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Draft House of Lords Reform Bill

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2011

Membership Motion

Moved By

That the Commons message of 23 June be considered and that a Committee of thirteen Lords be appointed to join with the Committee appointed by the Commons to consider and report on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill presented to both Houses on 17 May (Cm 8077) and that the Committee should report on the draft Bill by 29 February 2012;

That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed to the Committee:

B Andrews, L Hennessy of Nympsfield, L Bishop of Leicester, L Norton of Louth, L Richard, L Rooker, B Scott of Needham Market, B Shephard of Northwold, B Symons of Vernham Dean, L Trefgarne, L Trimble, L Tyler, B Young of Hornsey.

That the Committee have power to agree with the Committee appointed by the Commons in the appointment of a Chairman;

That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records;

That the Committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;

That the Committee have leave to report from time to time;

That the Committee have power to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom;

That the reports of the Committee from time to time shall be printed, regardless of any adjournment of the House; and

That the evidence taken by the Committee shall, if the Committee so wishes, be published.

My Lords, I welcome the selection of members for the Joint Committee, and I wish the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and his colleagues godspeed—but of course not too much speed—in the completion of their report.

The Joint Committee’s remit is very wide because the draft Bill itself has a very wide scope, covering composition, functions and the efficiency of the House. However, I suggest that in looking at the draft Bill the committee might also look at the issues raised by the Bill presented by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, because they, too, would improve the efficiency of the House. The noble Lord the Chairman of Committees and the noble Lord the Leader of the House will not be surprised by this comment, because the Steel Bill has the character of the legendary phoenix—when the blaze dies down, the Steel Bill arises alive and well from the ashes.

My Lords, I would like to speak to the line in the resolution that invites the committee to send for a person’s papers and records. If one reads the report of the two-day debate that we had in this House plus the day’s debate in the Commons, it is obvious that there are five major issues with which the committee is going to have to grapple. These are, first, the question of whether it is to be 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected, and a subsidiary to that is the role of the Bishops’ Bench; secondly, what the election system is to be, as two are outlined in the White Paper but there are others; thirdly, whether the suggested 15-year term is correct, as it was heavily criticised in debate in the other place by supporters of the Bill; fourthly, how the transition from the appointed House to the elected House is to be managed; and, fifthly, perhaps most important of all, what the concordats are to be between the two elected Houses—how will disputes be resolved and what has been the experience of other dual legislatures in that matter? I have enormous respect for the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I have known him in all his previous incarnations, and think he is a man of great wisdom and experience. But, frankly, he is not a magician. To expect a committee of 26 to deal with these five major issues, plus the four housekeeping matters in the Private Members’ Bill that I have been promoting, seems to me impossible to achieve by the date of February which is set out in the resolution. I see that the noble Lord is agreeing with me.

For that reason, I hope that the Committee will seek to send for two papers, which I want to quote. The first is the report from the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, which has already been debated in this House. Perhaps I may quote two passages from it. Paragraph 47 states:

“We recommend that a reduction in the number of members of the House should result in an overall saving to the taxpayer. We recommend that the possibility of offering a modest pension, or payment on retirement, to those who have played an active part in the work of the House over a number of years, should be investigated in detail, though on condition that this should come from within the existing budget for the House and should incur no additional public expenditure”.

The committee earlier said at paragraph 46:

“We are attracted by this ‘value for money’ argument and think it likely that, with appropriate actuarial and accountancy input, it would be possible to identify the potential saving to the public purse which could be achieved if the membership of the House were to be reduced significantly without delay”.

I repeat, “without delay”.

The other paper which I hope the committee may send for is the seventh report of the House of Commons Constitutional Reform Committee. Again, perhaps I may quote two passages. First, that,

“those proposing radical reform need also to address other incremental, urgent reforms that would improve the functioning of the existing House of Lords. A Government committed to radical reform in the medium term should see and portray short-term incremental reform as preparatory and complementary to its programme”.

Secondly, that,

“the current, effectively untrammelled, process for making party-political appointments to the House of Lords, coupled with the lack of any mechanism for Members to leave the upper House, threatens that House’s effective functioning in the shorter term … This is a pressing issue that cannot wait four years to be resolved”.

I suggest that the Joint Committee should look at these two reports. If it does, it would be fully justified in batting this issue back to the Government, and saying, “You have ignored these two reports. This cannot go on. The House is becoming impatient. You should get on with it, and leave us to deal with these five fundamental issues concerning the creation of an elected House, which is quite a separate matter”.

I, too, welcome the composition of the committee: it is a very good choice of Lords’ members. With regard to the coalition Government’s attitude towards this process, I am inclined to Voltaire’s view that common sense is sometimes very uncommon. The Deputy Prime Minister has recently been saying that he wants to incorporate into the legislation much of what is in the Steel Bill. How does that square with what the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, said, in issuing his Augustinian warning that speed should not be too speedy? If we follow those two courses, the excellent recommendations in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, will not be incorporated until some very distant time, when possibly the legislation might become an Act of Parliament. I feel that the coalition is looking a gift horse in the mouth. This gift horse actually has extremely good teeth, and they should buy it. If we have to wait until legislation is passed, which may be a very long time indeed, we miss out on the possibility of instituting the extremely important, sensible and needed reforms that are recommended as an interim measure in the Steel Bill.

My Lords, I endorse what has been said and refer to one other passage in the resolution before us, which says that,

“the Committee have power to appoint specialist advisers”.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, is indeed a sagacious man, and he has an excellent but very large committee. I suggest that the committee looks at the existing powers of your Lordships’ House and commissions a study to find out how far those powers have not been used by your Lordships’ House acting in a spirit of restraint. Only yesterday, my noble friend the Leader of the House asked for 14 Motions to be approved en bloc. It was pointed out on the Order Paper, as it is every time we have such a Motion before us, that all those things could be individually debated. Could an elected House not debate them at great length? Could an elected House, in conflict with the other elected House and in disagreement with the Government of the day, not cause absolute chaos by exercising the powers that we currently have but do not exercise? I ask the committee to look at just how far your Lordships’ House has exercised self-restraint in recent years, and at what would be the consequence if all the things that we could debate were debated, often at great length, and voted on. This is entirely relevant to the committee’s discussions. Since it has the power to send for people and papers, and to appoint advisers, I ask that this be considered.

My only other point is that the committee appears to have carte blanche to travel around the United Kingdom. I wish it well in its travels, which I hope will be lengthy and enjoyable. However, if the committee is to look at the effect of elected second Chambers, would it not be appropriate for it also to do some foreign research?

My Lords, I welcome the names on the list, wish them every fortune in their work and accept that a central issue is the balance between the two Houses. I ask that the members, and those members of the other half of the Joint Committee who are to be appointed from the other House, recognise that the principal question here is not about the balance between the Houses but about the ability of Parliament to maintain oversight of central government; and that this is, perhaps, a closing stage in the 700-year campaign of government to achieve control of Parliament.

This Motion follows the decision of the House on 7 June to establish a Joint Committee to consider a report on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill. The Committee of Selection published a report on 17 June, proposing the names of those to be appointed. This Motion, if agreed, would appoint those Members named in the report. The Motion also confers a number of powers on the Joint Committee, which are the set of powers usually granted to Joint Committees. The list of names, which I am very proud to put forward, is admirable and I would be extremely surprised if the committee did not take into account all the points made by noble Lords in this short debate.

As for the point of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the committee travelling abroad, the powers to which I hope the House will shortly agree do not allow for that at the moment. However, if the committee said that it wanted to travel abroad, I am sure we would agree to that.

This is a fairly minor Motion to appoint a very good committee, and one that the House has had the opportunity to look at for at least the past week. I commend it to the House.

Motion agreed, and a message was sent to the Commons.