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House of Lords: Elections

Volume 722: debated on Monday 29 November 2010

Question

Asked By Lord Grocott

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of their commitment to elections to the House of Lords, they will review the conventions between the two Houses of Parliament as recommended by the Joint Committee on Conventions (HL Paper 265, Session 2005–06).

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question and for his extended interest in this subject. A cross-party committee has been set up to produce a draft Bill for House of Lords reform. I understand that the cross-party committee is considering the relationship between the two Chambers and the conventions on which this relationship is based.

I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has acknowledged that this secret committee, of which we know neither the agenda nor the minutes, is considering this matter. It would be nice if we could be told more about it. I would put it to him that the most crucial recommendation in the report of the Cunningham committee on conventions between the two Houses was this:

“Should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the House of Lords, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again”.

Given that the committee had its report unanimously endorsed by both Houses of Parliament—a pretty rare occurrence—is it not the clear responsibility of the Government to reconvene the committee or establish a similar committee so that this crucial matter of the constitutional impact of an elected House of Lords on the relationship between the two Houses can be debated publicly? It is the very least the Government should provide.

We will indeed be debating this and the whole issue of House of Lords reform when we have the report of the committee. The noble Lord may recall that during his debate I answered a question from the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, on exactly this issue. I suggested then that he was putting the cart before the horse. We need to see the shape of House of Lords reform, as proposed by the draft Bill, before we are able to consider how the conventions would fit in to that new House. To try to anticipate the reports of the committee would be a great mistake.

My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that the Government to which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, belonged produced a White Paper following the report of the Cunningham committee? It indicated that the relationship between the two Houses that the committee had described would be fit for purpose unless the functions of the new elected House of Lords were changed. Can he say whether “this secret committee”, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is considering functions as well as composition?

The functions of the House inevitably depend on its structure. It is a circular argument, is it not? I cannot imagine that the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition and my noble friends the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House would be sitting on this committee without engaging in the whole question of how this House functions and how its conventions would fit in with any reformed House. I can understand the impatience of the House to find out what this committee is producing but we need to have patience until early in the new year when the draft Bill comes before us.

My Lords, I suppose I should declare an interest as the person who had the honour to chair the committee. Does the Minister not understand that the committee made it clear—and it and both Houses were unanimous on this point—that, based on the evidence given by the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Clerk of the House of Commons among others, if there was an elected Chamber the conventions governing the relationships between the two Houses were bound to be called into question by those in the second Chamber who had a mandate equal to that of those in the superior Chamber at present?

I thank the noble Lord for his concise précis of a complex report; it is exactly the basis of my arguments in answer to the Question. Of course the conventions will depend on the shape of this House following an election. As I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, the issue of the relationship between the two Chambers and the conventions on which it is based are being considered by the Joint Committee.

Does my noble friend agree that there would be no point in creating a new Chamber which could claim democratic legitimacy and then saying that it should have fewer powers than the existing House?

How can the conventions of the House be properly considered by the committee with no representation whatever on it from the Cross Benches?

This has been the subject of earlier questions and the noble Lord will know the answer: it is a cross-party committee and the Cross-Benchers are not constituted as a party. However, they add immeasurably to the value of the House and I am sure that all representatives of this House and the parties will be mindful of that fact.