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House of Lords Reform Bill [HL]

Volume 731: debated on Friday 21 October 2011

Order of Consideration Motion

Moved By

That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to which the House of Lords Reform Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clauses 10 to 19, Clauses 1 to 9.

My Lords, I find it difficult to recall that this Bill was first debated in this House four years ago in July 2007. I cannot help feeling that it is time we got on with it. We have a great opportunity today to proceed with the Committee stage.

The reason for the Motion is that I have agreed to withdraw Part 1 of the Bill—that is, Clauses 1 to 9 —dealing with the statutory appointments commission. There are two reasons for doing so—one of principle and one of practicality. The one of principle is simply this: that I would like to attract as supporters of the Bill both those who think that the Bill is necessary and sufficient and, to quote my noble friend Lord Norton, those who think it is necessary but wholly insufficient. We will in due course get to a point where the House has to choose, in the Government’s own paper, between an 80 per cent elected House and a 100 per cent elected House. The position on this side of the House is that we, the Liberal Democrats, support 100 per cent and the Conservative Party supports 80 per cent. If that view were to prevail, then of course the provisions for a statutory appointments commission are already in draft in the Government’s own Bill and, in the mean time, we can retain our confidence in the non-statutory Appointments Commission under the noble Lord, Lord Jay. That is the point of principle.

The point of practicality is that one can see on the Order Paper that, of the 160 amendments the Bill has attracted, three-quarters of them are to the section of the Bill on the appointments commission. I submit that we would be wasting our time on a Friday debating endless amendments to a part of the Bill that we do not propose to proceed with. That is why it makes sense to change the order of the debate so that we can proceed immediately with the three principal issues of the Bill: first, the hereditary by-elections; secondly, retirement from the House; and, thirdly, removing serious law breakers. I believe that by 3 o’clock, with good will and with the overwhelming view of the House, we can pass the Bill to Report stage and satisfy also the demands of the Constitution Committee of the other place. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am disappointed to hear that the noble Lord seeks to withdraw Part 1 of the Bill. One of the great discussions we need on the reform of your Lordships’ House is not on the matter of election—we will leave that aside for the moment—but on how an appointment to the House can be made. An attempt was made with the so-called people’s Peers to establish a commission to decide which people, other than politicians, might be elected to this House. It is not for me to judge whether or not that is a success. The suggestion is that a number of people—appointed by who?—should have the final decision on who should be appointed to this House. Is it another super-quango?

All these issues have to be discussed and it is not good enough, I am sorry to say to the noble Lord, to go this far with the Bill—and it has been in gestation far longer than the four years he has mentioned—and then say, “Well we can just abandon Part 1”. It is a real mistake. We need to debate the issue thoroughly in every aspect if we are to proceed properly.

My Lords, I do not agree with the Motion proposed by my noble friend Lord Steel for different reasons. My first reason is that he tabled the Motion to re-order the consideration of the amendments only last night. We have not, therefore, had a chance to consider the implications of what he proposes. If we were to remove Clauses 1 to 9 of the Bill, as he proposes, there will be consequential amendments to the rest of the Bill which have not been considered, much less tabled, today.

The noble Lord referred also to a number of the merits of the remaining parts of the Bill. I do not want to go into detail arguing about that now—my views, for example, on the by-elections are well known. However, if I may say so to my noble friend, it is on the verge of discourtesy to table this Motion so late in the proceedings of the Bill and then invite your Lordships to agree to it straightaway.

My noble friend also said that the Bill has been under consideration for a long time. He did not explain the position clearly. The fact is that this Bill has been rejected three times in the past—or at least has not secured passage through Parliament.

My Lords, I am very interested in what the noble Lord has to say. Unfortunately, when he turned his back to speak to his noble friend, none of us could hear him.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord. I agree that I did that and I will try not to do so again.

My noble friend Lord Steel referred to the history of this matter. He said that this Bill had been under consideration since 2007. That is not quite correct. Different versions, slightly different versions or even identical versions of the Bill have indeed been considered but have not secured parliamentary approval. We are considering a new Bill in this Session, which I hope will end up in the same way as the previous ones.

My principal objection to the Motion is that it was tabled so late and that we therefore have a Marshalled List which is back to front. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will not persist with his Motion.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Steel says that he has withdrawn Clauses 1 to 9 but, of course, on the Order Paper they are there to be debated. Would not the proper way to proceed be for the noble Lord to take the Bill in the order that it is written and move that Clauses 1 to 9 not stand part of the Bill?

My Lords, I understand the concerns that have been expressed already today about the new approach of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. However, like him, I think the time has come to get on with the Bill.

This was not always my position. When I was the Minister responsible for constitutional reform in the previous Government, that Government’s view—as I believe this Government’s view is today—was that the Bill is a distraction, perhaps even a deliberate distraction, from the main business of establishing a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords. I still want to see such radical reform but I fear that this Government’s approach to securing it has doomed its prospects for the foreseeable future. We should therefore get on with this worthwhile Bill.

I had hoped that the Government would have noticed that the most astute opponents of reform of this place—such as my noble friend Lord Grocott and many other noble Lords who are in their place today—have zeroed in on one particular issue as the justification for their opposition: that is, the relationship between the House of Commons and an elected House of Lords. As I have said many times, although I still want to see a wholly elected House of Lords, this is a legitimate concern. There is no question but that there are real issues here and the Government have refused to address them, waving them aside with some airy, unsubstantiated assertions and assumptions.

It is not inevitable that an elected House of Lords would lead to legislative gridlock but it needs further consideration. Unless the Government show more effort in addressing these concerns, I fear that the prospects for an elected Chamber are doomed—at least for this Parliament and probably well beyond. Therefore, I believe that we should go along with what the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is proposing today. We should address and embrace the more limited but none the less extremely worthwhile reforms embedded in this Bill and, in his words again, get on with it.

My Lords, I want to make a couple of comments on this. I had not really paid proper attention to this Bill in its previous three incarnations, mainly because I thought that we were going to see something through from the Government and that this was basically a side-show that would go away. Yet it does not seem to be doing that, which is worrying me. It is my experience of House of Lords reform that it flounders regularly. That is why 92 hereditary Peers were left here: to give an incentive for further reform. I am quite certain that if that incentive is removed, as is proposed under this Bill, we will eventually die out and end up with a wholly appointed House by default in a few years’ time, because further reform will flounder and they will just say that this is what we should have.

All we have done is to use a backdoor method of circumventing the possible will of another place, if it really wants to have an elected House. This is a hugely dangerous Bill; it is a clever way around ensuring that certain people manage to maintain their seats here. My purpose is to make sure that there is proper reform and that I am removed, but democratically. The whole point, and this is why I oppose this Motion, is that if we end up with an appointed House under this Bill, the appointments commission is absolutely key to the future composition of this House. That commission will probably end up with the great and good sitting on it, and they tend to put people on who are like themselves and who will tend to believe that the sometime excesses of the bureaucracy and the Executive just need a little tweaking to get them right.

That is very dangerous because we will see the mavericks disappear from this House steadily over the years, as they die out. We will probably no longer see another Michael Onslow—the late Earl Onslow— or people like that whom we need in this House, or somewhere in Parliament, in order to point out the errors of our ways from time to time when we all pat ourselves on the back for being wise and having great wisdom. The commission is key to it and I am not happy with the idea of an independent Appointments Commission as it is currently constituted, because you will not end up with something that our grandchildren like. This almost needs to be tackled very much upfront so that we can shape the future composition of the Lords, if we are to go down this route, in a way that is sensible and gives us back some independence. By the way, can I recommend the Cross Benches? It is wonderful sitting here because you can look both sides beadily in the eye without having to turn around and not address the House.

My Lords, I arrived here this morning expecting to debate Amendment 1 first. I then find that my noble friend Lord Steel has used another device. Your Lordships will recall that in Committee on an earlier form of the Bill he introduced an amendment at the last minute, which he called a device. This time, he has introduced a Motion. He did not have the courtesy to tell me about it, yet he knew I had amendments down on the Order Paper. If he had discussed it with me, it would at least have been a courtesy. We would have disagreed but I would have been able to prepare for today in a different manner than I have.

I say seriously to the House that to accept this Motion is a very bad precedent for this House to do on a Private Member’s Bill. The only time that a Private Member’s Bill should have a Motion of this type is when it is unanimous and this is clearly not unanimous. All I am doing is repeating what I said in an earlier debate in your Lordships’ House. It is not the first time I have said this. If your Lordships refer to Hansard on 21 January this year, I said exactly the same thing to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, when he introduced his navigation aids Bill. The noble Lord did not produce a Motion but said, when reading out his speech on Second Reading, “I’m going to delete these clauses”. I think that he was going to delete seven out of the eight clauses. He also did not have the courtesy to talk to me about it first, although my name was on the speakers list. What I said to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I also say to my noble friend Lord Steel:

“I fear that this is an abuse of the House. Perhaps he should do the right thing, withdraw this Bill and bring forward”—

this was to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley—

“for Second Reading a Bill that he actually intends to pursue through the House”.—[Official Report, 21/1/11; col. 617.]

I then went on about the amendments but the principle is exactly the same. If my noble friend Lord Steel does not now want an appointments commission—I will come onto that in a minute—he can quite easily withdraw this Bill. If he had come to me and asked, “Will you give me a very quick Second Reading on a revised Bill without the appointments commission?”, we could have looked at that and then we would not have had this Motion. This is a very bad precedent on a Private Member’s Bill.

There is another difficulty which my noble friend Lord Trefgarne raised: that I have consequential amendments, as does the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, which start in Part 1 and have consequences in the rest of the Bill. Those consequential amendments have now become pre-sequential amendments. That is not going to lead to a sensible debate; that will make it extremely difficult.

I then come to the real reason why the noble Lord is moving this Motion. It is not for the convenience of your Lordships but to remove the egg on the face of Mr Clegg. Those are not my words; those are the words which my noble friend Lord Steel used on 4 June, which your Lordships can find on the Guardian blog website. My noble friend said:

“There is a growing body of opinion within my party that we have to save Clegg from having egg on his face and this scheme”—

that is, the scheme relating to reform of the House of Lords—

“is not fit to fly”.

My noble friend wants to remove the statutory appointments commission. However, the extraordinary thing is that on 24 March 2010 my same noble friend moved an amendment to the Motion at Second Reading of a Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, with the words,

“but this House regrets the omission from Part 5 of the Bill of a statutory Appointments Commission”.

I know my noble friend has changed his mind as to whether this House should be elected. He started off, when he was leader of the Liberal Party, wanting an elected House. He then decided that an elected House would not work so he now wants to retain the House in its present form. My noble friend wanted an appointments commission. He regretted that with a Motion; he now does not want an appointments commission. I am concerned about the reputation of my noble friend, who is a great friend of mine. He keeps changing his mind. I remember that when the potential president John Kerry stood for election, he was known as “flip-flop Kerry”. I should hate a similar title to be given to my noble friend. For that reason, I will oppose the Motion.

Briefly, I support the noble Lord, Lord Wills. Surely we must get on with this. It is ludicrous that at present Members of this House have no power to resign permanently. We have far too many Peers in the House already. Surely, for the limited but significant improvements that Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill will provide, we should get on with it today, recognising that there is great dissent in all four quarters of the House over the issue of election or appointment. In any event, the Richard committee is looking at this. There seems to be no good argument against the Motion. I understand the disappointment of some who have spoken about the fact that we will not be dealing with amendments on the appointments commission. However, that is highly contentious. Surely we can get on with it now.

With respect, the noble Lord is wrong. We will deal with the appointments commission. You cannot not deal with it because there are amendments on it. What the noble Lord should have said to be clear is that it will be dealt with at the end, under our noble friend’s Motion. We will still debate the appointments commission in full.

My Lords, I declare an historic interest. I was a member of the original group chaired by the late Lord Caernarvon. Seventeen years ago that first group started to discuss House of Lords reform and we have not moved much further forward since. I apologise for having been unable to speak at Second Reading. However, it was so long ago that I have forgotten the reason, but it must have been a compelling one.

I urge noble Lords, quite strongly, to support the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, in his Motion. My only criticism is that the Bill should be called the “Improvement to the House of Lords Bill”. It seeks, in practical and concise terms, to put right certain anomalies, which in some instances bring this House into ridicule in the outside world. We can go on talking in here but it is the perception outside that matters. With the greatest respect, many of the amendments tabled for discussion today—some are very good and solid—concern the reform of the House of Lords. They have nothing to do with this Bill, which is crafted to get us through the difficulties that we have had to date. Therefore, I urge noble lords to support the Motion.

My Lords, that is an excellent proposal from the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby: we should refer to the Bill as the “Improvement to the House of Lords Bill”. That is exactly what it is. I fully support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. While the noble Earl is correct to say that it will not prevent our discussing Part 1 of the Bill, it will ensure that those discussions do not impede discussion of the other, essential elements of the Bill, which my party fully supports. I support both the principle and the practicalities mentioned by the noble Lord. We have had many frustrations with the lack of progress on the Bill. We need to get on with it and the best way to expedite progress is to support the noble Lord in his Motion.

My Lords, the position of this Bench has consistently been, over many years, that considerations of Lords reform should pay careful attention to both the effectiveness of this Chamber and questions of the people’s confidence in the parliamentary system. What is proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, addresses both those issues effectively. We have a responsibility to the House to support the Motion and proceed with it as quickly as we reasonably can today.

My Lords, it is about time that somebody else spoke in favour of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. It is quite unacceptable to have a Motion of this kind brought forward at the very last minute when we have all worked on the assumption that the amendments would be taken in the normal order, starting at the beginning of the Bill and going on to the end.

My Lords, it may be possible to accuse the noble Lord, Lord Steel, of certain things but to accuse him of discourtesy is quite wrong. What he seeks to do as a Private Member in charge of this Bill, having listened to colleagues in all parts of the House, is to produce something that is more acceptable to most of them than his previous Bill was. What he proposes in the Motion that he has moved this morning will enable us to move on, as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, has said, to substantive discussions on those parts of the Bill on which there is, I detect, a fairly general consensus in this House. We are all in the debt of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. We should thank him for what he has done and support his proposal.

My Lords, I am a friend to this Bill. I rise briefly to say only that I am also a friend to the noble Lord, Lord Steel. However, I deeply regret the precedent that we are setting by allowing your Lordships to come through the Front Door of the House to discover that the Order of Business is completely different from what it was the night before. I hope it is not something that will be done in the future.

My Lords, I should point out that this has already been done when the government Chief Whip moved a Motion that the Welfare Reform Bill should be considered in Grand Committee without having consulted properly with the officials of the House to see whether that was practically possible. Unfortunately, that precedent has already been created.

My Lords, I am persuaded by my own arguments. On the point of alleged discourtesy, we have a saying in Scotland, “I didn’t come up the Clyde on a bike”. I know perfectly well that if I had tabled this Motion earlier in the week we would have had hundreds more amendments tabled to the parts of the Bill which the House wishes to get on with. I propose that we proceed to the vote.