House of Lords
Thursday, 19 June 2014.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.
My Lords, the latest official figures from my department from 2013 show 2,414 people sleeping rough in England. Our approach to preventing homelessness and supporting those who, sadly, end up on the streets is comprehensive and is reflected by our increase in spending in this area.
My Lords, I remind your Lordships of my interest as chair of Changing Lives. Is the Minister aware that a recent survey from Homeless Link shows that 3% of claimants in general are sanctioned but that 33% of homeless claimants are sanctioned? Will she commit to working with her colleagues across the Government—I know that they have a working group—to ensure that the road from the streets and preventing people going on to the streets is understood and that these very vulnerable people are worked with in a way that helps rehabilitation rather than through sanctions, which, largely, push them back out on to the streets?
I share the noble Baroness’s concern about this very important and serious issue. That concern is felt widely across the Government. On the specific topic of sanctions, it is already recognised that there is a need to be flexible with regard to people who sleep rough when considering sanctions that might have to apply. Certainly my colleagues in the DWP have already introduced some changes in this area and are currently looking at what more is possible for them to do. However, I hope that it will give the noble Baroness some confidence to hear that only this week my colleague in the Department for Education—my honourable friend Matthew Hancock—announced some funding to assist with reading and writing for those who sleep rough.
My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the Government will continue to do all they can to identify those young people, many of whom have run away from public care and are sleeping rough, and make sure that they are properly cared for and protected?
Of course I can provide that assurance to the noble Lord and to the House. I remind your Lordships that all local authorities have a statutory obligation to young people who are under the age of 18 as well as to those who come out of care homes who are older than that.
My Lords, I was the Minister who first introduced the rough sleepers grant some 25 years ago and I think I may have been wrong to do so. Does my noble friend agree that a better way to spend the money might be on improving the hostel facilities for people who do not have anywhere to sleep?
Our primary priority in terms of how we spend money in this area is prevention and doing everything we can to avoid anybody arriving in this dreadful situation. We are also investing in hostels to make sure that provision—should anybody have to be placed there—is adequate and that it includes services that help them to get in a much stronger position so that they no longer need to draw on this kind of help.
My Lords, I declare my interest as patron of Bradford Cyrenians, an organisation that works with homeless people. One gathers that a large percentage of those who are sleeping rough have alcohol, drug and mental health problems. Many patients who have been discharged from overcrowded mental health hospital wards now find themselves sleeping rough on the streets. What action are the Government taking to address this really important issue? What percentage of rough sleepers are veterans who have come back from conflicts?
As I said in response to the previous Question, most of our investment is on preventive measures and trying to ensure that we provide support on issues such as mental health and drug and alcohol addiction. As for people sleeping rough who have served in our Armed Forces, the number is very small, but obviously any number is a number too many. When I was asked about this matter some months ago by a noble friend of the noble Lord, I replied comprehensively in writing about everything we are doing for former members of the Armed Forces. That letter is in the Library.
My Lords, which department of government has overall responsibility for rough sleeping? How thorough is the co-operation between those in government and the voluntary sector, which does such a tremendous amount of work in this direction?
My department, the Department for Communities and Local Government, leads on rough sleeping but it is a matter that cuts across a range of Whitehall departments, which is why we have an inter-ministerial group that is specifically concerned with this issue. As my noble friend indicated, we work very closely with the voluntary sector, and our approach is to provide funding to the voluntary sector as we think it is best placed to provide the services that people need.
We certainly want all our public spaces to be safe and welcoming. My honourable friend the Housing Minister spoke very clearly about this matter the other day. He said:
“I don’t know what self-respecting architect would want to be associated with such an offensive measure”.
As the chief executive of St Mungo’s, one of the charities very much involved in homelessness, said, it is important to prevent people adopting a street lifestyle. Sometimes there is a need to adapt the physical environment but in a way that is not consistent with the kind of example that the noble Lord highlights. As a Government, we need to ensure that we provide services to support people to get off the streets and into other kinds of accommodation, and that is what we are doing.
Small and Medium-sized Enterprises: Late Payments
Late payment has a damaging effect on the best-run companies, which is why the Government are taking firm action. Through the small business, enterprise and employment Bill, large firms will be required to publish their payment practices, which will hold poor payers to account and help small businesses to be paid on time. Further reforms will ensure that public authorities run timely and efficient procurements and give Ministers greater powers to investigate procurement complaints.
My Lords, given that the Federation of Small Businesses finds that five out of 10 of its members are experiencing difficulties with late payment and that members of the Forum of Private Business have experienced a 23% rise in the problem, along with the NSCC discovering that only 3% of small firms are paid within the agreed 30-day period, is it not time to enforce the labour legislation permitting charging of commercial debt against both big businesses and big government?
The noble Lord makes a good point about the fact that late payment is still very much an issue. In our discussion paper, Building a Responsible Payment Culture, we asked for views on radical options for tackling late payment, including greater legislation. What was clear is that businesses did not want legislation that restricted their freedom of contract, further fines or a Government to collect fines on their behalf, all of which were felt to harm business relationships. That is why we are working to create transparency in payment practices and work with industry to create a more responsible payment culture and, indeed, make some behavioural change.
The record for government payment is improving the whole time, and I am pleased to say that my own department, BIS, has a 97.3% record. We keep a very strong eye on the stats, and we are very aware of the fact that the public sector has to keep up.
My Lords, I speak specifically about the roofing industry. As many other noble Lords are, I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Roofing Industry. The industry is in an appalling situation, with money held back when work is completed; in some instances, people are going out of business. Seriously, Minister, these people need help.
The noble Lord refers to the construction industry, concerning roofing, if I read him correctly. We welcome the principles announced by the Construction Leadership Council to end the unfair use of cash retentions. The use of retentions is, I am pleased to reassure the noble Lord, in decline, with many of the construction industry’s better clients no longer withholding payments. Indeed, the Government have committed to reduce their use on their own contracts.
Will the Minister consider very carefully the issue of retention for the construction industry and, specifically, the roofing industry? Will he also give a firm commitment that he will listen to the Federation of Small Businesses and the construction industry, because there are considerable problems still, with over 50% of small businesses waiting for payment? Would he have a constructive consultation, because there have been concerns about them, to ensure that there are tangible measures in this Bill on the payment charter, for example, to make it more mandatory?
I hope that I can assure my noble friend that, in addition to introducing the new reporting requirement, we are looking at giving suppliers more information on what to expect from their customers and therefore to be in a better position to make an informed judgment on whether to enter a commercial relationship, and how to negotiate fair terms or challenge unfair terms, as well as how to understand what they need to do to ensure that they get paid on time.
The noble Lord raises an important point. This is very much a question for the companies and the contracts that they enter into. The Government can certainly produce a framework and, indeed, from the UK angle, the small business Bill will take matters forward to give greater clarity and transparency.
My Lords, in August last year the Daily Telegraph reported that Vince Cable was considering a late payment levy. In October it reported that Michael Fallon was “going to war” on the issue in the context of a report that outstanding bills to small businesses had reached a record £37 billion. The Minister mentioned the small business Bill but was a bit light on detail. Why does it not include a late payment levy? Further, why does it not consider representations made from this side, including banning bad payers receiving public sector contracts?
I have already commented that we do not think that it is right to legislate on that at the moment. However, we are taking a number of important actions, including incentivising fair and transparent payment practices by requiring large companies to report, which I have mentioned, strengthening the Prompt Payment Code, working with industry to establish codes of best practice on fair payment, making further reforms to increase prompt payment in the public sector and increasing access to alternative finance options.
My Lords, surely my noble friend the Minister must be aware that the best way to tackle this matter is by ensuring that every single government department pays and that no government department delays payments; otherwise, how can we tell anyone else that they had better not delay payments?
We have committed to bring in a number of further reforms to streamline procurement and improve public sector payment practices, including requiring public authorities to accept e-invoices and adopt timely and efficient procurement practices, and giving greater powers to Ministers to investigate complaints raised by the Cabinet Office’s mystery shopper scheme.
I believe that we do. Around 80% of business-to-business transactions are undertaken on credit terms of some form. Trade credit constitutes about 37% of total business assets. The House will know that late payment is not a new issue. Although the problem worsened during the financial crisis, it is starting to improve. In 2013, £30.2 billion in overdue payments was owed to business. This is down from £36.4 billion in 2012.
Royal Mail: Universal Postal Service
Royal Mail, as the UK’s designated universal service provider, is required to provide postal deliveries to all UK addresses in accordance with minimum requirements set by Parliament under the Postal Services Act 2011, and quality standards set by Ofcom, the regulator. Only Parliament can change the minimum requirements of the universal service in the UK.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Royal Mail is committed to providing a universal service. However, it is facing competition from other companies seeking to cherry pick from the direct delivery service. Ofcom has promised to review the situation but that could take at least two years. Will the Minister join me in pressing Ofcom to begin the review immediately in order to save the universal service?
The noble Lord is correct: this is a matter for Ofcom. The Government’s policy on competition in the UK postal services market is clear: although competition can bring benefits to consumers, it should not undermine the provision of the universal postal service. That is why the Government have ensured that Ofcom’s primary statutory duty is to secure the ongoing provision of the universal service. However, should competition threaten the universal service, the Act is clear that securing the universal service must take precedence.
Does my noble friend accept that those of us who live in the country are particularly at risk should there be any diminution in the strength of the universal postal service? However, could we not be encouraged to take on board the practice adopted on the continent and in America—namely, to situate post boxes at the end of driveways? That is environmentally very friendly and entails a huge cost saving.
My noble friend makes an interesting point but the minimum requirements of the universal postal service are enshrined in law, and include six-day delivery to every address, rural and urban, in the UK. I reiterate that the protections are exactly the same for rural areas as urban areas. The Postal Services Act also ensures that universal services are offered at uniform prices throughout the UK; so universal services cannot be offered at different prices in different areas around the UK.
Does my noble friend agree that perhaps the biggest threat to the enshrinement of the universal postal service across the United Kingdom is the Scottish Government’s ill considered plans for independence, which would put at risk United Kingdom postal services overall? Does he also agree that perhaps the most vulnerable communities are in the most sparsely populated areas across Britain, including the Scottish borders and the rural Scottish highlands? We are already seeing some providers offer a poorer and more expensive postal service. In support, therefore, of the request of the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, does the Minister agree that Ofcom should pay particular attention to those living in the most rural parts of the United Kingdom?
This very much ties in with the question raised by my noble friend Lord Deben. I reiterate that Royal Mail cannot refuse to deliver, or stop delivering to, rural areas; nor can it introduce different prices for rural areas as part of the universal service. The minimum requirements of the universal postal service are enshrined in law and include six-day delivery to every address in the UK, urban and rural, including in Scotland.
My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will the Minister confirm that the greatest burden on delivery is in Scotland, which represents one-third of the land area of the United Kingdom, particularly in the Highlands and Islands? Does he agree with me and others that the greatest threat to the universal postal service in Scotland would be if it were to become an independent country?
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the universal postal service obligation works only because of cross-subsidy, with money saved by urban delivery paying for rural delivery? Is not the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, therefore, absolutely right to say that the biggest danger to all this is the cherry-picking to which he referred, which Ofcom has to consider very seriously?
Yes, and I know that the chief executive of Royal Mail made a few comments about this a few weeks ago. I should, however, reassure the House that Royal Mail delivers more than 99% of all letters and 37% of parcels. Other suppliers—that is, the incoming competition—directly deliver around 24 million items per year, compared to the 55 million items per day delivered by Royal Mail. So the competition is healthy but is not a threat.
The noble Viscount said that only Parliament can change the universal postal service, but is he not concerned about the fact that we have had already one massive increase in stamp price, with a further increase being projected by Royal Mail? Should he not, therefore, take a bit more seriously the threat of competition and the way in which it emerging? I can only reinforce the point that my noble friend Lord Hoyle made about the need to ensure that Ofcom, in delaying unnecessarily the response on this vital issue, does not undermine what everyone in this Chamber treasures—the universal postal service.
The restrictions were laid down by this Government when we came into power, with the Postal Services Act going much further than any restrictions put down by the previous Government. Competition is healthy, and it is very much a matter for Ofcom to review the progress of Royal Mail. Ofcom continues to do that and will give a proper, full assessment at the end of 2015.
Cornwall: EU Structural Funds
My Lords, the people of Cornwall will be in charge of how their allocation of €590 million from European structural funds is spent. We are making the process for spending European structural funding money simpler, more flexible and more local than it has ever been. We are giving Cornwall more opportunities than before to decide what type of projects to fund and in which areas.
I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. However, when I read the consultation documents from the DCLG on the England operational programme for the ERDF, I saw nothing about this; I saw a lot of good words about devolvement, but it appears that Whitehall will make the decisions. Can she confirm that the Government will accept the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly structural and investment fund strategy? I think that she said that in her Answer, but I hope that she can confirm it.
My Lords, the thing for me to make clear to the noble Lord and the House is that, under the new ERDF programme which we are about the enter, Cornwall will retain everything that it has had or enjoyed in the past in terms of its authority and control of decisions. It is the only area to have its funding 100% ring-fenced. On the point that the noble Lord raised specifically on civil servants and decisions from Whitehall, the only decisions that will be taken by civil servants will be to ensure that the applications for funding are eligible within EU rules. However, all decisions about projects in Cornwall will be taken by the Cornish people.
My Lords, is the Minister happy with and encouraged by the progress of the local enterprise partnerships, particularly the local enterprise partnership that has looked into this great allocation of money from the European Union to ensure that it best serves what is now a new Cornwall, having had a status awarded by this Government to bring it in line with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Better together, I would have thought.
My noble friend is a great champion for Cornwall as she has great local connections there. I echo all her positive remarks about Cornwall and the LEP in the area, which is working hard to ensure a good deal for the Cornish people. That is what it is achieving, and it is doing it in a way that is in line with everything that we would expect from a LEP. That is good news.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the local enterprise partnerships have been very successful in Cornwall? This is the third stage of EU funding, and it would be wrong to withdraw it from Cornwall. The Minister says that the people of Cornwall will decide, but the structures in place are the ones that have ensured that 3,000 young people no longer leave Cornwall, because they can get higher education in Cornwall. That came from the first stage of funding. More than 25,000 jobs were also created. The local enterprise partnership is crucial. Can she confirm that the Government’s intention is not to dilute either the local enterprise partnership’s authority or responsibility but that it will be at the centre in deciding where the EU structural funding is spent?
I can confirm to the noble Baroness and to the House that the local enterprise partnership in Cornwall will be at the centre of the decisions made about how it will spend the European structural funding for Cornwall. The point which I need to keep re-emphasising to noble Lords is that the amount of control and autonomy held by the LEP—the shorthand form for this entity—is absolutely the same as that which existed for its predecessors. We will have a single programme for England as a whole, which means that on top of retaining all the authority it currently has, Cornwall will be in a much better position to benefit from other spending using these funds, which might be taken in other parts of England.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Minister’s statement that there will be that degree of autonomy outside of making sure that projects are eligible. That is quite reasonable. The programme, which is really important to the economic growth of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, should have started at the beginning of this year. When does my noble friend anticipate that it will start so that we can begin to invest in Cornwall and Scilly and really make that economy work?
We are on track now. The consultation on the England operational programme has concluded and we are absolutely on schedule to meet the deadline set by the European Union to submit that document. It is really important that we do not try to reopen the negotiations, which would delay us in meeting that deadline. Once we have gone through all the processes, the money will start flowing at the beginning of next year.
My Lords, the Cornwall Council website makes it clear that European funding has already made a huge economic and social impact on business and residents in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly thanks to the Objective 1 programme, and the convergence programme has delivered transformational projects such as the rollout of superfast fibre-optic broadband. It anticipates the benefits of the €592 million programme, to which my noble friend referred. Of course, that is part of a wider €6.2 billion ERDF and ESF programme for the UK as a whole. Are these programmes that the Government would wish to see preserved or changed under any renegotiation of the treaty?
As the noble Lord understands, we are about to enter this programme, which is for 2014 to 2020. Due to the Prime Minister’s effective negotiations in Europe, we have already cut the European budget and negotiated a much more streamlined use of these structural funds. We have done all that and protected Cornwall at the same time.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
House of Lords: Labour Peers’ Working Group Report
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this debate. I start by thanking my colleagues on the working group for their support and the work that they did, and I thank those who assisted the committee. I make particular mention of my co-chair, Lord Grenfell. I am pleased to report to the House that when I saw him a couple of weeks ago in Paris, he was on fine form.
The composition of the group was very mixed in terms of our backgrounds, our experiences, our length of service in this House and indeed our age, but it was also mixed in terms of our long-standing attitudes to an elected Chamber. It was therefore very interesting to debate these matters and we produced a unanimous report. We found that the more we talked through the issues, the more we achieved consensus. I think that there is a lesson to be learnt there, in that on constitutional issues it is wrong to come to knee-jerk conclusions.
It is also important to note—we say this very clearly in our report—that we do not claim that this is the last word on House of Lords reform. We are sure that not everyone will agree with every recommendation but I think that we have a set of positive proposals for real progress. I shall explain what led to this report.
Basically, Labour Peers, like many others, felt that the ill fated attempt by the Deputy Prime Minister to pilot an ill conceived Bill through Parliament highlighted the fact that a simplistic approach to Lords reform was always going to crash, and it did crash when the reality of the complexities of constitutional reform was realised. However, just because that attempt ended in somewhat ignominious failure, we did not think that the issue would go away. Therefore, we wanted to do something constructive to bring together ideas which would help the House to work even better.
We believe that this House has many strengths, and makes a significant and positive contribution to the examination of legislation and to holding to account the Government of the day. We also believe that the House has some problems in terms of its size, its procedures and its image. Steps can be taken to improve all these and they could be taken quite quickly. I am pleased that the Government have stopped blocking any form of change and that the Byles Bill was passed. I hope that we will make further progress based on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman.
I turn first to the size of this House. The number of people entitled to sit in this House is causing increasing concern to most active Members. Although daily attendance is much less than the total attendance could be, it is rising. We looked at what, in ideal circumstances, would be an appropriate size for a second Chamber in our system. The Clegg Bill suggested 300 Members and the Joint Committee suggested 450. We decided that two principles should apply. First, the Lords should be smaller than the Commons. Secondly, there should be sufficient Members to carry out the functions of revision, scrutiny and holding the Government to account properly, including the important committee work.
The Joint Committee recommendation of 450 Members seems about right to us, although Members will be relieved to know that we are not suggesting an immediate cull. At the heart of our proposals is the concept of a working Peer. That concept is often talked about but has never really been defined. We believe that all Members of this House should be working Peers but we acknowledge that this does not mean it has to be a full-time role. It is, of course, an honour to be here but we also have a job to do. There are other ways to give honours and to recognise those who have made a significant contribution to British life but whose other responsibilities would prevent them from fully participating in this House.
We suggest that when the Writ of Summons is issued at the start of each Parliament, Members who respond should do so with the intention of serving for the whole of the Parliament as a working Peer. We suggest that there should be an attendance requirement of an average of three-fifths of our Sessions. We recognise that that is a crude measure of contribution but it indicates commitment. We also recognise that there could be some exceptional circumstances, which would require modification.
We recommend—this may be controversial—that Peers should step down from active membership of the House at the election following their 80th birthday. There are always the exceptions and people who make fantastic contributions but two of our eight members of the committee were over 80. They were keen to point out that if we had such guidance, we as Members could think well in advance about when and how to adjust to life outside. As we have a fixed-term Parliament, at least for the moment—I wish my noble friend Lord Grocott well in his Private Member’s Bill—it is possible for us to start thinking ahead as to when would be the right time to step down.
In terms of membership here, more attention should be given to achieving greater diversity and greater regional balance. That is the responsibility of parties for political nominees and the House of Lords Appointments Commission for others. The Appointments Commission, which should be put on a statutory footing, could do better on this, although we realise the constraints in which it has been working in recent times. We think that its published criteria are appropriate. The political parties making nominations should adopt new transparent criteria for nominations based on the principles of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, particularly in respect of ability to make a significant contribution, a person’s range of expertise, a strong personal commitment to the principles and high standards of public life and, of course, a commitment to be resident in the UK for tax purposes. We also believe that no one, no matter how distinguished his or her public service, should have a role in public life—in the Civil Service or wherever—that should automatically lead to a position in this House.
As far as the Bishops are concerned, we make no recommendations. Putting it mildly, there were strong views on both sides. I recall one of my senior colleagues in another place telling me that House of Lords reform would come to a full stop with any Bill that included the abolition of the Bishops. I am not sure whether that is true, but we decided not to go there, such was the strength of feeling both ways.
However, we all agreed on hereditary Peers. I think that there is widespread though not unanimous support for the end of the hereditary principle. We point out how it could be done while acknowledging the very significant contribution of some hereditary Peers. Of course, some of those people could be awarded life peerages on transfer. On disqualification, we simply think that we should always align our rules as closely as possible to those in the Commons.
Political balance is a much more difficult problem. In 1997, the Labour manifesto said that no political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords. In government, we stood by that. Coalition government has created a new situation. There is only one Government and at the moment they have 58% of political Peers in this House, which makes it harder for the House to assert itself.
There have been suggestions that the number of political Peers in this House should be changed after each election and should reflect the percentage of votes at the previous election, although I note that some who advocated that have been quiet on that issue since opinion polls changed. Unfortunately, although it sounds a simple solution, it is a recipe for an ever increasing size of the House and not something that we think wise. In effect, only party leaders can deal with the balance issue. It requires them to be responsible and not just to seek party advantage.
We also make recommendations about procedural reform. The first is that we suggest that all non-Private Members’ legislation should start in the House of Commons. Bills could then have a First Reading in the House of Commons and follow the normal procedures in the Commons or be subject to a referral Motion that would ensure that this House then took on the detailed examination of any Bill. This procedure would reinforce the primacy of the Commons and, with a few tweaks, allow the Parliament Act to be applicable to all pieces of legislation.
We also make a proposal about secondary legislation in this House because the current situation of “accept or reject” causes a great deal of frustration. We therefore suggest that there should be a three-month deferral opportunity so that Members can make the Government think again when there is serious concern about an SI.
We think that more should be done to look at the work of previous committees, such as that chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, in terms of modernising the procedures of this House. In particular, we are very keen on the idea of a legislative standards committee, which we think could be established as a Joint Committee, although it should be established by this House if the other place does not want to go down that route. We also think that, because of the good reputation and the sound work that is undertaken by many committees in this House, there is scope for more short-term ad hoc committees on specific cross-departmental subjects. We also recommend a review of the role of the Lord Speaker, which is not personal but was promised when that role was first established by the House.
We also make recommendations about the wearing of robes. We believe that the wearing of robes creates an image of the House that belies the very modern contribution that the Lords makes to current political life. It may make for good television for some, but it does nothing but detract from our very positive contributions to the working of our democracy.
Those are measures that we think could be implemented quite quickly and, most of them, without legislation, but I will also say a word about our thinking about long-term constitutional change. If the Clegg Bill did anything positive, it convinced many people that piecemeal change, without consideration for the consequential effects, deliberate or otherwise, is most unwise. We point out in our report that, at the moment, there seems to be some common agreement that there is widespread public disengagement from politics and our parliamentary system. That is quite dangerous, and has many causes but very few simple answers. So it is with constitutional change: there are few simple answers. Despite the fact that constitutional change is not a priority for most of the public, we have had a significant number of important but piecemeal changes in recent times, and more are proposed. We have had fixed-term Parliaments, the failed AV referendum, changes to voter registration and votes for 16 year-olds in Scotland. There is also the Scottish referendum to come, maybe an EU referendum, questions about extending powers to the Welsh Assembly and new discussions on the regions and city areas; nor, of course, has the issue of Lords reform gone away. We believe that complex constitutional matters need not only careful consideration but careful co-ordination. We think that such changes should command public support—after some political consensus, we hope—and we acknowledge that referendums might have an important role in this respect.
Many people—committees, commissions, politicians and academics—have looked at all these issues and one thing is, I believe, emerging as almost inevitable. It is not quite there yet, but there is an emerging consensus that there is a need for a constitutional commission or convention, which can take an overview of any and all of these issues. We suggest that such a body should be tasked with reporting within two years of the next election, which would allow time in that Parliament for further legislation where it is needed. This is the only way to ensure a coherent approach and to undertake change in a measured way. We have to make sure that we make our constitution fit for the challenges that lie ahead, and we need that wider view of how to do it. Our report is intended to be a contribution to that, and I recommend it to the House.
My Lords, first, I declare an interest as the former chairman of the Joint Committee. Secondly, I very much regret the absence of my friend Lord Grenfell from this debate. He is a person of vigorous views—on this we do not agree—but I would like to have heard his voice today.
The Labour Peers’ report, The Future of the House of Lords and its Place in a Wider Constitution, is a useful contribution to the debate. We have been round and round this course many times. There is not a great deal new that can be said about it but at least the report gives us a new focus for the discussion and recognises that some reform has to take place and that it should take place now.
I am grateful to the authors of the report, particularly for paragraph 1.8, which says:
“Labour peers as a group do not necessarily agree on every issue relating to the future of the House of Lords”—
how true. The report continues:
“Such a spectrum of views, with many points in between, often crystallises around the issue of whether the House of Lords should be elected”.
The report then says:
“We know that opinions on this issue are very often passionately held”—
that is certainly true—
“and that those holding such strong opinions are unlikely to be moved from them”.
That seems true as well. The report continues:
“Our judgement is that a majority of Labour peers do not support an elected House of Lords. However, we know too that a substantial number of Labour peers do support an elected Lords. We respect both views, and we recognise that on this issue, and no doubt others, there is unlikely to be clear agreement across the board”.
Those are rather wise words, if I may say so. I certainly commend that lot to the House.
Noble Lords will know which side of the argument I am on.
I stand where I was and nothing has caused me to modify my views. I believe in an elected House. I believe that in the long term it will be seen as not only right but inevitable. There is a fairly obvious lacuna in the report that I should point out, which is that it calls for progress and reform as part of the process—progress towards what? What is the end of the process? The answer can be only an elected and reformed second Chamber. If that is the ultimate aim, viewed in that context the report is indeed useful. If viewed as an end in itself, the report is not.
Since we are talking about Labour Party views, we should be clear about what the Labour Party commitment was at the previous election—and indeed, I hope, remains. We set it out very clearly in our manifesto. With the leave of the House, I will quote it:
“We will ensure that the hereditary principle is removed from the House of Lords. Further democratic reform”—
the House will note these words—
“to create a fully elected Second Chamber will then be achieved in stages. At the end of the next Parliament one third of the House of Lords will be elected; a further one third of members will be elected at the general election after that. Until the final stage, the representation of all groups should be maintained in equal proportions to now. We will consult widely on these proposals, and on an open-list proportional representation electoral system for the Second Chamber, before putting them to the people in a referendum”.
That seems perfectly clear. I would be very disappointed indeed if at the next general election we were not equally forthright.
Moreover, in considering the whole issue yet again, one should not forget that when the House of Lords Reform Bill was debated in the House of Commons, it was passed by a majority of no less than 338, which in anyone’s figures is a pretty hefty majority.
The Labour Party voted very firmly in favour of giving the Bill a Second Reading. Again, we should look at the arithmetic. Of Conservative MPs, 193 voted in favour of a Second Reading, 89 voted against. As far as the Labour Party was concerned, 202 were in favour, 26 against. The Liberal Democrats scored 53 in favour and zero against. I hope that there is no suggestion that as a party we should resile from the principles of the position that we took in the House of Commons. One of the dangers in this whole argument is that the House of Lords will come to the conclusion that it is in favour of a non-elected House and the House of Commons will come to the conclusion that it is in favour of an elected House. That is an unhealthy result to look forward to.
Having said all that, however, I want to look at the common ground between us on the report. The report says that the House of Lords should have 450 Members and be smaller than the House of Commons. I totally agree with that. It says that the hereditary principle should be ended and that all remaining hereditary peerages should be abolished. I totally agree with that. It says that no political party or coalition of parties should seek a Lords majority. I agree. All Peers should be working Peers. I certainly agree with that. The House of Lords Appointments Commission should be established in statute. I agree with that. Attendance should be set at an average of three-fifths of Lords sitting days. That seems to me to be unexceptionable. Disqualification from the Lords should be in line with such arrangements as apply in the Commons. All legislation should start in the Commons. The ceremonial wearing of robes should end. The role of the Lord Speaker should be reviewed. With all of that, I think I could agree. I am bound to say that that is a substantial measure of agreement on any view of this issue. I am sure that it goes rather too far for many people on the other side of the House.
Finally, the report calls for a constitutional commission to consider Britain's evolving constitutional settlement as a whole. This will apparently include devolution, the outcome of the Scottish referendum and questions concerning English governance—whatever that may mean—including regional government. It says that all those provide the context within which wider questions of the place of the second Chamber within the constitution will fall to be determined. These questions are apparently to include the functions and composition of the House, including the question of election, the relationship with the House of Commons, the implications for the formation of Governments, legislative activity, scrutiny of the Executive and representation of the people.
I have to say that is one of the longest and least mowable pieces of grass that I have seen cultivated into which a political football can be successfully kicked. The agenda is enormous and the idea that you could produce results on that in 24 months is, with great respect to the authors of the report, somewhat fanciful.
I see no reason why the reform of this House should have to wait for the resolution of all the problems related to the British constitution. I am very strongly in favour of a long look at the relationship between the devolved Administrations and the centre. I am strongly in favour of taking a long look at the possibilities of regionalisation for England, but I am very much against using the constitutional commission as the excuse for continued inaction on the central issue of the reform of this House.
I am conscious of the time, but I have two other points that I want to make. I will do so very briefly. Looking at the history of this country, we see that many of the great constitutional advances that have been made have been made not by consensus but very much in its absence. If we go back to the 17th century—let alone Magna Carta, that was hardly consensual—and the disputes between Parliament and the Crown, to the Great Reform Bill, or to the Parliament Act 1911, none of them was consensual. They all took place because the Government decided that that is what was right and that was what they were going to do. I would wish future Governments to do that too.
My Lords, when I first came to this Chamber I expected quite quickly, as I hoped, to vote for and deliver radical reform of the House of Lords, and now I wonder. I thought that in voting for that radical reform I would have the support of the Labour Party, and now I wonder.
The Labour Party has a pretty reasonable track record in some areas of constitutional reform but a less dynamic record in others. In 1999, there was a good year with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the introduction of PR for the European elections, but in 2007 I fought an election campaign in Scotland where Labour said, “This far but no further”. If a different, more flexible approach had been taken in that election, I wonder whether we would have ended up where we are just now in terms of the future of the United Kingdom. These issues are really important, as is the view of the Labour Party. With a bit of encouragement, Labour did deliver PR for local government in Scotland, which was a very good thing.
This report, however, is not at the leading edge of Labour’s radical thinking. Its tenor is also as though little or no thinking about reforming your Lordships’ House had taken place in the past 15 years or so and as though the suggested convention would be able to reveal new answers which the nine cross-party committees and commissions that have examined this issue since 1999 have been unable to proffer. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, quoted from the 2010 Labour Party manifesto. I will not repeat that, but one can go back as far as 1992, when the party committed to a package of reforms,
“leading to the replacement of the House of Lords with a new elected Second Chamber”.
In 1997, it promised to,
“make the House of Lords more democratic and representative”.
In 2001, it said:
“We are committed to completing House of Lords reform, including removal of the remaining hereditary peers, to make it more representative and democratic”.
In 2005, it said:
“In our next term we will complete the reform of the House of Lords so that it is a modern and effective revising Chamber”.
Labour won that election, so there was a next term.
Surely the Labour Party’s policy forum, when it comes to consider this issue, will not be fooled by this prospectus of yet more navel-gazing around a committee table. Surely this is not the Labour way; either Labour is committed to democracy or it is not. If it reneges on that commitment now, it will be abandoning a very long history of manifesto pledges with a long tradition within the party, as if the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, along with Smith, Blair and Brown, have all been ditched for some pretty soft and flexible wording about a convention.
If this House is to be reformed so that it is electors and not party leaders who put people here, then there is little alternative better than the 2012 Bill. It was developed over a decade, with its key principle of retaining always a more powerful mandate in the Commons than in this House, while ensuring that this place had real democratic legitimacy. The architecture of the Bill was based almost brick for brick on that suggested by Jack Straw in his White Paper in 2008. That presumably is one reason why an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs—more than 200 of them—voted in support of the Government’s Bill in 2012. Despite their reservations, it also attracted a more than two to one majority of the elected Members of Parliament from the Conservative Party in the House of Commons. All Liberal Democrat MPs supported it. What is so astonishing is that with that huge mandate, Peers at this end were threatening to torpedo the Bill with blocking tactics, while expressing their deep concern for the vital primacy of the House of Commons.
The noble Lord is well aware of the circumstances, which directly involved the attitude of the Conservative Party to these matters.
The House of Commons has clearly spoken on these issues and has consistently voted for democracy, in 2003, 2007 and 2012. Noble Lords who shake their heads should reflect seriously on the position of the other place and the fact that it has consistently backed democratic reform of this Chamber. Surely 2015 should not be the time to think about this for even longer through another commission.
I want to challenge one of the central assumptions of the report, that embarking on this wide consultation and engagement will lead to a consensus. On this issue, a wide consultation does not inexorably lead to a consensus; this is a matter on which some people’s views are intransigent. The preface to the report says that the majority of the authors think that a majority of their group believes that,
“election would lead inexorably to the Lords challenging the primacy of the Commons”.
That has not historically been the Labour Party view on this issue, as has been described, but wide consultation and engagement will not stop anyone who insists on that point. It also ignores the fact that elected Chambers work alongside each other in many other Parliaments, and that the 2012 Bill had specific mechanisms built into it—
My Lords, I wonder if the noble Lord will give way on that point. He is really rather glossing over some of the difficulties of the 2012 Bill relating to the respective powers of the two Chambers. Surely in those Parliaments where there are two elected Chambers—
Noble Lords will have their time. I will let the noble Lord continue his point, but I point out that noble Lords will have their opportunities later on to make the case that they wish to make and that they should be chary of eating into other people’s time.
My Lords, with the greatest respect, it is not in the noble Baroness’s gift to either let me intervene or not. The noble Lord is clearly well able to debate and wants to do so. The only point that I want to put to him is this: in those places where there are two elected Chambers, there tends to be a written constitution. Is that not really at heart the problem—that no one has yet resolved the balance of power between the two elected Chambers in the UK?
We can always make it too difficult, tough and complex to deliver change. I would be delighted to see a written constitution as well. As I have just pointed out, though, those commitments running back over not just one decade but two from the Labour Party were to radical reform and democratic change, but during its time in office that has never been delivered. It is our system that, I emphasise again, is the exception, not the rule, and the rule should be a democratic one.
If noble Lords will give me just a little leeway, I will finish very quickly. The fact is that some people do not wish to be persuaded of the case for real reform. While that is the case, there will be no real reform and no consensus unless the political parties take a different approach. What can be achieved will be achieved if those manifesto commitments for change are delivered by one majority party or, as I would prefer on an issue of this importance, by cross-party majorities, which I believe exist in both Houses of this Parliament and can deliver democratic reform. After the next general election, that is what can and should be delivered.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this report and its recommendations for incremental change in the House. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, for her extremely clear and balanced introduction to the debate. I was fortunate enough to be a member of the Royal Commission on House of Lords Reform, which was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. This contained members of all parties as well as academics. It began with a total division of opinion between those who wanted a fully elected House and those who wanted a fully appointed one, but by the end a remarkable consensus had been achieved.
I intend to look at a few of the recommendations in the report that we are debating today and compare them with the related proposals made by the royal commission, while deliberately not dealing with the question of election versus appointment, because I believe, taking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that the kind of proposals that we are discussing for incremental change are compatible with a fully elected House, a fully appointed House or a hybrid House. Everyone now agrees that our House badly needs reforming and I believe that we can take significant steps in reform even before a final decision is made about that issue.
First, there is the question of size. The Wakeham commission proposed 450. I am glad that this figure now seems to have emerged as the agreed one and is the one put forward in the Labour Party working group’s report. Secondly, there is retirement. The Labour Party report proposes the age of 80. The problem, of course, is that 80 is the new 60. There is one extremely distinguished Member of your Lordships’ House, who I am glad to say is still very much with us, who was appointed at the age of 79. The royal commission argued against age limitations of any kind and instead suggested that everyone should be appointed or elected not for life but for 15 years, renewable for a further term only under exceptional circumstances, a decision that would be made by an independent Appointments Commission. Fifteen years would enable a person to take a long view but would also enable the House constantly to be renewed without having to get larger and larger, which, as we know, is what is happening at the moment.
Thirdly, there is the Appointments Commission. The Labour Party recommends that it be put on a statutory basis and given greater powers than it has now. That recommendation is extremely welcome. For the royal commission, this was a key proposal, which we discussed in great detail. On the commission’s proposals, its powers would go further than those envisaged by the Labour Party report. It would have responsibility for the proper balance not just among Cross-Bench Peers but for the House as a whole. It would keep in touch with party leaders to ensure that across the House there was the right balance of gender, ethnicity, religion and experience. It would also, of course, attend to the other criteria helpfully set out in the Labour Party report about proven probity, commitment to the work of the House and so on.
This leads on to my fourth point about how a Government’s majority in the Commons should be reflected in this House. According to the Labour Party document, no one party should have a majority in this House, and it is critical of the way in which a coalition Government, such as this one, with a very big majority, can almost invariably get their way without too much difficulty. The opposite view, which I understand is held by the Government and which was put forward by the royal commission, is that the ratio in this House should reflect the votes cast in an election, a view that would, or could, lead to even more appointments to this House.
It is worth looking at the number of times particular Governments have been defeated in this House. The present Government have been defeated 89 times. In the last term of the Labour Government, they were defeated 175 times. In the term before that, they were defeated 245 times and, in the term before that, 108 times. If we go back to the two previous Conservative Administrations, they were defeated 62 times and 72 times. There is quite a big gap between the Labour Party being defeated 245 times at one point and the Conservative Government being defeated only 62 times. I shall make no comment about those figures, because they speak for themselves. What it has meant in practice at the moment is that the Government can be defeated only if a strong body of Cross-Bench Peers combines with a number of members of the coalition Government who are prepared to vote against their own party.
The principles behind any solution to this issue seem to me quite clear and are ones that I think all your Lordships would agree on. First, in the end, the House of Commons must get its own way. Secondly, this House must have real power to force the Commons to think again. Against the background of these two principles, I suggest a third, which is that this House, at least in the interim period, should reflect the Government’s working majority in the Commons without at that point taking into account the Cross-Benchers. Very often when people discuss this, they do not take into account the fact that 20% of this House’s Members are Cross-Benchers, from a whole range of professions and backgrounds, who have a responsibility to think independently of party. That 20% figure has not of course been finally agreed, but in the previous set of proposals there seemed to be a growing consensus on it.
In the Commons, the Government have a working majority of 79 in a House of 650. If that majority were reflected in a House of Lords of 450, it would mean a majority of 53 over the opposition party and, in addition, the House would have 90 Cross-Bench Members. In other words, even if there were a coalition Government, it could not be taken for granted that the Government would get their way, for they would have to convince the majority of the Cross-Benchers. A healthy House of Lords, I suggest, is one in which the Government should not be defeated on a regular basis but would be defeated from time to time. Of course, that begs the question of what is “regular” and what is meant by “time to time”. Finally, going back to a previous point, it would be the responsibility of the independent Appointments Commission, working with party leaders, to ensure that this balance was kept.
I welcome the push that this report has given us to think about incremental changes that could be made, even at this stage. However, the recommendations of the royal commission go further and enable us to achieve more in this direction, whatever we finally agree about whether this House is to be fully elected, fully appointed or a hybrid.
My Lords, it a great honour and privilege to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. I have spent a lot of my ministry following his example and inspiration. I thank him for his contribution.
I am grateful for this report and for the clear presentation of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor. I welcome the continuing debate and the whole style of incremental reform, which is the right approach. The report begins by recognising a significant feature of our times: widespread disengagement with our parliamentary system. We keep saying that and then just moving on. I want to ask us to stop and think about that phrase for a minute.
In the 21st century, we have to come to terms with what might be described as a turn to the self as a reference point: the privatisation of space and the dissolving of community and public space. People live in relationships that must always be negotiated rather than in what might be called “relatedness”, which is when you are given a connection with people through family, through neighbourhood and through country. In this kind of world we have to ask whether democracy as we understand it—one person, one vote—is fit for purpose. That is an important question. The simple accumulation of numbers is often undermined by the manipulation of highly organised pressure groups. That is the issue which we have to take seriously. The strongest forces in Parliament are not MPs and the people they represent, but lobbyists of particular interests and views. Lobbying is about power and self-interest. Of course it is important: it articulates useful things. However, because lobbyists already know what they want and what they think, they undermine the potential for debate and reflection.
If there is any truth in that kind of scenario, we have to work on two fronts. First, we need to look at reforming the House of Commons.
How can MPs and their local interests play a more significant part, and how can power be devolved back to the people? Secondly, we live in a complex world of competing interests. Many of them are highly organised and very sharp, so we need a different kind of representation of the people besides that of MPs and those who vote for them. We need a supplementary system of representation that represents networks, groups, cultures and faiths—that whole complex ecology in which human beings live. The genius of our present constitution is that we have both types of representation. We have democratic representation in so far as it is fit for purpose. However, there is the sheer complexity of the ecology and the fact that it can be prey to pressure groups. Then we have this House, which is full of all kinds of wisdom, experience and insight, which can reflect that complex ecology and, as a place of place of reflection and measurement, can bring it to what is being proposed.
We all accept that this is a secondary and supportive Chamber—the report refers to it being a partner and not a competitor—and that the primary power resides with the people. However, democracy—one person, one vote—is a very simplistic way of trying to manage power and influence. The space this House gives to a different kind of ecology of wisdom and experience through careful appointment is a very important part of the political process. It is not just an old-fashioned, out-of-date Chamber; it could be the most precious way of dealing with the complexities of the present and the future.
I support the call for a smaller House and for a retirement scheme. On these Benches, we model retirement as a way of operating. I will make a brief comment about working Peers. I take the point that was made about them, but my plea is that because Members of Parliament and Peers have a representational role in the wider world, we must allow people to work off-site as well as on-site. It is very important that that work is given priority.
Should Bishops be here? Others must decide that. However, while we are here, I hope that our Benches will very soon be graced by the appointment of women Bishops, which will greatly enhance our contribution. We bring, within the ecology I have spoken about, a particular kind of representation that is at the grassroots. I have a personal connection with every community in Derbyshire, which is a very interesting set of relationships to be involved in. Another important principle is that the diversity of faiths is represented. I support the call for a constitutional commission, which has also been supported by my colleagues the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester.
I will finish by saying something about robes, which noble Lords might expect me to say. When you are in a public role you are not just you, as John or Mary; you have a representative role. Certainly in my trade, pitching up on occasion in robes—in role—helps people to understand who I am, what I am about and what I represent. We have to think carefully about accepting a commission to be public figures with public responsibilities and then think we can simply be ordinary people alongside others. We have great responsibilities and great authority is placed in us, and it is not a bad thing on certain occasions to model that.
My Lords, the report we are debating is deliberately modest, which in itself is a welcome change. I will confine myself to just a few points.
It is proposed that the House of Lords Appointments Commission be put on a statutory basis “to underpin its independence”. That is not a problem. I will not debate the quality of its appointments, although they are, and are bound to be, somewhat varied. My problem is with the legitimacy of the Appointments Commission. Why should a quango have the power to influence the size and composition of one of the two Houses of Parliament?
Those appointed by political parties derive a degree of democratic legitimacy from the popular support for that party. However, it is said that that is insufficient and that they should be properly elected. What, then, of the commission’s appointees, who have no scintilla of democratic legitimacy? That is not to say that there should be no Cross-Benchers, but that maybe there should be another way.
It is also proposed that some of the commission’s criteria for appointment should be applied to political appointees. I think it is wrong, as a matter of principle, to interfere with the internal workings of any political party.
It is also proposed to end the replacement election of hereditary Peers, which is described in paragraph 6.19 as,
“a political arrangement reached by the main political parties”.
Those are rather weasel words. A deal was done. A contract was made. The Act was passed on the basis of that deal. All those who supported the Act necessarily accepted the deal. I say to the party opposite that they should keep their word or, in the fine old Scots phrase, they should not approbate and reprobate. It is not good enough to say that it has not led to further reform. That is because a consensus has not yet been achieved. Perhaps we should focus on that.
This brings us to the proposal for a constitutional commission as a means to achieve a consensus, which has some merit, although such a commission would probably have several other matters on its agenda ahead of House of Lords reform. However, such a commission would have to deal with the issue of Lords reform comprehensively.
I was pleasantly surprised in 2012 by the speed with which so many new Conservative Members of the other place realised that Lords reform was really about them, involving a reduction of their power and primacy through the creation of an equal or superior Chamber. It underlined the point, which should have been clear from previous attempts, that the other place will permit the creation of another elected Chamber only if the latter’s mandate and power are clearly inferior. This can be done through indirect election, for which there are precedents even within British parliamentary practice. It should be easier to build a consensus for that than for any of the proposals we have seen in recent years. The report avoids this territory as its proposals are for interim contributions, but those proposals have the disadvantage that most of them require legislation. Will time be found for such legislation? Will a Private Member’s Bill pass the other place? If it does, will it advance or postpone wider reform?
Finally, here we are at the beginning of the last Session before the general election, which will come in less than a year. This is the first Labour debate. I was surprised to see that that the most important issue for Labour is modest, interim measures of Lords reform. It takes priority over the financial crisis, comes before the economic recovery, and relegates consideration of Labour’s views on the growth of business and the reform of public service. I think the party opposite must be hoping that the electorate do not notice.
My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Taylor and Lord Grenfell on the way in which they jointly steered this Labour Peers’ working group forward. I was delighted to be an elected member of that group—elected by my fellow Labour Peers. I am bound to say that my noble friend may have been extremely persuasive in her opening remarks today but, my goodness, she is much more persuasive when she is chairing a committee, and she ensured that we got agreement.
I was happy to support the report, although I should have liked it to go a bit further and I want to develop that in a moment. However, I want to say something about the Clegg Bill, which managed to unite in opposition to it those of us who support an elected Lords and those of us who oppose it. It was quite a political achievement to get all those people on the other side.
Furthermore, in so far as some of us believe in an elected second Chamber, as I passionately do, we believe in it because of accountability to voters. A 15-year term manages to avoid such accountability because once one is elected, one is no longer answerable. So I did not like that 15-year period. There is another argument against that 15-year period that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, advocated, which is this: if people are going to give it 15 years of their lives, they will not be young people. After 15 years, what will they do? How will they get into a career? A 15-year term seems to be recipe for only older people. That is surely the last thing that we want to advocate at this stage. I am against the 15-year term, whether it comes through appointment or election.
The size of the House is getting unmanageable. Let us be clear about that. More people are coming in. When one looks at the figures—and given the number of people who are attending—one can see that it is extremely difficult for this place to function sensibly. If we are to adjust the membership of the Lords after every election, unless there is a way of getting rid of people, there are will be more and more people. The number will rise exponentially.
Well, he is a Lib Dem. Anyway, I genuinely believe that the House will become unmanageable if it goes on being made larger and larger. We have to find some way to control its size. That is why we on the working group looked at a retirement age of 80, coupled with people who do not play their part in this House no longer being Members. Those two things have to go together. I still think, even if I have to fall on my own sword, that that is at least one option for reducing the size of the House.
My noble friend mentioned that all First Readings of Bills should be in the Commons, even if half the Second Readings then come here. That would ensure that the Parliament Act would bite on all legislation. As for giving only a delaying power for orders or statutory instruments, that seems sensible. All of us when in opposition have wrestled with disliking an order and not wishing, as an unelected House, to actually kill it; we have all had that difficulty. So a three-month delay period would be sensible.
As for reviewing the role of the Lord Speaker, although this is not a debate about that important role, the way in which Questions work in this House means that those who are more pushy—I hate to call my fellow Peers bullies, but those who act like bullies—push out other noble Lords in getting supplementary questions. That is not satisfactory, and we know that it does not work. We know that some of us are reluctant to push in with supplementaries simply for that reason.
I noted what the right reverend Prelate said about robes. His argument would be that we should wear them all the time—heaven forbid. The problem, as my noble friend said, is that whenever there is a photograph of Members of this House, we are always wearing those robes and we look totally out of date for modern times. Frankly, it is just not a sensible way forward. I should like to add to that the suggestion that we get rid of titles. If one is introduced or if one introduces oneself with a title, the other person—if they are a normal human being—looks at us as if we are complete nerds, or they become entirely deferential. Neither is a sensible way to have a rapport with anybody. It stands in the way of our dealing and engaging with ordinary people.
I put forward one suggestion before without getting much acclaim, which was that anyone who wants to stay in this House should drop the title and, if they want to keep the title, they should retire for good. That would sort out those who say that they keep their titles only because their wives demand it, which I have heard on more than one occasion.
I support the idea of a constitutional commission, provided that it is not a long-grass job and that there is a time limit, because there are too many difficult issues that need to be resolved. I wanted the report to steer the constitutional commission towards working out how best to achieve an elected second Chamber, but I was dissuaded from that by my noble friend on the very sensible grounds that, if we tell a constitutional convention or commission what it should do, it will hardly be able to do its job properly. We would simply be ordering what should happen.
Yes, many hereditary Peers make a fantastic contribution to this House, but I think that the time for having them is over.
I shall just tiptoe on thin ice on the subject of Bishops. I believe that many of them make an enormously useful contribution to this House, but they do it because of the individuals they are. If Bishops are to continue to sit in this House, I should like them to be appointed or elected to it in the same way as everyone else.
I fear that my next comment will offend the right reverend Prelate. He criticised lobbyists. That is fair enough. However, I fear that I shall make a lot of enemies by saying that the only paid lobbyists in this House are the Bishops. That is an anomaly.
I thank the noble Lord for that comment which deserves a response. Bishops do not represent the Church of England in this House but seek to represent some of the feelings in their diocese as a whole. As the right reverend Prelate said, he is in touch with all the communities in Derby. The Bishops are not pursuing the interests of the Church of England alone but also representing other faith communities.
I hear what the noble and right reverend Lord says. However, I stick by my point: we took care to avoid having paid lobbyists in this House, and we should ensure that we do not apply that principle selectively. However, as the group said, we should leave that matter to a constitutional commission. This is not a bad report. I welcome it and hope that the House will endorse it.
My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, for introducing the report, which makes an important contribution to the ongoing debate on the future of your Lordships’ House. I declare my interest as chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission and take this opportunity to thank for the first time my predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, for his tremendous contribution to the work of the commission in his five years as its chairman.
Noble Lords have discussed the content of the report and previous attempts to reform your Lordships’ House in this Parliament, particularly the Bill proposed by the Deputy Prime Minister which fell in the other place. Important lessons can be learnt from that experience with regard to reform of your Lordships’ House. The fundamental problem with that proposition was that it did not deal with the important question of defining the powers of elected Chambers in this Parliament. That remains a fundamental question. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said, no bicameral Parliament with two elected Chambers exists which does not have a written constitution defining the powers between the two elected Chambers. It is wrong to suggest that your Lordships’ House would have opposed as a matter of principle a Bill that had been fully debated in the other place; rather it might have taken the opportunity to consider this important constitutional question and ensure that, in changing fundamentally the nature of this Parliament by having two elected Chambers, the other place was cognisant of the fact that, as was stated in the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911, Parliament would need to address the question of limiting and defining the powers of the House of Lords. That remains a fundamental issue that should be addressed by a constitutional commission. It will eventually have to be addressed if this Parliament moves from having an elected Chamber with primacy and an absolute clarity of mandate democratically delivered by our fellow citizens, and a second Chamber made up of appointed Members revising and scrutinising legislation, to having two elected Chambers.
I would like to deal with some of the issues in the report relating to appointment to your Lordships’ House and the work of the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission. Noble Lords will be aware that this independent commission was established at the time of the previous major reform of your Lordships’ House around 1999 and 2000 and discharges two important constitutional responsibilities—to nominate individuals without allegiance to party to sit on the Cross Benches and to vet all nominations to the party Benches, the Cross Benches and those of Peers who are nominated through the other available mechanisms. That vetting function is a vital, clear, but sometimes not altogether recognised, purpose of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
In this important report, it is suggested that criteria are published that might in some way match those adopted by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, so that our fellow citizens can understand the basis upon which individuals are appointed to either the independent Cross Benches or the party-political Benches. The criteria that the House of Lords Appointments Commission uses have been refined over time since its inception and provide an important basis of clarity in terms of the qualities that the commission looks for in making appointments to the Cross Benches, and might usefully be adopted by the political parties for that purpose.
In terms of the vetting function for independent Cross-Bench Peers, the commission looks both at the criteria that define suitability to serve in your Lordships’ House and at the criteria and vetting with regard to propriety. It may be—and it has been suggested—that an independent commission might take on an assessment of suitability criteria for party-political Peers. That matter has not been discussed by the commission at this stage, and it has never been put to the commission by any Government or by either Chamber of this Parliament.
With regard to the question of participation and commitment, the House of Lords Appointments Commission has always been of the view that those wishing to serve in your Lordships’ House are able to make a substantial time commitment and are prepared to recognise that they should serve by participation in the Chamber and in the work of the Select Committees, as well as by being prepared not only to provide their expertise but make general contributions to the effective discharge of the responsibilities of this second Chamber. There is an increasing expectation by our fellow citizens outside Parliament that individuals who offer themselves to your Lordships’ House, and are prepared to accept the privilege of serving in it, do so on the basis that they make a regular and active contribution—an important point made in the report.
There is also the important question of whether the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be put on a statutory basis. This has not been considered by the new commission, which consists of an independent chairman, three independent commissioners and three commissioners appointed as a result of party-political nomination. There is no question that there could be justification for a statutory appointments commission, but the issue should be addressed once we understand what the final function of your Lordships’ House is going to be in this bicameral Parliament; once we better understand whether that function will be delivered as part of a fully elected—in which case, there would be no need for an appointments commission—fully appointed or hybrid Chamber; and, on that basis, once we understand the responsibilities that we have to discharge, how Parliament sees us going about those responsibilities, and the balance between elected and appointed Peers. The question could then be put about how a statutory appointments commission could be formed and on what basis the statutes should be delivered.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friends on the report and can support it. I want, however, to use my time to issue what I would call a manifesto warning to the three party leaders about Lords reform.
I served as a member of the Joint Committee on the 2011-12 draft Bill. I supported An Alternative Way Forward, a document supported by 13 of the 26 members of the committee. After we had finished our work, in scribbling around, I started to think about amendments for the Bill during the summer, before it was withdrawn. I came to the conclusion that I should try to get a package together. In short, it amounted to a combination of giving the Lords an extension of its revising powers, but limiting its blocking powers. I shall explain. As has been said, the Clegg Bill refused to look at functions and powers, instead concentrating exclusively on composition. His answer was that solutions would evolve. Indeed, the noble Lords, Lord Ashdown and Lord Strathclyde, went further and seemed to relish the prospect of open warfare between the two Houses. No one took them seriously, but no progress was made.
The two Houses are not equal. The unelected Lords cannot force legislation upon the elected Commons, but the Commons can force legislation upon the Lords. That is as it should be. Leaving things as they are and dealing only with composition will undermine the Commons. When he gave evidence to the Joint Committee, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister, whom I had never met, whether he was a man from the House of Commons or a House of Commons man. The look on his face told all. But he is not alone: none of the three party leaders down there is what I would consider a House of Commons man. Of Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, not one of them has ever been an effective, active, marauding, campaigning Back-Bencher in the Commons. There is not a shred of evidence to contradict that. They are open to the seduction of the manifesto claim to democratise the Lords from advisers less committed to the Commons than they are. The fact that the Commons can be so easily undermined appears to be of no concern whatever. Putting in place an elected element in whole or in part while leaving the current Lords powers the same is so risky it beggars belief they would try to do so.
There is then the primacy argument, used by some as a means of opposing the elected element. The question of whether it is incompatible to have Commons primacy with an elected Lords is legitimate but deceptive. The Lords’ current powers, unused by an unelected House, must be reduced. Why should people stand for election to a House that has fewer powers? Why should an elected second Chamber have fewer powers than an unelected second Chamber? In my view, that is the wrong way to look at it. We have to find a way to deal with this issue.
If we accept the second Chamber as a revising Chamber, a thinking-again Chamber, a holding-to-account Chamber and then give it a real task in these areas greater than at present, it becomes much easier to get your head around the idea of reducing powers—or, more correctly, restricting the blocking powers. I have not set about looking for lots of examples on this because there are plenty around to distinguish between them, but I will give a couple. The beauty of them is they would work with both an elected and an unelected Chamber. They should be promoted now, so that when the issue of election comes around—as it surely will—we will have removed some of the barriers to a decent consideration. It is logical to restrict Lords’ blocking powers, given the powers of the two Houses are not equal on finance or the formation of Government.
So far as revision is concerned, I am well aware that there are plenty of ideas around: there are some in the report we are debating. They do not need to be invented. For example, we could give the second Chamber the power to offer a couple of modest amendments to secondary legislation. The Parliament Act should not apply because secondary legislation is implementing legislation. This would give a boost to the revision of implementing legislation, while allowing the Government always to get their statutory instruments—at a price. We could allow the second Chamber revision of any money Bill that is not a finance Bill. That would stop the nonsense we had last year over the social security Bill, where we were prohibited from discussing what was general social policy. As I recall, there is a legal requirement for a finance Bill due to the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act, so it is quite easy to distinguish between a finance Bill and a money Bill.
As for blocking powers, we could remove the right of the Lords to vote on any Second Reading. It beggars belief that we would chuck out a Bill when we are here to revise it, so remove the power. Okay, we do not use the power, but if we leave it there for an elected House, just think about the potential for problems. If we give the second Chamber powers to amend SIs, I think we should remove the right to reject a statutory instrument in exchange, so there is a quid pro quo. We could propose to stop introducing Bills into the Lords, as was said by the report, or indeed to apply the Parliament Act to all such Bills—that is the other way round. We should certainly give up that power, which gives the possibility of Bills slipping through.
There should be a time limit on Bills taken in the second Chamber. We could introduce a fixed time in which to return to the Commons Bills that have undergone pre-legislative scrutiny. I still favour—I raised this before the last election—special attention being given to Common Bills passed under a timetable Motion. The second Chamber must have the power to carry out proper scrutiny of such Bills, which may or may not have undergone pre-legislative scrutiny, and it should have the power, perhaps by a majority two-thirds vote, to extend the time by a specified period if the Commons has not done its job properly. That would be a big incentive for the Commons to reform its processes as well.
I shall stop there, but I trust that I have given the House a flavour of giving this Chamber more revising powers while, at the same time, taking away some of its blocking powers. That could be done now. They are powers which, by and large, we do not use but they would be there to be used by an elected Chamber if there was no change. In my view, we have to secure the primacy argument before there is any elected element.
I suspect that on my final point I shall be in a minority. It is a point that I raised in the Joint Committee. In the event of there being an elected second Chamber, I would prefer the courts rather than the Government Whips’ Office to make use of the Parliament Act. In other words, there should be a procedure whereby, if no solution is found, the dispute goes to a special court. That would be a big incentive for both Houses to act in a grown-up way; otherwise, you keep the status quo of ping-pong. That sounds like a written constitution, does it not? That is the issue, as has already been said. I said to the Deputy Prime Minister that, if his Bill had become law, the UK would have been the only country with two elected Chambers but without a written constitution to deal with disputes. At one point in the debate, I got thrown back at me Israel and New Zealand, but they are unicameral; they do not have a written constitution and they have only one Chamber.
A sentence in a manifesto does not give the Government absolute power. That is my warning. I am not going to be prepared to vote for any change which undermines the House of Commons.
My Lords, I was very glad to see on the speakers list that I was following the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I shall embarrass him deliberately by saying that he could be relied on to make a most riveting speech going to the very kernel of the dilemma that we face concerning the future of the House of Lords. Therefore, I am very grateful to him for that. I hope that he will not mind my saying that I have long been a fan of his, and I was confirmed in that yet again when he made some very tough suggestions today. Your Lordships should pay attention to a lot of them.
How proud I was, like everybody else, that in this country we do not have a written constitution. We thought that we were totally unlike all the others with their foolish written constitutions. What a mistake. We have our excellent system of—I was going to say “checks and balances” but I am not sure about that now. Governments—post-war, too—have increasingly ruled without a genuine majority vote from the public, shutting out all alternative legislation, and driving unpopular and badly drafted legislation like a coach and horses through the whole system. Thank goodness that there was a still unelected House of Lords to act as the revising Chamber, doing its best to make sure that some of the very badly drafted Bills coming increasingly from the Administration in the other place were improved—at least, at the margin—with some amendments occasionally being accepted by the Executive.
However, this is still all very amateurish and limited. I am grateful for the many excellent suggestions in the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and her team for further improvements following the Steel Bill, as well as other suggestions about modernising some aspects of the House of Lords. That is all very important.
As well as being proud of there being no written constitution, I was also very keen on the idea of an elected House of Lords. Democracy in action—what a good idea. However, the more I have thought about it, the more I have changed my mind on both those things. This country suffers severely from not having a written constitution. A current complication is the Scottish referendum, but that has to be dealt with.
I am sorry; I have hay fever and therefore my throat is rather bad today. Perhaps one of the doorkeepers will very kindly bring me a glass of water because my voice is getting into a bad state. I apologise; I thought that it would be all right. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Northover for bringing me some water.
As always, I am very grateful for the excellent suggestion from my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton.
This is a moment of truth for us. The party systems are not functioning in the House of Commons. There is no agreement on party funding. Why not? Why is it taking so long? The party leaders overreacted on the expenses scandal. Only a small number of MPs were involved, yet the party leaders said that the whole House of Commons was at fault in some way—or the press did on their behalf. The House of Lords is a much more sedate, gentle and dignified Chamber than the House of Commons, which we and the public like. But it does not have the necessary powers to keep the Executive in check once badly drafted Bills have come from the Commons. That is the kernel of the matter.
I have changed my mind too on an elected House of Lords. The House of Lords should not be elected, which I have said repeatedly in the past three or four years as I think more about it. I, like some other Liberal Democrat Peers, strongly opposed the Clegg Bill saying that we should be elected because of the absence of any definition of the powers and the relationship between the two Chambers. I live in France as well, where the relationship between the Senate and the National Assembly is set out in the Fifth Republic constitution. The Senate has considerable power and authority, and a proper salary and expenses, which is another reason why I am no longer in favour of an elected House of Lords. I hope that the senators, as I suppose they will be, will not be wearing robes. I agree very strongly with that recommendation and I disagree with the right reverend Prelate, who has left his place, that robes are important. They are for individual officeholders but not for the collectivity. Therefore, the way in which this is dealt with in the future is crucial.
Senators of an elected House of Lords presumably would be elected with some kind of regional multi-member constituency—probably STV, which is the best internal voting system for parties, as well as for members of the public, in a country such as Ireland. Once that is done, those senators would not only demand proper office expenses for their team and their advisers. Quite understandably, men and women would want a proper salary—and I hope that there will be more women in the future. They would then inevitably challenge the power of the Commons because they would be approached by members of the public who will say, “You must really increase your activity now that you are paid a salary. You are a senator elected democratically by a swathe of people in a multi-member constituency. It is your job as a senator to answer the wishes of the people as well as deal with the healthy revision of the legislation that comes from the Commons”. They also would launch new legislation because the powers would be shifted completely. That is the reality of it and has to be accepted. Therefore, if we do not want that, the Lords should remain unelected. However, there are many additional aspects of modernisation that this Chamber could do which would score well.
Despite the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, nobly gave me a glass of water, I hope that she, as the Whip on duty today, will not be offended if I say that I thought that it was quite right in debates in this place for people to rise and intervene on someone’s point, otherwise it would be just like a conference with people reading out written speeches all through the debate. It would be like a conference on machine tools manufacture in Central Hall Westminster or something like that. In a genuine debate, everyone has the right to intervene—
My natural sense of modesty, and because it is above my pay grade, prevents me from trying even to give a putative answer to that matter. It was just the way in which things are rushed into with badly drafted, inadequate and mediocre legislation in the House of Commons. More and more is churned out which has to be repaired two or three years later by another set of Bills to rectify the mistakes. That was in the early days of the Deputy Prime Minister being in the House of Commons for one term.
It is for others to give their views. I am a great admirer of the Deputy Prime Minister but in this case he was just at the beginning of a learning curve. All that will come out again in the wash. This country takes a long time to make fundamental decisions about its modernisation. Irrespective of what happens in Scotland, which is a great complication, the sooner we have a written constitution and agree to be a modern, powerful, well paid, revising, unelected—that being my preference because if it is elected that would change matters completely—institution, the sooner it will have more powers, otherwise we will drift along with an inadequate system of which we are artificially proud for some bizarre, historical reason.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, will, I hope, be pleased to know that I have not arrived with a written speech. I am making some footnotes on what I have already heard. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton on introducing the debate. The issue goes forward; it goes on and on. My comments derive from being part of the outreach department of the House of Lords, which goes into schools and talks to intelligent, and sometimes not very intelligent, sixth formers about this House. There is mass ignorance about what we do.
When I arrive, with natural campaigning spirit they say to me right away, “Why aren’t you elected? What are you doing here? You have no right. How does it happen?”. When I explain that we do have democracy, that it is called the House of Commons, and that we are a revising Chamber, they settle their first eagerness for change—change almost for its own sake—and listen as I set out the purposes that we fulfil. The most surprising aspect to them is the nature of the Cross-Benchers. They do not realise that we are not all politicised and loyal to our particular Benches. They are very impressed by that.
However, they want to know who the Peers are, which brings me to other issues, some of which have been overlooked in this report. In doing my homework before meeting these young people, I have understood how change has come incrementally, little by little. Some change has been reluctant, some consensual and some argumentative. That is how it works in this country, which is why we have life Peers and women Peers. Change goes on. Here we are in the middle of change and there will be more. Many of the things recommended in this report could be brought about, and should be brought about, quite soon without legislation. Then we will discuss further legislation.
Who should be in the House of Lords? I am a working Peer. I believe that it is a great honour to serve here and that it is very important that Peers should be working Peers. A footnote to that is that working Peers have to give of their time. People who have some expertise and would be willing will have been at the peak of their career and moving towards the end of it. Young doctors or lawyers will not find the time to serve as working Peers. When we ask people to be working Peers, we are asking them to sacrifice or to phase down their professional working lives. That will present some problems of how we recruit.
I shall say a few words about retirement. I am a working Peer who is over 80. I say that as a preliminary to discussing the whole nature of retirement. Retirement in our country is fundamentally changing. We have an ageing population. The whole change of legislation is indicating that people will not get their pensions until they are in their late 60s but, believe you me, that will extend. People will work into their 70s. That raises the whole problem of the life trajectory which people can expect to live. People will age at different rates. They will have different degrees of expertise at different times in their lives. Again, that is a footnote. I want to register that an age number is not the sole criterion in deciding whether someone is useful to a Chamber. Indeed, the practice in many businesses now, as people approach their retirement age, is to begin to adjust their role to offer them opportunities to do less, give them specific tasks and generally ease that phase in which they begin to leave their work so that the institution does not lose their expertise and they themselves are not overtaxed. I know of noble Lords in this House who are over 80—indeed one is over 90—who give extremely good, expert advice. I turn up in the Chamber to hear them speak because I know that they are experts. Medical people and lawyers, too, have reached the peak of their professions and retain that knowledge. The whole retirement issue will again prompt discussion among us.
This is a tremendously interesting report. It is an interim report. But it lost its nerve by not mentioning the Bishops. I am one of a group of people who are not eligible to sit on the Bishops Benches at all—I refer to women. There are no women and they are not going to be elected. Will Bishops be elected? How do the Bishops get their role? The whole issue of the presence of the Bishops is extremely interesting and is bound to change. In the course of its changing, we may well hear arguments for representatives of other religions in our society also to have a place in this Chamber. We are very conscious these days—are we not?—of the mix of religion and politics. The idea that you could have token members of different religions, primarily there by virtue of their religion, is a dangerous path. Again, it is a footnote, but this is an issue that will come up and be pressed by the many religious communities. But where do you stop? There are a large number of them.
These are the footnotes that I offer to this impressive report. We will go on talking. We will probably talk by way of a commission. There is nothing wrong with talk. Plenty of us can do plenty of it, as we know.
My Lords, I welcome the Labour Party report, which is full of interesting and well thought-out ideas and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and Lord Grenfell on chairing that working group. As it turns out that I shall not be able to stay until the end of the debate, I shall spare your Lordships the benefit of my observations on this occasion, confident that another occasion will arise before the House of Lords is actually reformed.
Goodness! That took me by surprise in more ways than one, but I am pleased to be speaking earlier than I expected.
I join in the effusive and widespread congratulations to my noble friend Lady Taylor and to Julian Grenfell—or the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, as we used to call him—who moderated our work so well. They had a diverse group of people to deal with. An awful lot of work was put into this, by the way. We met every Wednesday morning for more than six months—it seemed like six years. It was a long time with a lot of work and a lot of thinking, and we have a pretty comprehensive and relatively concise report in the end that focuses on the main issues.
To be honest, I am not going to talk about what I planned to talk about because I was so incensed by what my noble friend Lord Richard, who has gone, and the noble Lord, Lord Stephen, said. I will deal with the short term later, but looking at longer-term reform, they made two completely false assumptions from which they started their argumentation. First, it is a false dichotomy. We are not talking just about the possibility of a non-elected House or a directly elected House. There are forms of indirect election that can be really effective and produce a second Chamber as we see in other countries with a different role and a different purpose drawn in a different way.
Some of us recently went to Paris and met with senators and found that they are elected in a different way, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said, by grands électeurs. In every departement, the mayors and elected members get together and choose their regional representatives to go to the Senate. Then we discussed with the senators how they resolved problems between the Senate and the National Assembly. They have a way, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said—it is defined and it is clearly the case.
Our general point, which I hope was not a false point in any sense, was that the Labour Party has had rather a long time to consider all this, has made many manifesto pledges in relation to this issue and still seems to be talking in pretty generic, general terms about visits to France.
The noble Lord is preoccupied with the past. I am talking about the future. That is all we should be talking about. I am not talking in general terms: I am talking in specific terms about what happens in France. We could also look at Germany where the Bundesrat, the second Chamber, represents the Länder. It has a different role and is elected in a different way. There are different models. We could look at Ireland and different models around the world. We can learn from other countries. We should be learning. We do not have a monopoly of knowledge here in the United Kingdom, so we should be doing that.
I would explain to my noble friend Lord Richard if he were here why I am enthusiastic about a constitutional commission. The issue will not be kicked into the long grass. We are saying that the commission should have a period of two years in which to report. I am enthusiastic for two reasons. The first is because we have piecemeal devolution and centralisation—I think that the Liberal Democrats agree with me on that. That needs to be structured, reformed and looked at. But also, looking at how devolution and decentralisation fit in with this Westminster Parliament will help to bind the United Kingdom, which is in danger of fracturing at the moment. The second Chamber can perform a valuable role, not just as a revising Chamber, but by bringing together the various parts of the nation of the United Kingdom and the regions of England. It is worthwhile doing that kind of exercise.
I welcome the contribution of my noble friend Lady Bakewell because it was not one of those reread, pre-prepared contributions. It was commenting on the debate. I hope that during the rest of the debate—and I hope it is a genuine debate in spite of the Front Bench opposite trying to stifle proper debate—we do not just go back into the old tram lines of whether the second Chamber should be directly elected or appointed. There are different ways of looking at it.
That is an option, absolutely. It is possible to look at a unicameral option. I was in favour of that. When I was in the other place, I voted for abolition. We have heard about the examples of New Zealand and Israel, and all the Scandinavian countries operate unicameral systems. My only doubt is because of what has happened in Scotland. In Scotland, there is one Chamber which is controlled by one party, which is controlled by one man who decides who the Presiding Officer should be and who members of the committees should be. The committees do what they are told and they do not challenge the Parliament or the Executive. There is no House of Lairds to question, challenge or revise. I am beginning to doubt unicameralism because of that. I have made the main point about the future.
That is a very good point.
Having made my main point, I am glad that I abandoned what I was going to say but I want to make one or two quick points about the immediate changes. I completely agree with getting rid of the robes. I constantly get this. Some people actually believe that we are sitting here day by day wearing ermine. That is what they tweet about me—that I am sitting here in ermine. Anyone who watches regularly can see that I am not.
I agree with the provisions relating to hereditary Peers and agree, of course, with the idea of working Peers. We saw in the Senate in Paris that they are properly paid and resourced. When we do have an efficient second Chamber, that is one of the things that the Government and the taxpayer will have to take account of.
I also do not understand why we have a State Opening every year. We have one Parliament, and a Government are elected for that one Parliament. Why do we not just have one State Opening at the beginning of the Parliament? Why do we need all this carryover and flummery every year? One Parliament is elected, so let us have the one State Opening and get on with it. I am getting some nods, which is very encouraging.
Reform of the House of Lords is overdue. Sitting here, I can get up and say things—I am doing that now—but I do not really have a mandate or authority. I do not have the legitimacy that I had during 26 years in the other place. Reform is long overdue, but I say to and plead with people such as the noble Lord, Lord Stephen, who I greatly admire, not to think that the only option is direct election. There are other ways in which we can give legitimacy to this second Chamber.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, on securing this debate and on the report that is before us. The report constitutes a constructive contribution to the debate on the future of this House. In my view, it is far superior to the documents laid before us in recent years by successive Governments. White Papers have taken as given, first, that the second Chamber should be elected and, secondly, that the functions of the current second Chamber are appropriate and should be retained. By not justifying either point, the Government have avoided addressing the fact that the two are not compatible: if you accept one, the other has to be abandoned. Election would change, fundamentally, the terms of trade between the parties in the House. There would be no reason to accept the existing functions of the House or to exercise restraint in the use of existing powers, let alone to accept those powers as adequate.
By not addressing the contradiction, Governments have been able to focus solely on composition. Election is seen as the democratic option, and the functions are fine, so let us just proceed with election. This stance is fundamentally flawed, so the Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill of 2012 was always going to be a bad Bill. It failed to grasp the need to address functions and powers, just as it failed to recognise that election is not necessarily the democratic option.
This report is to be welcomed because it avoids those mistakes. It addresses functions, doing so through recognising the position of the House within a system of asymmetrical bicameralism. It recognises that the functions derive from the House seeing its role as complementary to that of the elected House. The report puts it very well:
“It is a ‘think again’ house, not a ‘yield or we veto’ house”.
In other words, the House adds value by fulfilling functions that do not challenge the primacy of the elected Chamber. Those functions have, on the whole, been well fulfilled, but there is scope for increasing the efficiency and the effectiveness of the House. The report goes on to say:
“The task then is to find a model for reform that tackles the defects of the present House while preserving its strengths”.
I think it important to recognise that the reforms advanced in the paper are practical proposals that derive from a clear appreciation of the role of the House. I find myself in agreement with most of the proposals embodied in the report, which is hardly surprising given that many echo what was in the original Steel Bill. However, there are a few with which I would take issue. Rather than seek to make what would be essentially Committee-stage points, I will just make a few general comments designed to contribute to the debate.
The report follows the Steel Bill in recommending that the House of Lords Appointments Commission be put on a statutory basis and that the by-election option for hereditary Peers be abolished. There was a reason both were in the Bill. Either they need to be implemented together or putting the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis needs to be achieved before the by-election provision is ended. The merit of the by-election option is that it brings in Members over whom the Prime Minister has no veto: he cannot block a Member who comes here under the provisions of the 1999 Act. At the moment, the Appointments Commission is formally an advisory body to the Prime Minister. By putting it on a statutory footing, one can protect the independence of the commission and there would thus continue to be a route to this House that is free of executive control.
I support the recommendations that this House should be smaller than the House of Commons and that no party should have a majority in the House—again, provisions of the Steel Bill—but I would not necessarily reduce the size to 450. I would be wary, in any event, of a fixed number of Members and one geared to the existing committee activity of the House. I think we could reduce numbers but expand the committee role of the House. I would also be wary of using an age limit to reduce the size of the House, which I would regard as too arbitrary. My view is that we should consider a scheme whereby, at the start of a new Parliament, the parties agree on how many Peers each should retain in the light of the outcome of a general election—the proportions could be geared to the proportion of votes achieved—and then each party group would be responsible for electing those they wish to retain. That would enable the issue of overall size, as well as party balance, to be addressed effectively. Providing that the House was never larger than the House of Commons would prevent the membership ballooning in size.
On the wider issue of a constitutional convention, I am one of those who support that proposal. I have argued previously in this House for creating a constitutional convention, although one somewhat different in scope to what is often proposed. I believe that we need a convention to help us make sense of where we are, and not necessarily to tell us where we should be going—Parliament can decide that once we have a much clearer appreciation of where we are in terms of the structures and relationships that form our constitution. Just over 30 years ago, I published a book entitled The Constitution in Flux. If it was in flux then, how are we to characterise it today? As the report recognises, we have experienced constitutional changes that have been both rapid and discrete. One change impinges on others, but in ways that have not necessarily been thought through. We are particularly vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences. If we plough ahead with further changes, that vulnerability becomes even greater. Hence the case for having a commission able to stand back and assist us in making sense of where we are.
We are now in a situation where it is difficult for a Government to resist the recommendation that there should be a referendum in the event of their embarking on an attempt at major change. I have made the point before that I have a principled objection to referendums, but the problem for successive Governments is that they have not. They have therefore conceded the case for referendums on proposals for major constitutional change. The position was well summarised by the Constitution Committee in its report, Referendums in the United Kingdom, published in 2010. It was for that reason that, as a member of the Joint Committee on the Government’s draft Bill, I voted to recommend that the Government’s proposals be subject to a referendum. The situation is not the ideal, but it is the real, and that is what we have to deal with.
To conclude, I very much welcome this report. It is a considered contribution to debate and forms the basis for moving forward to achieve change which is both practical and desirable. Moving forward on a cross-party basis is to be encouraged. This report meshes with, and reinforces, other contributions to the debate on the reform of this House and I hope that it will be considered seriously by both sides of the House.
My Lords, when I first entered this House, quite a few years ago, there was an anticipation of a modernising, radical Labour Government taking over and delivering their manifesto promises. I was a bit surprised, therefore, when my first pass extended my attendance here into this century. Well, we are past that, we are past the 100-year anniversary of the Parliament Acts, and the future of the House of Lords is still not clearly defined.
I remain a committed and unrepentant democrat. I think every part of the legislature needs to be at least predominantly elected. I recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has just reminded us, that that dramatically changes the terms of trade and engagement between this House and another place. That needs to be codified, written down and made clear before any move to radical reform. I agree with my noble friend Lord Rooker on that point.
Despite my strong views on the long-term future of this House, I welcome my noble friend Lady Taylor’s report, and her presentation of it today, because I am enough of a realist to recognise that we are not going to get a radically reformed House very quickly. Therefore, if we do not do something about it, we will stagger on in roughly the same way for at least the length of the next Parliament. That is slightly depressing but it means that we should look at some changes and reforms to the way in which we do our business that will both improve the way we operate and give us greater legitimacy and a better image in the eyes of the public. I regard this report as being part of a blueprint for how we operate in the next Parliament—no longer than that, no more than that but also no less than that. The group has done a very good job.
I broadly support the intention to have a constitutional convention because there are a lot of other constitutional issues that we need to look at. That does not mean that we will resolve them all within two years, and we will no doubt legislate in a piecemeal way thereafter, but at least we can have a coherent cross-party and cross-society discussion of them.
I agree with most of what the report says about our numbers. We need to deal with our numbers. We need to deal with the way in which people get in here, in terms of at least a modicum of legitimacy, and we need to deal with how we get out of here with at least a modicum of decorum. My noble friend hesitated to use the word “cull” but that does mean a reduction. By definition, the three-fifths rule that we now have will cause a significant reduction, and quite rightly so. People who do not attend regularly should not remain in this House. However, to some extent, the problem with our processes is that the people who do come here are too numerous and want to get engaged in too many things. That does not resolve the problem.
Therefore, I support a cut-off point—if that is the term. I tend to be more favourable to the view of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that we should have a fixed term rather than a fixed retirement date, which is unfair to those who come in when they are 70. Nevertheless, some sort of cut-off point is needed and we need to grasp that nettle. Whatever age or length of term we adopt, some people will be upset and it will be unfair to some. We need to adopt that process, consciously, so that everybody—existing and future Members—is aware of it. In the old days, tsarist Russia was described as “autocracy tempered by assassination”. The House of Lords ought to be, at least for a short time, “oligarchy tempered by forced retirement”. I therefore support the general view on that.
I will mention two points that I do not think have been raised. One is a slightly delicate one and relates to the way in which we are paid, which has been, for one reason or another, subject to some serious media criticism. We are on occasion vulnerable on that front. If there is a three-fifths attendance requirement, why can we not move to a salary basis for our remuneration and why should that not be taxed? One of the most difficult things for the public is to see that we are not taxed like anyone else doing a decent job—and if we are talking about working Peers, it is a job.
I agree with most of the points that the report made on procedure, but I think it was a bit timid on the structure of our committees. One of the strongest arguments for an appointed House is that it brings into the legislature all sorts of experience, expertise and, at least in some cases, wisdom—and brings it to bear on the process of government. But, by and large, we do not make use of that expertise because we do not have a comprehensive range of standing policy committees in the House. We have some good committees, such as the EU Committee, the Constitution Committee, the Economic Affairs Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. All their remits could be broadened, but they are cross-department.
We need some more cross-department committees: for example, on industrial and employment matters, social affairs, and international and defence policy. A huge number of people in this House are expert in that but apart from the EU committees, which are limited by what EU legislation is before us, we never really make use of that expertise in terms of actually holding the Government to account. We have our own debates in which we can all pontificate but if you look at second Chambers around the world, the first one that anybody thinks of is the United States Senate. The great glory of the United States Senate is that it can hold powerful people, in and out of government, to account.
We need a similar process here and that involves us looking at establishing for ourselves a broader range of committees. I do not think that the House of Commons would object to that because the committees would not be dealing with legislation or challenging the legitimacy and primacy of the House of Commons. I know that when the Economic Affairs Committee was established, there was some resistance from the then Chancellor, but we have sort of overcome that. We need to broaden that experience and, therefore, the usefulness of our House for the next Parliament, when for the most part we will still be appointed.
My Lords, it can sometimes feel as though the House of Lords spends more time talking about itself than about any other topic. I do not say that that is a good or a bad thing; I simply observe that it can feel that way. Whether the same could be said of another place I do not know, but given how much time it has been obliged to spend talking about us, it is worth wondering, for the following reason. Many people—I am one of them—believe that our constitutional arrangements are not perfect, but the debate on how they might be improved, both within and outside Parliament, is too often conducted on the premise that the House of Lords is the problem—not part of the problem, which it certainly is, but the problem itself. That is a view that I do not share.
I do not usually participate in debates on this topic, taking the view that there are many more expert and considered views than mine that the House would rather hear. The debate today has made that clear. The views have been very diverse, sometimes very passionately expressed and always interesting. This occasion is different: I was a member of the working group and I welcome the opportunity to add my voice to the tributes to my colleagues, from whom I learnt a huge amount, and in particular to the excellent chairmanship of my much missed friend Lord Grenfell—retired—and my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton, to whom we are also grateful for securing this debate.
To the noble Lord, Lord Stephen, I will say one thing, although I see that he is not in his place. This is not a report of the Labour Party; it is a report of a group of Labour Peers to the Labour Party and should be read in that light.
I suspect that a number of people were surprised, and perhaps disappointed, that the working group chose not to take a view on the question that has dominated discussion of parliamentary reform—whether the House of Lords should be elected. Personally, I do not believe that election is the only measure of democratic legitimacy, but I also take the view, which I realise some will regard as heretical, that it is a second-order question. There are, of course, powerful arguments for and against elected second Chambers; elections of all kinds can be put into that category.
There are also strong arguments for appointment and, indeed, for unicameralism, but their resolution should grow out of a properly informed and widespread consensus—I use the word recognising that some people think that consensus is impossible to achieve and not worth having when you get it—about the larger issue of what kind of Parliament or, indeed, Parliaments, we should be aspiring to, in a rapidly evolving political environment which will certainly look different in five years’ time, whatever the outcome of Scotland’s referendum or any subsequent referendum on our place in Europe. As part of securing that consensus, we must reconsider what part, if any, a second Chamber has to play and then how it should be made up.
That is why I believe that a constitutional commission, as proposed in section 10 of the working group’s report and also in the alternative report presented by members of the Joint Committee on the Bill, is the right next step if we are serious about modernising our democracy. I was very taken with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, when he talked about making sense of where we are. That is an extremely valuable perception in my view, and one to which we should pay proper attention.
The House of Lords cannot sensibly be considered in isolation. We must review and refresh Parliament as a whole, and we must find a way to engage the whole UK population, to the extent that this is possible, in thinking about how it can be achieved. That has never been more important than it is now, when we know every day with greater certainty how increasingly disengaged the electorate, and those who will soon become the electorate, are from the way that politics is conducted in the UK. The reviewing and refreshing should be done with all possible speed—certainly before the end of the next Parliament—and should not wind up in the long grass, whether or not that grass can be mowed.
However, this House should not do nothing in the mean time. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, won a famous victory in the last Session with his Bill, and I also welcome the Bill tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman—who I believe is not in her place—which I hope will also secure a safe passage. The working group has set out a number of proposals for further incremental changes, many of which would not need legislation. Some of them are undoubtedly contentious, as today’s debate has revealed, but none of them is outlandish, and none would prevent major reform of Parliament following a constitutional commission. Collectively, they would allow significant improvement to how we manage our arrangements. Such change is badly needed.
The House of Lords is a formidable institution with an extraordinary history. We are all privileged to be part of it. It is full of extraordinary people. The work it does is always diligent, often effective and sometimes transformative, but its value as part of a healthy parliamentary democracy is not well understood, as we have heard from, among others, my noble friend Lady Bakewell. Its perceived demerits—an opaque appointments system largely dependent on political patronage, and an apparent fondness for the trappings of title and privilege, including robes—are leading to the gradual erosion of its credibility.
Let us not make the best the enemy of the good by refusing to do whatever lies in our own power to prevent this decline. I hope that all of us in this House, despite our differences, can work together to bring about some short-term improvements while keeping our eyes on the big prize of wider constitutional change.
My Lords, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, for introducing this debate, I also record my regret that your Lordships will not have the benefit of hearing from Lord Grenfell, who co-chaired the working group. He is already sadly missed.
The report is acceptable as far as it goes, which is not very far. The authors restricted themselves to a modest agenda. Most of the recommendations it makes seem sensible enough. I hope that the proposals do not have the unfortunate and unintended consequence that, if implemented, they give credence to a belief that the Lords is modernising itself so that more fundamental reform can be postponed. That was not the intention, but that may be the effect. The report is aware of that and calls for a constitutional convention to review our role, along with other major issues such as devolution. I agree strongly with that suggestion, but doubt that it will figure large in the party manifestos for the 2015 general election. We have learnt from recent experience that major changes in the role and composition of the upper House are very difficult to achieve.
Many noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, have said that we need to look closely at reform of the House of Commons. If there is a constitutional commission, it must set about that as a first step, a precursor to wider issues, because if we have proposals to reform and modernise the House of Commons, it will make the Commons more confident to contemplate reforms elsewhere in our system of government. That is very important. As other noble Lords have alluded to, the Commons is not a very self-confident place these days. Not only has it had the expenses scandal to cope with, as my former student the right honourable Peter Hain has just shown, the quality of MPs now coming into the Commons is very poor in respect of being a self-perpetuating group of political people who, from being president of their student union, go to work for a research department, then become a spad, then become an MP and then become a Cabinet Minister. As Peter Hain pointed out, that is at the heart of the alienation between electors and the elected.
Thirdly—again, the right reverend Prelate referred to this—there is the growth of pressure groups, in particular, the growing encroachment of corporations in dictating the public agenda. What President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex has also emphasised the decline in the position and powers of Westminster. If you want political power today, become a director of a multinational corporation and you will have much more influence on public policy, not just in this country but in most countries.
Only when the Commons is reformed and equipped to deal with the needs of the contemporary polity can we have a constructive approach to Lords reform. Thus, while looking at the UK’s constitutional arrangements in the round, a constitutional convention should start by proposing how the Commons could be made far more effective in its primary duty of holding the Executive branch to account. If its tasks and structures were codified and strengthened, that would enhance the work and status of MPs and may help to bridge the gap between the electorate and the elected. All are agreed that growing public alienation and disaffection is an issue that is in desperate need of being addressed.
It is no comfort that popular disdain for the political elites is by no means confined to the UK. The Tea Party effect is felt well beyond the shores of the US. I am sure that at this very moment, a very bright young political sociologist is beavering away writing a definitive treatise entitled “The End of Western Democracy”, in the manner of Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. It behoves all of us to prove that western democracy can be refashioned and made fit for purpose.
I speak, therefore, to support the promotion of a new wave of constitutionalism, to which the Labour Peers’ report alludes. We need to regain the momentum that Charter 88 unleashed three decades ago. Gordon Brown recently observed that we must examine the case for a more devolved, almost federal United Kingdom that, among other things, might in turn release an authentic and substantive form of localism. Bringing government closer to the people seems essential as one means of bridging the gap between the rulers and ruled. Sir John Major this week on the “Today” programme alluded to that likely outcome following the Scottish referendum.
One final point: in any reform of this House, serious consideration should be given to enable it to distill and reflect what I call the UK-ness of the United Kingdom. If more devolution and subsidiarity are to become the operational principles guiding future changes in our governing arrangements, provision needs to be made for the expression of the wider sense of the overall nationhood of the UK.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friends. The tone of their report is right and they have charted out an extensive area of common ground. They are proud of our institution but also critical of it. It always seems to me that the test that should be applied to proposals for reform of your Lordships’ House is not whether they would be popular or radical but whether they would tend to improve or impair the functioning of the House and of Parliament as a whole. The working group has made an unanswerable case for reform and I agree with nearly everything that it has said. Some of what it has recommended has already been advanced in the recent Steel Act.
I profoundly agree with my noble friends when they say:
“Constitutional reform only works well, perhaps only works at all, when it is the product of consensus, conducted away from partisan political processes and electoral considerations”.
No Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister, and no party or coalition of parties, has the right to play fast and loose with our constitution. Politicians are elected and we in this House are appointed to serve within the frame of the constitution. We should have massive respect for the constitution, which is the product of the whole of our political history. A majority in the House of Commons, particularly in circumstances of coalition, does not confer upon the politicians who find themselves in office for the time being an entitlement to rewrite the constitution at whim or act recklessly towards our historic institutions. The formal power to do so does not confer a moral right to do so. An elective dictatorship is still a dictatorship. Our unwritten constitution is predicated on restraint and on the attempt by those in government to construct a genuine majority, indeed a consensus, where major reform is in question.
There is an excellent passage in the report on the desirability of political balance in your Lordships’ House. The working group is right to dismiss the newfangled doctrine enunciated in the coalition’s programme for government that it would be appropriate to make appointments to a second Chamber so as to create a Chamber,
“reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election”.
There is no basis in theory or convention for that proposition. It was a self-serving proposition that betrayed a failure to understand the place of your Lordships’ House within our wider constitution. The role of this House is to scrutinise and advise, to hold the Executive to account and to act as a check and balance against the more arbitrary or ill considered initiatives of the Government and the House of Commons. We perform that role by way of debates, reports, questions and, perhaps most importantly, the amendments that we recommend to legislation.
To perform that last responsibility of offering our advice to the elected House of Commons by way of amendments to Bills is difficult, if not practically impossible, in circumstances where the Government have a political majority in this House. We understand that, by definition, the Government of the day have a majority in the elected House of Commons and will use their majority to get their way. For that very reason it is inappropriate that the Government should also be able to use the political machine, through a whipped vote with an assured majority, equally to bulldoze opposition and get their way in the second Chamber. Ministers ought to be able to make their case rationally and persuasively, and to prevail by virtue of their arguments. The House works properly when no party has a political majority, and certainly when no coalition has one.
There are at present rumours that new Members from the coalition parties are to be appointed to your Lordships’ House to increase their political majority even further. They do not need it, not least because, as we have seen from the valuable statistics offered to us by the House of Lords Library, all Governments—not just the present coalition Government—can typically rely on some 18 to 20 Cross-Bench votes to boost their majority. If they create more Peers now, it would simply be an abuse of patronage.
I am apprehensive of the recommendation in the working group’s report for a constitutional commission. It is true that we face major systemic challenges all at once: the move to Scottish independence which will issue, at a minimum, in more devolution because of vague and rash commitments made by the political parties; our future relationship with the European Union as the integration of the eurozone proceeds; the growing problem of the disproportionate power of London within our national life; and, of course, the widespread disaffection of our citizens from our formal democratic processes. My noble friends have been tempted by a grand attempt to wrap up all these issues in a blueprint for constitutional reform but I think that the parties should distance themselves from any such exercise. It might valuably be undertaken by academics and think tanks, which could elucidate the issues and offer useful ideas.
A royal commission, or a commission or convention, will get things wrong. What they recommend will be found not to work. Even the founding fathers of the United States of America, those preternaturally wise constitution-makers, failed to anticipate the power of the Supreme Court within their system. They failed to anticipate the impasse created by having two elected Houses of the Congress. The members of the National Convention that was established in the French revolution thought that they could rebase French history at the year zero. Their work proceeded amid the utmost bitterness and its products were proved unstable in practice. In the end, much of what they did was undone. The members of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the architects of devolution, thought that they had designed a system which would be proof against one party and one man dominating the Scottish Parliament and driving Scotland on a reckless path towards the break-up of the United Kingdom. They failed to foresee the future.
The phrase “constitutional settlement” always rings an alarm bell with me, as it did when I saw it in the report. There is no such thing as a constitutional settlement. Written constitutions are in due course amended or indeed overthrown; unwritten constitutions continuously adapt and develop organically in response to new events and needs. That is their great merit. My noble friends were right to call for gradualism: for an incremental, pragmatic and cautious approach of testing opinion, seeing what works and beginning to descry what may be appropriate at the next stage. However, they contradicted themselves by then saying that there ought to be a commission to report within two years by working at breakneck speed—the grass would be far too short—and then that there should be legislation within the next Parliament. If we were to proceed that way, I fear that way constitutional madness would lie.
As politicians, we are guardians and trustees of our constitution. If Parliament, after much debate, concludes that major constitutional change is needed and that there ought, for example, to be an elected second Chamber then it would be right that that proposition should be put to the people in a referendum. The constitution belongs to the people and not to the political class.
My Lords, I, too, strongly welcome the report. My noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton and my good friend Lord Grenfell, now ensconced in Paris, have done a remarkable job. They have taken on board a clear change of mood in the country about the question that we are trying to answer. A degree of repetition and predictability had come into the debate regarding elect/appoint, to which the answer was primacy or non-primacy. You cannot get on a horse called Primacy of the House of Commons while at the same time getting on another horse going in the exact opposite direction called Elect, without having to have a kind of Supreme Court role in the middle.
It is indicative of the value of the report that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, a speaker of some distinction on these matters on the Conservative Benches, has expressed his appreciation for the open-mindedness with which the members of the Labour Party commission have approached this question. I think that that is significant.
Something whose significance I do not know—maybe a member of the commission could answer this later—is that for the past couple of hours, the annunciators have referred to the Labour Peers’ Working Group report on the future of the House of Lords and its place in “a wider constitution”. The actual terms of reference were to consider long-term proposals for reform of the House of Lords and its place in “the wider constitution”. I have been thinking about that. “The wider constitution” suggests that we have a fixed constitution and we have to find how the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fit within it. If we are starting to use the phrase “a wider constitution”—although it may be that I am just picking on an accidental usage of the indefinite article on the annunciators—given what is happening in so many related debates at present, that may be apt. I think that we are indeed now talking about the place of reform in “a wider constitution”—in other words, a constitution that does not look exactly like the one that we have at the moment. That has been an interesting change in the past few months.
To mention one context, whatever happens in the Scottish referendum, there will be shifts in some ways between the balance in London and Edinburgh. Need one say that the role of the Treasury comes into this? Then there will be knock-on effects of any Treasury changes in the rebalancing of the north and south of England and so on and looking at whether there is too much centralisation in the great wen called London.
That relates to the discussions that we have had about how people get into this House and the imbalance in the socioeconomic groups that they come from. We have exacerbated that problem by the way in which, as some people have pointed out, our expenses system makes it pretty tough for people living in the north of England, who have a genuine need for a second home, to keep up a second home here for 365 days a year for only 120 days’ expenses. That is also relevant to how we see our role fitting in with the changing perceptions around the country of what we want politicians for, whether we in this House are politicians and so on. I say to my noble friend Lord Whitty that simply electing “another lot of politicians”, selected in exactly the way that the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, referred to, prima facie cannot be the answer to the question that has been posed.
All these thought-provoking problems lead us to the criticism that has been made that it is not really a sensible idea to throw everything under the sun into a convention. We all have experience of these matters in different fields. Surely the point can be made that we could have some sort of umbrella framework commission to see precisely how things interact within the scope of those examinations. I do not think that it would mean a royal commission report volumes thick; it would not need to be much longer than this report, as clear thinking by people with experience is what is needed.
I have two other remarks to make. One is about size. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will appreciate the hubris of their demand in 2010 that the proportions in this House reflect the results of the previous election; it is most unlikely, if one were to take that literally, that that would be very good news for them a year from now. I am not saying this in any spirit of trying to be clever about it but it simply shows that one needs a long-term interparty agreement, possibly chaired by the chairman of the statutory Appointments Commission once it becomes statutory—not, by the way, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, in order to have anyone else select which members of the Conservative Party become Conservative Members of this House but simply to get the balance between the parties. That is certainly overdue.
My other remark is that we have to look at the internal workings of the House. I support some of the points made by my noble friend Lord Whitty about our committee structure. If we are going to elect everyone, we might start by electing members of our committees.
My Lords, I have listened to and read our debates on the gracious Speech with interest. I was struck by the catalogue of omissions that this Government had made and what should have been done. I am therefore delighted that the first debate in Labour time is a navel-gazing exercise on reform of the House of Lords. It is also the first debate on reform of the Lords that I have taken part in where Conservative Peers have been outnumbered by Labour Peers by over five to one.
I found the report a very interesting document and a useful contribution to our ongoing debate about reform of the Lords. I have one criticism of it: I thought that the way in which the recommendations were set out made it difficult to tie them in with the places in the text where they appeared. That could have been clearer.
However, we ought not to be considering reform of the Lords without the wider context. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said, reform of the other place is just as important as reform of this one. While I am on Bishops, or indeed past Bishops, I say to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that defeats are but a small part of what this House does. When I was a Minister I was much more interested in getting a compromise with the other side. There was therefore no Division and it did not strike a headline, but it was actually better for the country to do it that way round.
People change when they come to this House. It is noticeable how many Members from another place change when they come here. Therefore, I say to my noble friend Lord Stephen that he should not be surprised that some in the Labour Party have changed their position, from being abolitionists of this House, to wanting an elected House, to wanting something a bit more democratic, a bit more in touch. That is quite normal when people come here and see the advantage of this House and that it should be maintained.
Where I disagree profoundly with the report is on the question of hereditary Peers, and I do so on a point of principle. I take your Lordships back to 1999 when we discussed this and what the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, said. He was referring to the Weatherill agreement:
“The noble Lord’s amendment would provide for the interim retention of one in 10 of the hereditary Peers, 75 out of the existing 750, plus 15 hereditary office-holders, until the second stage of House of Lords reform has taken place. The amendment reflects a compromise negotiated between Privy Councillors on Privy Council terms and binding in honour on all those”—
I stress “all those”—
“who have come to give it their assent. Like all compromises it does not give complete satisfaction to anyone. That is the nature of compromise”.—[Official Report, 30/3/99; col. 207.]
A lot of people who had served this country well left this House as a result of that. There was no alternative to that compromise. It was a fait accompli. We were not allowed to amend it. It would be quite wrong for the hereditary Peers to be removed and for by-elections to be stopped until we have stage two. I see it as somewhat similar to Russia being able to tear up an international agreement about Ukraine when something binding in honour in the House on which we voted is summarily torn up. I will fight that—
No, I am not going to give way to the noble Lord. I have limited time, and I will debate this with him at length on another occasion.
The report suggests that attendance should be three-fifths of the working time. That happens already. If one looks at the latest figures, since the 2010 Session the figure is already more than 60%, and I am glad to report that the hereditary Peers are higher than the rest of the House. It just shows that the hereditary Peers are taking their duties more seriously than the life Peers. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that it is the hereditary Peers who are the block to stop the subtle creation of an appointed House. He and I want an elected House; therefore, I say to him that we should keep the hereditary Peers because we are his best chance of getting the elected House.
On the size of the House, I think 450 is too large. I would like to see a House half the size of another place. I shall make two suggestions about how we can get to whatever figure is agreed, be it 450, 300 or half the other House. We have had an election of hereditary Peers, so why do we not have an election of life Peers? That would reduce the numbers quite happily.
My second suggestion would be that no MPs are allowed to be made Peers until five years after they have ceased to be an MP. One could offer them a peerage without the right to sit in this House, but I think it would help the House if there were rather fewer former MPs. Our debates have changed in character enormously due to their influence. A lot of that is to the good, but there is quite a lot that is to the bad.
I disagree about money Bills. I think the House of Lords should now discuss money Bills. I would say that we are better qualified, having listened to the work of some of our committees, to discuss money Bills than those in another place. I hope that we will be able to discuss them.
Let us take a step back to look at the future. Some people have talked about a constitutional convention or committee to look at this. Whatever happens in Scotland on 18 September, the constitution of this country has to change. We cannot stay with the status quo. Therefore, it might be that this Chamber becomes the chamber of the regions in due course. It would be a very good use of this Chamber. There will have to be fewer Scottish MPs in the other place and there will have to be more self-governance for Wales and perhaps other parts of the United Kingdom, so this Chamber could be transformed to a chamber where all those features came together to discuss things which would not be discussed in another place. We could also continue our role of looking at Europe in a critical way, which we do so effectively in our sub-committees and Select Committees.
My Lords, the House does not often spend a day debating a report by a committee of one of the parties in it. Naturally, as a member of my noble friend Lady Taylor’s group, I hope that the quality of our report justifies it. Certainly under the admirable joint chairmanship of my noble friends Lady Taylor and Lord Grenfell—goodness, we miss him—we did not approach our task in a partisan spirit.
There is another good reason why this House should address a Labour report on this subject. We are not going to see fundamental reform of this House under a Tory Government, not under one in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and not under a majority one. Tory Back-Benchers crushed the misbegotten Clegg Bill, and the humiliation is not one that any Tory Prime Minister is likely to wish to repeat. However, it is perfectly possible that a Labour Government would contemplate fundamental Lords reform, particularly if the party required the support of any Lib Dems who may remain in the new Parliament to form a Government. What form should that fundamental reform take? That is the question our report addresses.
As several noble Lords have said, our group did not opine on election to the Lords. We agreed instead on two related propositions: first, that Lords reform needed to be looked at by a broad constitutional commission; and, secondly, that any move to election should be subject to a referendum.
We did canvass one major objection to election, which has come up in this debate; namely, that it would lead to a power struggle between the two Houses of Parliament. That part of the case has been immeasurably strengthened as a result of recent developments. We do not now have, or we cannot be sure we are going to have, a three-party system in England. We have a four or perhaps five-party system emerging. It is perfectly possible that the next Government will be formed by a party with, say, 30% to 35% of the Members of the House of Commons on a turnout of say 66%, a Government who have the support of only about a fifth of the electorate. If at the same time you had a Lords elected on a proportional basis, which has always been the proposal for this House, its Members would be sure to go for a power grab. That is what elected people do. If you have any doubts, see the present bid by the European Parliament to seize control over who becomes President of the European Commission. Unlike the situation in the French Senate, which has been referred to, we do not have a mechanism in this country to resolve contested issues where the two Houses disagree, although our report suggests that such machinery be created. So the danger of stasis would be very great indeed. The Americans, of course, put up with that, but theirs is a country which wants government to be weak. We, mostly, do not.
I add one other point on the relative roles of the two Houses, which was not considered in our report and which bears on election. Since I joined this House 15 years ago—it seems unbelievable—it has become more assertive and more successfully assertive. The evidence is laid out in Meg Russell’s magisterial The Contemporary House of Lords. This is not surprising. The removal of most hereditary Peers—the speech just made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, will serve as a threnody to their joys—has increased the legitimacy of the House greatly while that of the House of Commons, I am afraid and regret, has unquestionably declined.
The result is a distinct shift in the balance between the two Houses. In most cases, but not all, that has been hugely to the benefit of our national governance—blocking, for example, populist snap measures in response to some alleged movement in public opinion at the cost of fundamental civil liberties. However, what we have had to throw out is as nothing compared to what would have happened if there had not been a House of Lords. Governments would then have had no need to stop at anything. I would fear for the nature of our democracy in a situation under which the House of Lords was a great deal weaker. In other words, I favour a balance of power between the two Houses. Of course, the Commons should retain ultimate supremacy, but the balance now is a great deal better than it was when I first came into politics when, frankly, the Commons got its way, this House had low attendance and with a large proportion of hereditaries was largely ignored by Ministers. The balance we have now is one thing in our constitution which is working correctly.
I have a couple of points on which to end. The Leader of the House manages to say that there is no problem with numbers. You cannot come into this House every day and believe that there is no problem with its numbers. You cannot sit through debates in which people are making one or two-minute speeches, or sit through the bear-garden that is now Question Time, and think that there is no problem with numbers. We have a double-pronged approach to this: retirement after the Parliament after which you turn 80 and a minimum attendance of 60% of sittings. There is no ideal way of getting these numbers down but, frankly, these are hardly draconian measures. The alternative is a House that grows and grows, when the aim should be to shrink the membership to 450.
My final point is that when the constitutional commission meets, it will not face a Cleggian choice between an elected House and the present House. There are many ways in which the House could be chosen. There has today been a lot of canvassing of a more federal House, such as the German Bundesrat. There is a case for that, although I have doubts about whether it is a good idea to have both Houses chosen on a geographical basis, because the House of Commons is chosen by MPs sitting for constituencies. There is a case for a different basis here. I am quite interested in an occupational basis, which is something a constitutional commission could look at.
Whatever option might be chosen, there are complex questions involved in any method of choosing the House about the interrelationship between the basis for membership and party allegiance. For there is one thing upon which our group was absolutely unanimous, and which I hope would command unanimity in this House: we do good work—by God, we do good work —only because in the House of Lords the Government can never be sure of winning.
My Lords, when future assessments are made of this Parliament, I suspect that the biggest disappointment for many—but certainly not all—Liberal Democrats will be our failure to achieve substantial reform of this House. For over 100 years, Liberals have fought to complete a reform that was begun with the Parliament Act 1911 to move this place from depending upon the hereditary principle to resting upon the popular principle.
Only in this House could 100 years be too short a period to consider properly making such a change. I suspect, however, that our failure to achieve House of Lords reform will not be such a concern to the wider electorate. The failure of the House of Lords Reform Bill came as a relief to many Members of this House. Nevertheless, among most Members there is at least widespread agreement, as this debate has shown, that the size of the House is now too large.
Failure to achieve reform means that there also remains significant concern about the powers of patronage exercised by the major party leaders to put their loyal friends and supporters into Parliament. This power of patronage may make the numerical problem even greater in the near future. We could perhaps be heading for a series of Parliaments in which power changes regularly, and each new Prime Minister will wish to add to his or her ranks in the House of Lords to reward their followers, sustain support in their party and assist the swift passage of new legislation.
In the latter part of the 20th century, the Conservative and Labour parties both won large majorities in the House of Commons, which took long periods to ebb away. In the 30 years between 1979 and 2009, we had had only three Prime Ministers. However, in the next 30 years we may have many more than three Prime Ministers, and with each new occupant of 10 Downing Street might come new waves of appointments to this place. The House of Lords could become simply incredible because of its increased size, and much less respectable in public perception than it is today.
Something therefore needs to be done, and it needs to happen soon. I do not think that a lengthy commission is required to work out what should happen; we already have too many dust-gathering reports on this subject. Most of these reports have come to some broad conclusions: that the number of Peers must be contained and eventually reduced; that elections should take place for at least some of the future places in the House of Lords; and that any elections should at any one time elect no more than a third of the Members of the House. Most recent reports have also suggested that Members should serve a single long, non-renewable term, thereby preserving the independence of the House and the primary accountability to the electorate of the House of Commons.
The Government presented Parliament with a Bill that would have done all these things two years ago while retaining a strong contingent of Cross-Bench Peers. Despite strong support in all three parties and an overwhelming majority at Second Reading in the House of Commons, that Bill could not make progress. As it became clear that the idea of more democracy was too much of a threat for some to let a Bill such as that progress, I came to the conclusion that any plan for reform must be rather more pragmatic while retaining a clear aim and purpose.
I would hope that the parties could agree in advance of 2015 that there should be no new lists of politically appointed Peers beyond the Dissolution Honours List.
My Lords, I have no knowledge of the current list. My proposal was simply that there should be an agreement that there should be no more lists of that nature beyond the Dissolution Honours List in 2015. In the mean time, we should pledge to stop the absurd practice of the hereditary by-elections. The idea of “topping up” to keep their number at 92 is simply ridiculous. The hereditary presence in the House should therefore be ended for all but some of the most active hereditary Peers.
We should let voters elect 120 Members of the House early in the next Parliament. Such an election could coincide with the devolved elections in 2016, including in Scotland if it remains a part of the United Kingdom. Such an election could be held rapidly, as indeed Members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were elected shortly after the 1997 general election. Each of these Members should be elected for a single, non-renewable term of 15 years. At the same time, the number of appointments made through the Appointments Commission should be limited to 30 over the course of a five-year Parliament. That is probably enough for one Parliament. Those in both Houses who prophesied that the sky would fall in if we elect a number of Members of this House, rather than have them appointed by party leaders, will see if their prophecies prove true.
If they do not, it will be after 2020 before Parliament has to think again and consider whether to elect, say, another tranche of 120 Members in that Parliament, or whether to return to a system of patronage. In the mean time, we would be joined by elected Members who would contribute to the work of the House. Such a number could not and would not fundamentally change the character of the House as a revising “think again” Chamber. If the sky has not fallen in by 2020, the parties could agree again not to make any patronage appointments, and a further set of elections for, say, 120 Members could happen soon after the 2020 general election. At this point, the number of life Peers—by a process that it is quite hard to find appropriate and polite words to describe—will have reduced significantly.
The use of proportional representation in the elections will ensure the continuation of a healthy balance of opinion in the House, in which no single party has a majority. Those of us who believe that elections to this House can happen without a fundamental upset to the balance between the two Houses will have a chance to prove our point before further stages of election are considered, and everybody will be able to examine the evidence of such an arrangement working over time.
My Lords, first, I thank my genuinely noble friend Lady Taylor for the way in which she introduced the report, and for the report itself. It is also a great pity that we do not have her joint chairman, Lord Grenfell, with us. I might not have agreed with his contribution, but it would have been well worth hearing—and as my noble friend says, extremely eloquent.
I have a slightly different point of view from the rest of the speakers so far. I do not believe that we can go on tinkering around with Lords reform without having, as the report quite rightly says, a constitutional commission that looks at the way in which our whole country is governed, how those people who are part and parcel of the elected Houses—I emphasise the plural—are elected, and finally, whether we should be in this building at all.
I will address those three points. First, being in the modern world, we have to have a written constitution. We have to lay down exactly what powers this place has and how much power we devolve to other parts of the United Kingdom—not just to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or to Northern Ireland, but to other parts of the United Kingdom as well. To me, devolution was always about devolving power to the people, not necessarily to the institutions that represent those people. First, therefore, we ought to have that part of our constitution in the Bill.
Equally, the changes that have taken place in our society in the past 100 years since we first reformed the House of Lords have been quite remarkable—so much so that we do not appreciate just how much change there has been. In this place there were no women, but there were also no motor cars or aeroplanes, you could not travel the world, there was no internet, telephones, television or radio—none of those things existed 100 years ago. We have achieved all that in part because of democracy: because we are a democratic, free society that allows people to develop new ideas, new thoughts, and new ways of doing things. However, our democracy is now in danger of failing to keep up with that rate and pace of change.
In particular, our younger people do not understand why they should go to a ballot box in some strange school down the road, pick up a pencil and put a cross on a piece of paper to vote, when they could do it with their iPads, mobile phones, or whatever. I suggest that we reintroduce compulsory ID cards, which would form the register and then be part and parcel of electronic voting. That would allow people to vote wherever they want, using some form of encryption to make sure that they are the right people, and would ensure that we had a system which at least our younger people and those who are more adept, shall we say, with the new technologies, could understand and use.
My noble friend says “Hear, hear”, but he is younger than me, and I know how to use those things. We have to keep pace with our younger people in society, moving our constitution forward in a way that allows our young people to say, “That is how we ought to be operating. It’s part and parcel of our life—why isn’t it part of parcel of their lives?”.
That is also to do with the policies in our society. We debate education both down the Corridor, in here, in the Scottish Parliament or wherever it might be. However, no one seems to be aware that the whole of the world’s knowledge is available to me on this tablet—not just the facts, but the ideas as well. Our young people understand that and want to use it, but other people do not.
We are moving to an age when the first person to live to 150 almost certainly is now in their mid-30s or mid-40s. That will become the norm. As politicians we need to be aware of those things and think about them.
My next point is that part of that written constitution has to be to move out of this old building. It is falling apart at the seams and we will have to be shipped out anyway. Why do we not just take the much bolder step of moving out completely? This Chamber and this whole building—certainly for those of us on this side of the House—is riddled with the class system. It is part and parcel of a system of class. It was built for an age when the things I have already mentioned did not exist. We ought to be thinking of building a brand new Parliament somewhere else, which is relevant to the modern age, built for the modern age, in which people can genuinely use the new technologies that have already been developed and will continue to be developed.
I fully support the minor tinkering in the report which can be done without legislation. However, the real part of the report is the establishment of a constitutional commission. That will look at our constitution and draw up a written constitution, which will enable us to relate to the new democracies and the new technologies that are part of democracy. That will make sure that we live in the modern world, that we have policies that are adapted to the modern world, and that we are—if you like—moving forward. The tinkering can no longer take place. The gradual change of our constitution in a world that is changing so rapidly is no longer relevant. We have to ensure that we are part of that change and that change takes place.
My Lords, at this time in the debate, most of one’s birds have been shot—or, in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, blasted out of the sky very skilfully. I see that the noble Lord is not in his place; I would be grateful if his colleagues would tell him that that remark was made in an entirely admiring way.
I will begin by declaring a long-standing family interest in these matters, and an additional interest as having had the privilege of being a member of a small group, chaired by the late Lord Carnarvon, which was set up some 19 years ago to discuss the reform of this House. Looking through its deliberations, I was struck by the similarity between the concerns expressed then and those in the thoughtful analysis that we are debating today. Apart from the departure of the hereditary Peers, comparatively little has changed in that time. Plus ça change, as they say in Brussels.
As other noble Lords have said, this well balanced report deserves the closest attention and is a major contribution to the debate. There are many worthwhile recommendations which will command the support of noble Lords on all sides and none. Given the composition and quality of the working group—in particular the co-chairs, Lord Grenfell, much missed already, and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor—this is hardly surprising.
As other noble Lords have said, the report deserves the closest attention. One development that has emerged in the past 15 years is that the greater the change in the make-up of the second Chamber, the more it will flex its muscles—a point already made this afternoon. I suggest we have seen this since the removal of most of the hereditary Peers, in itself in the modern order of things an unremarkable and overdue nod to modern democratic governance, but the result has been to give this House more authority and self-confidence. How much more these attributes would increase, were the House to become fully or largely elected is what makes many of us firmly opposed to such a reform. Nor would trying to placate both camps by splitting its composition into, say, 60% elected and 40% appointed be any more viable. It would merely create an unwelcome divide between the so-called democratic Peers and those who are there for their expertise—or, some might say, the haves and the have-nots.
On particular points, I very much welcome the strong backing for the setting up of a constitutional commission and favour the hybrid option, which seems most attractive to me. I sincerely hope that this pragmatic proposal will be accepted by all parties as the election approaches. The constitution is too important to be steered into unknown waters by ill considered legislation —a fact of life which has, alas, become all too apparent in recent years.
Should there be any proposal that such a commission be submitted to a referendum—as the report suggests—one ought, as a believer in parliamentary democracy, be able to give an unequivocal “yes” to such a proposition. My only hesitation lies in the fact that poll after poll and survey after survey have shown that the topic of reform of this House has come very low in the list of voter concerns, and consequently one wonders whether such indifference and, indeed, ignorance are the best basis for rational judgment when the time comes.
While on the subject of the commission, I express some disagreement with the report’s view on the House of Lords Appointments Commission. While strongly agreeing with the report’s findings that diversity should be a vital element in the wish list, I believe that since its inception—I suppose I would say this given where I come from—it has produced a small stream of extremely gifted professionals who have added considerably to the work of this House and to its reputation outside.
I conclude by reverting to the two reports with 15 years between them, and list some of the agreements: the desirability of no one party having an absolute majority—we said that 15 years ago; the importance of keeping independent representation; the creation of a suitable total of committed working Peers to deal with the increasing workload. As an aside, a total of 450 seems about right, but as with the thorny problem of retirement, absolute cut-off figures can sometimes be an albatross around the neck if circumstances change in any way. The final point of agreement, the worst scenario of all that we envisaged was ineffectual tinkering with the constitution over a number of years.
As has been said already this afternoon, the Parliament Act 1911 was intended as an interim measure, pending comprehensive reform. I suppose that 104 years is a tad excessive, but I am confident that with reports such as the one we are debating we shall reach the promised land before long.
My Lords, it is a delight—as it would have been on other occasions—to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby. We have known one another for many years now and I am not surprised that he has given a measured and generally favourable comment on the report that we are debating. He has said all I need to say about the excellence of this report. My noble friend Lord Lipsey need not fear that the only people round the House who would welcome the report would be those in one particular political party. We have found this afternoon that many of the comments, and many of the conclusions of the report, have been supported on all sides. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Taylor must be very pleased with the outcome of this debate.
I want to comment on two matters, both of which the group regarded as either too difficult, and therefore put into the “too difficult” tray, or in some other way not appropriate for it to go into, perhaps owing to a large number of disagreements.
The first is the matter of religious groups. Here I come in to attack the Bishops’ Benches, and I am glad that there are two of them there now because there was a danger a short while ago that nobody would be there. In recent years various religious groups have increasingly found membership of this House by the Appointments Commission, and the rest of us in this House have welcomed that a Sikh, a Muslim or two, rabbis from the Jewish faith and, of course, quite a few non-conformist Christian groups have been so represented. In other words, Bishops are no longer the only people representing a particular religious faith.
Perhaps, of course, I should emphasise that the Bishops have a specially privileged position. The matter has been raised by a number of noble Lords this afternoon and my understanding is that, at any given moment, the two Archbishops, the Bishops of Winchester, London and Durham, plus 21 other Bishops in accordance with the seniority of their appointment, are eligible to sit in this House. That is a total of 26. Compared with the other religions that I mentioned, which may have some limited representation through the Cross Benches, that is an extraordinary number which could hardly be justified in the long term. However, when changes are made in this House, the short term seems to become the long term. I am not sure whether the Bishops would agree with me but surely, in any new House, the representation of Bishops must be changed. [Interruption.] There we have the usual mix of views from the Liberal Democrat Benches.
I ask my noble friend Lord Borrie to note not only the long history of many centuries but that the established church is part of the equation, as are prayers at the beginning of the Sitting. This would widen considerably what the constitutional commission would look at. Could this not be considered by a different constitutional commission? That needs to be thought about.
I note what my noble friend is saying. My feeling is that, despite this being a difficult question in terms of history—and it certainly seems to be regarded by a number of colleagues through the House of Lords generally as an embarrassing question to raise—I would like to hear whether the Bishops have any agreement at all with me as regards the 26 Bishops who are entitled to sit being a permanent feature of this House.
The other matter in the group’s report that I want to mention was one that was put off for some future discussion—the position of the Lord Speaker. Since we changed from having a Lord Chancellor, we went fairly quickly into creating a Lord Speaker, who, together with the work of the deputies, some of whom we have seen today, does a remarkably good job. However, a matter alluded to several times this afternoon is the large number of Lords and the fact that, at Question Time in particular, there is great competition between large numbers of new Members in particular to catch the eye of the powers that be. It is not the eye of the Speaker, as it would be in the House of Commons. There may be four or five people on one side and two or three on the other—but the job of choosing between them is not that of the person sitting where he or she would best be able to see where the voices are coming from but of someone sitting on the Government Front Bench. Nearly half of those in the House are sitting behind that person and therefore cannot be seen; the Leader of the House or the Whip tasked to consider that matter does not know who is getting up behind him or her. Of course, it is so often the case that the person with the loudest voice is the one heard best.
Would it not be better if the task that we give to a non-independent person, the Leader of the House or the Whip, no matter how fair they try to be, was done by the Chairman or Speaker? We have put that issue aside as the years have gone by. I can see that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, in his role as Deputy Speaker, is doing what I do not think he is supposed to do—he is shaking his head. I do not think that he is supposed to give an indication of his view. Perhaps he can nod, but not shake.
There are certain matters that the group considered and put into the “too difficult” box, and it is a pity that it will be years before we get any conclusion.
My Lords, this has been quite an interesting debate. I am sorely tempted to allow myself to be provoked by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, and I will return to him in a moment. However, I begin, as almost everyone has, by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, not only on her chairmanship of the group and therefore her part-authorship of the report but on the very measured, judicious and tactful way in which she introduced it. I would like her to pass on my thanks, as others have, to Lord Grenfell, who is indeed sorely missed. His valedictory address in this House a few weeks ago was a tour de force, and a memorable occasion for all of us privileged to hear it.
I would just say to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, that the Bishops are here because we have in this country an established church, and everyone who lives in this country—regardless of his race, colour or creed—is entitled to the ministrations of that church. There is a case, although it is one that I would strongly refute, for disestablishment. But while we have establishment, the Bishops are here. That is why the group that produced this excellent report was entirely right—
Yes, of course I do—and next week we shall be joining forces and talking about the United Kingdom.
Although I was driven to go and get a glass of water when the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, was talking about pulling down this very edifice—or at least vacating it—we have had some interesting and thoughtful contributions. My own position is fairly well known. I should probably declare an interest as chairman of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth convenes and which we together founded more than 12 years ago. Many of your Lordships are regular members and attenders of that group.
We have demonstrated, in the trust that we have shown in each other, that there is a degree of consensus in this House on a number of things. First, there is a strong consensus in this House that there should be primacy of the House of Commons within the United Kingdom Parliament. I believe that that primacy is best safeguarded by having an unambiguous democratic mandate, which they hold. We are here for a complementary but different purpose, which is touched on in the report and has been touched on in many speeches during the past few hours. We revise and bring to our debates a degree of experience and expertise, which is a valuable add-on for the general public. I would very much regret the ending of this appointed House and its replacement by something which would be either a clone of or a rival to the other place in constitutional terms.
I put that on one side, because the report makes it plain that some of its authors would favour an elected House, and others would not. The general majority in the Labour Party, it is assumed, would not—and I am sure that the general majority in this House would not. But there are things that we can do in the mean time. It is for that reason that the report is so valuable to us all.
We need to address the subject of size. I would not agree with a membership of 450, because I doubt that it would give enough for all our committees to be effectively manned. I say that particularly because I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who would like to see our committee system extended. Given the expertise in this House, to have a foreign affairs or a foreign affairs and defence committee could only add value to the whole constitutional process in our country. I would very much like to see that. But again the report makes it plain that it is not saying 450 and that is it; the group is merely putting it forward as a suggestion. I think that the House should not be larger than the House of Commons, and a figure of around 600 would probably be right.
The report talks about retirement. This is a very difficult and sensitive subject. I would tackle it in a rather different way. I am halfway through my eighth decade, and I probably will want to step down at the age of 80—but I do not know. But in future, when new Peers come to this House, it would be sensible for the Writ of Summons to be sent for a period of 20 or 25 years, or until the age of, say, 85, or whichever comes sooner. That would be a sensible way of bringing down the age gradually, over a period. But we have so many amazing contributions from people in their 80s—we have had some in this debate—that I think that to have an arbitrary age limit would not be the right way for us to go. I think that that would carry most colleagues.
I believe that those who are here as hereditary Peers should stay, but the by-election system, particularly when there are more candidates than electors for a particular party, as sometimes happens, does not exactly enhance the reputation of the House of Lords. I am very concerned about the reputation of the House of Lords; it is something that means a very great deal to me.
What has struck me most in the few years that I have been here is how we have been able to look at issues truly on their merits. I was told when I came here that in the House of Lords, unlike in the House of Commons, you have to win the argument. There is a degree of whipping, but many of us take it with a degree of discretion, and it is very good that the Government of the day are defeated from time to time. That is what we are here for. If the Government of the day were never defeated on the Floor of the House of Lords, there would be no point in having this House at all. However, it is right that, at the end of the day, we should give way to the elected Chamber.
I am also struck by the lack of party-political acerbity in this House, symbolised by our Long Table, where we sit and eat together regardless of our political, religious or any other affiliations. That brings us together as people and enables us to get to know each other as individuals, as is the case with the group which meets on a regular basis to campaign for an effective second Chamber, which is what we should all seek to do.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I am happy to say that I have been a member of his group campaigning for an effective second Chamber virtually since its inception. Therefore, I am broadly in sympathy with what he has said today.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, on a report which is all the more remarkable for being unanimous. I started off with that opinion but it is even stronger, having listened to the sincerely held differences of view expressed by noble Lords on these Benches, let alone the House at large. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who thought that the report represented some sort of abject failure on the part of the Labour Party, I think it is to that party’s credit that it decided to devote a Labour debate to an issue that might improve the working of the House of which we are all part. Therefore, I congratulate the Labour Party on that.
Like others, I regret the absence of Lord Grenfell, who decided to practise more than what the report preaches by retiring at the unusually early age of 79. As someone who clocked up his 78th birthday just over a month ago, I feel rather like a turkey on the first Sunday of Advent. I accept that an age limit is probably the least bad system of culling. About 15 years ago, I sat a couple of rows behind the late Lord Longford, who said, “I love this place. I suppose if you had to have an age limit, you might make it 90—anything else would be sheer carnage”. I tend to agree with that view but I will go along with 80, as that might be the best solution if having an age limit is the only way to tackle this issue. It is a regrettable and artificial solution but it is cleaner than most other methods that might be proposed.
The other method of culling that was mentioned was that of barring those Peers who did not have a 60% attendance rate. I support that concept and think that I easily surpass it each year but it is quite a high bar, particularly for Peers who live outside London. It would mean that noble Lords would virtually have to be full-time Peers despite the recommendation to support part-time Peers mentioned elsewhere in the report. Those two recommendations somewhat conflict and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that you end up getting retired people rather than younger people. I could not have come to this place 10 years earlier than I did as I had a full-time job which I could not, and did not want to, give up. Fortunately, I had retired as a chief executive a couple of years before I was invited to join this House. I was delighted to accept that invitation and have never regretted doing so. However, only people of a certain age can afford to join this House.
I hope that I can mention finance without lowering the tone of the debate. When we looked at allowances about four years ago, we achieved unanimity on paying noble Lords a fixed sum irrespective of whether they lived in London, Orkney or Shetland. Frankly, that is ludicrous. I had tabled an amendment that would have introduced differing payments but withdrew it because I felt that there was a danger of rocking the boat at a time when the House had reached agreement and might be able to bury a subject that was causing it embarrassment. However, if we are sincere in saying that we want Peers from all over Britain, we cannot go on with a system which ignores the fact that those who live outside London have to meet the cost of living there out of their own pocket, given that it is not the cheapest place in the country.
I also slightly take issue with the report on the 450 target. I do so not for the reason given by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, although I endorse that as well, but simply because I see no logic in it. If the House of Commons is X, I see no reason why we should be X-minus if we are part time. In many ways, what we should be looking for is a daily average of X, which you achieve by having X plus 25% or something like that, with only the Peers who are interested in the subject under discussion attending on that day. The shelf life of knowledge is very short nowadays. It is important to attract people who are not able to attend the House every day of the week; otherwise, you will get Peers whose knowledge rapidly becomes out of date.
I endorse the report’s recommendations on the role of the Lord Speaker and do not think that they represent the end of civilisation as we know it. As the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, pointed out, it is most unfair on the party which is in power because the government Whips do not have eyes in the back of their heads, although they come remarkably close to it on occasion. It is unseemly and ill mannered of this House, which normally sets such an example to everyone, to allow those who shout loudest and longest to win the right to ask a question.
I endorse the idea of a constitutional convention not because I am in favour of unmowable long grass but simply because we face a number of problems. The House of Lords is one of them but is by no means the most important. It would not even be in the top 10. I consider that the issue of how we deal with European legislation would be quite high up the list, as would that of how we deal with the increased devolution throughout the country. The House of Commons itself is far from perfect. We are not perfect but we are in a lot better shape than is the House of Commons. For example, are MPs elected to hold the Executive to account or to be part of it? How can the House of Commons hold the Executive to account when fully one-third of the government party is on the government payroll, another one-third wishes that it was, and you are left only with the people who have been kicked out of office being prepared to express an impartial view on how the Government are doing? Therefore, we have some major problems.
However, I broadly endorse the report because it takes the right approach. If we wait for the perfect solution, we will wait for ever. The Liberal Democrats keep saying that we have waited 100 years. Frankly, if the Clegg Bill is the best they can produce after 100 years, we will need a millennium to pass before we get it right. I think that the incremental approach is the best way forward. My test is this: would the House of Lords be a better place if these recommendations were implemented? I think that it would. I commend the report to the House.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Labour Party for having brought its group together and congratulate it on the outcome of its deliberations. Like every other speaker, I cannot resist mentioning the affection in which I held Lord Grenfell. I am sure that he will read this debate and note how many noble Lords thanked him for his part in all this.
I would like to draw to the attention of the House the broad political context in which we are holding this debate and looking at these issues, which has not been much mentioned. That context is one of considerable crisis in this country, not just in the political sense. By all the yardsticks, at no time since the last war has politics been held in such confused and, I am afraid, low repute, and it behoves us to look at the issues we are discussing in the light of that. I share the concern about young citizens expressed by a number of noble Lords. The society that we have constructed is of such barbaric complexity that it is almost impossible to get to grips with it, particularly as our schools do not have a compulsory citizenship programme; in fact, it is being cut back as we speak.
I do not know about other noble Lords but, time without number, when friends and acquaintances discover that I am a Member of the House of Lords, they say, “Thank God for the House of Lords; it at least shows a bit of independence”. Much as I am naturally inclined to support an elected House—it seems on every conceivable, theoretical basis to be the obvious thing—as things stand in this country, and as the Commons is now, an elected House is not an option.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, gave some statistics about the occasions when we in the Lords have defeated the Government in the Lobbies. I obtained some statistics a couple of years back from the Commons research department, and they are even more striking than his. In the 11 years up to 2012, we defeated the Government 503 times. In the same period in the Commons, the Government were defeated six times—once in every two years. That allows production-line legislation, which in turn has led to us having the fattest statute book in the whole of the free world, which in turn leads to citizen perplexity, which in turn leads to the impossibility of normal, interested citizens being able to engage with what we do here, because the legislation flashes past in droves so fast that many of us sometimes think, “My gosh, has that already come before the House?”.
Preservation of our independence here is, therefore, the first and foremost priority. That is closely related to what many noble Lords have mentioned—most recently the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—the flight path of Peers getting into this place. Let me emphasise that I do not wish to denigrate the House of Commons or MPs in any way; they are a fine lot of people. I am talking about a system. The fact is, however, that if you come into this place having been a businessman, a doctor, a judge, a vet, a teacher or whatever, you have a complete experiential wisdom that, I am afraid, is not available to young men and women, however able, who have led their entire lives in the House of Commons.
The noble Lord would have to agree that the trend—statistics have been published in the press in the past three days—is very much towards full-time politics, I am afraid. The number of MPs who have been in politics before they came into the Commons is increasing all the time.
As I say, independence is inconsistent with being a full-time Member of this House. I am anxious about the numbers game because if you are going to have only 450 Members, let alone the 312 suggested by my party, that is not consistent with people having a duty and presence here while continuing their careers in whatever walk of life. Those people are infinitely valuable to this place. Again and again, every day, we are beneficiaries of that experience which is brought into our arena, and is bang up to date.
I therefore hope that we will resist the temptation to have a specific number of Peers. I absolutely agree that we have to reduce numbers. For that reason, I am in favour of a cut-off at 80 years of age—which does not leave me with many years—and although I fear that all age limits are to some extent arbitrary, this proposal is a reasonable compromise and avoids any possibility of judging retirement on any other basis.
I should like to say a word about secondary legislation, which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, referred to and is important. We should do more to make our oversight of secondary legislation, which is much greater in volume than primary legislation, more effective. Our inability to amend secondary legislation is weird. Is there another legislature in the world that prevents such amendments? It was only dreamt up to prevent the House of Lords being an obstruction to the smooth passage of Commons legislation, but that is not good enough. In fact, some noble Lords may not know that it is possible to put in primary legislation a provision that allows amendment of secondary legislation to be built on the back of that primary legislation. It has happened in only six or 10 statutes—I remember the India Act of the 1920s, for example. We should put in all major legislation, under which huge powers are left to secondary legislation, a power for Parliament to amend it. I also agree with the proposal for a three-month delay, which need not be at the expense of rejecting a piece of secondary legislation altogether. We have done that only half a dozen times in our history.
As a low and doubting Anglican, I cannot resist mentioning the reverberating debate about the Bishops. I do not see why—indeed, I see every reason to the contrary—the Bishops cannot be paralleled by the leaders of other faiths. I would like to see a leading Hindu or Muslim or two and so on. That would add to the richness of our debates. Finally, I cannot resist taking up the challenge of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who, I think, wanted to abolish titles altogether. That might never see the light of day, but why on earth can we not have an option to choose whether we take a title when we come in here? That at least would ease the feelings that some of us have.
Secondly, I add my thanks to my noble friends who wrote this report. As they say, the House needs reform.
The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, reminded us that reform of this House has been debated for more than 100 years. Until 1949 the debate was about the powers of the House. From 1950 onwards the debate was about membership, and in 1999 this was settled to some extent. The reform debate should again turn to powers. Surely the question is: what are we for? Are we here to make the law or to check it over, to revise it? Are we here to hold the Government and perhaps the House of Commons to account? What is our relationship with the House of Commons and does it need to change, as other noble Lords have suggested? This decision is central to whether we have an elected House of Lords or not. As the paper points out, it is important to carry out these reforms while maintaining the primacy of the House of Commons.
Perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Richard that those of us who have been visitors to the United States over the past 20 years will have witnessed Congress, with two elected Houses, slowly disintegrating into pointless partisanship. It is where political debate has been marginalised in favour of last-minute deals—even on important matters such as the budget. That is no way to run a country and I join my noble friend Lord Howarth in thinking that there is a warning for us there.
My Lords, my noble friend was kind enough to refer to me. Perhaps he would answer a question from me? He has observed the United States, as I have done. Does he really think that it would have been better governed in the past 20 years if the Senate had been nominated by political parties?
The answer is: that is beside the point.
We have been struggling with reform since the hereditary Peers left. We have had a royal commission, four White Papers, two Bills at attempted reform of the House and reports from several Select Committees, academics and think tanks. One must also not forget the very sensible proposals made by the Clerk of the Parliaments in December 2012. Little progress has been made because there has been very little consensus. That is why the working group’s paper is valuable. It makes sensible proposals for full reforms, around which it is possible to build consensus. My noble friend Lady Taylor told us how, the more the committee debated, the more consensus emerged. I agree with the proposed constitutional committee to look at the wider constitutional picture and say where we are, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, put it. I also agree with most of the recommendations regarding composition, size, membership, appointment, political balance, and rules for attendance, retirement and procedure. These are all sensible suggestions, but the question is the practical one: how do we put them into effect?
In view of the lack of consensus, I see absolutely nothing wrong with slow and careful incremental reform, taking one thing at a time. One follows logically from the other: each reform will lead to a further reform—the “inevitability of gradualism”, as Fabians would say. The Steel Act is one such step. We need further steps. For instance, the Government could announce, without legislation, a numbers cap and a timetable for reduction of Members. We cannot go on just growing like this. Reduction could then be achieved perhaps by using the same procedure as when the hereditaries left: each group deciding on who would stay and who would go. That would lead to a formula for sharing new appointments between the parties and the Cross-Benchers. The formula would be managed by a strengthened Lords Appointments Commission and in this way the political balance of the House would be maintained.
All this touches on the funding of political parties. A reform of House of Lords membership may even help precipitate a reform of funding. Procedural reforms lie in our own hands and there are very sensible recommendations before us to consider.
This step-by-step reform has to be brought together in a narrative that explains what we are trying to do and why this has become important. It has to be part of our outreach. My noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lady Bakewell both referred to the importance of this, and they are right. In fact, we are quite progressive on outreach in this House: we were the first House to let TV in; we have a Chamber event for non-Members each year; and Parliament Week leads to public engagement and events where people learn about Parliament. We have an excellent website and we are active in all the social media.
As unelected legislators, I have always felt it is part of our duty to explain who we are and what we do, through not only the excellent work of the Information Office staff through their website and social media, but personal contact. People like to meet Peers. Some of us speak at regional meetings of organisations, such as the WI or Rotary. Peers in Schools is flourishing—my noble friend Lady Bakewell spoke of this and she is right. The 150 of us who do visits get the impression that there is little appetite for increasing the number of elected politicians in Westminster after we explain what we do. Indeed, I find that people welcome this House giving Government the opportunity to bring people into government from outside Parliament. However, we have to be a lot more effective in holding the Prime Minister to account for his choice, be it good or bad.
If we are effective in harnessing all this work to explain the narrative of our reform and how we are doing it step by step, it will help lead to consensus in the House and a better informed and more supportive public outside the House. Most importantly, we have to persuade our political leaders to get away from the adrenalin of big reform Bills and be satisfied with a narrative of small reform Bills, which in the end will achieve the same objective.
My Lords, I, too, start by congratulating my noble friends Baroness Taylor and Lord Grenfell on their co-chairmanship of the group, and indeed all members of the group, on their work. I should inform the House that I, too, was a member of the group, although I was nominated by the leader of my party. I am not altogether confident, if I were to put my name forward for election that my colleagues would have elected me, given my views on Lords reform. None the less, it was a great privilege to serve on the group and I think we have had a very good debate indeed. It may not be the last word on Lords reform, but it seems to me to set some sensible proposals on which we could make progress. I hope the Minister will be positive in responding. In fact, I hope he might invite my noble friend Lady Royall and the Convenor of the Cross Benches for a cross-party discussion on how we might take forward some of these proposals.
A number of noble Lords have said that many decent proposals have been put forward and, essentially, the Government of the day have rejected them because they have said substantive reform is round the corner and other proposals would get in the way of it. I am guilty of that as much as anyone. Like my noble friend Lord Whitty, when I was appointed in 1997 I remember telling my wife that I would be here for only three years because by then we would have had a substantive reform Bill. Here we are, many years later. Who, hand on heart, can say that substantive reform will be with us any time soon? In view of that, the argument for incremental reform becomes much more persuasive. I was grateful for the contribution made by my noble friend Lord Richard on that particular matter.
My own party is committed to democratic reform, but we also want to see progress in dealing with the issue of the ever increasing size of the House. I have no doubt that my colleagues’ report can enable us to make a great deal of progress. The noble Lord, Lord Stephen, with some late support from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was a lonely champion of the 2012 Bill, in his fascinating tour round Labour Party manifestos. The problem with the 2012 Bill was that it simply did not deal with the big issue of the function and powers of this House if there were to be two elected Chambers. I have consistently voted in favour of Lords reform, but I do not think it can happen without explicit agreement about the respective powers of the two Chambers and how disputes are dealt with between two elected bodies in one Parliament. Those who have argued that that can be done say that the Lords will carry on as it currently does, but we do not use all our powers because we are not elected. If we have an elected House, it is bound to use those powers up to the limit. There you reach the problem.
I do not buy the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for that reason. He accepts it may not be possible to go all the way, so he would add 120 elected Members to what we currently have. The problem with that is, the moment elected Members are added to this House, the dynamic changes. My noble friend Lord Rooker is right: there is no getting away from the fact that those who want substantive reform—I count myself among them—have to be very explicit about powers and functions.
It is good that there is general consensus about the size of the House. Not everyone agrees we should come down to 450; in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, made points about that. However, it seems to me that there is a general consensus that we need to reduce the size of the House over time. This is where I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government are seriously proposing to make another long list of appointments. I can hardly believe that they will do so but I ask him to confirm, with a yes or no, whether that is the Government’s intention. Also, does he accept Meg Russell’s analysis that adopting the coalition’s formula of making the membership of this House dependent on the votes cast at the previous general election will lead to an existential increase in the size of this House and to it being completely unmanageable? My noble friend Lord Lipsey pointed out some of the consequences of what we have now.
I also challenge whether this House should be a mirror image of the House of Commons. That is essentially what would happen if you had a formula basing membership on votes cast at the last election.
That would be the inevitable consequence of having a half-baked formula for deciding the size of your Lordships’ House. The Government might resist the UKIP argument for one term, but I doubt whether they could resist it long term. They have a coalition agreement and it is pretty explicit in saying what the membership of this House should depend upon.
There is one other factor that we also need to consider and it is probably one of the most important—that is, the role of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, generously recognised that we cannot be a revising Chamber unless the Government not only fear defeat but are actually defeated. However, there is a great risk that if the Government continue to appoint many more of their own Members, those defeats will become more difficult. We know that at the moment the Government have lost about 18% of the votes in this Parliament compared with 33% during the period from 1997 to 2010. This is a serious issue. The House must feel that it has the ability to defeat the Government in order to make sure that the kinds of compromises that existed when the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, was a Minister take place. I have certainly noticed in opposition that Ministers are much less ready to talk to the Opposition and to compromise. That is because the debate is between themselves and their coalition partners to the exclusion of the Opposition and other Members of the House. We have to consider that.
On the question of retirement at 80, not all noble Lords are in favour of that and some think that we should have an election among the party groups. However, being an observer of the hereditary elections, I am not entirely convinced that that is something that we ought to follow. My noble friend Lord Gordon said, in essence, that it is the least worst option, and I think that that is the best way to describe it.
There is, I think, general agreement on people having to commit themselves to the work of this House. I understand what my noble friend Lady Bakewell said—that some people with busy careers could not commit themselves in that way—but I think it is right to expect people in a legislature to devote their time to it.
There is a lot of agreement about secondary legislation. The irony is that we have an absolute veto on secondary legislation but we hesitate to use it because we are not elected. Giving ourselves a delaying power—I think that we need to pick up the issue of amendments—would give the House far greater scrutiny powers in relation to secondary legislation. Of course, when the Parliament Act was passed in 1911, secondary legislation was perhaps not as frequent as it is now, and that is the big difference in parliamentary scrutiny and accountability.
On the question of the Bishops, one treads carefully. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I think that it is inevitably entwined with the establishment of the Church of England, the position of Her Majesty the Queen as Supreme Governor and the fact that many legislative measures that come from the church have to be approved by Parliament. I suspect that until the Church of England itself wishes to be disestablished, which I do not think can be ruled out in the long term, Bishops will continue to play a valuable role in your Lordships’ House, and we should certainly extend membership to other religions. However, this is a cul-de-sac down which I would not particularly wish to go.
There is some support for reviewing the role of the Speaker, particularly at Oral Questions. Having spent two years trying to assist the House at Question Time, I detect an emerging consensus that the Speaker’s role might be extended in that way.
My noble friend Lord Maxton made a very important point about what might be discussed in a convention. Not all noble Lords are in favour of such a proposal, but we cannot consider Lords reform in isolation from the many other pressing issues that we face in relation to the constitution, not least, as my noble friend said, in today’s era of new technologies, and also, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said, in view of young people’s disengagement from politics. My noble friend Lord Maxton wants to move out of this Chamber. I can only tell noble Lords that a warm welcome awaits them in the beautiful city of Birmingham.
On the Appointments Commission, I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, concerning what he described as a quango making appointments to a legislature of the UK Parliament. On the other hand, when it comes to political appointments, there is a case for some external scrutiny. However, I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, about protecting the independence of the Appointments Commission.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, raised the interesting issue of hereditary Peers and referred to the agreement of 1999, from which he quoted. I was the government Whip on the Bill at the time and I remember it well. That was of course 15 years ago and we have had three general elections since then. I say to the noble Earl that stage two of the reform has never been defined. At least in relation to the by-elections, I certainly sense that there is a consensus for those to come to an end.
In conclusion, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. From all sides of the House they have been generous about the work of the working group and that is very much appreciated from this side. I hope that the Minister will be able at the very least to say that the Government are prepared to consider these issues and that they will invite my noble friend who is sitting on the Bench beside me and the Convenor of the Cross Benches to a meeting to see whether we can agree to take these measures further.
My Lords, when I first heard that we were to have another five-hour debate on Lords reform, my heart sank. After the long series of debates that we had on Lords reform in 2011-12, I had a nightmare that I had been condemned to wind up a Lords debate once a week. The person sitting opposite me was rather fuzzy in my nightmare but I fear that it was probably the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, whom I was responding to on each occasion.
However, this is a constructive, useful and modest report, which makes a number of, on the whole, rather conservative proposals. I note that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said that it is a report to, and not from, the Labour Party. Yesterday, I looked at the speech that Stephen Twigg had made to the Electoral Reform Society last month. On Lords reform, he said:
“What I can say is this: Labour is committed to a democratic second-chamber. Ed Miliband has shown that he is a leader with a radical zeal—and this will be true for Lords reform”.
I think that this report is a little bit like Talleyrand’s remark, “Pas trop de zèle”.
Stephen Twigg also said in his interesting speech that one problem with the Lords as currently constructed is that more than 40% of the Peers who regularly attend the House are based in London or the south-east, compared with some 2% in the West Midlands and some 4% in Yorkshire. We all recognise that the Lords, as currently constituted, has a range of problems and that it does not, as the report says, reflect in very many ways the diversity of the United Kingdom. We also recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, remarked, that that is partly because it is so much cheaper and more convenient if one is based in London. Therefore, there is an incentive to move to London once appointed.
I had the great advantage of having been offered a post in the London School of Economics three months before my party leader suggested that he might nominate me for the Lords. It was therefore possible to combine a career with membership of the House of Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, was appointed on the same day as me. He was vice-principal of the University of Aberdeen and found arranging his life to fit in with Lords business a little more difficult than I did.
The report states that,
“reform of the Lords is not an issue that can be tackled in isolation from other constitutional issues”.
I strongly agree with that, and a number of noble Lords said it in this debate. Before commenting on the specific proposals, I shall address some of the broader contexts of constitutional change within the United Kingdom. The other day, a number of us had a useful debate in the Moses Room on exactly that issue. I hope that I will not embarrass the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, if I tell him that my opinion of his expertise on constitutional issues continues to rise every time I hear him speak. That will do him no good at all with his colleagues, but never mind.
A new all-party group chaired by my noble friend Lord Purvis, and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is looking at the implications of devolution for the overall constitution. That is exactly the sort of thing we all need to address and will have to address after the Scottish referendum when, as we hope, the Scots vote against independence but expect further devolution, as the Silk commission promises the Welsh—and indeed, there are questions on Northern Ireland.
The English question has come up a number of times in this House. I regard the English question as partly the London question and a question for the whole of the United Kingdom. How do we counterbalance the economic, political and social dominance of London? If you do your politics in Yorkshire, you are acutely aware that the north of England loses out very heavily from the extent to which the devolved Parliaments have begun to establish their independent voice. I go to meetings inside government in which I hear the Scottish dimension, the Northern Irish dimension and the Welsh dimension, but no one mentions the Yorkshire, north-western or south-western dimensions. That is a problem which we all face and which we all have to address.
I hope that all noble Lords will have noted the Government’s various proposals on city deals and the attempts being made, starting with Manchester and following on with Leeds and others, to devolve and decentralise to the major city regions within England financial powers and powers over economic growth. If that is carried through, that would begin to resolve some parts of the English question. Furthermore, it would carry further implications for the governance of the United Kingdom. If the centralisation of England is reduced, we will need fewer departments and fewer civil servants in London. We may then perhaps need fewer Ministers in Parliament. Therefore, perhaps there would be a House of Commons that sees its job less as preparing for service in government and perhaps a little more as checking and controlling the Executive.
We are now engaged on a whole set of questions. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act also has implications. There have been some rather interesting reports from parliamentary committees and from the Institute for Government on how we might use the last year of government to prepare for the next Session. It could be along the lines already adopted on national security strategy where we have agreed—the previous Labour Government set this out—that each new Government should define a national security strategy on the basis of work conducted in the last year of the previous Parliament.
The Institute for Government’s report suggests that in the last year of a Parliament, we should not rush through great masses of additional legislation, as I recall the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, demanding that we do, but that we should discuss some of the dilemmas that whoever is elected will have to face—for example, the rising costs of the National Health Service and how it is funded and some of the other huge questions that will face any Government—and look therefore at a scrutinising role.
Public disengagement was mentioned in the report and by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, in her opening speech, as well as by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. When I read the Hansard Society’s recent Audit of Political Engagement I was shocked that only 24% of 18 to 25 year-olds think that politics has any relevance to them.
The noble Lord is describing a constitutional process that clearly will be lengthy. The agenda he has given to the Constitution Committee is long. It will take a lot of examination and discussion. There will be a lot of evidence and thinking. Does he really think that House of Lords reform should wait until all that is done?
I have in my notes that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that further progress in Lords reform does not have to wait for the conclusions of any constitutional convention. However, I would just make the point that we are moving into a situation where various dimensions of British politics are changing, and we need to discuss how they relate to each other.
Public engagement very much concerns us. The decline in the reputation of the House of Commons should also concern us. I love listening to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. He is a romantic for the House of Commons as it should be, and he was one of the best House of Commons men that we had. I fear that the new generation does not produce as many House of Commons men who are as good as he was.
We have the decline of the two-party system and of parties as such. All political parties now are small compared with where we were some 20 years ago. It is quite possible that the outcome of this coming election, as has been suggested, will not be a two or three-party system but a four or five-party system. With the Northern Irish and Scottish parties, there are already multiple parties in the House of Commons. We could have an awkward situation after the next election in which Labour emerges with the most seats and the Conservatives emerge with the most votes, and no two parties alone would be able to form a majority. That is getting into very uncharted territory as to how we would then proceed. I read the New Statesman and listen to Labour people talking about a Labour mandate and how Labour could form a minority Government with a clear mandate. A mandate on, say, 33% of a 60% turnout is not exactly clear.
The case for a commission or convention is out there. There was an excellent report by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee last year which suggested that the Government have no view on this issue at present. However, personally and as a Minister, this is a question that we ought to be debating in the last year of this Parliament. I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others are doing. It is one that we all need to consider because we need to look at how all of this runs together.
Recommendation 1 of this proposal is that we need to think about a constitutional commission or convention. There is not time within the next three months or even nine months to define exactly what we want, but it is precisely the sort of thing to which we might return in future debates between now and the election.
On Lords reform, we have been here for a long time. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, after all, chaired the Joint Committee and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, reminded us that he was on the Wakeham commission. The Government remain committed to comprehensive reform, as indeed does the Labour Party officially. The noble Lord, Lord Stephen, remarked that the 2012 Bill, criticised sharply from the Labour Benches, closely followed Jack Straw’s White Paper.
The Byles/Steel Act has now introduced some useful interim reforms, and if we accept the proposals in this report as interim and not intended to avoid more comprehensive reform, there are a number of useful and constructive proposals for the interim, some of which are familiar and some of which are relatively new. Quite a number of them can be agreed by this House without requiring further legislation through the normal procedures and usual channels. We are of course open to further discussion on that. On the proposals in the report—
The House has a structure of committees that regularly discuss House procedures. I am not able to give any commitment. We have already discussed within this Parliament the question of the role of the Lord Speaker, for example, and the House decided at that point that it did not wish to move further. It is unlikely between now and the next election that major changes will be agreed and made, but it is certainly quite appropriate that further discussions should continue.
On the question of the size of the House, the figure of 450 Members suggested in this report was in the Government’s Bill. In the long run, we might also have a smaller House of Commons if more power is devolved to the regions and the nations. Indeed, the Conservative proposals that fell saw a House of Commons of 600 rather than 650. How to move from here to there is of course the most difficult issue. Do we go for an age limit or for a time limit—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, suggested, a post-election weeding out within each group, which would be a wonderful series of bloodlettings within each of the two groups?
A member of the Supreme Court talked to me some months ago about the statutory age of senility. It is a wonderful concept which, for judges, is slowly being reduced from 75 to 70. The suggestion is made here for the Lords’ statutory age of senility to be 80. I realised the last time we debated this that I will hit 25 years of service in this House within a couple of months of reaching the age of 80—and that, clearly, is the point at which I should do what Lord Grenfell did so gracefully and retire. We should all accept that we cannot move from where we are to where we would like to be without a number of us retiring. The suggestion that I think I got from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that those of us who are here already should somehow be exempt from the changes, is not possible.
The reason I will not give any commitment about future lists, although I am not aware of any list at the present, is that we need to keep renewing and refreshing the House. As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, said, experience and expertise go stale. When I joined the House, it had an average age of 67. It now has an average age of 70—I have just passed it. It has 139 Members over the age of 80 and only 131 under 60. That House is a little difficult to defend.
Does the Minister not accept that most people think that the major motive of Governments in having extra lists is that they will have a net increase in their number here. The idea that it is motivated by renewal of the House is not how the dark arts of 10 Downing Street operate.
My Lords, I am not an expert on the dark arts of Downing Street—perhaps the noble Lord is. I simply stress that the question of age balance is important, and the idea of a House that stops recruiting new Members and simply grows older and older relatively gracefully is not one that we would accept or recognise.
It is one way of addressing the question of topping up after the election. We also have to grasp the question of retirement. It was intended, when the retirement proposals came in, that a larger number of Peers would take the option of retirement and follow the excellent example of Lord Grenfell in that respect, but that has not actually transpired so far.
There were a number of recommendations in the report about the appointments process. I note that the appointments process will remain centralised and largely agreed by party leaders, although that is itself a question. The Bill that the Government put forward proposed to make the House of Lords Appointments Commission a statutory commission and, in any comprehensive reform, that would happen. The question of political balance is one of the most difficult ones. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that if UKIP establishes itself as a significant party in British politics, it would of course be appropriate to have a number of UKIP Members in this House. He might have wished to add that given the level of attendance of the current UKIP Members, both here and in the European Parliament, we might not notice the difference. We already have a Green Member of the Lords, which recognises that British politics is shifting. That is also part of what is appropriate to reflect the changing political balance.
The need to reflect diversity across the UK is a tremendous problem, which election on a regional basis would resolve, as of course would indirect election. I am struck by the number of Peers who raised the question of indirect election in this debate, as it has not received very much attention until recently. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Trimble, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and other noble Lords mentioned it. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, talked about it having an occupational or functional basis—a sort of guild socialist approach. The Cross Benches, after all, are well organised: the academies, in particular the medics, always put forward their members. Incidentally, when it comes to lobbies, I have to say to right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby that the biggest lobby in this House is the academic lobby—I hope he has noticed that I used to be part of it myself.
As to working Peers, part of the reason that attendance has risen in recent years is because one is asked, before one comes in, whether one is prepared to work hard. However, those of us who were appointed when we still needed to earn our pensions would like to go on working until we have finished earning them, so the Government do not intend to produce a high bar of the sort that is proposed here. It is a matter of judgment the extent to which Members should be full-time or part-time but, again, if we want Members under the age of 60 who still have children to bring up and careers to finish, we have to consider how much we insist on their attending all the time.
The House can decide to end the wearing of robes. I have much sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that it would be a little more radical to suggest that we might end the use of titles, but that would be a more deliberative step.
Do we need a referendum on Lords reform? The Government’s view is that, since each of the major parties had it in their manifesto last time, it was a clear consensual commitment and a referendum is therefore not necessary. A number of procedural reforms were proposed in the report which, as I have already said—
I have to admit that I do not recall whether the party had a commitment to a referendum on Lords reform. If it did, that is fine.
I will wind this multifaceted debate up as quickly as I can. The House of Lords has changed a great deal over the past 20 years. Certainly, since I came in, in 1996, we have become a much more effective revising Chamber and a much busier Chamber. We have become the area through which the lobbies outside know that they can get things. Figures were quoted about the number of government defeats, although my figures do not entirely agree with those of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and we might perhaps exchange ideas outside the Chamber. As a Minister taking Bills through, I am conscious that we are always saying to Commons Ministers, “You won’t get that through the Lords unless …”. As we all know, a great deal of what happens in the Lords is about bargaining and about the Government bringing back proposals to meet criticisms that have been made.
Let us treat this as a final-year-of-Parliament debate. There is not time for legislation before the general election but ideas such as those produced can feed into the thinking of the next Government—whoever they may be—and perhaps even build a consensus across the parties on the way forward.
The Minister has not addressed directly the suggestion put forward by my noble friend Lord Hunt that the Leader of the House might get together with the Leader of the Opposition and the Convenor of the Cross Benches to discuss the way forward. That seems a very sensible suggestion and it would be helpful if the Minister could indicate assent to that.
My Lords, I am sure that the Leader of the House would be very happy to meet, as he regularly does, the leaders of the other groups in the House, and that this could be part of an informal, or perhaps a more formal, conversation.
I end by simply reminding the House—in particular the noble Lord, Lord Richard, whom I remember laughing as I said it—that in answer to a rather sharp question some time ago on why the Church of England had not got around to appointing women bishops, I suggested that the Church of England might well appoint its first woman bishop before we achieved the next significant stage of House of Lords reform. I think it is quite possible that we shall have half a Bench of women bishops here before we achieve the next stage of House of Lords reform, but let us keep going and hope to achieve it soon.
My Lords, I thank everybody who has participated in this debate. Obviously, I am very pleased that there has been a general welcome for the report and that our discussions have, by and large, been on a non-party-political basis, which most of us think is the only way forward. The debate has been very wide-ranging, touching indeed on the very nature of democracy, which is no bad thing. But I think the one thing that all the contributions have shown us, and there are many dimensions to this, is that we cannot look at these problems in isolation. I was reassured by some of the Minister’s remarks a moment ago.
I should very much like to have time to go through all the comments that have been made but that is impossible. I have some sympathy with what my noble friend Lord Dubs said about Bishops. He may have noticed that since he made those comments there have been reinforcements, so perhaps he had better watch out. I want to comment on what my noble friend Lord Rooker said. He is always perceptive and it is a reckless Government or party that ignores his comments. I should have liked to follow up what my noble friend Lord Foulkes said about indirect elections. It is something that I have been interested in for a very long time and I think there is increasing momentum in that area. Those possibilities really need exploring.
I cannot respond to everybody but I want to say just a word about what my noble friend Lord Richard said about a constitutional convention or commission. He has long held the view that any such commission would be kicking the issue into the long grass—the unmowable grass, I think he said on this occasion. I would counter that by saying that if we do not have a commission, we will have a quagmire of piecemeal changes that do not hold together and are an absolute mess. Incidentally, I must point out to him and others that, so far as Labour Party manifestos are concerned, for the whole of the 20th century Labour Party manifestos clearly recognised the danger of having an elected second Chamber. The commitment to election is indeed very recent.
Several colleagues went into some detail about the Clegg Bill, and I think lessons are very slowly being learnt there, in particular the need to look at the bigger picture and not focus on just one area of change. I was reassured when the Minister said in his closing remarks that we have to look at Lords reform in the context of wider constitutional change. I hope he may be able to persuade his leader that that is the case and that you cannot write solutions on the back of an envelope and expect them to get through. We really need to take a comprehensive approach. Looking forward to see where we could get co-operation before an election is no bad thing and something that people will be willing to look at. As the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, said, I hope that we can have sensible and realistic commitments in all the party manifestos for the election. That is the only way forward, and putting that in the context of a constitutional commission would be the way to deliver it.
To say just a word on our short-term proposals, I hope that we will see progress along the lines that many have said would be acceptable and would improve the working of this House. I hope that the Minister will follow through on the suggestion of all-party support. Once again, I thank everyone who has participated in a very important and useful debate.
Middle East: Jihadism
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very grateful that I succeeded in getting this debate—a brief debate on a very deep and important subject, particularly at this very moment. I am most grateful to all those participating in it, particularly my noble friend for coming here. I embarrass her deliberately by saying that she is an incredibly hard-working Minister with far too many tasks, and I am grateful that she is fitting this one in as well. I am equally grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for attending and herself responding to this debate.
Just over a week ago, in a searing moment of immensely chilling import, the West as a whole realised yet again just how futile and tragic had been the originally illegal US-UK invasion of Iraq 11 years ago. Although it had to be later certificated ex post by a hog-tied and embarrassed United Nations, the invasion had left a broken country with many thousands of innocent civilians killed. The Daily Mirror yesterday, referring to Tony Blair, estimated the total now to be 650,000 since the invasion. It left a judicially murdered dictator, a demolished professional army and a deliberately wrecked civil service infrastructure. Never before, even including the humiliating defeat of the US in Vietnam, had the United States looked so incompetent in its government and military structures.
I remember with some pride that we as an entire political party marched officially with a million and a half people down Piccadilly to try to stop that wretched invasion. Blair ignored those passionate entreaties, and has for ever lost his reputation as a formerly very effective and distinguished national leader.
We must all have enormous sympathy now for the efforts of President Obama to deal with this subject. Of course, the publication of the Chilcot report later this year will throw what I guess will be an ominous light on the crafty dealings between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair on why they went to war: the US spluttering indignantly about the threat of a French veto—the first ever major one, if they were to exercise it—against the background of more than 30 American vetoes since 1968, allowing increasingly extreme Israeli Governments of growing right-wing tendency to flout international law at will in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Indeed, we are all now led to believe that there has been meddling at the highest level between Washington and London to stop enormous amounts of revelations about the Bush-Blair conversations in the Chilcot report text. I ask myself whether they would also reveal details of collusion between other countries in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia perhaps; I do not know—as occurred in the Suez debacle, when the US, with a virtuous President, stopped Britain and France from geopolitical insanity.
More recently, we were able to witness common sense at last in resisting the strident calls for western military intervention in Syria—less wisdom, of course, in handling Libya, where another dictator ended up murdered without even a show trial, and the usual complete paralysis now over what is happening in Egypt. Meanwhile, the sinister expansion of militant jihadism has been fuelled not least by the geopolitical blunders of the western powers, who have all too often found it impossible not to interfere in the wrong way in other people’s countries, relentlessly telling them what to do as if our democracies were both perfect and powerful.
The latest situation in Iraq is terrifying. I hope that there is no worse news on the military side today; I have not had a chance to see the morning news yet. Least of all can the West ever intervene successfully in what is a medieval struggle between militant and vicious Sunni and Shia factions, whose mindsets are literally unfathomable to occidental minds. Only a part of this imbroglio can be blamed on the USA and its unusually obsequious acolytes, of which the UK is usually one, sadly. The Americans themselves perceive, as we all do, how starkly the isolation of Iran for many reckless reasons was such an enormous blunder by the West. It must have had endless well intentioned senior State Department officials weeping with frustration. Once again, we need to thank President Obama warmly for his valiant efforts to achieve a settlement, aided by a moderate Iranian head of government.
If the geopolitical wreckage is huge, the solutions are very difficult to perceive. Just how does the West help the sea of moderate, peaceful citizens in these hapless and tragic Arabian countries who surely want democracy to arrive to help them but are not experienced in bringing it about, particularly as our record of intervention has been so negative for them? Above all, I am sure, we grieve for the fate of women and children in these tragedies. Only little Tunisia, a small country, seems to be progressing as a good example, if the good will is there.
I agree with David Aaronovitch, who wrote in the Times last Thursday about the “brave journalists” covering these conflict areas and that,
“it is practically impossible to get a good idea of what goes on in areas ‘controlled’ by groups such as Isis”.
In the mean time, the growth of militant jihadism of both Sunni and Shia varieties is spreading not only in the full conflict zones such as Syria and now, alas, Iraq. It is gaining ground in the Muslim areas of west Africa, perhaps slightly more slowly in the Maghreb countries, and of course among Muslim communities in western and some Asian countries, as well, of course, as in Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan.
Above all, it remains to be seen how this will play out in Afghanistan, where western intervention was at its most supine and foolish. I am glad that British forces are now leaving at long last. The USA was obsessed with the equally unwise invasion by the Soviet Union of that complex country and worked with the previous generation of Taliban to drive the Russians out—ironically ending, at the same time, the best civil society that women with jobs and children in schools had ever enjoyed in that sad country. In the infamous film “Charlie Wilson’s War”, those in Hollywood conveniently failed to mention the Taliban at all, yet their country is now fighting the Taliban.
President Obama has at last espoused non-direct intervention, although even in his second term he has to wrap up the rhetoric in case the wrong people in Washington and elsewhere seek to undermine and make mischief. I fervently pray that this will be the permanent American doctrine from now on, replacing Theodore Rooseveltian imperialism with modern international self-restraint and a devotion to the genuine wishes of the whole UN, not just to partial and limited lobbies nagging the Security Council endlessly. We must for ever remember the startlingly sagacious warning of President Eisenhower in his valedictory: “Beware the inexorable rise of the military-industrial complex”. His advice was totally ignored for reasons of oil, money, imperialism and the helping of the rise of the aggressive form of Zionism which is letting down the marvellous country of Israel itself.
No longer can we therefore leave all this chaos in the febrile hands of one country, let alone the USA. A major problem right now is handling the Iraqi PM, Mr al-Maliki, who has apparently been far too fierce as a partisan and authoritarian Shia leader. He is deeply unpopular as well with many Iraqis who are not very political, such as the Sunni minority and a lot of people in the Kurdish entity. Some locals think that human rights are more abused nowadays than they were by Saddam Hussein. Incidentally, on the only visit that I have paid to Iraq, in 1988, he was then the chief friend of the USA—so much so that we recall that the Americans publicly declared that the Halabja killings had been done by the Iranian regime since Iran was then the devil, as it was later. Saddam himself was a client of the US and the UK. Who in the Middle East and elsewhere, I wonder, persuaded them to change their minds about this person?
All this confusion and cynical manoeuvring leaves the broad public of the western countries in a state of total bewilderment. Having accepted with some reluctance the need to fight al-Qaeda after 9/11, the outrage in America which gave us all enormous sympathy for the United States, they now see other groups with strange names springing up both in the ghastly Syrian civil war and elsewhere. The trouble is that we all rush to denounce them as terrorists—for those who wish to offend, there is an even worse description—but we never bother to ask what they want of their own countries and of the West. I do not recall a single TV or radio programme where a senior Taliban person has been allowed to air their views on the western media. We know that the Taliban, all too brutally, discourages women from having human rights and equality, but is this hyperbole from the western media as well? Is there any rationale to it? Why do we not know? We are ignorant of the facts. We urgently need to secure further guidance and information from Turkey in this multifaceted contextual struggle. I take no pleasure in echoing the conclusion of many western observers that somehow the errors and blunders of the West have spurred on the spread of the jihadi impetus. That conclusion seems unfair to a well intentioned western society, but we need to probe its depths.
However, we can start with some initiatives. For a start, the UN, especially its Security Council, can no longer be the plaything of the leading powers in the old historical context. I want to say something at the risk of offending other people who, like myself, are long-standing friends of Israel: I have been a friend of Israel ever since I went there in 1970 and it is a fabulous country with a wonderful people, but they are increasingly badly let down on foreign policy and policies towards Palestine by an increasingly extreme, right-wing Government, sadly doing the wrong things and making the wrong decisions. I say that even now, after the tragic kidnapping of the three young Israeli seminary students; I hope that they will be released as soon as possible, but the way to deal with that is not the way in which the Israeli Government are doing it.
The Palestinians must have their place in the sun and we should respect, not denounce, their common Government of technocrats and Hamas. The quartet has been hopeless in this sense for many years; it has simply betrayed the Palestinians, whose elections have been postponed for far too long by President Abbas. After all, Palestine cannot be the only country in the world literally without its own Government and elections. The UN has to respond if this tragic situation continues.
We also need to accept that the eventual outcome in Syria will be the Syrians’ decision, not ours, and that President Assad is as legitimate, unfortunately, as most leaders in Arabia. The US seems never to criticise Saudi Arabia despite appalling human rights abuses there, especially those visited on women. I hope fervently that the UN will act to halt the mass executions now threatened by the courts in Egypt. Has the US said anything about this?
New elections must now surely be held in Iraq to seek to secure a moderate sectarian outcome, which will need to be supervised by the UN in what is still a broken country. I hope too that the European Union will try to play a greater role in helping Arabia out of its agonies, first of all having apologised for being so hopeless in the quartet set-up, as the EU can now earn more respect in the area than, sadly, the US does—despite Obama’s heroic efforts, for which we should wish him well.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for getting time to introduce this subject. I am going to take a very different stance from him. I spoke in the two debates that we had on Syria on 1 July and 29 August last year. I think that we are witnessing one of the biggest tragedies for Muslims in the world. Let us forget about the idea that we are responsible for everything bad in the whole world, and we should forget about asking, “What are we going to do about solving the problem now?”. This tragedy has been going on for about 40 years, if not since the Sykes-Picot affair of 1917.
Modernity has been a challenge to Islam. There have been different responses to it, especially since the three defeats that the secular and socialist Arab Governments faced against Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973. There has been a revival of fundamentalism, a return to religion, and within that we have noticed the rise of Islamism, which is more of an enemy of Muslim majority states than of anyone else. The Islamists’ whole programme has been to undermine civilian Governments of Muslim majority nations, whether they be democratic or authoritarian. This latest phase of the tragedy has been going on since the Syrian civil war started. I remember saying in the two previous debates that this was bound to spill over into Iraq. It is a Sunni/Shia war, and Sunni/Shia wars are not something that any western nation, with whatever intention, can solve.
My concern is not what we did or did not do. My concern is whether the world can somehow devise a way of saving the civilian population who are currently suffering a lot of misery. There are refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan because of the Syrian war. The latest phase of the war in Iraq is causing a lot of misery. Obviously we are reluctant to intervene as western nations. No one has a desire to maintain the international order, as we did. That will has gone. We did not intervene in Syria, and we are not going to intervene in Iraq. We are not going to send armies. We might not even bomb the place.
However, we have a duty to protect to human lives. The question is what are we doing on that. I do not think we can go around saying, “The good guys are Iran and the Iraqi Shias, and the bad guys are the jihadists who are the Sunnis”. That is the wrong way of looking at the problem. The problem is a human tragedy and it has to be prevented to the extent that we can through humanitarian efforts, peacemaking efforts and rehabilitation efforts.
One presumes that the United Nations should be somewhere in the centre of the action. Until now, in the public discussions that we have seen, the United Nations has not been mentioned. The United Nations Security Council failed to do anything in the Syrian case because there was a conflict of interest among the permanent members. It is very much the responsibility of our Government and any other Governments who have force in the United Nations to start a big proposal to do something about humanitarian aid and the protection of the civil population because this war is not going to stop any time soon. To the extent that we can reduce harm or people’s misery, we should do so. What are the Government doing about that?
Right now, this problem may look like it is in Syria and Iraq, but it has reached as far as Pakistan. In Pakistan, the battle going on between the Taliban in the north-west and the democratically elected Government has just entered a new phase. At the same time there is a tremendous Shia/Sunni conflict going on in Pakistan. It happened in Karachi not all that ago, and it goes on. Whether these jihadists are a danger to us is a separate question. The question right now is about what can we do as members of the international community to reduce suffering, solve the refugee problem, alleviate the situation and along the way, if we can, propose a solution to the political problem.
I shall repeat what I said once before. The noble Baroness has rejected the suggestion twice, so I am expecting a third rejection, but the world needs a general conference on all the Middle Eastern countries’ problems: the problems of Iran and Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Kurdistan, the Shia/Sunni conflict and the Israel/Palestine problem. All those problems are interconnected—we have not taken that seriously. We have taken them piecemeal. That may or may not happen. I feel the more urgent task is to devise a strategy for relieving suffering. If we can do that, we will have done our best.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, on securing this timely debate. I want to look at the Motion as it is set out. It concerns,
“the assessment of the threat from the spread of militant aggressive jihadism in the Middle East”.
I take the point that our priority is the humanitarian challenge, with so much chaos and destruction. We must invite the Minister to make every constructive response she can to that challenge.
I will talk about the dramatic advance of ISIS and the danger of the collapse of the Iraqi state. Of course, some of the problems stem from what could be called poor government and a lack of common good, diversity and military organisation. However, we must confront a deeper issue. As we have heard, ISIS is transnational. It is not just in one place; we have heard that its kind of jihadism extends to Pakistan. ISIS does not fight a war but operates through acts of terror, which is a very different way of trying to resolve disputes. There is a danger that this is setting up a model of battlegrounds of terror within existing states, without any way of trying to sort that out—things just rise up from below.
What is at issue is the future of the state as a political organisation. ISIS has a totally different set of values. It sees itself as the embryo of what it might call an Islamic state but is challenging the notion of a political state as one that holds together diversity. It says instead that there is only one way to have a state, which is on a much narrower basis. That is a dangerous pitch to make in a world of increasing diversity and pluralism. It sees this Islamic state emerging from the actions of small bands of fighting scholars. That is why we see these frightening interrogations of captives about their faith. It is a bold bid for a totally different understanding of political organisation; not a state that holds together diversity, works with it and puts humanitarian needs first, but a version of a state that is narrow, uncompromising and brutal in its desire for conformity.
That political question raises some important issues which I invite the Minister to address. Is the policy of funding moderate opposition in Syria working? Do we need greater international co-operation across this whole area, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, suggested? Could more be done to engage with Gulf states about the funding of this kind of extremism?
I offer one brief comment about foreign fighters caught up in the jihadist movement. It is estimated that there are 12,000 foreign fighters from 78 countries. The word on the street in Derby, where I work, is that people from our community are fighting there; some have come back and then returned. I can understand the Prime Minister and others talking about the danger that that kind of involvement in this anti-political movement could bring into our own country. However, I offer a word of caution about the way we express that risk and danger. In the Netherlands, they have a sophisticated debriefing system so that when people come back they are not immediately confronted as criminals but engaged with, and there is an exploration of what they are about and where they are going. I tell noble Lords from my own experience that if we are too heavy-handed we risk further radicalising families and communities at the grass roots, if some of their young are treated without any notion of a trial or evidence—all those British things that we try to stand for. We must handle this matter very carefully. We must have evidence if we are to criminalise people and we must try to engage with the issue they have got caught up in, which runs counter to the state as we know it, rather than trying simply to fight back and crush them as they would crush other people.
Finally, I ask the Minister: what is the role of the local community, not just the Government, in addressing this aggressive phenomenon? How can we help young Muslims engage in democratic debate about politics? A lot of the energy comes from feeling excluded from that possibility. Have any lessons been learnt about the unforeseen consequences of the way in which we conduct foreign policy? Can we think critically and creatively about ourselves and how we conduct foreign policy? If it is having this effect, are there lessons to be learnt about how we present it? I also have a question that is significant to the work in which I am involved: what is the future of European Islam in the mix, across the world? We hear a lot of voices speaking for all kinds of Islamic approaches to faith. There is in Europe a sophisticated, engaged and rich tradition of Islamic thinking and practice. Are we able to engage that voice more creatively in the debate?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this debate, and congratulate him on introducing it with such eloquence. Rightly, he referred to the war on Iraq. I shall not talk about that at length, but I will begin by saying that, although Mr Blair led us into the war, the Conservative Party had already agreed to support it. Therefore, it was not merely the Government or the Labour Party; the two major parties agreed on that. It is also rather pathetic and saddening to see ex-Ministers falling over each other, trying to tell us that they regret that mistake. That is depressing for two obvious reasons.
First, if they were capable of making that kind of mistake, because of which hundreds of thousands of people were killed, can they ever be trusted to make sensible judgments in political life? In classical Athens, there was a tradition that if a politician misguided his people or was guilty of an egregious mistake of that kind, he would be sent into exile, because he was unfit to be a fellow citizen. We should find some way of dealing with people who are capable of making that kind of mistake. Secondly, if they could make that kind of mistake, why did they do so? It is no use telling us that Mr Blair lied—he said the same thing to all of us, and some of us were simply not taken in. We opposed the war in Iraq at the time, and some of us felt so strongly that we almost resigned our party Whip. All that suggests that nobody misled innocent people. Those leaders were prepared to believe certain things and were simply willing accomplices to what was going on.
Having got the question of Iraq off my chest, I turn to the question we are debating today. Since the early 1980s, it has been a practice for Muslims to go to foreign theatres of war to support those sides with which they sympathise. That started with Afghanistan when the Soviets were involved there, then spread to Iraq a few years later and has now spread to Syria, and at every stage the numbers have increased. In Afghanistan, the number of foreign Muslims who fought there was around 3,000 to 4,000. In Syria today, the number is estimated to be about 11,000, and although some are leaving, others are coming in. Those who leave do not outnumber those who come in, so the number remains pretty much the same. It is estimated that, of the 11,000 foreign Muslims who are fighting in Syria, about 400 are Britons.
That is not the end of the story. With the turmoil in Egypt, I expect that something worse will happen. The army has declared war—not a virtual war, but a real one—on the Muslim Brotherhood. That simply will not work. The Muslim Brotherhood has global appeal among Muslims and, being highly ideologically motivated, it will not be crushed or put aside as easily as others might. Therefore, as far as I can gaze into my crystal ball, in two or three years’ time, we will see a situation in Egypt that will be no different from what we now see in Syria and Iraq. That will pose some very acute problems, because Egypt is one of the largest countries in the Middle East and faces some very acute problems.
Those who fight abroad get good training; they are angry because they have gone through the suffering of fighting in a war and they build up global networks. When they return home, therefore, they pose a danger—although not necessarily. It is a mistake to think that, when those who have fought in Syria come back, they will necessarily engage in terrorist activities. If I think of students with whom I have had some dealings, sometimes the opposite happens. Having fought in a war in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere, they have seen enough suffering and do not want to be involved any more, or their family put pressure on them not to. Nevertheless, generally, when people who have fought in wars abroad come home, they have a slight tendency to be part of a certain network and to engage in terrorist activities in the domestic sphere. The two recent cases bear this out. The 29 year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, who shot and killed three people at a Jewish museum in Belgium, had been in Syria for more than a year. In our country, Mashudur Choudhury, who was convicted of terror offences in Syria, had of course been there.
MI5 informs us that about half of its casework involves preventing Syria-related terrorist activities. About 200 Britons have returned from Syria and we are told that dozens of them are suspected and have been arrested. Even if all these conflicts—including the one that I foresee in Egypt—were to end tomorrow, the world in which we live would not be stable. Historical memories of the wars that were initiated by the West, historical memories of the shady business deals in which we engaged in Iraq and elsewhere and memories of the humiliation we inflicted on a lot of people, not only in Abu Ghraib but in lots of other places, will linger, and rightly so. How can one expect people to forget what they have seen and what they have heard? As long as these memories last, we cannot afford to assume our world is entirely safe simply because that world over there is safe. It is not safe now; it was not safe for 40 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said. During those 40 years we did lots of things we should not have done.
That is the situation and the question is what our response should be. In the minute and a half I have at my disposal, I want to prescribe my remedy. New wars, limited or unlimited, will not help. The kind of thing that Mr Blair has been trying to press upon our attention will only exacerbate the situation. We should provide help when that is asked for—that is right—but at the same time we should remember that we should not get caught up in domestic rivalry and domestic conflict. If the Government make a complete mess of the situation and alienate people and there is a civil war, as in Syria, and they ask us to help against ISIS, we need to be careful that we are not being manipulated.
Secondly, we must keep a keen eye on the terrorist activities in Britain but should not presume that everybody who has been to Syria, Iraq or elsewhere is necessarily a potential terrorist. That can lead to heavy-handed activities and could alienate the Muslims.
Thirdly, we should do nothing to demonise the entire Muslim community or to alienate it in a variety of ways, as we have tended to do, as in the case of schools in Birmingham. Ofsted produced one report and two or three months later there was a completely opposite kind of report. There is also the constant mistake of equating conservative views with extremism. This is only done in relation to Muslim schools. What about other faith schools where similar things might be going on? Those of us with some experience would know that it does. To single out a particular community and its schools can create an estranged, deeply alienated, deeply bitter community, and that is to store up trouble for the future.
Finally, unless the problems in the Middle East are brought under control—not solved; they will not be solved—we will not be able to find much peace there or here. If they are going to be dissolved, that cannot be done bilaterally by the Americans linking up with the Iranians in order to counter the Iraqis. That game has been going on for the past 40 years and it has not taken us anywhere. We should be thinking in terms of some kind of regional conference where all the parties involved are represented, where we can work out some kind of mechanism for conflict resolution and where we can lay down certain principles which no side would violate, whatever its grievances. Then we can think of an Arab peacekeeping force or an Arab reconciliation commission of the kind we have seen in other parts of the world. In other words, we need to decentralise the way these things function, try to organise a regional conference within a global context and aim for a long-term strategy based on good sense and wisdom, which I am afraid has been so rare in the past few years.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this timely and important debate. It is my pleasure to follow such distinguished and learned noble Lords. I put down my name in this debate to seek some knowledge. I am neither an Arab nor indigenous English, and jihadism for me is difficult to understand, as “jihad” is in Arabic and “Islamism” is in English. What does it really mean? As I read it in the Koran, jihad means “struggle for justice”, and it has two main categories. First, there is the inner struggle against evil, bad habits and temptations, and to strive for good deeds. The struggle for justice means a jihad against poverty, illiteracy, sexual violence—and, yes, there is a concept of a just war, where people are suffering from brutal regimes. Some scholars say that it is a duty to rescue people from that situation. I am sure that this does not mean individuals from Croydon or Luton who could go and declare jihad.
Sadly, words like jihadism and Islamism are used to describe despicable violent extremists and terrorists who proclaim to be Muslims. Let us have a look at two examples. ISIS, of which we know little, although it is much talked about, is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but is made up of members of the Baathist party, former Saddam Hussein soldiers, militant Sunni fighters and Sunni youth, who have suffered from poverty and alienation, and terrorists. None of them has the same causes or beliefs, but they have two main enemies—the Maliki regime and the Assad regime.
Then we have Boko Haram, a terrorist organisation that commits the most heinous crimes. The word Boko means western culture and Haram means forbidden—so it means rejection of western culture. Then there are the terrorists in Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban, which attacked the Karachi airport; all those fighters were from Uzbekistan. They are no representatives of Islam or Muslims, just as the Lords Resistance Army is not representative of Christians, nor are the RSS or VHP representatives of the great Hindu religion, nor is the Buddhist 969 movement in Burma or the activities of Buddhist monk Gnanasara in Sri Lanka, whose organisation Bodu Bala Sena, or BBS, has allegedly killed seven Muslims, including a child with a sword, in the past two days.
Professor Hossein Askari of George Washington University conducted a research into 208 nations and states. He said that Muslim countries used religion as an instrument of state control. He said:
“We must emphasize that many countries that profess Islam and are called Islamic are unjust, corrupt, and underdeveloped and are in fact not ‘Islamic’ by any stretch of the imagination”.
He went on to say:
“Looking at an index of Economic Islamicity, or how closely the policies and achievements of countries reflect Islamic economic teachings—Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Norway, and Belgium round up the first 10”.
The nearest Muslim country is represented at 33, Malaysia, with Kuwait at 48. He added:
“If a country, society, or community displays characteristics such as unelected, corrupt, oppressive, and unjust rulers, inequality before the law, unequal opportunities for human development, absence of freedom of choice (including that of religion), opulence alongside poverty, force, and aggression as the instruments of conflict resolution as opposed to dialogue and reconciliation, and, above all, the prevalence of injustice of any kind, it is prima facie evidence that it is not an Islamic community”.
I hope that we have learnt that we cannot impose our form of democracy and expect other cultures and tribes to follow it, as was experienced by Mr Bush and Mr Blair in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are just experiencing the fallout in Libya after Colonel Gaddafi’s downfall.
The French rejected the legitimate elections won by the Islamic FIS Party in Algeria in 1991, the Americans refused to accept Hamas in Palestine and a large part of the world rejected the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. My point is that the international community withheld recognition of legitimate elections even while it accepted Sisi in Egypt, as well as sheikhdoms and kingdoms in the Middle East, as legitimate Governments. These are political struggles that require political solutions and invasions or bombings do not result in long-term solutions.
I was in Iraq last year and met many leaders. I also met the Speaker of the Iraqi Assembly, who told me about the isolation of the Sunni community, how Maliki had ignored the Sunnis in the north, and how he thought it was the Shias who were siphoning off all the wealth and had all the power. In most Arab countries, including Iraq, there is rough justice. If you look at some of their judicial systems, you find that confession-based evidence, forced through torture, is a norm.
Finally, at the risk of losing friends, I fear that unless we engage Saudi Arabia and Iran in all these states from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen to Lebanon, we may, unfortunately, see an even longer period of sectarian violence than Europe experienced during the 30-year war in the 17th century.
We should not feel threatened by any economic or trade organisation between Muslim states because in my view, if Europe can be at peace due to the creation of a common market, there is a huge potential for the Muslim world to create peace. There is potential for $4 trillion a year business between it and the rest of the world, and peace among 1.5 billion people, as well as the rest of the world.
My Lords, in tabling this debate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, was clearly following the advice of Pierre Trudeau, who said:
“The essential ingredient of politics is timing”.
This was an important topic when the QSD was tabled but now it is uppermost in much of the world’s mind. I say to my noble friend that, in this debate, I interpret jihadism as the right reverend Prelate did.
Although the jihadist maelstrom is centred on the Middle East, it is also part of a global uprising by extremists in other countries further east and in Africa. It attracts young Muslims from the West and from south-east Asia as well as from the countries where the violence and atrocities are being perpetrated.
Today we have heard many shocking facts and figures, especially in relation to Syria and to Iraq, whose integrity as well as security is under threat. The brutality and atrocities have intensified as individuals, families, communities and countries are torn apart. ISIS is a threat to all citizens in Iraq: Sunnis, Shias and non-Muslims, including Christians. There are reports of ISIS members killing 12 Sunni scholars who refused to pledge allegiance to them, and they have burned many churches and killed members of the Christian community.
I hope that there is still an opportunity for the citizens of Iraq to unite and defeat the jihadists. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Shia scholar revered by all sections of Iraqi society, has called for Iraqi citizens to put their religious differences aside and fight to save their country from falling into the hands of ISIS.
Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims is undermining the stability of the entire region, and the impact on the whole world is potentially great. The Muslim world can deliver great things. However, as my right honourable friend Ed Miliband stated in the other place yesterday, we need to focus on other countries in the Middle East which have a huge responsibility for igniting sectarian tensions in the region. Their roles have been centred round providing support both financially and militarily.
We need to pay attention to monitoring hate preachers online, and especially ISIS Twitter accounts that have been promoting their cause. The tools of the 21st century which we use to improve the quality of our lives and the connectedness of our world, including the internet and social media, are now used also by ISIS to rally support and appeal to young men and Muslims in various parts of the world to protest or to travel to Iraq to fight.
The world view of ISIS is vehemently anti-Western. I was interested in the right reverend Prelate’s comments about the state. ISIS is estimated to have 2,000 recruits from Europe. On Monday, the Foreign Secretary said that approximately 400 British nationals might be fighting in Syria, including some with ISIS, the insurgent force which is now attacking Iraq. Two men who were under criminal investigation appear to have absconded from the UK, intending to join jihadists in Syria. Yesterday, No.10 said that 65 people have been arrested in the past 18 months for Syria-related jihadist activities. I pay tribute to our police and security forces.
The Prime Minister said that ISIS fighters are not only threatening the Government in Baghdad but plotting terror attacks on the UK. As the BBC pointed out, it would take just one order from a commander to send some jihadists back to Britain to carry out an attack. Even without such an order, who knows what might be in the minds of radicalised young fighters when they return to this country? However, I accept that we have to deal with them very carefully. It was interesting to hear about what is being done in Holland.
This is a deeply disturbing situation. Many of us will have heard vox pops with young Muslims who say that they would like to go and fight with their Muslim brothers in Syria and Iraq, and some talk about wanting to fight against America. These are young British Muslims, not in work, education or training. Many of them do not realise that it is Muslims fighting against Muslims. We need to understand that the Muslim community is made up of different sects with each adopting a different set of beliefs. Historically in Britain they have lived in harmony, but recent events stemming from the Middle East are causing widespread concern. There is a real threat of sectarianism reaching our shores due to many factors, including the trickle-down effect of Middle East politics and the role of hate preachers and terrorist accounts on social media.
In anticipation of this threat, an understanding needs to be built around the language and vocabulary associated with hostile sectarian views and the activities of individuals, both here in the UK and abroad, who are purposefully dividing communities. As well as keeping an eye on the activities of jihadists online, we need to give greater support to community cohesion initiatives that exist to counteract the negative influences on other platforms, on which their hateful and divisive views are advocated.
Although we cannot control the increasingly sectarian conflict outside our borders, we need to engage in a more positive and constructive dialogue with the Muslim community, and engage it in our political system. This includes ensuring that different parts of the British Muslim community continue to work together, with an attempt to put aside international differences and co-operate on promoting interfaith values. A fine example of this is the unity statement signed last year by British Muslim leaders from different sects affirming their commitment to working side by side. Moreover, we must be dedicated to promoting our values, which include tolerance, respect and the appreciation of a diverse society.
The humanitarian threat is clearly great. The Government’s announcement of £5 million is welcome, but the number of refugees in the region has now reached a completely intolerable level not only for those who have been displaced or had to flee their country but for the regions and countries that have received them either in camps or in communities. As many as 500,000 men, women and children have fled their homes in the past week in the wake of escalating violence in Iraq. Many families reported leaving to protect their daughters, fearing sexual violence, kidnappings and forced marriage. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary, the Government and campaigners for their work on this issue. The present situation is deplorable for those who have fled, but their future must also seem fraught with fear and insecurity. What hope of an education and jobs for their children?
This is not a matter for political disagreement. We must continue to work together to find solutions in our home and foreign policy that will address these extraordinarily complex, interrelated problems that affect our communities, our country and our world.