Taking action now, taking an initiative to break the decade of stalemate may properly influence external perceptions of a House which may be seen, inaccurately, as frozen in a rather complacent paralysis. I hope that the Minister appreciates this and will at least be able to offer some encouraging response. I am sorry that he is the recipient of my frustration because I know, from working with him for 10 years ago and since, that he is always a doughty and very thoughtful advocate of reform. I hope that he will take that reputation forward in the future.
I am sure that this Bill can help us to make further progress on this very important issue. I welcome it and I look forward to further progress.
My Lords, for many reasons it is a pleasure to follow the brief but important speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. I will follow her example and speak for six minutes. Although I may appear to sit on a Front Bench, we are both essentially Back-Benchers, so six minutes should be enough. I second her proposition that we should enthusiastically support the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. It has been through the mill once already. I do not think that anybody challenges its provisions. There may be room for amendment and change and that could well happen, but all the other propositions that the noble Baroness discussed are further steps, so to speak.
The most important thing to recognise is that reform of this House, like many other things in this country, takes place through an incremental process, and never more characteristically than in this House, which started the process in 1911. In more recent times, there were two important steps: the invention of life Peers and the removal—if one has to use such a harsh phrase—of the majority of the hereditaries. The remainder have given such value to the House in this period of transition, by ensuring its continuity, manner, tradition, style and, for that reason, civilisation and authority. So we all favour incremental change. We all appear to favour—I say “all” but it applies to most of us—all the propositions in the Bill. Most importantly, it has the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. Therefore, I wonder profoundly why the Government do not now join the incremental crew and help to get the Bill through.
The virtues of this House were endorsed in the very first government White Paper (Cm 4183) produced by the noble Baroness. It stated:
“The most valued features of the present House”,
and added that they were summarised by the following epithets:
“real expertise … distinctive … well regarded … distinguished … particularly valuable”.
Those epithets were endorsed in the fifth report of the Commons Public Administration Committee, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which stressed the,
“considerable virtues which should be preserved”,
and set the objective of:
“Building on the strengths of the present Chamber”.
There have been similar endorsements of the incremental process from the government Front Bench in this House. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for example, on 7 February 2007, expressed his belief,
“that the quality of what this House does is very high … what this House does well is significantly to amend legislation without gridlock and generally without conflict with the other place”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 722.]
The House is not in need of other areas of reform. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, when presenting the last-but-one government Statement on this issue on 19 July 2007, stated that,
“this House has performed very well since the major changes made in 1999. We need to build … on the incredibly valuable role of this House as a revising and scrutinising Chamber”.—[Official Report, 19/7/07; col. 396.]
One can hardly start from a more auspicious premise, which, I dare to say, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, helped to create. That is why we should welcome her support for the proposals that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is putting forward.
The case for further deliberation on the one fly in the ointment, if I may mix a metaphor or two—the possible role of elected Members—remains a case that has not been put. There are three questions that many of us have posed time and time again when challenging that case.
What is the reason for any such change? The only reason that goes up is the cry of “legitimacy”, but there is no unique quality about that. I have never heard an answer, when one thinks of all the other functions carried out by non-elected people from High Court judges to chief constables. There is no answer to that question.
Is there any fault in the performance of this House that would be corrected by the arrival of elected Members? The burden of proof remains upon those who advocate the change. They have not begun to discharge it.
Is there any improvement in the performance or authority of this House that would be achieved thereby? No wonder we are pausing at this point. This particular incremental step is lying there ahead of us, and all we need to do is to step up the support of most of this House, with the benefit of clarification that its consideration could contribute.
The other question could remain. I have no enthusiasm for its early solution but I have huge enthusiasm for the rapid passing and enactment of this Bill.
My Lords, it is thought by some that there are just too many Cross-Benchers. That may be the case but it may also be that the political party groups are not recruiting or have not recruited new Peers as regularly as has been the case among the Cross Benches. It may also be true that existing Cross-Benchers are attending more regularly, and there is some evidence for this. Whatever the perceptions, the fact is that this House is bigger than perhaps it needs to be, so I want to address the aspect of the Bill relating to the number of Peers.
The size of this House is likely to increase, possibly greatly, following the forthcoming election. We could see a House of approaching 1,000 Members. In the current political climate this is not wise and could even be seen as very unwise. Something must be done to prevent the House of Lords becoming a large, untidy and unnecessarily expensive body, thereby allowing itself to become the target of more unwelcome public criticism. The average daily attendance at present is approximately 415 Peers, and although clearly the individual Members vary from day to day this number appears to enable the House to do its work.
The Government have conveyed their intention radically to reform this House. One of the key aspects of the White Paper published in July last year was a much smaller Chamber with perhaps between 400 and 450 Members. This figure was arrived at as being commensurate with international comparisons; and whatever formula is eventually decided upon, the key point is that the Government have signalled their intention to significantly reduce the size of this House.
Another clause in the White Paper proposes changes to the present convention that the only way a Peer may resign is by taking leave of absence. Resignation is firmly in the White Paper, as is the possibility of suspension and/or disqualification. However, these seemingly small changes are set within the context of radical reform. Is this likely to happen in a hurry? I really think not, and meanwhile we are left with an unwieldy stalemate.
What we have is a ready-made solution in the Bill before the House today, Part 3 of which addresses permanent leave of absence. I would wish to see additional clauses at a later stage allowing honourable retirement. Were these simple mechanisms to be enacted, many might avail themselves of the opportunity to retire. Details such as dining rights could be negotiated and even a small retirement package could be included. Perhaps all those who are at present too infirm to attend regularly or too occupied with outside interests, or who have not attended in the past few years, might then be persuaded to step down.
This could amount to a sizeable number of Peers—some estimate it to be up to 250—and we would be left with a more scaled-down House which is less expensive for the taxpayer and less open to criticism. I do not believe that the serious work that this House undertakes would be compromised by having a leaner workforce. Surely this would please and accommodate many of your Lordships, the public, the other place—in particular the Public Administration Select Committee—and possibly even the Government.
Finally, I once again remind your Lordships that the seemingly small, partial changes of 1999 have had a profound effect and one could therefore anticipate that similarly small adjustments such as those set out in a slightly amended Bill could in due course have an exponential effect. It is difficult to know why exactly the Government would not seize upon this chance to undertake speedy and effective reform that could only enhance the work and reputation of this House.
My Lords, I strongly support this Bill and I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, characteristically presented it in a masterly way. I agree with everything he said, apart from his speculation about the result of the next general election. The Bill has characteristics that should be admired in almost any Bill. First, it is short. I, perhaps more than any other Member of this House, am passionately in favour of short Bills. It has specific, limited and attainable objectives. Again, I much prefer those kinds of Bills than those that try to put the world right. Much as I am in favour of doing that, this is a model Bill of that sort.
I shall emphasise during the next two or three minutes that the Bill has very wide support; in fact I have heard hardly anyone object to any of its provisions in principle. That is not to say that we will not hear one or two objections today, but the Bill has as wide support as you could hope to achieve. I have to say that it represents a much better approach than that in the White Paper presented last year, which I shall not spend any time on, other than to say that it contained a fundamental problem and flaw, which unless it is addressed will bedevil any attempt towards Lords reform. The fundamental problem is that the White Paper assumes that you can make a huge change to one part of our constitutional arrangements without having a very big impact on all the rest of the constitutional arrangements.
I pray in aid of that the Cunningham committee. I remind this House that it was a committee of both Houses whose report was, uniquely as far as I remember, approved unanimously by both Houses and made it crystal clear that, before any move towards an elected House is made, the nature of the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses must be a settled matter. That is the first job, which has not been tackled or attempted, and it is certainly not in the White Paper.
What needs to be said about possible objections to the Bill? In the time that remains, I shall mention two. One objection involves stating, “The Bill is not bad but it does not do enough; it is in no way comprehensive”. To me, that is a virtue of the Bill. If we adopted that approach to legislation generally, we would not have, for example, a criminal justice Bill until someone brought forward a criminal justice Bill that solved comprehensively the problems of the criminal justice system; we would be waiting a long time for a criminal justice Bill, although some might think that that was an advantage. That surely applies to all aspects of legislation. The three Front Benches have slightly got into the position of saying, “We should not really do this until we can do everything”. They have a kind of proprietorial feel towards the White Paper; that is understandable because long discussions went into establishing it. I hope that they will acknowledge that since the White Paper was published, there have been, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Hunt a couple of weeks ago, 150 responses to the White Paper. I do not know what level of response would be described as wild enthusiasm but I would not have thought that 150 responses comes too close. My view very much is that it is a mistake to say that we must not do anything until we can do everything else.
I know that a lot of hereditary Peers—including the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, although not as a hereditary Peer but in his present capacity—are attached to the other objection that I want briefly to deal with, which is frequently raised. It involves the agreement about stage 2. That seems to have two flaws, which we should be honest enough now to acknowledge after 10 years. The first flaw is that it does not spell out, so far as I am aware—I was not here but I have read a lot about it—who determines when stage 2 has been achieved. There is no adjudication about when that is done. Until that is spelt out, everyone will have their own interpretation of it.
The other objection is that it involves the notion that there can be a conclusive determination of the constitutional structure and position of the House of Lords. That is not how constitutional change takes place—there never is a conclusive determination of anything. Even if the whole of the White Paper were enacted tomorrow, the debate would continue about the role and functions of second chambers. It happens everywhere; the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has said that on a number of occasions. The final constitutional settlement has not been achieved in respect of the House of Commons. Some people—not me—want a different electoral system in the House of Commons. Others argue that it should be much smaller; that may have been in the Conservative Party manifesto. We have no final constitutional settlement of the local government structure. There are constant debates about the monarchy—whether there should be succession through the male line—and the role of the Church of England. The nature of constitutions is that they evolve and change. To think that the White Paper or any other document will be the conclusive word on this is to misread how the issues have been and will be dealt with.
I conclude with a plea possibly to everyone but to the Front Benches in particular. Please, in addressing the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, do not go beyond thinking about whether or not, in principle, you object to the four specific proposals being made. If you do, fine; do as anyone in that position would do, and try to block the Bill, but please explain why, in principle, the proposals are wrong before you oppose them. That is quite a difficult thing to do, and that is why we should strongly support the Bill.
My Lords, I had some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Steel, when he told us last year that he was elected as a spokesman for a group of people at a meeting at which he was not present but I say to him that I have changed my mind. He loves what he is doing and he would probably have volunteered for the job had he been in the room. I think that he is trying to out-do the author Richmal Crompton. Those who in future will research reform of the House of Lords will need to plough through the Steel Bill, the More Steel Bill, the Steel Bill Again and doubtless when this Bill fails, we will, in the next Session, have Steel Bill the Fourth and, after that, Still the Steel Bill. I look forward to taking part in all of those.
As noble Lords know, I disliked the Bill last year. It did not get very far in Committee. I disagree with my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon that it has been through the mill; it certainly has not. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that reform of the House should not be done by a Back-Bench Bill, however well intentioned but flawed. Any reform should be a government measure.
I shall start with Part 4. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, said that its purpose is to bring us into line with another place. That has not yet been discussed in Committee. Many believe that a person who has paid his dues to society should not be penalised again. We are different from another place—we are not salaried—and the fact that they do something does not necessarily mean that we must do it too.
Part 2 breaks a fundamental plank of the agreement reached in 1999. We were promised that the removal of hereditary Peers would occur only after stage 2 of reform. This Bill is not stage 2. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that that is a matter of fundamental principle to me. It should not be broken by a Back-Bench Bill.
Before I turn to the detail of Part 1, we should have a look at the question of whether to put the commission for appointments on a statutory basis before we have thoroughly assessed the current Appointments Commission, how it has worked and where its weaknesses are. I note that the current commission vets all nominations for peerages, including those of political parties, for propriety. I cannot find that in this Bill.
I turn to more detailed points. It is easy—dare I say usual?—for Liberal Democrats such as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to ignore the political disadvantages that would affect Conservative and Cross-Bench Peers if Part 2 came into effect. Interestingly, if it had been in effect since 1999, the composition of the House would already be in breach of Clause 8(2)(c). There would be 216 Labour Peers and 192 Conservative Peers—a Labour majority of 24—which is over the 3 per cent provided for in relation to the House’s total composition, which would have been 721 without the by-elections.
Would the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who I am delighted to see in his place—I never quite understood that the first qualification for the post that he holds should be that the postholder should never attend the House—have to get his calculator out every time a Labour or Conservative Peer died? Had Part 2 been put into place in 1999, which two Labour Peers would be forced out today to correct the illegal representation? Would it indeed be on an electoral basis, such as the hereditary Peers suffered in 1999? Or would the noble Lord, Lord Jay, have got on the line to the Prime Minister and told him in his best diplomatic voice that he could not have the noble Lord, Lord Myners, or the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, because the Labour Benches were full? That would be a good story. We can imagine what spin the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, might have put on it.
But, with the best will in the world, who is the chairman of an unelected commission, however eminent, to tell the elected Prime Minister that he cannot advise Her Majesty that he would have at his side in a world crisis the person he wants? Some noble Lords may argue that it would not work like this. It may be that some old boy or girl could be found to make way, like they do in the other place, but what would they be offered?
Let me take the specific case of the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, who was appointed by the Appointments Commission and transferred to the Labour Benches, as he is entitled to do and where he is doing a very good job; I have no disagreement with that. However, if the House were illegally constituted, as is required by the Bill, and the Government won a vote by one in this House in which, for example, the Cross-Bench Peers, as a result of a case like that of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, had dropped below 20 per cent or in which it had a bigger majority than is allowed for in the Bill, how would we stop someone going to the courts to challenge the legitimacy of the vote? Would the government proceedings be suspended? Could no more legislation be enacted? This part of the Bill is a recipe for allowing the courts to intervene in the internal privileges of our House, and it is a very retrograde step to start codifying it all in this way. What might a Supreme Court say?
We will discuss the Bill, if it goes to Committee, in some detail. It is a House of Lords reform Bill and there will be, just like last time, a considerable number of amendments.
My Lords, it has been observed that there is nothing new to be said about the subject of House of Lords reform but I respectfully beg to disagree. More important, however, than novelty is the quarter from which the opinion comes, which is why we shall be so interested in listening to the Minister at the end of the debate. I only regret that he is not able to give us an indication of where the Government are coming from at the beginning. It might have been unconventional but it might also have enabled us to focus on the Government’s reasoning during the debate, which would have been valuable.
Talking about where opinions come from, we had to sit up and take notice when another place recommended an all-elected second Chamber—we have moved a very long way from 1968 and the rejection of Dick Crossman’s proposals for reform. What it says to me is that the other place must modify its commitment to the dominance of the other place over this Chamber, as an all-elected upper House would plainly have legitimacy to develop the use of its powers.
I believe that the Bill before us today—I did not speak at the introduction of the previous measure by my noble friend—should be judged by two broad tests. First, would the proposed changes improve the workings of this House? There is no doubt that they would. They certainly address a number of the perceived weaknesses of our present structures and lacunae in the law. Secondly, would the Bill’s enactment impede further reform? My conclusion is that it would make no obstacles to later reform. Since the agreement between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats in 1997 to have a joint programme on constitutional reform, including reform of this place, I never had any doubt that we would have to proceed incrementally through three stages, which seems to be the Government’s position. My only objection to that is the time that it has taken to get from one stage to another.
However, it is right to consider whether the final stage—that does not mean the end stage in the sense that reform would not come further down the track—of the conceived democratisation of the second Chamber is consonant with the Bill that we have before us. Does this Bill advance or hold up that process? In my opinion, it is an improvement but it makes no impact on the wider case for reform.
The Bill addresses some very important current issues—for example, the size of this House. I do not believe that it is possible to justify 1,000 Members being elected to Westminster. Those of us who sit in this House could not conceive of such a gross body, particularly if we were concerned to strengthen local representative government.
Arguably, the Bill makes a change in the provisions for permanent leave of absence, which I consider to be helpful. However, I do not believe that they will enormously alter the structure or size of the House, and I am not entirely sure that I like the implication that Members might be strong-armed by their own parties into standing down under the arrangements envisaged in the Bill.
Another broad consideration is the widespread awareness that the central problem of our constitutional architecture is the over-mighty power of the Executive. Governing with the consent of their party supporters in the House of Commons—the putative beneficiaries of their patronage—there is little that a British Government cannot choose to do. Does the Bill before us advance the prospect of more effective accountability being realised? In so far as it might enhance the moral authority of this place, I believe that it could make a useful contribution, but it does not address, even by inference, the powers of this place. Perhaps the longer-term goal of the present Bill—it is a very fair one—is to enhance the reputation of this House as a forum of wise, experienced and not unduly partisan people. However, the Bill leaves the balance of power undisturbed under our constitutional arrangements. To many, that may be commendable but I ask whether it is enough.
In my opinion, whatever strengthens the ability of this House to discharge its present revising role, and its scrutiny role, particularly of European Union matters, is to be welcomed, but later reform must provide for those needs as well. There is more to do. What is required is more than the burnishing of the reputation of this House, whose work is valued by those who notice it. The goal of reform needs to be to rebalance the power of the legislature and the Executive, giving greater representative authority to the second Chamber by freeing it altogether from Executive patronage. If that Chamber is to be truly distinguished and command respect, it must be small—as small as the German Bundesrat, as was preferred by the late Robin Cook, or as small as the United States Senate, as I would personally prefer.
That smaller size precludes the full deployment of oversight and revision that is exercised at present by this Chamber, and that deficiency would need to be made good. In my opinion, it could be made good by the appointment of a council of state with an experienced and distinguished membership, not to block government but, through its wisdom, to offer advice that would be difficult to resist.
These changes are for later consideration. I believe that the Bill before us today should command widespread respect and support, and I hope that it will be seen as an indication of the House’s willingness to move, and to move now.
My Lords, I am a member in this House of a very small, distinguished and select band of people. That is not because I sit on these Benches but because I was one of those who voted for a 50 per cent elected House when last we voted. I think that we were the smallest group. I have also been part of the group that worked with the Lord Chancellor on the White Paper. Without any criticism of the Lord Chancellor, who chaired the operation brilliantly, I think that that, in itself, illustrates the difficulties of tackling some of the fundamental issues that are around when you start to enter the politics of the subject. Although I have not changed my fundamental view on the possibilities for the future, I thoroughly support this Bill. I think that it is the right move at this time, and I hope that the Government will look on it sympathetically. I want to comment on only two things.
First, it has been suggested—I have heard it quite widely—that if the three main political parties stitch up the next election in their manifestoes by having sufficiently similar themes on House of Lords reform, it will be possible for Parliament to act. My first difficulty with that is that I think that elections are about choice. What choice will the people of this country have if that is the case? My second problem with it is that I suspect that the vast majority of people entering the electoral booths to cast their vote in the next general election will probably not have a clue what the three political parties have put in their manifestoes on this issue, and they will certainly not have it as a high priority in determining how they vote. My third problem with it, which has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is the comment of the Leader of the Opposition—I am sure that all Members of the House will have him and his family very much in our prayers at this difficult time for them—that, according to the newspapers, should he form a Government after the next election, and I do not comment on those issues, the issue of macro reform of this House will not appear on the agenda of the next Parliament. If that is the case and we work on the basis that we cannot proceed unless we settle all the issues, we will have to wait eight years for reform.
My second point, which supports the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, relates to the hereditary Peers issue. It has sometimes been suggested in popular language that we cannot act on that until we have settled the whole issue. That is what I call the final solution theory. It seems to me that the noble Lord is entirely right: constitutional reform happens by evolution and step by step. You cannot have a moment when you say, “We have now settled that issue and can forget about it”. The issues of constitutional reform have to progress step by step.
I hope that the Government will look sympathetically on the Bill. It provides steps that a huge number of people agree need to be taken. The danger is that if we do not do something and sit around for another eight or 10 years arguing about other sorts of issues, we will go backwards not only on the progress that this House has made in the past 10 years in improving the professionalism of its performance but in the public’s sense of the important things that this House does in revising legislation and engaging in serious public debate on the political issues of our time.
Lastly, I said in my response to the Government’s White Paper that the issues of constitutional reform facing our country do not rest primarily in this House; the issues of confidence in our constitution and political process have wider issues at stake, issues to do with the capacity of the whole of Parliament to call the Executive to account and to engage in serious legislative work. Those are the issues that are in front of us. Reform of this House is part of a wider agenda. We would be foolish to think that reforming this House will solve the constitutional problems facing our country. That is why I support the Bill. I hope the Government will give it a sympathetic hearing.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on his tenacity in bringing the Bill before us a second time. I should declare an interest straightaway as chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, but I stress that I am speaking today in a personal capacity. I have not previously spoken in debates on reform in your Lordships' House but I wanted to do so today to comment briefly on one or two aspects of the draft Bill before us.
I am on record as supporting a partially elected House, and I voted accordingly in the debates in 2007. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, I was part of a very small and select minority in your Lordships’ House who supported the Government's original proposal of a 50:50 House. I continue to believe that an elected element would give the House greater legitimacy, and I do not believe that such a hybrid House would be unworkable. Our constitution, it seems to me, has managed stranger things than that over the years. However, I believe that it is equally important that there should be a substantial appointed element in a reformed House.
I hope—indeed, I am sure—that in due course a Bill will be passed to bring about further reform of the House. I note that on 23 February the noble Lord, Lord Bach, reiterated the proposal in the Government's White Paper on Lords reform that a reform Bill should be brought forward in the next Parliament by the Government of the day. I cannot say whether that will actually happen but I do think that, in any event, there are certain interim reforms that would enable the Lords to perform its functions more effectively and win greater public support. I do not see that such reforms need adversely affect the prospects of further reform later; indeed, I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that such reforms could prepare the way for more substantial reforms later.
I should like in this debate to underline two such reforms. The first is the provision to enable Members of the House to retire or resign, or, as proposed in the draft Bill before us, to seek permanent leave of absence, which would constitute retirement or resignation. This seems to me a sensible and necessary measure which would fit well with the growing presumption that membership of your Lordships' House is increasingly a job rather than an honour and carries with it the obligation to play an active though not necessarily full-time part in its affairs.
The second point that I should like to mention is the status of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. I regard it as a huge honour to chair the commission and to build on the excellent work done by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, and his colleagues. I am delighted that three of his former colleagues remain as my colleagues on the commission now. I am also delighted that the noble Baronesses, Lady Dean and Lady Campbell of Surbiton, are with us today.
Many of the fruits of the last commission’s work are, and have been, present in your Lordships’ House today. I hope that the new commission will be able to recommend appointments of similar quality in the years ahead. I am delighted to have the vote of confidence from my noble kinswoman, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. Like her, I believe that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should now be put on a statutory basis so that its role and remit is set by Parliament in statute and is not open to change by the Prime Minister of the day without recourse to Parliament. That seems to me the right status for a body whose principal and hugely important task is to recommend appointments to the legislature.
I do not want to comment today on the detailed provisions of that or other aspects of the draft Bill—that is for Committee stage—but I do have one comment. The appointment of commission members, and certainly the independent members, should be, and should be seen to be, wholly transparent and independent. In that context, I would see advantage in maintaining the present arrangements whereby those appointments are made under the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
I have one final point. As part of the process for my appointment as chair of the Appointments Commission I appeared before the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee for a pre-appointment hearing. I have every expectation of being invited back, and I shall look forward to it, as I have always looked forward in my career to appearances before the Select Committees of another place. However, I find it slightly odd that there appears to be no similar process in your Lordships’ House. I cannot speak for other members of the commission, but, speaking for myself, I should be happy to redress that balance.
In conclusion, I support a short, measured, focused reform Bill on the lines of that before us today.
My Lords, it is 10 years since I spoke here on House of Lords reform. I did so shortly after finishing my stint as the Home Secretary’s senior policy adviser, when constitutional reform was part of my brief. At that time, I was word perfect on the 1997 manifesto commitments on House of Lords reform and I was optimistic about progress. I still support a partially elected second Chamber but, like my noble friend Lady Jay, my level of frustration at the lack of progress has brought me here today. As we know, on step 1 of House of Lords reform in the 1997 manifesto, the Government were waylaid by a plausible salesman. In the world in which we live today, quite a lot of people have been waylaid by plausible salesmen, so we should not feel too badly about that. We are now in very good company.
Not for the first time, it now falls to the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to come to the rescue of a Labour Government. I am old enough to remember when, in late 1977, mandarins across Whitehall eagerly awaited the smoke signals from the Steel-Foot Lib-Lab pact weekly meetings so that we could refurbish our submissions to Ministers. Thirty years on, here he is again doing his best to help a Labour Government who are in a spot of trouble over House of Lords reform. I welcome what he has produced. It is a well crafted and practicable Bill. My noble friend Lord Grocott, who has deep experience of trying to get less well crafted and practicable Bills through this House, has drawn attention to those merits.
In a few crisp words in Clause 10, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, starts the process of reducing the number of hereditary Peers, for which I commend him. If I were in the Minister’s shoes, I would like to think that I would graciously thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for his sensible Bill and for helping us out of a hole, but I have this nagging suspicion that my noble friend will not be saying that at the end of this debate. Looking fairly objectively at Parts 3 and 4, I find it difficult to see that there are any measures in them that would not commend themselves to most Members on all sides of the House. Looking carefully at Part 1, I cannot see how it is other than helpful to the Government in taking forward House of Lords reform. In their manifesto commitment in 2005, the Government committed themselves to an independent commission. In the 1997 manifesto, on House of Lords reform, Labour acknowledged the need to consider having some places reserved by appointment for those who have made an outstanding contribution. Part 1 preserves the principle of appointment by merit, but it also provides a more statutorily based system of appointment to this House than we have now. I would have thought that, in the present circumstances, with concerns in this area, that would be wholly advantageous to the Government.
This House has become more diverse during my time here, but there is still a case for making it more representative. As I understand the wording of Part 1, that could still take place. The only area in which the Bill could be said to fail—as all the parties have failed to come forward with a solution, I do not think that it should be criticised for this—is in progressing the second stage of House of Lords reform. I suggest that we are some way off finding satisfactory answers to the conundrums involved in securing a more democratically elected Chamber. I have not noticed the public clamouring for a solution to reform of House of Lords membership. I detect that they are pretty preoccupied with the state of the economy, the level of public borrowing and the shortage of credit. Labour cannot deliver its 2005 manifesto promise to complete House of Lords reform before the next election and I have seen little evidence from the White Paper onwards that we have a game plan for doing it if we win the next election.
Just to be totally objective, I should add that, like the noble Lord, Lord Steel, I saw the interview that the leader of the Conservative Party gave to Total Politics in its last edition. It makes it absolutely clear—I shall be interested to hear what the shadow Leader of the House says later—that reform of the membership of the House of Lords will not be a priority. In these circumstances, we should support the Bill. I would like to see it progress because I believe that it takes us in the right direction. I hope that the Government will think about supporting it and will be willing to take it over. Whatever else happens, I shall support it at the next stage of the proceedings.
My Lords, we have heard some excellent speeches in support of this measure. There is clearly support on all sides of the House for the provisions of the Bill. We have had only one speech against the Bill so far. My noble friend Lord Caithness did not make an argument about principle and, in any event, his argument was built on a false premise, as Clause 8(2) makes it clear that the commission shall have regard to certain principles; it is not a stipulation or a requirement. Therefore, the basis of what my noble friend said falls.
The arguments for the Bill are compelling and have already been well made. Given that, I feel it appropriate to use the time available to follow the line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his excellent speech and address the arguments used against the Bill. As the noble Lord mentioned, there are those who argue that the Bill does not go far enough and those who argue that it goes too far. The argument that the Bill does not go far enough has been expounded in previous debates and various speakers have already referred to it. The aspect of the argument on which I wish to focus is that advanced by the Lord Chancellor and others that the purpose of the Bill is to prevent wider reforms from being achieved. It is recognised that there is much of merit in the Bill, but we are told that it is a means of stifling attempts to give effect to the Government’s preferred policy for the second Chamber.
Last month, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said in response to a point from the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott:
“On the question of kicking the issue into the long grass, does the noble Lord not recognise that the danger of these incremental approaches to Lords reform is that they will inhibit the move towards fundamental reform? I will take the same view about the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for the same reason”.—[Official Report, 23/1/09; col. 1875.]
It does not take much reflection to recognise that that is an admission of weakness. If the Government’s case is so compelling, why will the Bill inhibit the move towards fundamental reform? That line of argument is tenable only if you believe that the case for wider reform is inherently weak and likely to be undermined by incremental changes. If enactment of this Bill were to undermine or even destroy the political will to achieve further reform, that would be a damning indictment of the case for the Government’s position. If the Government believe that the case that they have made in the White Paper is sound and compelling, the Bill should not be—indeed, cannot be—seen as an impediment to that case. The Government have accepted that there will be no legislation on wider reform in this Parliament. The White Paper envisages change that will take years to deliver. Therefore, the choice is not between the White Paper and the Bill; the choice is between the Bill and doing nothing.
Given that the choice is between the Bill and doing nothing, let me turn to the argument that the Bill goes too far. This House has evolved over centuries. Intrinsic to evolution is change. A static institution often becomes, sooner or later, a dead institution. This House has shown a remarkable capacity for change. Much of that change has been achieved through amending our practices and procedures—in other words, changes that were within our own gift. However, some changes that are necessary to strengthen the House can be achieved only by statute, hence the introduction of the Bill.
One of the principal objections to the Bill appears to be to Part 2, which covers the by-election provision for hereditary Peers. I have dealt with this argument previously. Closing off the by-election option will not prevent hereditary Peers from entering the Chamber. It could actually have the opposite effect. I am regularly told that there are 92 hereditary Peers in the House of Lords. The number is actually greater than 92. The number of Labour hereditary Peers granted life peerages is higher than the number sitting under the provisions of the 1999 Act. The Liberal Democrats also recognise the value of conferring life peerages on hereditary Peers. However, the practice has not been followed on the Conservative Benches or the Cross-Benches, largely because of the number of hereditary Peers remaining on their respective Benches. The by-election option is utilised as the exclusive route for bringing in hereditary Peers. That seems to be seen for what it is: an impediment to, not an opportunity for, bringing in more able hereditary Peers. We have had some very able Members brought in through the by-election route. Their quality has not tailed off in recent by-elections. That suggests that there are talented hereditary Peers still outside the House. However, their chances of entering the House are constrained by the rate at which existing hereditaries in the House die off. If those in the House demonstrate longevity, no one comes in through that route.
My point is that the existing arrangements hinder rather than assist an able hereditary Peer excluded by the 1999 Act who could contribute to the work of the House. If we were to close off the by-election option, such a Peer could apply to the Appointments Commission, or be considered when a new set of working Peers is required. Able and younger hereditaries could come in more quickly and in greater number than is presently the case. In short, closing off the by-election option should be seen as a sign of confidence in the ability of excluded hereditaries, not a means of preventing them from coming into the House. If one has confidence that there are able hereditary Peers worthy of membership of the House, one should embrace the provisions of the Bill, not oppose them.
Other arguments could be raised against points made against the Bill, but I wanted to address what I see as the two principal claims levelled against it. I do not believe that either is sustainable. One can easily be in favour of fundamental reform and support the Bill. One can be in favour of ensuring that able hereditary Peers have an opportunity to enter this House and support the Bill. Essentially, it is an issue of confidence. Those who want wider reform, or who want able hereditaries to enter the House, and support the Bill have confidence in their position.
I have yet to hear a compelling case against the Bill that overcomes the objections that I have advanced. The Bill is necessary, perhaps more so now than before, and the case for it is compelling. It has my complete support.
My Lords, I am one of those who previously opposed the Bill on the grounds that removing some flaws from the present system would diminish the chances of full reform involving conversion of your Lordships’ House into a mainly elected House. I must say that I have changed my mind on that. I make it clear that I remain one of the minority of your Lordships who want a mainly elected House, but I am persuaded that it would make sense to proceed towards reform step by step. That has worked in the past. Both the creation of life peerages in 1958 and the removal of most hereditary Members by the House Of Lords Act 1999 have been important steps forward, and the Bill could be another step.
However, the Bill has some defects that need correction, perhaps especially in Part 1. I strongly welcome putting the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis, but Clauses 1 and 4 give the commission far more powers than it now has. The Bill gives very little guidance as to how those powers are to be exercised. In particular, there is no formula for the proportion of Members appointed from non-party nominees and those appointed from party nominees. Nor is there any formula for how party Members should be allocated between the different parties. Those are controversial issues that, if the Bill is to be enacted, should be on its face and not left to the commission or to the Prime Minister of the day.
I welcome Parts 2, 3 and 4, but they are incomplete because the Bill does not provide for the suspension of Members or for expulsion of a Member, except one who receives a sentence of more than one year. Recent events have shown that stronger sanctions than naming and shaming are needed. I must say that the legal situation here is not clear. It seems probable that Members cannot constitutionally be expelled except by an Act of Parliament at present and doubtful whether power to suspend membership exists, at least beyond the end of the Session in which the order of suspension is made. In saying that, I bear in mind an article written yesterday in the Times by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, which takes a different view. Great as my respect is for him as a lawyer, I do not entirely agree with that.
I understand that there is pressure from some Members of your Lordships’ House for sanctions to be a matter for Standing Orders of the House, not for legislation, because the courts could not in fact challenge the Standing Orders, even if they were constitutionally dubious. That would be unwise. I am not certain that that argument would succeed. The reputation of your Lordships’ House would be better served by statute rather than by Standing Orders, which could be revoked by a decision of your Lordships’ House alone.
Finally, Clause 11 allows voluntary retirement from your Lordships’ House. That does not go far enough. Not many Members of your Lordships’ House will choose to take voluntary retirement. As I, speaking as a geriatric, am all too well aware, and as we all know, your Lordships’ House is the best geriatric day care centre in the country. We need a time limit on our appointments, whether they be political or non-political. We need a time limit, not an age limit. It should be a long period—say, 15 years—possibly with the power for the commission to authorise an extension in appropriate cases.
All of us may have—most of us have—valuable experience or expertise, but as time goes on we get more remote from that experience and expertise. We must remember that most Members of your Lordships’ House reach here in late middle age, at a time when we are no longer employed in full-time jobs. We therefore pass our use-by date. We should recognise that and accept that there should be a time limit to membership. Nor, looking at it from the other direction, do we want someone to be appointed at the age of 35 and then have an automatic right to continue to sit for another 40 or 50 years. That is important when we consider that we may wish to appoint other, younger people for a limited period.
Those issues can be discussed in Committee. My noble friend Lord Steel has done a great service by introducing the Bill, as has my noble friend Lord Oakeshott by introducing his Bill on the taxation status of Members. I am therefore very happy to support the Bill at Second Reading.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble lord, Lord Steel, on his stamina in bringing the Bill forward in substantially the same form for what I think is a third time. So far, despite support from all parts of the House, that has proved a pretty thankless task concerning the Government's response, which must be the pre-condition of its making progress in this House, let alone the other place, but it is to be hoped that his persistence will be better rewarded on this occasion and that the Government will want to give the Bill a warmer welcome today.
The Bill should certainly be supported. For a start, all the things it contains are things the Government want: a statutory Appointments Commission, an end to further accessions based on heredity, and the possibility for Members to retire from the House and for the House to exclude those sentenced to more than a year's imprisonment. To be sure, it does not contain all the things the Government would like, but it is equally clear that the Government cannot get all they would like—not in this Parliament, anyway. The Government have made it clear that there is no question of enacting the comprehensive package that they would like until after a general election. Mr Cameron has described major House of Lords reform as a third-term issue. In their manifesto for the 2005 general election, the Government promised to complete the reform of the House of Lords. The only way in which they are going to be able to leave a legacy that goes any way beyond the removal of the bulk of the hereditaries in 1999 is by picking up this Bill, or something like it, and running with it.
There is broad consensus in favour of the measures that the Bill contains. It does not create any impediment to more comprehensive reform at a later stage, but it is the only practical way of making progress with the reform agenda at the present time. As it is, 10 years have already elapsed since the Government’s last and only attempt at Lords reform. The Government have conceded that it will be 2014 at the earliest before anything can be implemented if we wait for the comprehensive package, and others have speculated that it could well be much longer. This is the central case for supporting the Bill now, and it is unanswerable. If there are detailed aspects of the Bill that people do not like, it can easily be amended in Committee.
Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has already amended his earlier attempts in order to take on board constructive criticisms. However, the process of never-ending amendment should not be used as a device for killing the Bill. That was plainly what was beginning to happen the last time the Bill had a brief outing in Committee, and I am bound to say that it did not show the House at its best. It is even more important now in the light of recent events that the House should be seen to be adopting a responsible approach to putting its house in order and getting rid of the more obvious anachronisms in its constitution, which can easily be tackled.
The case that an interim package of widely supported and sensible reforms should not be held up indefinitely pending the enactment of root-and-branch legislation was unanswerable the last time that we made it, and it is even more unanswerable today. Things have moved on. The reasons for saying this are threefold. First, the Government have published a further White Paper as a result of discussions in a cross-party group that was more like the magic circle than a genuine process of consultation. Many of its conclusions were indecisive, the response that it received could be described as “underwhelmed”, to put it mildly, and the Government have not felt confident enough of such proposals as there were in the White Paper for a comprehensive package of reform to move to a debate on them in either House of Parliament.
Secondly, the recent allegations of misconduct in this House have pushed the question of House of Lords reform up the political agenda and made it imperative that action be taken without delay to remove at least the more glaring defects in our constitution. If the Government have particular measures that they wish to introduce to deal with this situation, the Bill presents just the legislative vehicle that they need.
Finally, the Public Administration Select Committee in another place has published two reports strongly endorsing the case presented by the sponsors of the Bill. I did not want to weary the House with lengthy quotations, and I want to weary it even less now that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has quoted from the report, but I will quote a couple of passages from the first of the Select Committee’s reports, Propriety and Peerages, which it published in December 2007. One is specific and one is more general. The first relates to the specific need to put the Appointments Commission on to a statutory basis. At paragraph 135, the report says:
“One of the major lessons to be drawn from the events of the last two years is that the rules for entry to the House of Lords are far too ad hoc. They must be clear; they must be widely agreed; and they must be of unquestionable legitimacy. In short, they must be statutory. We call upon the Government to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to put the House of Lords Appointments Commission onto a statutory footing”.
In support of the more general proposition, I was going to quote briefly two paragraphs, but as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has already quoted the passage about running repairs not being held up pending agreement on elections, I shall simply quote from paragraph 180, in which the Select Committee said:
“We believe that we propose a package that can be supported by all major parties—many of its elements have already been supported—and by those who have very different views of the future of the second chamber. We hope that recent events will provide the impetus to make these proposals, much discussed but never implemented, the political priority they need to be”.
If the Government do not respond positively to these calls, they are in serious danger of making the best the enemy of the good.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on his expertise and diplomacy, one result of which is that, for the first time, all the Back-Bench speakers support one set of propositions. That is remarkable. I may stand to be corrected, but I think noble Lords will find that all nine Labour speakers will speak along the same lines and that they reflect the great majority. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be able to say in a few minutes that that is true of those on his Benches. This reflects the fact that we have been developing this consensus for three years. The majority of the Labour group decided that we should write to the Prime Minister. His response to our question about what should be done was that we should go away and find a consensus, which we did; so that is the position.
I was very interested in the line of argument of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who is not in his place. He is the representative of the Bourbon tendency, in close alliance, I have to say, with our own Front-Bench representatives of the Trotskyite tendency. After all, both of them have in common the fact that neither of them actually believes in incrementalism or even in implementing before the next election, apparently, the last Labour Party manifesto, which referred to the creation of a statutory Appointments Commission and action on the 92 hereditaries, on which we were ready to give the softest possible interpretation: in other words, the suspension of by-elections.
People on the Front Bench may say that we now have to wait for the next manifesto, but why should we believe what is said in the next manifesto if we do not believe—I am thankful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on this—that it will be as sacrosanct as the last manifesto?
The reason for not waiting for the next general election is surely that after the election there will be an even greater dilemma about what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, describes as the need to wait for stage 2, even though it is, as we all now know—and we have been at it for 10 years—like waiting for Godot: the doctrine of unripe time.
My noble friend Lord Grocott said that this was a well constructed Bill and that we should just get on with it. Those on the Front Bench can no longer sustain the doctrine that you cannot do anything until you have done everything. I have to say to my very good friend the Minister that the platform that he is standing on, or at any rate has been standing on until today, is collapsing under his feet. I speak with some authority on this; I spend half my life standing on collapsing platforms, so I recognise one when I see one.
On a practical point, which, again, arises from a question from the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who, unfortunately, is not now in his place, I wish to clarify one aspect of the work of the statutory Appointments Commission where there is a serious and dangerous possible misunderstanding. I just wish to get on the record what I think we are talking about. None of us on the party-whipped Benches, which I think is true of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches—I stand to be corrected—believes that, as hinted in paragraph 8.32 of the White Paper, it would be up to the statutory Appointments Commission in any way to pick and choose between candidates for the whipped seats. How could that be? It certainly could not be true in the Labour Party. There would be all sorts of accusations about choosing right-wing or left-wing candidates and about seven people being able to make decisions on the whole second Chamber. I hope that the Minister will tell us that that is a narrow point in the White Paper which needs to be rewritten.
There are many ways in which the statutory Appointments Commission could participate, along with the political parties, in looking at how people get to be here. I have written extensively on how this could work as regards the Labour Party being more transparent, albeit with some confidentiality in regard to the final stage after the trawl, but that is for another day. It is time to say, in reverse of what I said a few minutes ago, that the time is now right to get on with it.
My Lords, both main parties have now signed up to the reform of this House following the next general election. Therefore, it is perhaps a bit surprising that the Bill is coming from one party which probably has no chance of forming the next Government.
I am an elected hereditary Peer. I remain here due to an undertaking given by this Government to ensure that second-stage reform comes about. I am also here to ensure that when it does, the role and power of the second Chamber, whether elected or appointed, is not diminished. I believe that the Government will not dishonour themselves and break that undertaking given by the former Lord Chancellors, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Irvine of Lairg and Lord Falconer of Thornton. It was also confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, at Second Reading. There may be a very bizarre replacement system for those of us who finally succumb and move on to an even higher chamber. Although it works—admittedly only just—it was never meant to be permanent. But the Government’s delay in handling reform is the reason that it still exists.
I believe that the official Lib Dems’ policy is for an elected second Chamber. But one cannot help but have the sneaking feeling—I am sure that I am probably wrong—that so many of the colleagues of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, support this Bill because they really want the status quo—an appointed second Chamber.
Given the White Paper published last year by the Government, with its menu of options, what benefit could this Bill achieve if enacted as a short-term solution? Would it make this House more effective? I think that the answer must be no. Would it be viewed as more representative? I think that the answer is hardly. Would the reputation of this House improve? That is open to debate. That does not mean that in the long term parts of this Bill would not be an improvement. The Bill supports a statutory Appointments Commission. The current statutory Appointments Commission now works well. We have a chairman who attends this House. A fully elected second Chamber would not need an Appointments Commission. The Bill offers a retirement system, but that does not add much to the current arrangements except to disbar those who have not attended for a Session without a good excuse. It does not cut the number of Peers sitting in this House.
The European Parliament has debarred any person sitting in another Parliament. This Bill gives temporary leave of absence so that a Peer elected to the European Parliament could return, but it fails to extend the same principle of disbarring the attendance of any Peer who is a Member of the Scottish Parliament—even the noble Lord, Lord Steel, as convener—or the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly. This House and this Government should consider that. There is a constitutional debate that we must have about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which was largely ignored in the Government’s White Paper. That is a huge disappointment.
The final part of the Bill is to disbar those who have been convicted of a serious offence. I have no problem with that, except it refers to banning for life. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, supported the principle of rehabilitation of offenders in society. In the past, this House has benefited from the expertise of those who have served Her Majesty in one way or the other.
I accept that reform of this House is long overdue, if for no other reason than that I have been here for 35 years. The Government’s White Paper sadly did not offer a clear way forward, but it offered a menu of option: fully elected, part-elected, under one system or another. Unless the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is able to tell us the Labour Party’s preferred option, we will have to wait to see its manifesto. Unless there is a major shift of opinion by both major parties in another place, we will move to a fully elected or partially elected second Chamber. The change may be instant after a general election or it may be incremental. I suspect that it will be incremental. But who knows? It may be in the first term, the second or even the third, but that depends on who wins the next election.
If it is the second or third term, that is the moment we will have to see the changes the then Government propose are required in this House to take it through to that stage. We should wait to see what is required, which is important. My party must not shirk from the debate we must have on our policy for this House, which needs to be set out in the manifesto. There is a majority in this House in favour of an appointed Chamber. There is a majority in both major parties in another place for an elected Chamber.
That is not true.
My Lords, it is true that there is a majority in another place for an elected second Chamber. That is a fact and it is how they voted. It is an impasse that can be resolved only by a general election. That point answers the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and the right reverend Prelate. I welcome the opportunity given to me by the noble Lord, Lord Lea, to join the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and my noble friend Lord Caithness on the Trotskyist Benches and I look forward to Committee stage of this Bill.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak once again in support of this Bill and I hope that this time it will make further progress. Stage 1 of House of Lords reform took place in 1999 and on the whole has been a great success. This Bill, as has been stated by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has four main purposes, which are aimed at tidying up a few perceived weaknesses in the present structure. The Bill in no way seeks to influence the debate on whether the House of Lords should remain a fully appointed House, as I hope most of us would wish, or whether it should be abolished in favour of an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected senate. That is a battle for another day.
Given the large number of speakers in this debate, I wish to raise only one issue, which I raised at Second Reading last year. The Bill expresses,
“the need to achieve a membership not exceeding that of the House of Commons”.
Given that we are all living longer, it will be difficult to achieve this while still catering for a reasonable number of new annual appointments. With the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I agree that the best way of dealing with this problem would be to institute for all Members of the House a fixed period of service of, say, 20 years. A transitional timetable spread over four or five years would need to be put in place for existing Members in order to avoid a mass exodus of the 190 or so existing Members who have already served more than 20 years. But this matter is for the Committee stage and I will raise it again on that occasion.
One final point: while accepting that the present system of elections for hereditary Peers to fill vacancies should be ended, I support the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that a special case should be made for the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain.
We are accused of being unrepresentative, but the great strength of the House of Lords is that its Members have first-hand experience and expertise in a very wide range of subjects and that they represent the interests of those subjects in the House. The Bill seeks to strengthen further the workings of the House and it deserves our support.
My Lords, the circumstances in which we debate the Bill today are quite different from those in which we debated it last year. There is now common agreement that there is no realistic possibility of a resolution in this Parliament of the great issue of whether there should be elections to the second Chamber. This House is in a reputational crisis. Wisely, a number of noble Lords who previously opposed the Bill have concluded, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, put it, that the best is the enemy of the good. There is no longer any respectable case for obstructing the reforms in the Bill that are necessary for the good functioning and good reputation of the House of Lords, of Parliament and of politics as a whole. If the reputation and good functioning of Parliament are in question, I put it to my noble friend the Minister that the reputation and good functioning of government are in question.
Members of the Government know that the reforms put forward in this Bill and in the Bill tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott—reforms which might perhaps be spliced into this Bill—are urgently needed. The Government control the parliamentary timetable and they must make this Bill their own. If they fail to do so, they will be guilty of defending the indefensible and of letting Parliament and the country down.
The present non-statutory Appointments Commission has to make up its rules as it goes along. I imagine that that is embarrassing for its members and creates practical difficulties for them. It is not tolerable that they should have to continue to work in such ill defined circumstances and with their duties so hazy.
It is argued by those who favour elections to the Second Chamber that an appointed House lacks legitimacy. The detailed provisions of Part 1 of the Bill address that issue usefully. The commission, of course, would not only be created by Parliament but its membership would be nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons as well as by the Lord Speaker. The criteria that the commission would have to use and the guidelines that would be published would be determined by Parliament. In these ways, government patronage and any suspicion of undue government influence over the workings of the commission would be removed.
The broad shape and balance of an appointed House would have to be approved by Parliament as set out in Clause 8(2). An appointed House, if it is not already legitimate by virtue of the knowledge, experience and diversity of its Members and the quality of the work that they do—and those characteristics do confer legitimacy—would have an added legitimacy imparted by parliamentary ratification of the procedures for appointment to the House.
The proposal gradually to exclude the hereditary Peers is opposed with passion, and undoubtedly in good faith, by a very small number of Members of your Lordships’ House. But I ask those noble Earls, noble Viscounts and a small number of other noble and idiosyncratic Peers to tell us fairly and squarely how they believe that they can justify membership of the legislature in the 21st century on the basis of heredity. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, promised us that he would be ready to bespatter the Bill with amendments—no one, I am afraid, will be able to persuade him to forego his right to obfuscate the argument and to frustrate the Bill by taking advantage of those procedural opportunities—but I simply put it to him that, surely, on any reasonable assessment, these reforms are substantial enough to be stage 2 of reform. Those who oppose Part 2 of the Bill should tackle the issue of heredity square-on in debate and give the House their reasons. To do otherwise would be too frivolous and would fail to rise to the seriousness of the situation.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, gave the House important advice on Part 3 of the Bill concerning permanent leave of absence. She warned us that there is an imminent and serious problem about the increased size of the House, and it is plain that we need to take urgent steps to deal with it. We need a dignified procedure for retirement from the House by Members who have served long years and are, perhaps, in failing health, as well as to make way for a new generation of Members. These are difficult issues, not least because some noble Lords who joined the House when they were relatively young have given long years of hard work and excellent public service, unsalaried and unpensionable. More thought needs to be put into the practicalities of how we devise a retirement scheme of the kind we need.
The issues that have been recently before the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests and the Privileges Committee of your Lordships’ House are not the issues that are dealt with in Part 4 of the Bill—nor should they be dealt with in this Bill. Where the House may judge that an individual Member of the House has disgraced himself or brought the House into disrepute, the House should deal with that by means of its own disciplines. I do not believe that statute or the intervention of some external body is an appropriate way to deal with that. Our tradition of self-regulation is very precious and very important to the character and the quality of the House. However, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is right to include in the Bill a provision that a Peer convicted of a serious criminal offence should be expelled from the House. As he said, it simply brings us into line with the House of Commons.
The whole Bill is needed, and it is needed urgently.
My Lords, I support the Bill. Since we debated the original Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on 30 November 2007, we have had a White Paper. To say that that has been greeted with wild enthusiasm, or even to describe it as a damp squib, would be a gross overstatement. That is not surprising because, as we well know, to a large extent it was influenced by the so called cross-party group, which met in secret, has refused to publish its minutes and is in no way representative of the bulk of Members of this House. Even the Public Administration Select Committee of the other place, in its response to that White Paper, deals with it in a matter of about two-and-a-half pages when the White Paper consists of something like 130 pages, which reflects the general reaction to it.
On the broader issue, the Government are placing far too much emphasis on the vote which took place in the House of Commons. It was originally advertised as an indicative vote but, the moment they finally managed, at the second or third attempt, to get a decision out of the House of Commons, that decision was then adopted as if it were Gospel. I do not think that that is true—the vote was partly the result of tactical voting and so on—but, at all events, the vote took place in this Parliament. It is absolutely clear that one Parliament cannot bind another, and it is equally clear that nothing is going to happen on this issue until the next Parliament, so to treat that decision of the House of Commons in the way it is being treated by the Government is completely wrong. It is also the case that the matters in this Bill are becoming increasingly urgent.
I take up, as did the noble Lord who has just spoken, the point made by the noble Baroness the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers: it is likely that after the next general election there will be a substantial increase in the number of Members of this place. The Bill represents the last opportunity we have of giving those who wish to retire an opportunity to do so; it gives us a certain amount of headroom. We shall not have an opportunity to do that in time for the influx of Members which, as the noble Baroness rightly said, is likely to take place after the next election. That clause in particular can be regarded as urgent.
I turn to the other propositions in the Bill, particularly the proposal for an independent appointments commission. This matter was dealt with in the House of Commons committee report to which I have just referred. The committee was desperate that something should be done in this area and put forward various proposals whereby something might be done on a non-statutory basis. It hoped that its proposals would,
“reassure a jaded public in the wake of a drawn-out scandal”—
that is, the whole question of cash for peerages and so on. The Bill, though, gives that Select Committee in another place a legislative opportunity to put the matter right, which is a much better way of dealing with the issue of an independent appointments commission.
The committee points out, incidentally, that Mr Brown has changed his view between one White Paper and the next with regard to the extent to which the relationship with an independent appointments commission should be a matter for the Prime Minister and to what extent a matter for Parliament. The points the committee makes in that regard are important. We can make progress on that front as well and, because of the effect of the scandal, the sooner we can do so, the better.
The third item in the noble Lord’s Bill is the removal of the by-election system. I do not think anyone who lived through it, or anyone who reads the extremely good House of Lords Library note on what happens then, can really think that this is something we ought to perpetuate. It was clearly intended to be a short-term, temporary measure and it has outlived its usefulness. The 92 hereditaries were to remain in order to be sure that stage 2 took place in the short term, and the system has clearly failed in that. I take all the points that have been made about defining “stage 2” and so on, but this is a measure of sufficient importance to be regarded as stage 2, although it will not inhibit whatever more fundamental reform may happen at a later stage.
The Government seem now to be replying on saying, “We’ll have to see what’s in the manifesto”. The whole doctrine of manifesto commitments is in shreds. Time and again we see things introduced that were not in the manifesto while things that were in the manifesto do not happen at all. I hope it will not be felt that this is an issue of great importance for the Conservative Party manifesto, but it seems that that manifesto will be very innovative with regard to timing: it will say that we will deal with reform in the Parliament after the Parliament after next. That would be an interesting innovation, but it appears to be the present position of my party leadership.
The Bill is a substantial measure. It increasingly has overwhelming support in this place, and I would have thought it would be equally welcomed in another place. We hear constantly about evolution and the role played by Charles Darwin. This is an opportunity to carry forward the evolution of this House. That is the right way to proceed with reform.
My Lords, I have to declare an interest: I like Mr Straw. I worked for him when he was Foreign Secretary and enjoyed the experience. I was therefore shocked and surprised to read in the paper this week that when 200 of his friends, not including me, received an e-mail purporting to come from Mr Straw, lost in darkest Africa minus his wallet, none of them sent him any money. I can only assume that the reason for this was the rumour that he is still opposed to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood.
I have very little to say because all the important points I would have made in this debate have already been made by wiser heads. On the substance of future reform, I cannot support a hybrid solution because of its inherent instability. I could certainly support an all elected solution, but the Government must first deal with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that the relationship between the two Chambers would change dramatically if we were elected. If we were a body of elected politicians we would start behaving politically, and the conventions under which we graciously concede would be no more. I think that those conventions are valuable—we are essentially a revising Chamber—and that the House of Commons believes the same. At present, the impossible is being believed; the circle is being squared. The Government need to address that.
I have little to say about the Bill except how much I admire the persistence of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. There are three points that I would want us to consider in Committee. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and unlike the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, I would think it as well to complement the provision for exclusion if convicted of a serious criminal offence with the possibility of exclusion if found guilty of a serious breach of the rules of this House. I understand the noble Lord’s point that we do not need to do that by statute and we can do it under our own rules, but the public perception is important here. The public do not think that our own rules are always terribly stringent or that we apply them as stringently as perhaps we should, so I see an advantage in doing it by statute.
Secondly, I go with the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Cobbold, in believing that the sensible provision for ensuring that we do not grow too big, but that new blood comes in, would work better if we had a term limit; I believe that a term limit would be better than a fixed term.
No one has made my third point, and probably no one would unless I made it. I speak as a Scotsman who does not regret 1603 or 1707. It would be quite good if the injunction on the Appointments Commission to have regard to the diversity of the population of the United Kingdom were complemented by a similar injunction to have regard to regional and national balances within the kingdom. It is not uncommon in bicameral legislatures for one legislature to operate on the principle of representation in strict proportion to population and the other to have some weighting to the periphery—think Senate and House in the United States. That could be useful to us. I make these three suggestions in a constructive spirit. I support the Bill as it stands.
I have one further suggestion, which I also make in a constructive spirit, and I put it to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford; it is a point that I would like the Lords spiritual to think about, although not for this Bill. Suppose the Bill were enacted and everyone else in this Chamber came here via the route of the Appointments Commission. Are we sure that it would be right that there should be one group that did not—that came by a different route? I know of no comparable representation in any other modern legislature. I hasten to add that I am not arguing for disestablishment. I am not an Anglican; I am not an Englishman; I have absolutely no right to a view on establishment, although I note that the established church in Scotland is not represented in this place. It is just a point on which, over time, the Lords spiritual might do well to reflect.
I was absolutely thrilled to read in this morning’s Times a very hard story about Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor being about to join us when he retires as Archbishop of Westminster. What splendid news; it is a very firm story. It states: “Cardinal set to be the first Roman Catholic bishop in the Lords since 16th century”. “The Times has learnt”, it says: the Times has learnt by reading the Tablet. But if you read the Tablet, you find that the story is slightly less hard:
“So when the Cardinal retires as Archbishop of Westminster would he consider putting him in the House of Lords?”,
the editor asks of the Prime Minister, and Mr Brown,
“laughs, fiddles with his tie, and doesn’t rule it out”.
I do not ask the Minister to have a total conversion when he replies to this debate. If he has a total conversion, it would be splendid—when the sinner repenteth, all heaven rejoices—but it would be enough if he would laugh and fiddle with his tie. If that is good enough for the Times, it is good enough for me. I support the Bill.
My Lords, this match has now entered its second half and the current score is 18-2 to the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and his supporters, and I have no reason to believe that the balance will change very much as we go to the end of the debate. I congratulate him very warmly on at last winning over your Lordships' House with his perseverance and patience and with the excellent speech that he made in introducing the Bill earlier.
I should like to take your Lordships back 10 years, to the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999—which, coincidentally, was about the time when I joined your Lordships. The House then was about to embark on changes to its composition which were more profound than at any time in its recent history except for the passing of the Life Peerages Act 1958. It is fair to say that nobody seemed sure then, including my friends on the government Front Bench, what the 1999 Act would mean for the effectiveness, legitimacy and standing of this House. The concept of a House in which no one party or grouping had anything approaching a majority, or indeed even a third of the membership, was a novelty, as was the idea that the Government would sometimes need to win the argument before winning a vote to get their business through.
Those novelties have now become established principles for this House and for future Houses. For as long as we remain a revising Chamber, subsidiary to the ultimate will of the House of Commons, no political party can dominate its membership. That principle is enshrined in Clause 8(2)(b) of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel.
The Bill also has the merit of tidying up a number of the loose ends left around since the 1999 reform. It deals with what I think we must regard as the quaint hereditary by-election provisions. When I go to schools on the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme, I have to confess that I find it hard to justify that it is possible, as has happened with vacancies in the ranks of Liberal Democrat and Labour hereditaries, for a contest to take place where there may be 11 candidates for a seat in the House of Lords but just three voters.
The Bill also makes secure the lifetime membership in this House of the 92 hereditaries, and I have no problem with that. But I am equally convinced that heredity should no longer be a criterion for membership of this legislature or, indeed, of any legislature. As we heard earlier from the noble Lord, Lord Norton, there is no bar to hereditary Peers being appointed to this House in future. Indeed, it is worth making the point that the other place has among its ranks—elected ranks—a marquis and two viscounts who, prior to 1999, would have been Members of this House.
The 1999 Act established another important principle, which this Bill takes forward, and that is to separate the peerage of the United Kingdom from membership of this House. Outside Parliament, it is up to each of us individually to decide whether to use the titles bestowed on us by heredity or appointment. It should also be possible for us to choose whether to remain Members of this House. I therefore welcome the provisions in Part 3 which allow for retirement. There are powerful practical reasons for this, too. Apart from the intervention of the Grim Reaper, voluntary retirement provides the only means of reducing the size of the House and creating space for new appointments. I shall not make the point that I was going to make about what will happen after the general election, because the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, have both covered it. However, if we have a retirement provision, it will at least make some room for new creations post the election.
The latest White Paper has not had a very good press in this House, or indeed anywhere else. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to hear in this debate that the cosy consensus among the Front Benches which led to its production has at last fallen apart. It would have been helpful to know how such an impressive group of highly intelligent and distinguished men and women in both Houses and from all three parties could possibly have produced such a dismally unimpressive document. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, points out, we are not being allowed to find out, because the Government rejected my Freedom of Information Act request for the minutes of the working party to be published. What we do know is that the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, can be exempted from any criticism for her part in those proceedings. It is now apparent that it was she who best represented the views of the Back Benches in all parts of this House, and I thank her for it.
I am really looking forward to the speech of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, to whom this rather toxic chalice seems again to have passed. I shall not mind hearing him say that the Government wish to keep open the possibility that, at some future date when a consensus has been achieved that encompasses both this House and the other place, there will be a serious debate on the future of Parliament. That debate will need to embrace such matters as the role of Parliament in its relations with the devolved Parliament and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords; and the strengthening of parliamentary arrangements for scrutinising and calling the Executive to account. It may be that at the end of that process there is an agreement that there should be a new constitutional settlement between the two Houses and that this House is replaced by an elected senate with new powers of scrutiny and, I suspect, supply. But that is all some way off. The fact that we may have such a debate at some point in the future is no reason for not proceeding now with this Bill, the provisions of which are long overdue.
My Lords, I attended this debate not to speak but to listen. I was greatly impressed by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, because he hit the nail straight on the head; that is, that an evolutionary process is our constitutional tradition. It is evolutionary and, in this context, cannot evolve in one House only without the other being considered. That is and was the reason for my previous opposition, which I shall not dream of repeating; it is boring anyway, and in any event most people know the reasons. However, I shall take one point quickly out of the hat. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, is in his place. He knows that I regard a deal as a deal and why I stand by it. So does most of the House, and there is no object in going over that again. I am only grateful to the Government for having kept their word.
I am beginning to wonder whether I should be speaking at all. As for the 15-year term, I have been here for 28 years and on any age requirement, I would have been a candidate for imposed retirement some time ago. So I speak with some hesitation and deference to your Lordships. I shall not be long, because most of what has been said is, frankly, open to judgment. It has been said that it is not necessarily conclusive. There was one speech on the commission made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, with whom I usually disagree—in fact, I disagreed with him on practically everything else he said—but on his assessment of the commission, I think that he is absolutely right. I am very fortunate to be able to use what he said in aid of my view on that.
On leave of absence, I am not repeating what I said earlier, but it is related also to the convictions for criminal offences. We should basically retain that within our own standing orders. There is no justification or reason for us to surrender our entitlement in that regard. Indeed, there is every reason why we should retain it, because if you are going to have severe penalties—the time has probably come when we have to have them—there should be a form of judicial assessment on the gravity, the circumstances, what has been done, how it happened and the quality of evidence. I will not go into this in detail, but the essence of my argument is that it is not fair to deal with people without a form of judicial or quasi-judicial determination of the merits, the severity and what should be done. I served on the Privileges Committee for some 12 years; four Law Lords also served on it and I hope that they still do because they are essential on this committee. When the new arrangements are made, I hope that some account will be taken of that. If you try to do it by statute, you can make rules but you cannot ensure that they are fairly applied. That is the main thing that I have to say. It affects the provisions on absence and convictions.
I do not think that I can add any more, other than this. There has been this cross-party affair for three years. They have been beavering away for three years and now have the assistance and support of a large number of Labour Back-Benchers. I doubt whether they have the support of many more—it is a matter about which one wonders. In a way, there was an assessment. I did not realise until I retired from it—I went to the early meetings—but a group of people was determined to put forward its point of view to pre-empt government business. I am totally against that; I think that it is wrong. I do not think much of this Government but I do not think that their business should be pre-empted.
Why do noble Lords say that is a question of doing something or doing nothing? It is far better to do nothing than to pre-empt what will happen at the end of a very short time when some other Government could be in power, even a Liberal Government. Anything can happen—you do not know. I think that the Government are dead right and I support their view. As a Back-Bencher on the Conservative Benches, I feel a bit awkward supporting the government Front Bench, but I think that they are totally right.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity that my noble friend’s Bill gives us all to keep up the pressure for what was known when the House of Lords Act 1999 was debated here as the stage 2 reform.
Some may say that the Bill is a device for delay, but that is not my noble friend’s intention. Indeed, he voted for 100 per cent elected membership of this House and not for the 80 per cent compromise. So he is even more hardline than I am on that matter, and that is quite difficult.
The provisions of the Bill are, in my view, a stepping stone to more radical reform. The Bill is not a desert island on which we should now sit in a state of complacency. I, too, believe in evolution. After all, real reform is now the settled will of a formidable trio: the public, a majority in the House of Commons and government policy. This is a very good moment to flush out the Conservative position. There were occasions during previous debates when, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said,
“this House will suffer if the hereditary Peers are taken out”.—[Official Report, 29/3/1999; col. 104.]
He has explained his point more fully and I think it is very valid. But it is quite a long way from what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, told the readers of the Guardian on 15 July 2008:
“Labour are edging closer to established Conservative proposals for a largely elected Senate”.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is wonderful in his escapology—he is, indeed, the Houdini of this House, so I await his speech with interest.
It may be that in your Lordships’ House not all that many people agree with the Liberal Democrats’ position, but it is at least clear. Not only did we have a unanimous view in the House of Commons, we had a substantial majority in this House too. We believe that the House has improved in terms of both its assertive nature and its deliberative nature since 1999. It has become more assertive because Peers appointed here have been more likely to attend and take an active part in proceedings than those who simply landed here as an accident of birth. It has become more deliberative because, as has been said several times this morning, no one party has a majority. I believe that to be a good thing. But what the House has gained in assertiveness, unfortunately, it has not gained in increased democratic legitimacy.
Given the recent events that have concentrated on specific cases, we may be forgetting the previous concerns about loans for Lords; cash for amendments may have taken up too much of the media’s attention. It is very important to look back at that as well because the way in which people come here is clearly a matter of public concern, not just of housekeeping in your Lordships' House.
In that context, we should look again at the report of the Public Administration Committee at the other end of the building. At the end of 2007, it reported:
“A peerage is more than just an honour … an honour is a reflection of past achievement, whereas a peerage ought to be an appointment for future service”.
Amen to that, as I am sure Members of your Lordships' House would say. That is surely sage advice. I hope we will get an opportunity to divorce once and for all membership of Parliament from the honours system.
On a separate point, which has been touched on repeatedly by a number of your Lordships, I sat 10 years ago on the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. We concluded:
“The House of Commons has power to suspend its Members, and it would be anomalous and undesirable if this were not the position in the House of Lords”.
“Anomalous and undesirable”—those are not sufficient for the present situation. I am not clear, with all respect to my noble friend, whether Part 4 is really adequate to deal with that question, as my noble friend Lord Goodhart said.
When the Minister responds, I hope that he will say whether he, too, thinks that this Bill is a stepping stone towards the Government’s past commitments. I recall that my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank said, back in 1999,
“if I were a betting man I would lay long odds that … there will still be hereditary Peers in this House in 10 years' time and possibly for much longer”.—[Official Report, 11/5/1999; col. 1100.]
I do not know whether he has been able to cash in, but he ought to. We were not party to the agreement in 1999 about the hereditaries and the by-elections, but I recall that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, who is no longer in his seat, said very firmly:
“It really is to stand logic and experience on its head to imagine that this Government, with their great popular majority and their manifesto pledge, would tolerate 10 per cent of the hereditary peerage remaining for long. The 10 per cent will go when stage two has taken place and their presence is a guarantee that stage two will take place”.—[Official Report, 11/5/1999; col. 1092.]
Well, perhaps the Minister could tell us where stage 2 is. One thing is quite clear: this Bill may be stage one and a half—and a very useful stage one and a half—but it is not stage 2, as it was in the minds of all the participants in the debates of 1999.
We have had umpteen reports, and I have contributed to some myself, but really we have to move on. No more reports, no more deliberating and no more pausing for reflection will change the basic truth that was so clearly elucidated in one very serious broadsheet earlier this month:
“Peers are unaccountable, unelected and unsackable”.
That is the problem we face. Although my noble friend’s Bill makes some very welcome modifications to the present arrangements, the reputation of this House and of Parliament will not be saved by tinkering.
The Government’s White Paper makes proposals which I believe form the basis for a serious move forwards. They are now fully formed proposals; they are on the table and are being carefully looked at by a large number of Members of your Lordships' House as well as those in the other place. My noble friend is the first to accept that limited changes in his Bill cannot substitute for more comprehensive reform—for the completion of the process, which has been referred to again this morning. Yes, they have been carefully agreed across the parties and from both Houses, and they fulfil the promises of 1999 and the votes of the Commons. Today I have heard the echo that we still surely believe that the House of Commons has primacy in this Parliament.
I do not believe that we can leave things as they are. This Bill is helpful, and I support it, as I know my noble friends do as well. But it does not add up to stage 2, to complete reform; it will not remove the toxic sense of patronage, jobs for the boys and peerages for the donors. We cannot leave things as they are. Any Member of your Lordships' House who thinks otherwise is surely living in a fool’s paradise.
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Steel, introduced his Bill, he pointed out that this was a Second Reading for the second time. He also referred to the need to make running repairs to our House and that any repairs made did not pre-empt any further progress and evolution in how this House is constituted. It struck me, when listening to that, that we should really call this Bill a “reinforced Steel Bill”. We cannot have planning blight over putting our own affairs in order while there is endless ongoing discussion.
What has struck me about this Bill is that it sets out a baseline of three main factors: first, scrutiny of entry; secondly, contributing while you are here and being active and meaningful; and, thirdly, providing an honourable exit process so that people may leave by other reason than dying and thereby vacating their seats for others. It does not seem to pre-empt any further stage. We could argue whether this is stage one and a half or stage 2, but it does not matter at all; this is about moving on and doing the minimum that needs to be done.
I looked back through the attendance during the past 10 years to try to get a feel of this House. The average attendance, if I have got my maths right, was 382 Peers attending, with a range of 340 to 446. From the 2006-07 figures, there were 46 non-attendees; 73 attended three times or fewer and 82 attended five times or fewer. From this year’s figures, 23 were granted leave of absence at the beginning of this Parliament. That figure stood at 11 in October 2008 and, if I have got my information correct, still stands at 11 today. The people have changed, but the total number is the same.
As a medic, I have tried to look around your Lordships' House and do a rough tally of infirmity. I shall not name names but I would estimate that, if we had the ability for leave of absence, taking into account the non-attendees whom I mentioned and those who I would view as so infirm that I worry about them whenever I see them here, we would probably have about 100 places vacated in what I would term a quite painless way.
There is a sense of honour among those who hold a peerage and who are infirm, who feel that somehow they are letting the side down or it would be shameful to take leave of absence. This Bill gives them a very honourable way in which to take leave of absence and feel that they are serving their House that they treasure, rather than letting the side down. That would help to end the practice of wheeling people in for voting purposes, although I have to say that I, personally, have not witnessed that during my time here.
I turn briefly to scrutiny of entry. We need to ensure that everybody here is subject to the standards that you would expect of a public appointment and that everybody here is motivated for the right reasons—in other words, to serve the legislative process and serve their country—and that they have personal standards of probity. We must also ensure that there is a range of expertise. The Appointments Commission allows for that scrutiny of that range of expertise in a way that no other process can, because it can look at the whole geographical distribution of those present, as well as their backgrounds, at what they are currently doing as well as what they have done previously.
With the ability to contribute while you are here, I would suggest that attendance must be a minimum. It is very difficult to contribute to the legislative process here if you are not even present. Some people on leave of absence are indeed serving the process of this country well, and it would be quite appropriate to use the provision as outlined in the Bill that they should have leave of absence. They would then come back when they had finished serving time abroad, and so on. I have spoken about the exit process already.
Two speeches really struck me. First, there was the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who pointed out that this Bill complements previous reports, and it is either this Bill or do nothing. Then there was the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who eloquently reassured all those with a hereditary peerage why they are not excluded; they are simply being asked to be subject to the same level playing field, through an Appointments Commission, as all the rest of us. I personally do not understand why the Appointments Commission honoured me with a place here, but I value it enormously, and I believe that its process is really rigorous. It would seem right that we have a level playing field.
Election or no election—that is outside this Bill and these processes. This Bill is an urgent way in which to rectify the problems that we want to rectify. It is a Bill that a self-regulated House wants, and I believe that we should test it and do all that we can to take it through.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has just demonstrated sharply how wise the Appointments Commission was to appoint her, even if she does not know it. I agree with what she said at the end: there is no logical link between the view that you take on whether this place should be elected and the one that you take on the Bill. It is perfectly possible to be in favour of election and in favour of this Bill. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, have taken that position. It is perfectly possible to be against election and for the Bill and it is perfectly possible to be against the Bill and still be in favour of election, which I suspect is the position that the Minister will take at the end of our proceedings. There is no logical link whatever between those views.
However, there is something paradoxical about being in favour of election—of radical reform of this place—and then being against this Bill, which is so clearly a first step towards it. In fact, I would say that it is a bit more than paradoxical. The words that spring to my mind are “cynical” and “immoral”. If you took a moral public policy approach to the Bill, what would you do? You would say, “First of all, let us get the appointed House into as good a shape as it can be got”—to the reforms in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, I would add the Oakeshott reforms and there might be other candidates—and there will be a case for a Chamber of that character.
Put against that the alternative—there is a powerful case for it—of a wholly or partly elected House. Let us then compare the best kind of appointed House with the best kind of elected House and let the country—the Government and the people—decide which of those alternatives they want. That is a logical and moral approach to the question. It is grubby to seek to keep this House with as many flaws as you possibly can in the hope that somehow the attractions of elections will be increased so that you smuggle out what may or may not be a desirable proposal under the camouflage provided by the manifest problems that the Bill is designed to address.
That is my fundamental view of principle and I am not going to change it. I have been a long time in politics and I find that people rarely change their views for reasons of principle. I just want to do a little crude realpolitik to explain to those who are opposed to the Bill why I think that they are mistaken in terms of the objectives.
I shall start with the result of the next general election. I do not know what the result will be, but I can tell you—I have not checked this morning—how a bookmaker would lay odds on it because I know a little bit about betting. I would say that the odds are 2:1 on a majority Tory Government, 5:2 on a hung Parliament, 6:1 or 7:1 on a small Labour majority and perhaps 33:1 against a Labour majority comparable to that which we currently have. That is not saying what I want; I hope that the outsider wins, of course. However, that is what I think the odds genuinely are on a dispassionate bookmaking analysis.
If we get a Tory Government, we will not have, in short order, an elected Chamber. That has been made quite clear. I will not go over what many noble Lords have said in the debate. Therefore, 2:1 on—two chances in three—you are not going to get root and branch reform just because of the coming of the election and the likely result thereof. Of course, if we are not going to have it, that makes it even more important that we should get what we can in these circumstances, which is a partial reform that would get us into a better position.
At first, you might think that a hung Parliament is a likely situation in which you could get root and branch reform. The Lib Dems support it and maybe they would make that a condition of coming into a coalition Government. There are two considerations. First, a hung Parliament would inherit an economic crisis of unparalleled severity. In itself, it would constitute a sort of political crisis, as we are not used to handling hung Parliaments in this country and a lot of adapting to it would have to take place. It would then be suggested that the Government might precipitate what is potentially a constitutional crisis by adopting root and branch reform of this place, when that Government would have no majority in Parliament and every party is divided about the issue. One can be wrong in politics, but my view is that it ain’t going to happen.
A Labour Government with a small majority is most unlikely to go down this route because it would be far too controversial. Therefore, there is only one circumstance in which the great reform favoured by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and by many Lib Dems can take place: a Labour Government with a whopping great majority. Whatever my views as to the desirability of that, I have said that it is a 33:1 shot in my book. Very few outsiders win at those odds.
So there we have it. The Government are asking this Chamber and this Parliament to back a 33:1 outsider in order to get any progress. If they get their way, and I hope that they will not, the almost certain consequence is many years when the media can every day of the week plausibly represent our marvellous Chamber as a haven for tax dodgers, cronies and crooks. It must not be allowed to happen.
My Lords, I am rather enjoying myself. This is exactly the sort of debate that I would expect to get from a mutual admiration society interested in self-preservation—light touches, nothing serious and nothing of any merit at all.
I have been here only since 1963 and therefore have spent 47 years of, I could say, wasted time. In that time, I began part of my career in the research world, doing the Labour Party’s research on reform of the Lords in 1968. Ever since then I have kept a sort of walking dictionary in my head of what we have here—740 members sitting on average 600 hours a day, 400 days a year, 40 per cent of the time based on scrutiny and 60 per cent of the time on revising legislation. That is not a bad set-up, but how did they all get in? I made a mistake last time and misconstrued something. Are we democratic? The answer is no. Are we undemocratic? Probably not. But is it worth it, and what do we actually cost? The Lords costs roughly £121 million a year, while the Commons is £388 million a year, which is not a very large amount. Even if there were tiny annual losses by just one bank, those would be in excess of it.
It probably would be, my Lords. So it is not the money. Actually, a high proportion of the cost of your Lordships’ House goes on maintaining this great establishment, a historic building that no hereditary Peer would ever wish to have inherited.
Of the actual costs, 15 per cent are staff costs and 15 per cent are the costs of us. That is pretty low. Money is not the argument. What is it about? It is about party politics. The Liberals want to have more chaps or chapesses. However, we have more women here than they have in the House of Commons. We have more ethnic minority groups and more of those who are handicapped. We have more of everything. We have more people in the regions than does the House of Commons.
I was brought up to regard statistics as useless information, but I always make the point that they may be useless but one cannot think of anything more useful. We are not trying to prove anything; we are just asking where we go from here.
I do not approve of the Bill. It should not be necessary. I approve of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. He is three months younger than me, but I first met him when he was on the Council of Europe. He has been in politics all his life. Rather like the mosquito, he has managed to have one foot in the water and one elsewhere, looking to sting people from time to time. He also joins those who go on cruises, which is an important business, because you get locked away with people for a while.
Certain things in the Bill I would come to and ask whether we need to change. First, I say to your Lordships: look at and read the code of conduct before the Ides of March.
It is a fantastic document, my Lords, and says everything that you could wish to have in it, except possibly something about conduct unbecoming a gentleman. So that document is already there.
It is strange how the old rules have changed. In fact, we had higher attendance in the House in 1999 than we do today. The interesting thing about those days was that, when you spoke, you stayed throughout the debate. Now, the more important people are, the more interested they are in committing incest: looking in the mirror at what they are going to say and sending it out as a press release before they have actually said it, and perhaps knocking others. Somehow there needs to be a little bit more of an esprit de corps.
I am a great believer in slow change but, because it has something of its own, I would like to see this Bill come back every Session for the next 10 years.
My Lords, it is much better than having a general purpose debate.
I get terribly hurt by being called one of the hereds. We are hereditary Peers who were elected under an Act of Parliament. We are technically exempted under the 1999 Act and then elected. Whether the election process is correct or not, it was not of our making and should be accepted. We are elected hereditary Peers. We therefore probably have more jurisdiction than any of those who are appointed, particularly those who are appointed by Prime Ministers—400 or more. If we start to pull ourselves apart, we will just creak at the seams and turn to dust.
The question now is what we do next. Let us look at a few comparisons. I dug out the other day that there were an enormous number of non-governmental departmental bodies that I had never heard of. I asked a Question about what they do and how much they cost because I thought that government departments were civil servants. These bodies cost £43 billion a year. Compared with that, the House of Lords is nothing. I have asked the Government to tell us what these people actually do. I suggested that we should see which Members of your Lordships’ House are on these things. Your Lordships have an outside relationship second to none in the world. We are also, from my own research, the most respected second Chamber.
My Lords, it is almost 20 years since I was privileged to become a Member of your Lordships’ House, having been ennobled in the 1989 Birthday Honours List. My baptism of fire came quickly, as I was involved in debates on the then Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the first of many health service Bills and so on. However, I have been struck throughout this period by the quality of debate in your Lordships’ House, which exceeds that of any other chamber with which I have had any familiarity over the years, and by the fact that its membership embraces individuals with a huge range of experience, expertise and knowledge which it would be difficult to challenge in any other legislative assembly of which I am aware.
On entering the House I chose to become a Cross-Bencher irrespective of any previous political affiliations I may have had. I was here in 1999 when the amendment proposed by Lord Weatherill and the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—then Lord Cranborne—to retain 92 hereditary Peers was accepted by the House. It has not been mentioned that statistics revealed that 52 per cent of life Peers were over 70 at that time. It was thought that the presence of many younger hereditary Peers would enliven debates in your Lordships' House. I pay a major tribute to the way in which those hereditary Peers have contributed to our debates over the succeeding years.
When I first entered this House I vowed to speak only on medicine, science and education, with an occasional sideswipes at issues relating to my native north-east of England, such as dualling the A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh. Nevertheless, I decided then not to become involved in politics, so why am I speaking in this debate today? I do so because I believe that this Bill, so eloquently proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is a vital step in protecting and preserving the vitality and integrity of this part of the Mother of Parliaments. In my view its clauses are all admirable; for example, that regarding the establishment of a statutory Appointments Commission. Given the substantial influx of life Peers over the past few years, there is no need for by-elections to replace hereditary Peers who are no longer with us. The clauses relating to retirement are entirely acceptable. Nevertheless, as I approach my 87th birthday, I am mildly concerned that my Convenor has espoused the idea of honourable retirement so enthusiastically, but that admirable clause will be further considered. The clause relating to Peers who are convicted of a serious criminal offence is also admirable. However, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, I should like to see the Bill amended to enable the House to suspend any Peer who has been found guilty, after full appraisal, of a serious breach of the House’s rules and conventions.
I consider that some of the arguments adduced today against the Bill are unsustainable. If I may say so, I am aware that the Government do not consider the Bill satisfactory as a government measure, first, because it is interim legislation, and, secondly, because they believe that it would pre-empt any future major reform of this House if it were passed. If a lawyer says “with respect”, he means, “I don’t agree with you”. If he says “with great respect”, he means, “You’re talking nonsense”. If he says, “with the greatest possible respect”, he means, “You’ve gone off your head”. If I may say so to the Minister with the greatest possible respect, I believe that the Bill is a very helpful interim measure which the Government would do well to embrace as a first step for several reasons. First, it is clear from what has been said today that no further major reform of the House could possibly take place until after the next election. Secondly, there is uncertainty about which Government will be in power after the next election, and the views of the different parties on this matter are somewhat disparate. Thirdly, the Bill is so precise that it could in no way be regarded as pre-empting any subsequent major reform of your Lordships' House. Hence I invite the Minister to persuade his colleagues in government to undergo a damascene conversion to enable them to take on as a government measure this well respected measure, which has such wide all-party support. This House deserves no less.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on his excellent Bill, his patience in reintroducing it, and on his obvious persuasive talents that caused so many noble Lords on his Benches to change their minds.
There is an advantage and a disadvantage in being the 27th of 35 speakers. The advantage is that, undoubtedly, everything has been said and therefore you can sit down: the disadvantage is that you have spent a lot of time thinking about the measure but you do not want to impose views on noble Lords that they have heard several times already.
The truth is that many excellent speakers have carefully gone through the different parts of the Bill and have applauded it in full detail. There truly is nothing left for me to say, except perhaps to address my remarks directly to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who is so charming. He is not looking at me. Usually when I say something that he agrees with he nods, or vice versa; however, this time, until this very moment, he was deep in his notes.
There is absolutely no reason at all why the Government could not reasonably accept this Bill, as it certainly would not preclude any further proposals for longer-term reform at a later date. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is very well thought of on his Benches, in government and by the hierarchy, having done with excellence several different jobs on the Front Bench. However, this time he needs to urge the Government to take up what so many of us have said today—accept what is essential and immediate but is no more than a tidying up. I hope that the Minister this time might find that he could nod with me instead of shaking his head.
My Lords, I echo the noble Baroness and I hope that the Minister, if his brief currently states the usual claptrap about the White Paper representing an agreed position among all three major parties and pressing ahead with a joint commitment in all party manifestos at the next election, will have the good sense, if not to tear it up, to lose it quietly and find a form of words that indicates that he will go back to his colleagues and say, “Chaps, we’ve got to think again”.
This place is now overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has eloquently introduced. The number of serious conversions among those whose views are genuinely held in favour of wholesale election was notable. They recognise that this Bill is urgent and can be dealt with now. The case for postponing anything until we have a major reform would essentially kick the issue into the long grass and nothing will happen for a very long time.
If we are honest, the current White Paper is even vaguer than previous White Papers on Lords reform. That says nothing about its possible implementation. With the greatest respect to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and without falling into the trap that the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, laid for me, a majority of Conservative MPs in the other place voted against election. I might also add that a majority of Labour MPs voted against 80 per cent election. We must therefore look to—what was it?—the 33:1 chance of the Lib Dems winning the general election if there is to be a majority in the other place in favour of election. It is this Bill or nothing for a very long time, and that is not acceptable.
In a year when we are celebrating Darwin’s anniversary, the evolutionary approach has found more favour than ever before, and I echo what my noble friend Lord Grocott said. It is noticeable that with the exception of some hereditaries arguing about the 1999 Act, there has been no objection in principle to any of the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I should point out that the deal on the 1999 provisions was that the 92 hereditaries who remained would simply go at the end of the second period and I presume that would also mean that those who succeeded them by by-election. Under the noble Lord’s provisions, they remain in this Chamber as long as their maker wishes them to. The Bill is considerably more generous to the hereditaries than the 1999 Act.
I would not go as far as my noble friend Lord Lipsey went in imputing base motives to those in the Government who oppose the Bill, but one cannot resist the conclusion that people who wish for a radically different House will find it easier to convince people, if the goad of hereditary by-elections remains in place, to whip up support against the House of Lords. It would be plumbing new depths in political cynicism if you deliberately inhibited progress in this House towards an improved House simply to gain another objective later on at some point. I should counsel the Government very much against that course, and they should adopt the Bill.
My Lords, I support in principle those parts of the Bill that would establish a statutory Appointments Commission, a facility for permanent leave of absence and sensible measures to exclude Peers who have committed a serious criminal offence. There are, however, problems with the Bill’s details and with Clause 10.
The Appointments Commission proposed in the Bill would do very little to take the influence of the Prime Minister and political parties out of the appointments process. Why should the four members, who are, commendably, not to be affiliated to any political party, be nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker? In my view, they should be nominated by another independent body.
In Clause 5(2)(a), the principal criteria for recommendation for a peerage are too vague. The clause should spell out a wide range of expertise in different areas, such as commerce, finance, the arts, public and private service professions and the Armed Forces. Staying on the subject of Clause 5, the Delegated Powers Committee said in its first report this Session—the Minister also said this in November 2007 at col. 1477—that Clause 5(5) should be subject to the affirmative procedure. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, said:
“As an offer that comes from the government Front Bench, I shall grab it immediately”.—[Official Report, 30/11/07; col. 1482.]
That would be welcomed by the House as a change. However, he seems to have forgotten his grab.
Clause 8 is unsatisfactory in a different way. It fails to put a definite cap on the size of the House. I feel that subsection (6) is too vague on that. It also does not make it clear that Liberal Democrats are part of the Official Opposition or how many new Members they may have. In the mean time, their numbers under the Bill are uncertain.
Clause 10, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, is completely unsatisfactory. The Government said that the undertaking by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, in 1999, which was repeated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in March 2007 and by the Minister in November 2007, was that the 92 hereditary Peers were to remain until reform is complete. As the other place has voted for an elected House—I disagree with that fundamentally—I believe that it is right to wait for government legislation on constitutional reforms, not a Private Member’s Bill, however worthy a lot of it may be.
Clauses 11 to 13 are on permanent leave of absence. It is not clear whether the facility of a temporary leave of absence will still 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 just leaving the matter for an occasion once a year, under Clause 8(1)?
I have three areas of concern about Clause 15. First, what is the definition of a serious criminal offence? Does setting fire to hotel curtains come under that or the recent driving offence of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed? There needs to be much more clarity of definition. Secondly—I now understand that this may have been a drafting error but it still has not been addressed—to make the offence retrospective is in my view wrong because 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. Thirdly, I find Clause 17 rather bizarre. If such a person were renominated, would he not be automatically excluded even if his appointment were confirmed?
The Bill, many of whose principles appear attractive, has a lot of problems in detail. There is much to recommend sticking to the status quo until we have governmental legislation.
My Lords, one of the things that one notices about debates in your Lordships’ House is that words that are frequently used here are used in a sense that is other than the normal sense. I refer to the term “reform” of the House of Lords. Most people who discuss reform of the House of Lords actually want the destruction of the House of Lords in its present form. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, may shake his head but the nature of this House would be totally changed if an elected element were introduced; that is what he wants. Why he should want it is beyond me, but there you go.
As has rightly been pointed out, the Bill does not address any of the arguments for or against the Government’s—or anybody else’s, for that matter—proposals for an elected element in the House. What it does is remove a whole lot of silly irritants, which should have been removed a long time ago and are advanced as reasons for changing the composition of this House. When those irritants are removed, those who wish to change the composition of this House will have to argue, in total nakedness, the case for making this place a second-class edition of another place down the Corridor, and I think that they will find their position very much weakened as a result. Therefore, I totally welcome the Bill and I cannot wait for it to come into effect.
I want to say just one other thing. I am wholly in favour of patronage. This country would not work without patronage, and its greatest supporter is the present Prime Minister. He has found himself quite incapable of governing this country without, over the past few weeks, appointing a collection of very distinguished people to this place, and he has been quite right to do so. It just shows that in the Prime Minister’s view the electoral process does not produce people of adequate quality to govern this country. That is obvious. I do not want to see anything limiting the power of patronage in Prime Ministers, and if a Prime Minister uses patronage in a stupid way, the remedy is the ballot box.
I have no great affection for what the House of Lords commission has done, although I know that it is showered with eulogies. I think that some of the appointments that it has made are, frankly, idiotic. I do not say that the people who come here are idiots but the reasons that have been advanced for appointing some people to this place are idiotic.
Finally, there is one thing that I should like to see that is not in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. If we are to have a commission, which we probably will, it should be given guidance to the effect that no one who has sought to lobby to come here should ever be considered.
My Lords, has not the climate changed? Last time we debated the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, every time someone said something in favour of it, the next speaker snowed on him. Now, we are in spring. There are flowers blooming everywhere, even on the noble Lord’s own Benches. There are a few snowflakes left in the wind but spring has arrived—everywhere except in Jack Frost’s castle, where winter remains supreme and a few remain to serve him. Sadly, Jack Frost has in his thrall one of our own: a young boy imprisoned by his own fibs about wanting an elected House of Lords.
These stories are usually resolved by blood sacrifice. In the absence of Aslan or Sir Fred Goodwin, I suspect that my noble friend Lord Astor and others believe that that blood sacrifice will be us. I imagine that they are right, but we were put here to be the placeholders for stage 2 reform, when it comes, and I think that we should accept that role and accept the end of our part in it when the Government produce a Bill. They can do that quite well by taking on this Bill. As many noble Lords have said today, this Bill answers a great number of pressing problems in this House. Those problems should not be left but should be dealt with now, particularly under the current circumstances, as that would greatly improve the way in which this House operates.
As the noble Lord knows, I support an elected House, but the arguments of principle are difficult, as is getting it right. If there is a change in government, such a reform will take a very long time to come through. We should not let this House carry on in its current state of known imperfection in the expectation that some time in the next quarter-century we might get round to doing something about it. I do not suppose that the noble Lord takes that attitude to his car. I suspect that he sends it to be serviced regularly, rather than waiting until it is so broken down that he has to get a new one. That is not a sensible way to run a car, let alone a legislature.
On 28 January, Peter Riddell published a very insightful article in the Times, in which he listed eight reforms that this House ought to make. I think that we have addressed most of them today. We should take that sort of direction and support from outside seriously. We are not being asked to immolate ourselves; we are being encouraged to reform in sensible ways. Peter Riddell advocated, among other things, breaking the link between the peerage and a place in this House. That has already been done in the case of hereditary Peers and there is no reason why it should not be done with life Peers also. Perhaps you would not have to break the link absolutely, but you could just break the right to vote in this place, so that those who have particular expertise and want to attend only very occasionally could give us the benefit of their opinions. If that is not necessary, at least we could break the link so that the honour of a peerage is no longer confined to those who are then expected to do a job of work in this House.
There have been discussions about the proportions, particularly of party Peers, in the House. An obvious proportion is the percentage of votes cast in general elections for successfully getting Members elected to another place. Of course, that is not acceptable to my noble friend on the Front Bench in the context of an elected House. I agree with him. I think that a very unstable situation would be produced if we were to have a PR House of Lords when that was not the pattern in another place. However, I do not think that there would be an objection to having an appointed House on that pattern, because we would not have the legitimacy to challenge the other place anyway and, to my mind, it would produce the fairest and most sensible result.
Since the last war, there has been a stability in the proportion of votes cast for parties in general elections, which would mean that we could manage the size of this House and keep it within proper proportions on the basis of a 15-year term, with Peers being appointed every year. That level of turnover would allow us to adjust between one election and another. Following every election since the last war would not have caused a problem of inflation in the size of the House in relation to keeping the proportions of parties in the House right. We could tackle the transitional problems in many ways and how we deal with the House as it is. There is no lack of inventiveness. I have seen several suggestions. We need not be bamboozled by problems that, when one thinks about them, are not there.
The last point mentioned by Peter Riddell, and one that we should absolutely roll into this reform, is expenses. These days, it is not satisfactory to have such an obscure and unexplained method for Members of this House to reclaim the costs of being in this place. We must move to a transparent system and, along with these other reforms, now is the time to do it.
My Lords, my first duty is to compliment noble Lords on keeping to the stricture of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, about speaking for no more than six minutes. They have done it so wonderfully that I calculate that we three Front-Bench speakers have just over half an hour each to reply. On behalf of my colleagues I thank you all for your self-discipline.
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, both questioned the propriety of the case for reform being put by these Benches. I would claim that no Benches have a greater right to keep the flame of Lords reform alive than these ones. As my noble friend Lord Steel so rightly said in his extremely eloquent introduction, this Bill takes forward a pledge first made nearly 100 years ago by the then Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. So, that is a little unfinished business.
I assure the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that there is no hidden agenda. Like so much with the Liberal Democrats, we say what we mean and we mean what we say. If we get the votes at the general election, we will deliver Lords reform. On that we are sure. It may be of interest to noble Lords to know that the 1910 reforms were finally carried when noble Lords gave up the fight on 10 August 1910. One wonders what it was that caused them to go home on that day. But that is the nature of the thing.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Steel for introducing the Bill. He has done a great deal of work backstage to get the kind of cross-party support for this measure that we have heard expressed today. I have to confess that I have changed my mind. I suspected that this measure was the work of what Harold Wilson once described as a tightly knit group of politically motivated men, a few of whom have contributed to the debate today; but, like Keynes, I change my mind as the circumstances change. The challenge of what the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, described as the reputational crisis facing this House dictates that we can no longer play this long.
Despite the fact that we have the least heavy legislative programme since 1945 and there is ample time for a Lords reform Bill, the Labour and Conservative parties are not willing to bring forward a reform Bill. Indeed, the way in which the two parties have set out their commitments would put Lords reform occurring somewhere between 2014 and 2020. But given the reputational crisis referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, we will have to be more realistic and look at some of the real issues that could be addressed by this Bill and similar ones. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, that my commitment to Lords reform is as firm as ever, and I do not believe that the Bill will weaken the case for it. I have known the noble Lord for nearly 40 years, and I count him as a very dear and close friend. However, I cannot think of one major issue on which I agree with him. It just shows how friendship can triumph over even the greatest of adversities.
The case for reform now is before us. The Bill’s key point, the statutory Appointments Commission, has been dealt with by my noble friend Lord Goodhart. As for hereditary by-elections, we on these Benches were no part of that, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said. I suspect that history will judge that the ever wily Cecil—the then Lord Cranborne—outsmarted that simple Scottish advocate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, a decade ago. I think that we got help there from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who said that the Bill is not the betrayal of the hereditaries that has been suggested.
Retirement and non-attendance need to be addressed. My only problem, apart from the years themselves clocking up, is that I was always and still am in favour of a retirement age, but last night we had a party to celebrate the 80th birthdays of my noble friends Lord Avebury, Lord Taverne, Lord Rodgers and Lord Tordoff—four of the more active members of my flock. The day before, we had an ever perceptive question from 90 year-old Lord Ezra, and yesterday, in the foreign affairs debate, we had yet another contribution from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. That makes the idea of a cut-off date a little difficult to justify.
My Lords, I know how to win over an audience, do not worry.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, often glowers at me when she says, “I know that some of you do not like the Cross-Benchers”. I do—I love them. But a little statistic may interest the House. Creations since 2005 include 12 Liberal Democrats, 17 Conservatives, 32 Labour, including 10 who have transferred straight to the Front Bench, and 41 Cross-Benchers. When the Cook-Maclennan committee, which has been referred to and which I served on, was considering the matter before the 1997 election, we were considering a House of Lords of about 450 in size with 20 per cent Cross-Benchers. That makes 90 Cross-Benchers. There are now more than 200; they are the second largest group in the House. I remember no discussion or debate that suggested that the House should be changed so fundamentally in that way. I very much admire the Cross-Benchers but like my former workmate, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, I think that the party-political Benches in this House do the work revising and advising on legislation in a way that the Cross Benches do not. We must face the fact that to make this place function properly, all the political Front Benches must be able to be refreshed with people who will take up that difficult and time-consuming task.
I briefly turn to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, who I thought was wandering out onto very thin ice when he talked about manifestoes. I challenge some of my former comrades in the House of Commons. The House of Commons must have supremacy on this. When we go through Lords reform, it would be unthinkable that this House should have a veto on it. It is right that all three parties should clarify and include specifically in their next manifestoes their views on Lords reform. If they happened to coincide, so much the better, and I do not see the danger to democracy that the right reverend Prelate speaks of.
Other than that, my only forward look is one of eager anticipation to see how, as my noble friend Lord Tyler pointed out, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, performs his usual escapology. I also look forward to the Minister’s reply. Lords reform—constitutional reform—is difficult. Evolutionary consensus is possibly the best way. However, I point out that constitutional reform sometimes comes through struggle and decisive action. If we had waited for consensus in 1832, a Member for Old Sarum would probably still be sitting in the House of Commons. If we had allowed the Lords to dictate on the Budget in 1910, instead of threatening to create 600 Peers, the Lords would still have an unacceptable control over government expenditure. Sometimes Governments have to be brave. I understand the problems of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, today, but I say to him only that there is a famous precedent. Robert Peel, when listening to the debate on the corn laws, turned to a colleague halfway through the debate and said, “You must answer them, for I cannot”. I wonder what he would do if he was to go back to then. There are direct parallels in our careers.
In our youth, Jack Straw was one of the most radical of student leaders. He is now fast becoming the most conservative of constitutional reformers. The Minister has a duty, having listened to this House, to go back to Mr Straw and say, “You must answer them, for I cannot”.
My Lords, this is fast becoming an annual occasion. It is not quite so grand as the state opening and not quite such fun as the doorkeepers’ Christmas party. Nevertheless, it is a fixed part of the House of Lords calendar. Once again, the long list of speakers testifies to your Lordships’ interest in our own future, and I propose to the Government that instead of creating divisive Private Members’ Bills to discuss these issues, we should set aside a week at the start of every January to debate the future of your Lordships’ House.
We have had a series of good speeches today. Indeed, there have been many excellent speeches; I have enjoyed every single one of them. I even learnt a new fact in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who told me that his noble friend Lord Steel is in favour of a 100 per cent elected House. I had no idea that he despised the Cross Benchers quite as much as that, and I pledge myself to defending their right to sit in this House for so long as I have breath in my body.
Since the general election, and until the publication of the White Paper, there was a useful process in the cross-party working group on the future of this House. It took some time. As a result of that, there came a thoughtful White Paper: albeit, I admit, one with many gaps in it. Incidentally, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, that I made it clear before, during and after that process that nothing was done to involve Back Benchers in this House in that process or to share papers with this House, and that I thought that that was wrong. I even proposed a parallel committee to review the work of the group. Surely, if we are going to discuss the future of your Lordships’ House, it should not be in a debate on a Private Member’s Bill on a Friday but in a full debate on the White Paper organised in government time. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, will tell the House whether, and then when, we will have a debate on the government White Paper. The voice of this House ought to be heard on that White Paper before we prepare programmes to present to the public in a general election which, for the sake of the country, cannot come too soon.
In that vein, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and others asked about the view of my right honourable friend David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party. It was put that he has decided that House of Lords reform should not be his primary priority. There were questions about why that should be. The answer is very simple. What are his priorities? He is preoccupied by the plight of families who face losing their jobs and having their homes repossessed, by being the Prime Minister of a nation that is collapsing in near bankruptcy, and by a financial crisis, caused by failed regulations and muddled monetary policy, that has led to an asset price boom and now a credit bust. He wants to face up to the problems of a broken society and an education system in which 20 per cent of children leave school without getting even a C grade at GCSE. At the end of that we may well turn our minds to parliamentary reform. I must confirm to this House that our fundamental views on reform have not changed. I want to see this great old House playing a larger, not a lesser, place in our Parliament. In my opinion and that of my right honourable friend Mr Cameron, that can come only by allowing the public to elect political Members of this Chamber.
I opposed Mr Blair’s plan to entrench an all-appointed Chamber in 1999. I seem to recall large numbers of those who are present today with me in the Division Lobbies. The late Lord Weatherill’s amendment won overwhelming majorities in both Houses, including many noble Lords who now back the noble Lord, Lord Steel, in removing elected hereditary Peers’ by-elections without securing any commitment to future reform. I opposed the Bill in 1999 because it was incremental. We would have saved ourselves a great deal of bother if we had done the fundamental reform then, as well as a great deal of time on these endless debates. I recall the dignity with which hundreds of former Members of the House left in 1999 without a murmur in the expectation that this House would keep its word that stage 2 reform would come. Many of those who voted on that day believe we should keep our word. I believe that Part 2 breaks that word and I therefore cannot support it.
I was flabbergasted by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, who claims his seat here by betraying his party and his electors, and somehow regards himself as superior to my noble friend Lord Caithness who was elected by his Peers and is here by virtue of statute.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, asked about stage 2. Perhaps I may say that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, spent far too much time as Chief Whip on the Front Bench. He always speaks with tremendous eloquence and, in the main, very good sense. His question on stage 2 was answered very effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has rightly said that stage 2 need not be an appointed House, an elected House or a hybrid House. But stage 2 has to be satisfactory to both Houses and take the views and interests of both Houses into account. If it does not do that, it cannot deliver the stability that many noble Lords seem to hope and think this Bill will.
It is also easy for Liberal Democrats, such as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to ignore the political disadvantage that would disproportionately affect Conservatives and Cross-Benchers if Part 2 should come into effect. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Caithness explained with great care what has happened since 1999.
Notwithstanding the observations of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, Conservative Peers are on average much older than most Members of this House. Actuarially, they are, sadly, likely to die faster. Under the terms of this Bill, it is very hard to work out whether every time a Conservative Peer dies, one of Labour’s Peers will have to go too in order to maintain the proportions. That, of course, could leave the Liberal Democrats sitting pretty. That is the problem of any mechanistic scheme of numbers. It will always hurt the party whose membership is older, more infirm and less able to attend. If decisions on composition are to be made on the slide-rule suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on the basis of numbers alone, that would ignore a major reality of our House which has affected both governing parties, Labour and Conservative, in their time; namely, that of age, as recognised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Someone talked about a geriatric House, which is a problem. In fact, a paradox of the 1999 Act is that the average age of the House rose by five years after that Act was passed.
I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, does not propose a retirement age. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is in favour of it. But the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Cobbold, suggest that there should be terms of appointment—either 15 years in line with the royal commission or 20 years as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. Perhaps we should have a debate about retirement age. What are our views on that? Should it be 80, 75 or 70 years-old? I have to warn the House that if the retirement age was 70, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, would not be with us today.
Some want this Bill because they think that it is the piece of paper that will bring about an appointed House and will solve the House of Lords question in our time. Others genuinely see it in incremental improvements that they think will help the House. As I said on a previous occasion, the Bill provides architecture towards an alternative solution: an all-appointed House. I pay the noble Lord the compliment of saying that he and his expert advisers have at least changed the Bill marginally since last year, but his changes do not address some of the fundamental problems that we will have to consider in Committee.
Some of these questions I posed to the noble Lord 12 months ago. For instance, 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 the party line? In working for party balance, on what basis does the commission decide how many seats each Opposition party will get? Are election results taken into account, or are the votes cast, or number of seats in the House of Commons, or what? What is meant by a public appearance or public speaking in support of a political party in Clause 8(4)(b)? For instance, if the Conservative Party were to organise a rally against the Heathrow third runway or against ID cards, and a distinguished environmentalist or civil libertarian came and spoke, would that mean he would then get the black spot under the Bill? How will it work? I am sure that is not the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, but it could be one of the effects.
What is meant in the Clause 9(2) about making procedures for the various parties’ nominations for peerages consistent? The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, spoke rather well on this point. Our systems are rather different from the Liberal Democrats, who hold elections, inevitably, by the most complex PR system known to man. I have here the results of their last election to the so-called interim Peers panel. You could not make this up. There were 44 breathless candidates and there was a grand total of 1,188 electors. I gather that 21.32 votes were transferred away from the unfortunate Mr Mohammed Shafiq and therefore he was excluded in the last round, which was number 31. Why on earth should the other parties be consistent with this nonsense? Why should we adopt a lunatic system with 1,188 electors when there is a tried and tested one with 40 million?
There is much else in the Bill that we need to probe. I shall not say a great deal about leave of absence for disciplinary matters. There is a mood in the House that something needs to be done but we need to wait for the reports of the sub-committee and the Privileges Committee before we move forward on that.
Clause 12(1) on the so-called failure to attend is an interesting way of dealing with the issue of Peers who do not attend. I do not know who the noble Lord, Lord Steel, had in mind—the proposal is to exclude a Peer who does not turn up in one Session—and so I have done a little research. I have discovered that in the 2006-07 Session, the last Session for which figures are available, there was a Peer who did not attend for a single sitting day. Who was that? None other than the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham. He would then, perversely, be sent out to find a Peer to replace him, who would then be obliged to come. Another perverse effect is that it would encourage Peers to come in who would be better staying away. It does not deal with the problem of long-term illness or Peers who go and run Bosnia or work in the European Union and so on, but these are detail points.
On the issue of permanent absence, Clause 11(3) leaves unspoken the question of whether there should be inducements to leave. It raises the issue of bonuses for departure, very much like Sir Fred Goodwin of the Royal Bank of Scotland. It is rather odd that we set ourselves up as being here for life, there is an expectation of being here for life, and yet we want to have in the Bill a reason for leaving. I am not quite sure how that will be explained.
On the size of the House, there is a complete tension between Clause 8(2) and Clause 8(6). Clause 8(2) sets out how the numbers are calculated. Before the Labour Party gets enraged, perhaps I may put forward the small proposal that the Conservative Party will win the next General Election and then look at the figures. Automatically, with the current composition of the House, the Conservative Party would be entitled to an extra 42 Members. The House would then increase to 732, and that is without any dissolution honours, retirement honours or any other honours—yet, under Clause 8(2), the House has to be reduced to below 646. There is no system now for doing that, and we should discuss how to do it. There are proposals that in every Parliament the House should be reduced by 10 per cent. We could do that by election; we have done it before, and there is no reason why we should not do it again.
I have one final question: what does “normally” mean in Clause 4(2) when it says that the commission would normally consider nominations from leaders of parties with six seats in the House of Commons? If, God forbid, the British National Party won six seats in a general election—under PR, for instance—would the commission say, “Sorry chaps; we would normally, but not for you”? If we look at the present House of Commons, does a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Jay, from the SNP, which has seven members, get opened while one from Plaid Cymru, which has three, gets sent back? In Northern Ireland, would the Democratic Unionists, with nine seats, get the red carpet treatment while Sinn Fein, with five, and the Ulster Unionists got nothing? If not, again, on what basis does an unelected commission decide what part of the people’s voice can be heard and what part can be ignored?
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, and this was echoed by many others, that this is not a comprehensive Bill and that it does not try to answer all the difficulties. Clearly it does not, but I detect in the House—this is the difficulty for the Minister—that there is impatience and a head of steam; great pressure is building up on all this. I shall voice one small warning, which I know will be ignored: supporters of the Bill may find that when it gets to another place Members there will be equally yearning for it, but they will have very different views on how an appointments committee should operate and may send back a very different Bill from the one that its supporters imagine. When we debated these issues with Mr Straw some time ago, it was clear that there was a substantial view that a statutory appointments commission should include provisions for decisions based on regionalism, gender, ethnicity, age, retirement, terms of office and all the complexities of religious representation that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, discussed, as well as many other things.
I welcome the Bill going into Committee. It will need a great deal of discussion and possibly revision. If it goes to Committee, I will join noble Lords in playing my full part in the subsequent debate.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on his patience and determination, which have allowed us to have such an excellent debate today. He sees me as a bad penny, but so long as he presents Bills to us on reform of your Lordships’ House I will continue to roll down to this Chamber—at least, if I pass the medical tests that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, threatens to apply to noble Lords in this desperate effort to reduce numbers below what is considered to be desirable.
We have had an excellent debate, both on the detail of the Bill—there are many complex details that need to be discussed and debated—and on the wider debate on Lords reform in the context of the Government’s White Paper that was published last July. I say to the noble Lords, Lord Low and Lord Strathclyde, that I would welcome a debate on that White Paper and an opportunity to respond to some of the less than complimentary remarks that have been made about it. I see my noble friend the Leader of the House is on the Bench beside me; we look to the usual channels, as ever, to provide the time.
I welcome this opportunity to debate some of the major principles of Lords reform, and I reiterate that it is the Government’s intention to see through substantial reform of your Lordships’ House and to put our case to the electorate at the next election. We want to make it clear that we are indeed committed to substantial reform.
Some noble Lords have asked me today to indicate the Government’s support for the measures in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I have listened very carefully to the points and questions raised. By tradition, the Government do not oppose Private Members’ Bills in your Lordships' House, and this Bill should certainly be no exception to that rule. By tradition, the Government offer constructive comments on the technical drafting of the Bill before your Lordships' House; again, this Bill should not be an exception to that rule. Many noble Lords have noted the similarity between this Bill’s proposals and some of the proposals in the Government’s White Paper published last year. That document also proposed a statutory Appointments Commission and an end to hereditary by-elections. This Bill and the White Paper would both give Members the ability to resign and both propose disqualification for not attending this House, as well as disqualification for a serious criminal conviction.
I was of course very much interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on the proposal for a statutory Appointments Commission. If an element of appointed Members is to continue in the long term, we would certainly support a commission with a politically balanced membership serving non-renewable terms and making recommendations to the Sovereign through the Prime Minister. We would certainly support appointments based on identifying candidates willing and able to contribute to the work of this House. However, as has been pointed out by a number of speakers in our debate, some of the questions of detail that are contained in the noble Lord’s Bill still stand to be answered. For example, in Clause 9, the commission is given a degree of power to require information from party leaders, but how would that power be defined or limited? What information might be withheld? Or, again, how would the party balance described in the Bill be safeguarded in the case of a number of independent Members taking a party Whip? Would there be sanctions if independent Members chose to do so? I am happy to see that the noble Lord’s Bill now requires the commission to look into the consistency of the way in which political parties make nominations to the commission, which would certainly provide for a clearer baseline from which the commission could start its scrutiny of candidates, but it does not say with what there must be consistency, and that will need to be answered.
The commission would be given the final say over the exact proportion of political parties, and some questions remain to be answered there: what would determine the speed at which the commission phased in new Peers to reflect a change of Government? What would determine the level, within the 0 per cent to 3 per cent boundary contained in the Bill, of the majority of a Government? We know that the commission may phase in recommendations for numbers of new peerages with regard to achieving the prescribed political balance in the House over two full parliamentary Sessions following a general election. It would then have two Parliaments or eight years to achieve a total membership not exceeding that of the House of Commons, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked, what happens if the aim to achieve political balance conflicts with the need to limit the number of Members? If there were a frequent change of Government, and those changes occurred regularly—we could look back perhaps to the 1960s or other periods where that might have happened—how would the tension between the two aims be dealt with?
I suggested in our previous debate on the noble Lord’s previous Bill that it might be advisable when it comes to Clause 5(5) and Clause 6(2) to include the affirmative, rather than the negative, resolution procedure where the Appointments Commission proposes additional criteria on which to assess candidates, and he has not so far moved on that matter. So those are some of the rather technical details which have to be addressed if this Bill is to proceed further in your Lordships' House.
Let me raise a number of other points. There may be a lack of flexibility in the system if the Prime Minister is obliged to pass on all recommendations to the Sovereign. What would happen if the Prime Minister had information about an individual that the commission could not be expected to have—for example, if it concerned issues to do with national security? To require the Speaker and the Lord Speaker to nominate the commissioners gives two people a large amount of decision-making power, in an indirect way, over who sits in our legislature. What happens if they disagree? Would there be any review or appeal mechanisms in place for Speaker or Lord Speaker nominations?
Last time we debated this Bill, many Members reflected on what “conspicuous merit” might mean. Would having to be conspicuous or to stand out in some way exclude some candidates who would make excellent contributions? I mentioned the practising members of the nursing, teaching and social care professions whose work may not be conspicuous in the dictionary definition of the word, but whose experience may be no less valuable to this Chamber.
On expulsion, the Government have always been clear that Members of a reformed second Chamber should be held to account if they do not attend regularly. That is why the 2008 White Paper proposed that provisions similar to that of the Local Government Act 1972 should apply to members of a reformed second Chamber. Under the proposal, Members who do not attend for any period of six months will be disqualified, unless their reason for non-attendance had been approved by a committee of the second Chamber within a defined period. We welcome the opportunity to debate views on the noble Lord’s proposal where the trigger for disqualification is one parliamentary Session rather than a six-month period. But I would raise one point with the noble Lord concerning those Members of your Lordships' House undertaking important work outside the House such as in the UN, the EU or NATO. I know that there is provision in the Bill for such noble Lords to apply and to be considered for dispensation. But considering the kind of post that they would be undertaking, I ask why they should be asked to plead their cause.
It has been a great delight to hear and respond to my noble friend Lady Jay. It was she who did so much to take through the 1999 Act. It is worth noting, and she will perhaps recall, that at the time it was said that the proposals would lead to the utter decimation and destruction of the quality of your Lordships' House. It is interesting that many noble Lords who have remarked on the House as it has been since 1999 have mentioned its improved quality. I pay tribute to my noble friend. She referred to taxation and membership of your Lordships' House. She will know that on other Fridays there will be debates on the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott. The Government are in favour, in principle, of dealing with these matters and I look forward to debating the details of that in further stages of that Bill.
In his characteristic way, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, got it right about the role of the remaining hereditary Peers. The Bill would end the by-election system, although I think that the heading of Clause 10, “Exclusion of hereditary peers”, is rather overegging the system. It is a trifle optimistic, as it could be at least 50 years before the last hereditary Peer left.
We come to the question of stage 2. There is of course no definition of stage 2, but it would be fair to say that it has always been taken to mean substantial reform.
My noble friend Lord Lipsey suggested the Government’s stance on Lords reform and the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, was either cynical or immoral. I must refute that. Our position on what is both necessary and sufficient to reform your Lordships' House is well known, and I have already said that we are committed to comprehensive reform. We believe in basing our proposals on the meetings of the cross-party group, on the votes in the House of Commons, which showed clear majorities for an elected second Chamber, and after publication of our White Paper. Of course, we will reflect on responses received during the period of consultation, and on the views of noble Lords in this House.
I listened with great interest to a number of comments made by noble Lords on the White Paper. My noble friend Lord Faulkner and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, were less than complimentary; my noble friend Lord Grocott thought that 150 responses implied that there was not great support out there for reform of your Lordships' House. I would suggest that there are two ways of looking at that: it could well be that the proposals were so sensible that people were not inclined to comment. However imperfect noble Lords may consider the White Paper, it was produced from a great deal of discussion cross-party, with the helpful presence of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and the right reverend Prelate, and is as close to consensus as there has been for many a year in outlining the future of your Lordships' House.
Of course, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, that this House does excellent work. It does indeed, but it is a House of Parliament. This Government and the House of Commons through its votes considered it unacceptable for a House of Parliament not to be wholly or mostly elected. I know that my noble friend Lord Gilbert does not entirely agree with that view; he does not agree with that at all, and it was very good to see him intervene in our debate today. The fact is that democracy in the end is the ability of people in our country to vote for the people who will make decisions on their behalf.
My Lords, I apologise for intervening at this stage of the Minister’s speech. Nobody questions the value, the power or the significance of democracy, but the three questions that I posed in my speech must still be answered by any advocate. If we have a structure whereby we enjoy the benefits of the eccentricity, if you like, of this House alongside the benefits of democracy and, in the last resort, subordinate to democracy, can we not go on enjoying the best of both worlds, which is what delivers us the best that we have today?
My Lords, surely that is what the proposals in the White Paper are about. They are about building on the undoubted strength of your Lordships’ House, but with the benefit of Members being either wholly or mostly elected through the ballot box. That is what the White Paper attempts to achieve.
I say to my noble friend Lord Grocott, who is a very wise politician, that of course an elected second Chamber would be more assertive. In the deliberations on the White Paper, we spent many hours discussing the whole issue of primacy and how to maintain it, looking at the conventions. We devoted a great deal of attention to these matters. Primacy will be assured through the Parliament Acts, the financial privilege of the Commons, the fact that the Government maintain their position through the confidence of the Commons, the fact that the Prime Minister and most Ministers are drawn from the Commons and the fact that, under the proposed system, the second Chamber would never have a more recent mandate than the House of Commons. But, yes, the House would be more assertive. In view of the comments that many noble Lords have made about establishing Parliament in a stronger position with the Executive, surely that is an extremely desirable aim.
Noble Lords have argued that our commitment to comprehensive reform in the next Parliament is not incompatible with the aims of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, has said on several occasions that the Bill should be seen as a tidying-up of the House as it is now and not a measure for the future. I acknowledge that his intention is, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, put it, for the Bill to be a staging post. I also acknowledge what my noble friend Lord Howarth said about the reputational image of this House in the light of certain matters that have taken place over the past few weeks. We have made it very clear that measures relating to the conduct and discipline of this House are of cardinal importance. The noble Lord’s Bill makes provision for one aspect of that matter—the disqualification of Members after serious criminal convictions. The Government recognise that there is a strong case—and I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about the need for legislation—for considering legislation to address specific issues raised as a result of allegations against Members of this House. We are actively looking at what legislation we might be able to introduce to support this House in disciplining its Members and we are considering what suitable legislative vehicle might be used to take forward those proposals.
My Lords, perhaps I may give a Gypsy’s warning. It would be unacceptable if those paragons of virtue down the Corridor were to be the source of cleaning up this House. Therefore, can the Minister assure us that this end of the building will be fully consulted before any such legislative proposals are sprung on us?
My Lords, I apologise for intervening. The noble Lord talks about a strong case. Is there not a strong case for the retention of our position under our Standing Orders—indeed, a stronger case if you look forward a little? Will the Government reconsider their attitude on this aspect?
My Lords, the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, are always considered very carefully. I shall certainly consider them.
I need to reiterate to the House that the Government’s view is that we have to look seriously at the prospect of legislation on these important and serious matters. Many noble Lords have said that, in addition, we should embrace other aspects of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I caution the House on this for two reasons. First, as I have already said, legislating on issues not connected to conduct, such as the Appointments Commission or the repeal of the hereditary by-election system, would be inconsistent with the Government’s intent to legislate for fundamental reform. I say to my noble friend Lord Gordon that that is not a long-grass option.
Secondly, it is fair to say that there may be—I hope that there is—support for the proposition that conduct and discipline questions need swift action. It is clear from the discussions that have already taken place that, if provisions on conduct issues alone were to be brought before both Houses, one could hope for as speedy and successful an outcome as possible. There appears to be widespread agreement among Members of all parties and groups on the need for action in this area.
My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend, but I wonder whether he can help me on this. He was encouraging in response to my specific point about taxation and the need to establish different criteria on membership. He is now, as I understand it, also suggesting that the Government wish to take action on criminal activities and other, possibly exclusionary, difficulties that prohibit membership. How do those matters, if they are put in a collective basket, not inhibit the kind of long-term reform that he says is the Government’s aim? That is the basis, as I understand it, for his opposing the position that many of us have taken, which is that we need this incremental reform now.
My Lords, I certainly confirm the first part of the question, on the Government looking at the matters raised by the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott—Members in another place have raised similar concerns—and the need to deal with conduct and discipline questions as effectively as possible. However, we see those as two specific, important, pressing matters that must be addressed as quickly and effectively as possible.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, but he repeats as a sort of dogma that the two major planks—the statutory Appointments Commission and the suspension of the by-elections—would get in the way of long-term reform, which will take donkey’s years. He has never said anything that justifies such an extraordinary statement. Would he enlarge on why what he says should be so?
My Lords, I am not sure that I accept my noble friend’s proposition. I have said that the Government’s preferred approach to Lords reform, apart from the two specific areas that we have just debated, is to go along the route that we said we would when we published the White Paper in July 2008, which is for comprehensive reform. My noble friend says that this will somehow take years and years, as if it is being put off for the long term. Perhaps he takes a more pessimistic view of my party’s prospects at the next election. However, as long as I have anything to do with this Government, I am absolutely committed to substantive reform. There is absolutely no reason why, following the production of manifestos and the election, reform legislation cannot rapidly be brought to Parliament. Of course, I cannot predict the future. I cannot say for certain what the outcome of the election will be. However, I can say that the White Paper gives us a very clear opportunity to place before the electorate a comprehensive proposal for reform of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, the noble Lord cannot have been listening to today’s debate, the whole emphasis of which was that the measures in the Bill need to be introduced now. There are strong arguments against delaying them until after the next general election. That was the whole thrust of the debate. These matters are urgent.
Which matters are urgent, my Lords? I believe that the disciplinary measures are urgent, and my noble friend Lady Jay has made a powerful case about the urgency of the taxation issue. But are the other matters so urgent given that the Government have said that we will put before the electorate at the next election a comprehensive package of reform proposals which we will introduce if we are re-elected? Why is speed required in the other matters? Noble Lords have ignored—
My Lords, I was rather enjoying this. Noble Lords have ignored the fact that obtaining universal agreement to specific aspects of the Bill will not be simple. It is clear that many hours of debate will take place before the Bill goes through your Lordships' House. If the Bill goes to the other place, I should think it unlikely that it will emerge from there in the same state as that in which it entered. There are not just three, four or five matters in the Bill which will pass swiftly through your Lordships' House and then be agreed to swiftly in the other place. That is a pipe dream. It is simply unrealistic. It is simply not going to happen. As I said, the Government have identified two areas to which we need to give close and quick attention. However, the others should be subsumed within a fundamental reform package. Of course I will continue to reflect on today’s debate. We will continue to carry out urgent work on conduct and discipline measures. We will continue to press the case for fundamental reform. In the mean time, I look forward enormously to continuing the debate in Committee.
My Lords, I think we all agree that we have had a remarkably good and, indeed, enjoyable debate. I thank everybody who participated. Indeed, there is a remarkably large attendance for a Friday. Many noble Lords have suggested amendments to the Bill which I do not propose to go through now. Further to the remarks of my noble friend Lord McNally, although I appreciate that I have 40 minutes in which to reply to the debate, I think that I would do the House a service if I did not speak for that length of time. I shall simply say that I agree with many of the suggested amendments or criticisms. I believe that the Bill will be substantially improved in Committee, but it will have a much better chance of being improved if the Government will take it on. I shall come back to that in a moment. If the Government took it on, they would be wise to incorporate in it my noble friend Lord Oakeshott’s Bill. That seemed to be one of the Minister’s concerns.
It is significant that in this long and anxious debate, there have been 27 speeches in favour of the Bill and five against. I admit that I have not included in those figures the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, because on the one hand he said he was so enthusiastic about the Bill that he wanted it debated every year for the next 10 years, and I thought that that meant he was a supporter, but because he suggested that I should introduce it for the next 10 years, I put him down as a personal enemy.
I know that we are all equal in this place, but it is important and significant that among the contributors who were strongly in favour of the Bill was the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who, after all, was responsible for the 1999 reforms and is a former Leader of the House. There was also the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who until recently was the Government Chief Whip. These are two people who have been responsible for the operation and workings of this House on a day-to-day basis and they know more than the rest of us about the weaknesses of the present House. Their contributions should be taken particularly seriously by the Government, although all contributions have been most welcome.
It was significant that the noble Lord, Lord Jay, who is chair of the Appointments Commission, added weight to the case for turning the commission into a statutory body, which, as I have said, has been a manifesto commitment of the Government for nearly 10 years. The noble Lord, Lord Lea, made a very valid point when he asked why we should believe future manifesto commitments, on which the Minister has just been relying, when these old ones, which are much smaller in scope, have still to be put into effect.
It has been significant, too, that there have been noble Lords, particularly on these Benches, who said that they had changed their minds. Whereas previously they were lukewarm or hostile to these measures, they are now in favour. All of these points must be taken on board by the Government when they consider the course of this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, who only recently left the Government, was right to talk about the increasing frustration in the House about the failure to move on with Lords reform.
Part 4, which deals with the exclusion of Peers, is a potential vehicle for dealing with the current preoccupations. It deals only with permanent exclusion, as several Members have said. I should assure the noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, that there is nothing retrospective on that in the Bill and there could not be. However, it is right that that part needs to be expanded and amended to take account of the issue that the Minister rightly dealt with, awaiting the outcome of our inquiries.
It is extraordinary that the Government are seriously saying that they want to take up Part 4, which frankly we added quite late as an extra point, pick it out of the Bill and move forward with it. Why? Not because it is more important than the other three parts; it just happens to be topical. That is not the way in which we should decide the priorities of legislation. The case for Part 4 is no stronger than the case for the other three parts, and the Government should look again at the possibility of taking over the whole Bill. They have a huge majority in the other House, and the Administration sub-committee is impatient at the lack of progress. The Government’s position is difficult to understand. The Minister was right to say that if the Bill proceeded as a Private Member’s Bill it would get bogged down, but if the Government take it over there is no reason why these four issues could not be dealt with satisfactorily in this Session. That is my cause.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and many others made it clear that there is no impediment in this Bill to the Government’s plans which they continue to advocate. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, very fairly put forward what he would see as the priorities of an incoming Conservative Government. I have made no criticism of Mr Cameron for his forthright comment that Lords reform is not a priority. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rightly pointed to what would be that Government’s priority. I beg to suggest that they would be the priorities of whichever Government happen to be elected after the next election. That is exactly our point. We are not going to get to stage 3, as I call it, of Lords reform for many years. That is why there is anxiety that we should proceed now to do what we can.
On the argument about undertakings given in 1999, I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, is not in his place and I hope that he will not mind my repeating what he said to me. He pointed out that the undertaking that he gave was not set in any context; it was simply that until future reform took place, the 92 hereditary Peers would remain. If the Government take over the Bill, that would become stage 2, with stage 3 in waiting for a future Government. That is the way in which it should operate.
The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, made the valid point that if the reason for keeping the 92 was to act as a spur to reform, it had clearly failed. We cannot continue to justify the process of hereditary Peers’ by-elections.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, was forthright on the subject of retirement. She made a valid point about Members who are a little elderly or frail feeling that they are letting the side down if they do not turn up. That is true. My noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie, who is in his late 80s, said to me on the telephone the other day that I should make the point that Members such as him, who walk round here with sticks, should be able to leave knowing that their place will be taken by a new person. The noble Baroness also made that point, and it is clearly set out in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, seems to have joined the Selsdon party; he wants a debate every year on this subject. I believe that he has a good chance of securing that. That is exactly my worry—that we could go on debating House of Lords reform for ever. There is nothing mechanistic in the Bill; he was wrong to pull it apart on the grounds of the arithmetic involved. The phrase in the Bill is about the Appointments Commission “having regard” to certain things. There is no automatic mechanism, nor could there be. The House has always evolved according to what happens in general elections. I understand that there has been agreement between the political parties that we should no longer have a situation in which the Government of the day have an overall majority. That is relatively new but we could make it work sensibly, and I have every confidence that the Appointments Commission would make it work sensibly.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said that he felt awkward supporting the government Front Bench. I suggest that the feeling should be the other way round: the government Front Bench should feel jolly awkward that its support lies in the hands of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, perhaps partly supported by the opposition Front Bench. It does not seem to me to be a very dignified position for the Government to be in. It is extraordinary that support for their line has been so limited in this debate.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, teased me at the beginning by saying that I had been volunteered to undertake to introduce this Bill but that he had no doubt I was now becoming enthusiastic about it. He is right: I am enthusiastic about it. I care about the work of Parliament. I have been involved in major constitutional changes. As everyone knows, I was heavily involved in the creation of the Scottish Parliament. I care about this place, and it is intolerable that we keep putting off sensible reforms on the basis that, at some time in the future, there might be more substantial reform.
I think that the mood of the House has changed; this debate has shown it. Pressure is also coming from the House of Commons through its Administration Sub-Committee. Therefore, I hope very much that the Government will take on the Bill.
When we last debated the Bill, it went to Committee. However, we had only less than half a day on that stage and I did not press the Bill further. The reason was simply that I felt I would not be doing the House a service if I kept bringing forward a measure that was clearly opposed by a small minority, as that would clog up the work of the House. The position is now different. I think that I would be doing the House a disservice if I did not take the Bill forward to the Committee stage and say repeatedly to the Government that they really should take this matter over. In that spirit, and the spirit of this debate, I ask that the Bill be given a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 2.30 pm.