Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to establish a committee to review the process for appointing members of the House of Lords.
My Lords, I will make a couple of points right at the beginning. I have had an email from my noble friend Lord Hayward, who was going to speak, but has decided not to because there is not much time. He asks for his support to be recorded. I have also heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, who came up with an ingenious way of dealing with peerages, which we will come to.
To put this debate into context, I should say that this is not about attacking anyone. It is about us hopefully getting a better House of Lords. The main reason I am here moving it is that I was lucky in the raffle; we essentially have a raffle for this kind of debate.
It might help the House if I begin by reading out the question I tried to get debated, which read: “Noting the extent to which all major parties represented in the House have, on occasion, nominated persons for Membership whose virtues are not immediately evident to the general public, the House resolves to establish a committee to look into how the system could be improved and to pass its findings to all political parties to consider when making future recommendations for Membership of the House.” I thought that was a fairly straightforward and easy resolution to put forward, but I was told by the Table Office that a topical QSD needs to be in the form of a question and cannot ask the House to make a decision. That is how we got to today’s wording. That underlines the question of being a self-governing House, when we cannot even set up a committee to look at something. That in itself is a very good starting point for this debate.
To me, the debate is born out of frustration with, in particular, the present Prime Minister. Whether through contempt or disdain, he does not appear to take any notice of this House whatever. He has not taken any notice of the Burns committee or the need for us to engage in some form of reform. I see no sign of him understanding or wanting to understand. To even up the score, I was also disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition, who put her name down to speak in this debate, subsequently removed it.
We should look at the facts. We always talk about the number of people in the Lords. That is indeed a problem. But there is another problem—the number of Members of this Chamber of whom we see very little. There are 39 people on leave of absence; one whom I shall not name has been resident in California for at least the last four years. Apparently, there is nothing to stop people being on perpetual leave of absence. All they have to do is to write an annual letter to the clerk saying that, at some point, they will take up their seat again. They do not even have to give any indication as to when. With 39 Peers on leave of absence, that gives us 783. Of those 783, there are roughly 200 whom we hardly ever see.
This is as much part of the problem as the number that we do see. The number of people taking part in the work of the House is not terribly large. On Wednesday this week, we had 411 voting, and that went down to 356 for the second vote. My good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, got some figures for attendance in September and October. The average attendance at the September Sittings was 376. In October, it was 402. So we do have a problem with numbers, but part of it is that some Members are seldom seen and do not contribute to the work of this House. This is why we need some sort of thorough look at how the House works and what can be done.
Since October 2019, the present Prime Minister has appointed 64 new life Peers. Had he not done that, we would have been on course to achieve the Burns committee’s recommendations. Had he restrained himself in the way that Theresa May did, we would be, according to the Library, more or less on course to fulfil the Burns recommendations.
So I hope we will come to a point where we can look not only at the numbers on the payroll, so to speak, but also at the numbers who are actually doing something, in order to find a way to reduce the numbers in the House and also provide a place for people to take part in what is happening. Looking at the green list, as I call it, for today, there are 23 Select Committee reports awaiting debate. Five have been waiting for more than a year. What sort of a House is it that has high-quality committees producing high-quality reports that never get debated? This is, frankly, disorganisation. The oldest report—which goes back to 27 April 2020—is now 16 months old. This is not an acceptable way of running the House.
I realise that the Minister is in a rather difficult position, because I am not really asking for anything that he can give us. All I could ask him is to go back to the people who listen to him and say, “Look, it’s about time we set up some sort of body to look at how to make this House fulfil its constitutional duty better”. May I remind the Minister that the Conservative manifesto contained a pledge to look at how to do things better? I will not say how they could be done better, but some of the comments we see—particularly in the Sunday Times, which should, frankly, know better—are not in the least helpful.
Let us start by accepting that we are all lucky to be in this House. When I look at my noble friend Lord Farmer and the work that he has put in on families and prisoners, I think he is more than worth his place in this Chamber. The fact that he is a former Treasurer of the Conservative Party is no more relevant than my work as trade union adviser to David Cameron. We both did jobs for our party, and at a point our party decided—God help them—that we would be okay to put in the House of Lords and that we might manage to contribute. By definition, all the Members in the Chamber are here to listen to this debate because we care about the Chamber and want to make it work.
In closing, I ask the Minister to try to convince those who have the authority to look carefully at how we can make this House work better. That cannot be done by fiat. It will need a lot of study—the sort to which this House and its membership can substantially contribute. So I hope this debate can be a useful way of starting to look at how we can have a better, more efficient and, inevitably, smaller House.
My Lords—[Inaudible]—particularly in the original form proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. He is to be congratulated on taking this initiative. He has truly captured the spirit of public concern about the granting of honours. A review is desperately needed. The reputation of the House is being grossly undermined and gravely damaged by a slow drip of adverse comment in the media on Lords appointments.
Why do we still grant peerages to donors? Why do we not object on their introduction? They bring the House into constant disrepute. Some treat the House like a sort of London gentlemen’s club, thereby totally undermining our credibility. To be frank, I am heartily sick of it.
We are not being helped by a Prime Minister whose lack of probity in public office has opened Parliament up to ridicule. A year ago, I predicted that he would be gone by mid-2022 and I think we are on course. His conduct has exposed Parliament as a whole to a new period of intense scrutiny. Questions are now being asked about appointment arrangements to the Lords; our disciplinary processes; the role of individuals in Parliament in the handling of legislation; the question of access to and the relationship between parliamentarians and civil servants; and, in particular, the now questionable relationships between some Ministers and commercial lobbyists. We cannot go on like this. The proposed committee could begin a process of restoring our credibility and some public trust.
My Lords, I think I heard the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, from a sedentary position, say, “Follow that”. I shall do my best.
We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that he won the raffle for a debate which Her Majesty’s Government may choose to ignore. As he pointed out, if we are a self-governing House, we ought to be able to set up a committee for ourselves. We also ought to be able to have debates on Questions worded as we choose. I decided that the wording today debate probably allowed us to be a bit flexible.
The Question is about the process for appointing Members of the House of Lords, but the size of this House is a prior question—and one where we did have a committee. When the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was Lord Speaker, he commissioned a committee, run by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and there was a commitment to a cap of 600. Now it may be that, if we take away the 200 Peers who, according to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, do not really do very much, and we take away those on permanent leave of absence, we are below 600.
But there is a real difference between the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the current one— she responded to your Lordships’ committee and said that she would exercise restraint. The Conservative Government under her did so, but the current Government have not. In recent months and the last two years, we have had many new appointments. Will the Minister take back to the Prime Minister this House’s objection to the way that patronage is being used? The role of the House of Lords in the 21st century is not and should not be about patronage; it should be about a working legislature.
My Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lord Balfe for his kind words and for initiating this debate. Recent Sunday Times stories about former party treasurers imply that large donors given peerages are inherently unsuited to serve in the House and that this is confirmed when they do not subsequently speak or attend. Wealthy people putting their mouths where their money is bring insight and expertise to this House’s debates and committees.
On the criticism of the quality of service and work done in this House by the Sunday Times, the judgment of a senior EU lawyer whom I met during the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo was that the work received in Brussels from the House of Lords was second in quality to no other secondary Chamber in the world. Our gracious monarch strictly enjoins us to attend her Parliament in Westminster to treat and give our counsel upon the arduous, urgent dangers impending upon her realm. This Writ of Summons lays sobering responsibilities upon those who receive it.
Without making excuses, here are some thoughts on why former treasurers may not contribute: the difficulties of investing much time mastering the House’s procedures, of understanding the timetabling and of risking disapprobation when speaking out in relative inexperience. These can be powerful disincentives. My advice to former treasurers is this: you have the money and a great honour has been bestowed on you—you can speak in Parliament—so pay for high-quality help. Do not stint; an experienced advisory team can help you master procedure and time.
Frankly, disapprobation can come to wealthy Members not for what they say but for who they are. Fear of humiliation discourages and silences. Such prejudgment is discourteous, and courtesy is the currency of this House. If we in this House treated all appointees cordially, we would see and hear the best of people and counsel given would be richer and more wide-ranging.
My Lords, I would love to follow up the noble Lord’s points, but time does not really permit. There is something entirely typical about this debate: here we have one of the most important issues facing this House, but it is relegated to a one-hour debate on a Thursday afternoon, with speeches of no more than two minutes. Nevertheless, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, not only on his very good speech but on having the courage, which the Government lack, to raise the issue. The debate has perhaps one advantage: at this time on a Thursday afternoon, no one is paying much attention outside, so we can have an entirely frank discussion without being overheard.
The reputation of this House—we should face this, if nothing else—stands very low in the public esteem at the moment. Attacks and criticism come from all sides. Not all are justified—that is undoubtedly the case—and we should be able to respond to them and argue the case for the House. When I say “we”, I do not just mean we on the Back Benches but Ministers, particularly of this House, who can take the opportunities that the modern media present to them. At the same time, we should also recognise that some of the criticism directed at us is entirely justified. The House is too big. I will not go into this again because I set up a committee, and noble Lords know its result.
Financial donations to political parties should not, by themselves, have any part in entry to the House of Lords. That is my view; we may not always agree on that. We should, self-evidently, rid ourselves of the continuing absurdity of hereditary Peer by-elections. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is exactly right in the newly reformed wording of his Question. What we need is an independent committee to review the position. We also need a proper debate in this House to consider the options.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on bringing this forward, although I much prefer the original wording he described over the wording that he was allowed to put down. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours got something pretty right in what he said, and I very much agree with him. Of course we want a smaller House, but we also want a House that has integrity in the method by which people get here. It is this lack of integrity that surely underlies a lot of the approach we are debating today.
Any appointments system runs the risk of being flawed or being seen to be flawed, if not being corrupt and being seen to be corrupt. That is why I think we need to look again, not at how to have a better appointments system but at how we should get here through a democratic system of elections. Yes, of course we have to maintain the primacy of the House of Commons, but I believe that can be done. We need some form of accountability, which can be achieved by being democratically elected. The key to democracy is accountability to people who would put us here, and we need a system that is neither flawed nor corrupt.
One thing that has puzzled me—I wonder if it is still government policy—is government opposition to any piecemeal reform. I would love to have a longer debate on the merits of piecemeal reform as opposed to revolutionary reform, which is what the Government seem to be saying at the moment—everything in one go. I know that the Lib Dems for a long time under Nick Clegg were very keen that nothing should be done unless everything was reformed, but I believe that the way in which we achieve reforms in this country is by a piecemeal method. We do it bit by bit; we have done it through history, and we should do it again.
Finally, I want to say a word about my noble friend Lord Grocott. There is one reason why I do not want us to change anything: it is because I so enjoy his speeches on his Bill. They are absolutely the wittiest moments of the week or year, and I want them to go on, but that does not mean that I oppose any reform.
My Lords, the Government cannot be unaware of the public disquiet about the current mechanisms for appointments to this House and their impact on its reputation. The power of patronage and the freedom to swell the Government Benches in this House is, of course, tightly guarded, but it has to be balanced against the undermining of what authority this House has as an improver of legislation.
Many MPs acknowledge that the Lords can be relied on to scrutinise contentious aspects of legislation. A large majority in the Commons matched by a majority in the Lords is not a basis for effective scrutiny. Scrutiny requires those appointed to be so on the basis of public service, expertise, experience and commitment to attendance and the work of Parliament, and not of financial support for a particular political party. At the very least, it is our responsibility to keep the public informed of our purpose, which is to preserve this House as a proper and at times resolute opposition to legislation that might adversely affect the least advantaged in our society and/or weaken any of the institutions of democracy, including the media, the judiciary and civil society and its freedom to protest. This is our work and our duty.
Finally, I consider the House of Lords—despite its non-elected Members—to be a key instrument of the democratic process because it constantly asks the Government to think again and to reconsider the effects of their decisions. This is best done on the basis of knowledge, willingness to delve into the detail of draft legislation and the merits of the case, often debated at length. Significant donations should not be a criterion for working in this House.
My Lords, I am afraid that what I am about to say is going to be very unpopular on all sides. I console myself with the thought that I am used to this; I was in the European Parliament as a Eurosceptic. I console myself also with the thought that your Lordships are much more decorous, polite, kind and generous than my former colleagues.
None the less, here goes: I do not believe that it is sustainable for us to have a Chamber of the legislature appointed by the Executive. If this were happening in North Korea or South Sudan we would regard it as absolutely intolerable. The primary function of Parliament —if the other place traces its ancestry back to 1265, I think we can trace ours back to the Great Charter itself in 1215—is to hold the Government to account. That task must be enfeebled if the Executive of the day can nominate one of the two Chambers.
I would like there to be not a revolutionary change, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, says, but a considered and serious overhaul. I am afraid that I do not believe that nibbling at the edges makes any difference. I do not think that the view of this Chamber outside is affected by the number of people here; in fact, it was not the point he was trying to make but when my noble friend Lord Balfe quoted the numbers in the Division Lobbies he showed that it was about the right size in practice, if not in theory. Nor do I really think it is about the kinds of people coming in. We all have our own ideas about what kinds of people should not be here. Some might say that there are too many donors, quango-crats, white people or ex-MPs, but no two people will agree on those criteria and, unless we are prepared to go all the way and have some kind of more directly representative or elected Chamber, we are never going to get an answer.
I would like us to look at this properly in the form of a royal commission: a trusty if somewhat staid instrument that can take into account a number of other considerations to do with the balance between devolved and central institutions, the voting system and all the rest of it, and then come to a considered and measured conclusion.
My Lords, I suspect that some of us have more agreement with the noble Lord than perhaps he suggested at the beginning. However, I am worried about all the scurrilous references about the dragging through the dirt of this Chamber. I believe that the work we do is of critical importance and I find myself growing increasingly despondent with our situation.
We have heard that the Burns report has been rubbished in recent times, and we can all regret that. For reasons we know only too well—names have been named—the Chamber is rapidly becoming bloated by carelessness and cronyism. No wonder—we cannot doubt it—we attract such negative media attention and will go on doing so.
The overwhelming majority of us were appointed because people had faith in us, thinking that we would give more, impart wisdom and better our laws. The Appointments Commission, if it were on a statutory basis, in the words of the proposal, would I am sure engender trust and achieve improvement. I do not profess to know the intricate workings of our constitution, nor do I see myself as someone with special wisdom on the future of this Chamber, but I believe—in good faith towards each other and towards the British public—that we must not fail with the measures available to us to improve the work of this House.
It matters to me a great deal that I belong to an institution in whose integrity I have total trust. If we fail to keep our own promises that we have made to ourselves then it is only a matter of time before this becomes an irreparable House of corruption. The House of Commons, as we all know, is beset by questions of sleaze. We certainly do not want that to be the case with us as well.
My Lords, ensuring the reputation of the House of Lords as a component part of the constitution is essential. However, it is right that our contribution should be reviewed periodically to ensure that we continue being a force for good and a resource central to our democracy.
When addressing the Cross Benches as Prime Minister once upon a time, Sir John Major was clear that it should be reform from within and not have reform imposed. He had the integrity of your Lordships’ House in mind. The appointments process, our numbers and how to address that, and the question of hereditary by-elections are the three elements that require the most immediate attention to rescue it from any suggestion of disrepute or irrelevance.
The appointments process should become a creature of the House on a statutory basis, reporting to the House, with all suggestion of patronage removed. A committee made up of no more than six to eight Members, drawn from the main political parties and the Cross Benches, should report to the House with the recommendations of the Prime Minister of the day that reflect party election results, with the monarch’s final approval. Applicants could come through the process as now.
Whatever emerges on this, nothing other than fully fledged support and a fair wind for the re-re-rerun of the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, will do, and that is before we reduce our numbers—if necessary in a draconian cull—or the House will have to be redrawn from scratch. I add in conclusion only that there is a key role for the communications unit in better explaining the positive elements of our contribution in this place.
There is so much wrong with this House that sometimes it is hard to know where to start, so I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for giving us a starting point, which is membership. Of course, the current system is not just not democratic but anti-democratic, and I am afraid we have to sweep away the hereditaries and, forgive me, the Bishops. It is totally inappropriate in the 21st century that we have positions held for those groups.
Personally, I want a peaceful revolution. This House should be elected, but not under first past the post, and it should be completely representative of society in Britain. That would include, of course, having a selection of Cross-Benchers: there would be a section of the vote that allowed Cross-Benchers to come in, with all their expertise in all the areas they currently fulfil. It would probably be a good idea to put in a maximum amount of time for Members—say, 10 years—and then we would have an election of half the Members every five years. In that way we would get fresh blood, but also the expertise and the continuity. I was voted into this House by the Green Party by one member, one vote. I take a bit of pride in that, because our party thinks about democracy and practices what it preaches.
One other problem I have—there are so many problems—is that so many Members of your Lordships’ House are actually trying to push us back into the 18th century with these late starts and late nights. It is no way to run a country and we should be fighting it all the time.
I close by saying that this House, strangely, does work. We are the opposition to the Government and, however much it infuriates me, I am also proud to be a Member here. Finally, I would just like to say that the words of the noble Lords, Lord Hannan and Lord Balfe, show that you cannot trust the Conservatives to be complete bastards all the time.
My Lords, I will not even try to follow that. In two minutes, there is virtually nothing one can say; no great points can be made and I am certainly not going to enter a discussion of wholesale reform of the Lords, although we should by all means have a proper debate on that.
I want to restrict myself to just three conditions that would be required for any new statutory appointments commission to function in an acceptable way. The first has already been mentioned several times, and is the size of the House. An appointments commission must have a structure in terms of how many appointments it can make, and 600 should be the maximum.
The second condition addresses itself to the question of this being a working Chamber. For people appointed to the House, we still have not resolved the issue of whether getting a peerage is an honour or a job. To me, it has always been a job. It is, of course, an honour as well, but the prime function is to come here and work.
We talk about ourselves being a working House. We are a very effective working House in the scrutiny of legislation, which is detailed and hard work, but a working House needs workers. It is difficult to find an easy solution, but any Appointments Commission would need at the very least to have a written public undertaking from anyone appointed that they would give the time and energy required to being a proper Member of a working second Chamber. There also needs to be a mechanism whereby, for those not fulfilling that responsibility, the commission would have the power to state that that was the case, and some action could be taken.
Finally, I want to thank the three Peers, the noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Dubs, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, who have mentioned the absurdity of the hereditary by-election. Hereditary Peers are not vetted by the House; they are not vetted for propriety and at the very least that should happen. Of course, the best thing would be to get rid of it completely. Sooner or later, the noble Lord, Lord True, despite the long history of his position on this, must realise that he is playing King Canute by refusing to move on the absurd system of hereditary by-elections.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, was absolutely right when he said that the work of this House creates great respect both internationally and nationally. But that respect for the work of the House is undermined by the lack of respect for the three areas that I think the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, spoke about: the size of the House; the method by which people are appointed and the lack of scrutiny by the Appointments Commission on political appointments; and the nonsense of the hereditary Peers by-elections.
I know the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, does not agree with any of that, but I suspect that if I looked to my two successors as Speakers of this House—we spent time speaking to the public, hearing, monitoring, and having surveys done on how the House is respected—they would agree with me that those undermine respect for this House. That matters, because respect for this House is part of respect for Parliament. That respect for Parliament is a cornerstone of our democracy and one that we should not take for granted today, or at any other time.
That is why I put my suggestions to the notional committee of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, which, echoing others, are: divorce the honour of a peerage from working in Parliament, reduce the size of the House, get rid of the by-elections; and give us an effective statutory Appointments Commission.
My Lords, having given notice, I rise to speak briefly in the gap. I declare my interest as the founder and chairman of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which believes strongly in an appointed House but believes it should be appointed in a different way. It believes entirely in a statutory Appointments Commission.
I believe that numbers could and should be cut down immediately; anyone who has failed to attend 20% of the time within the previous year should be asked to hang up his gloves. Anyone who has taken leave of absence, other than for serious health reasons, for more than 18 months should forfeit membership. That would be a good way of starting; incremental reform is the best way of doing it. We do not want another list from the Prime Minister of 20, 30 or 40 names, which I believe is being threatened at the moment. It is absolutely essential, because we are part of Parliament, that we have a ceiling on our numbers, a rationing of our numbers and a supervision of the way in which people come here. If the statutory Appointments Commission says no, then that should be it.
This is Parliament, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has just said, and we are an integral part of it. We do not challenge the supremacy of the other House because we are not elected, and we have virtually 25% of our Members Cross-Benchers because we are not elected. There is much we can do to improve, but there is much we can treasure and be proud of.
My Lords, I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to intervene in the gap, and I apologise for not putting my name down. I have two points.
First, we have great power, and we are not exercising all the power that we have. If the Government choose to ignore the recommendations made by the Appointments Commission, all of us of like mind should come together and take it into our hands to have a petition against what the Government are doing. If that fails to move them, we should petition the Queen that she should not issue Writs to people who are appointed against the wishes of the Appointments Commission. I would value the Minister’s comments on that before we move to such a position.
Secondly, I take a different line from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on the House and how we come to be here. I have been here nearly 25 years. I was a union official and was appointed in the first instance as a union official. Mrs Thatcher changed the rules and I then became an elected official. I had to stand in front of my membership, and I was better for being accountable in that way. The great weakness of this House is that it is not accountable. While-ever it continues like that, particularly in modern society where people are able to communicate in a quite different way, we will come under more and more criticism. We need to look afresh. We need Cross-Benchers; we need people appointed too, but we need an element of accountability, which presently is missing. I appeal to the House, now that we are coming back together again, to take the powers that we have and take control of our future for the work we should be doing for the constitution of the country.
My Lords, we are of course dealing with another aspect of the royal prerogative, to which we will return when the Dissolution and recall Bill finally hits this House. The prerogative after all is there on the basis of the assumption and the conventions of our constitution that Prime Ministers will always act with restraint. We now have a Prime Minister who does not understand what restraint is, so we are in some difficulty.
I agreed strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Hannan; I hope it does not upset him too much. I remind him that his party’s manifesto in 2019 proposed a constitutional commission as one of the many promises that the Prime Minister has broken. No doubt, the noble Lord, Lord True, if asked, would say, “Well, it was a good idea not to follow that bit”, but I think it was a huge mistake.
We are a valuable second Chamber. One of our newest Members said to me the other day, “I had not realised till I got here that most of the scrutiny of government legislation goes on in the House of Lords.” That is the valuable job we do; it is why we need a second Chamber. Piecemeal reform may be the only way forward, so let us consider what piecemeal reform the Government might accept.
I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are considering seriously the CSPL’s proposal that the Appointments Commission should be on a statutory basis. That is the least the Minister might give. The Government should consider separation of appointments and honours—perhaps we should all be called senators, or whatever, instead. Term limits and age limits are due to come in. I recognise that that would mean that I would be going almost immediately—I have been here 25 years and have just passed my 80th birthday, which is what I believe our learned Lords call the statutory age of senility, so that is it.
I am in favour of much more radical reform. I would like us at the very least to be indirectly elected, and a second Chamber in our multinational state should reflect its nations and regions. That is where I want to get to, but let us at least push a little further in that direction by piecemeal means.
My Lords, I want to pick up a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I think there is a prior question to this debate. For me, it is about the purpose and value of a second Chamber. Most past efforts of major Lords reform have failed because they did not properly address the supremacy of the elected House of Commons or the impact on the Government’s mandate from the electorate.
The key role of your Lordships’ House is to scrutinise and revise legislation, as is so ably evidenced by our work on recent Bills, particularly the Environment Bill. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that such work is undermined by concerns about the size of the House and the way people get here. We need restraint and effective scrutiny on political appointments and an end to hereditary Peer by-elections.
I do not have much time, but let me say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Grocott’s suggestions on the terms and remit of an appointments commission. We need a more effective commission, especially after recent events. I do not accept that we cannot make any reforms unless we have big bang reform. After all, our democracy in this country was established by such means. As my noble friend Lord Dubs said, a step-by-step approach enables us to address the urgent concerns expressed in this debate. They are positive steps toward greater reform, hopefully through a constitutional convention that represents all parties.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for securing this short debate. It has been a very interesting debate, as it always is when your Lordships apply their wisdom to anything. As far as the form of the Question is concerned, there are other modes of putting Motions before the House, but that is outwith the Government’s responsibility. I will address the Question that has been put before the House.
In opening, I confess to being a Tory. I was glad to learn that I cannot be a complete bastard all the time. I am not sure whether that meant that I am a complete bastard some of the time or a partial bastard all the time, but I will be a little bit of what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, might not like by reminding her that, although I disagreed with her vehemently, I appreciated her humour. However, she said that we are a House of opposition. That is not what this House is; it is a House of revision and challenge, as the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite rightly said—but this is not a House of systemic opposition.
The reasons for that were alluded to by several noble Lords who spoke, ignoring the wording of the Motion, on reviewing the process for appointing Members. The noble Lords, Lord Dubs, Lord Brooke, Lord Wallace and Lord Collins, my noble friend Lord Hannan and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, alluded to the point that there are people out there who do not think that every fault in this House lies in appointment. Some people outside believe that this House might be constituted in a different way, as has been the aspiration of the Liberal Democrat Party for a long time—since 1911, in fact. An attempt was made to secure that in 2012; we know the history there.
The fundamental thing I want to say is that so many who have spoken have expressed their concern and love for this House. I believe that we as a House should be more confident, collectively. Let us not be a browbeaten by an article here or something that is said there. Those of us who are here and do the workaday work of this House know the value of that work and the immense contribution made by Members of your Lordships’ House. I believe that we should have more confidence in ourselves, rather than always listening to the criticisms that come. Actually, some of those criticisms are not as well-founded, as some noble Lords have said today.
This House has a key role in scrutinising the Executive and acting as a revising Chamber. I think that it does that well. When colleagues ask what it is like to speak in Parliament, apart from saying that having the honour of addressing this Parliament is one of the greatest privileges anybody could ever conceive, I say that no one who comes to this Parliament—and this House specifically—should ever come here and stand at this Dispatch Box without a sense of trepidation because of the challenge, intelligence and wisdom that they must face. Let us be confident in what we do.
With the system that is the settled system in this House, new Members are essential to keep the expertise and outlook of the House of Lords fresh. That has been the case for a long time. Constitutionally and legally, it is for the Prime Minister to make recommendations to the sovereign on new peerages. This remains the case. Again, I heard the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on the nature of appointments; I have heard it on other occasions. However, I am afraid that I can say nothing or offer any consolation on that point at this moment.
It would be helpful to remind ourselves of the current arrangements for appointing Peers. The Prime Minister has the sole power of recommending nominations to Her Majesty the Queen for those to be appointed life peerages. The House of Lords Appointments Commission offers the Prime Minister probity advice and can and does make recommendations to the Prime Minister concerning Cross-Bench appointments. The commission has two core functions, which I believe it performs well. The first is to make those recommendations for the appointment of non-party political Members. Since its creation, the commission has recommended a total of 72 individuals for appointments to this House, and I believe that the House has been greatly improved by their presence. I agree with those who referred today to the importance of the Cross-Bench presence here. Secondly, of course, the commission vets nominations to this House on propriety and advises the Prime Minister. This includes nominations put forward by the Prime Minister and the political parties.
“Propriety” in this context is defined as meaning, first, that the individual should be in good standing in the community in general and with the public regulatory authorities in particular, and, secondly, that the past conduct of the nominee would not reasonably be regarded as bringing the House of Lords into disrepute. A check on a nominee’s propriety will include checking with relevant government departments and agencies and other organisations, including the Electoral Commission. The Appointments Commission also conducts media searches. Once all the evidence has been considered, the commission will either advise the Prime Minister that it has no concerns about the appointment or will draw concerns to the Prime Minister’s attention. But it does not have the power to veto the appointment of Members to the House of Lords for the constitutional reason—which we have often discussed —that it is ultimately the responsibility of the sovereign’s principal adviser to make recommendations and be accountable for them.
I recognise that noble Lords have been interested in these arrangements in the context of recent appointments to the House. Again, here I think one should not be stampeded by comment in the media, nor do I think that we win collectively by throwing stones at each other. We all have houses which have windows in them.
Various proposals have been suggested to reform the present system, including placing the commission on a statutory footing. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has presented a Private Member’s Bill, which I believe will give us the opportunity to discuss that issue, if and when it comes forward. I note the contributions of those noble Lords—including the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman—who clearly and consistently make the case for the commission to be on a statutory basis. The commission is there to nominate and recommend non-party political appointments and advise on propriety. We believe that it carries out this role effectively as it is currently constituted. The fact that Members of this House are appointed from a wide range of backgrounds is testament to this, and it will continue to advise on appointments in the same way as it does now.
While the commission’s role is advisory, the Prime Minister continues to place great weight on its careful and considered advice. However, as in many areas, elected Ministers may from time to time take a different view to official advice on balancing the competing issues. More widely, as the Government set out in our manifesto, we are committed to looking at the role of the Lords, but I regret to upset some by repeating our position that any reform needs careful consideration and should not be brought forward piecemeal.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and others were critical of the role of people in this House who have given money to political parties. Let us not beat about the bush: it is not only the Conservative Party that raises money from private individuals. Peerages reflect long-standing contributions to civic life and a willingness further to contribute to public life as a legislator in the second Chamber. I agree with those who say that participation is desirable but not that those who are not here every day do not make a contribution. Great contributions are often made by those who come occasionally.
I disagree with my noble friend Lord Fowler’s implication. The criticism that individuals are ennobled just because they have also chosen to support or donate to a political party is not right. I will read carefully in Hansard what he said, but I hope he was not saying that no one who supports a political party financially should sit in your Lordships’ House. Donations should be transparent, but that is not an excuse to knock people for broader philanthropy, enterprise and public service, as my noble friend Lord Farmer pointed out.
The Minister mentioned me. I said it should not be the formative reason why someone is appointed to this House. Making a political donation should not be an automatic passport into the House of Lords. That is the—I think for most people unexceptionable —proposal that I made.
I am surprised by my noble friend’s phrase, “an automatic passport”. If one looks at the record of people who have come in under the rubric he cited, including a noble Lord who is often mentioned here, one will find that they have made extraordinary and large-scale philanthropic contributions to society. One needs to see an individual in the whole and a House in the round.
Volunteering and supporting a political party are part of our civic democracy. Political parties are part of public service. In Britain, taxpayers do not have to bankroll political parties’ campaigning. Political parties have to raise money themselves and follow transparency and compliance rules that are laid out in law. Those who oppose fundraising need to explain how much they want taxpayers to pay for state funding instead.
I must conclude. In time, we will have an opportunity to discuss the favourite topic of my noble friend, as I like to call him, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. On 3 December there is a debate on the issue that he and others have put before the House in relation to hereditary Peers.
In conclusion, I repeat that the constitutional position in this country is that the Prime Minister is responsible for advising Her Majesty on appointments to the House. The Government do not see the case for changing this. The Prime Minister is ultimately responsible to Parliament and the people for nominations he makes to the House and how he conducts that work. The Government do not plan to establish a committee—
We have maybe a couple of minutes in hand before the hour is up, and the Minister is apparently about to sit down. Will he please explain his reference to piecemeal reform as being not desirable? This House has been reformed—or adjusted, anyway—many times in its history, sometimes substantially but always in a piecemeal way. That is how it has progressed. Can he explain to the House what it is about this moment in the history of the House of Lords, and our politics more generally, that makes it not desirable for piecemeal reform to be engaged in?
My Lords, the House of Lords has sometimes had relatively small changes and sometimes relatively substantial changes. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII slung out most of the great abbots who used to sit on those Benches over there. I guess the Bishops may go soon, if the noble Baroness opposite has her way and the Green Party comes into office, as it has in Scotland; I do not hope too much for that. In 1999 there was a massive change. Since then we have had a few changes, but I go back to my original position: the House is presently operating well and effectively. I believe we should stop criticising and lacerating ourselves and concentrate on the good work we do.
There will come a time when the great question will be asked: how, in the long term, should this House be constituted? That was implicit in the remarks made from the Front Benches opposite, but for now, the Government do not support or propose further piecemeal change, so we do not plan to establish a committee to explore further the process for appointing Peers. I must disappoint my noble friend, but I am grateful to him and all who spoke in a most interesting debate on the Question today.