HL Deb 11 November 1999 vol 606 cc1450-60

(". In making, or making provision in connection with, recommendations to Her Majesty for the conferment of life peerages in accordance with the Life Peerages Act 1958 the Prime Minister shall ensure that more than half of the total membership of the House of Lords is composed of peers who have experience of, and expertise in, fields other than (or in addition to) politics.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have tabled this amendment with the support of my noble friend Lord Caithness because we feel strongly that the Commons have not addressed the main purpose of the appointments commission as stated in our amendment which was accepted by your Lordships at Third Reading.

This amendment goes to the heart of the controversy over the reform of your Lordships' House. While I have no objection to the Government removing the rights of the hereditary Peers—indeed they received that mandate at the general election—the Government did not receive a mandate to get rid of us without stating clearly who is to follow us. Despite repeated requests, we have been unable to get much, if any, guide from the Government, in particular as regards the Commons consideration of the amendment which is now before us.

Our amendment guides the appointments commission as to who is to follow us in the interim Chamber which inevitably will affect the final reformed Chamber. The amendment states that over 50 per cent of Members should be persons whose main occupation and experience is non-political, commonly called in your Lordships' House specialist Peers. This criteria would apply to those sitting on Labour, Conservative and Liberal Benches, not just the Cross Benches.

This view is widely supported throughout the country, by letters in The Times yesterday, in particular, and on page 34 of the Economist last week—a paper which, perhaps, noble Lords opposite read more widely than I because it spends most of its time criticising the farming industry. It is also a view which was widely supported by the Australian electorate, who voted for Her Majesty as a non-political head of state, rather than for one appointed by politicians. A t Report stage, even the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, did not object to the principle of our amendment.

To sum up, I hope that our amendment will concentrate your Lordships' minds on the original theme of no stage one without stage two. I commend our amendment to your Lordships on those grounds. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 2 to which the Commons have disagreed, but do propose Amendment No. 2C in lieu thereof. —(Lord Stanley of Alderley.)

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised that I rise to support my noble friend's amendment. Right from the beginning we have been consistent in our approach: we want to know who will succeed us.

Since Second Reading, the Government have made a complete U-turn on their manifesto commitment by allowing 92 hereditary Peers to stay. As a point of interest, there is almost a secondary hereditary system within that system. I am honoured and. privileged to be joining the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, as the fifth members of our families to be elected by our fellow Peers. That is not quite as good as my noble friend Lord Northesk, who represents his family for the sixth time.

The amendment before the House does not refer back to the appointments commission; we accept that the Government have rejected that sensible amendment. This amendment now places the onus on the Prime Minister. It is worth bearing in mind that a quarter of those who will comprise the future House will have been appointed by this Prime Minister. This will be a "Tony Crony" House. Sadly, it will become almost the rubber stamp of another place. Some hereditary Peers do not attend the House on a regular basis, but the proceedings of this House will suffer from the loss of the expertise of those who, unfortunately, will not be with us from today. In order to preserve our role as scrutineers of legislation from another place, it is vitally important that we preserve the widest diversity of interests within your Lordships' House.

With regard to the usual channels, clearly the Government prefer the votes of people who will acquiesce. It is clear from last night's proceedings and debacle that the House will not be able to continue by way of agreements between the usual channels. We shall have to scrutinise much more carefully what the usual channels agree if we are to fulfil our role in the future.

For that reason and the many other reasons that my noble friend Lord Stanley has elucidated, I support the amendment. It will enable this House to continue to do its proper job until we get on to stage two.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, it seems to me that in this substitute amendment my noble friends drift further from the principle to which the original amendment was addressed.

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the function of Parliament is the control of the executive. All our debates are about that. It is perfectly understandable that a party in government would expect to have parity within the revising Chamber of a Parliament. However, it is not only that matter but the control of the balance in that House of Parliament that is now at issue.

Your Lordships have been told—as often as I was told by my son that he was giving up smoking—that the Prime Minister will give up the power of patronage of appointments to this House. My son has honoured his undertaking. I hope that the Prime Minister will do so as swiftly. I am not talking only about this Prime Minister; this legislation is not only about "a" prime minister. This House has historically restrained some of the greater enthusiasms of prime ministers of all colours, as my noble friend Lady Thatcher would readily, if sorrowfully, confirm. There may be other prime ministers of that or a different colour who may go further from the central line of political consensus in this country, whether towards fascism or towards communism.

I speak merely to remind your Lordships that the Bill gives the privilege and power to the executive to determine the balance of political power in the second House of Parliament—the House of Parliament which has a veto on the extension of the life of the other place. I shall give your Lordships a moment to think of the implications of that, were we ever to have a prime minister too far towards the fascist or the communist end of the political spectrum. Were that power to be used to extend the life of the other place beyond its elected period, we would be within a whisker of joining all those countries in Europe which, having lost the power of changing governments by election, were eventually released from their control after very many years, either by revolution or by war. That is a Cassandra's remark, I fear.

My noble friend has driven further from the principle of the control of the executive resting in Parliament. The control of the executive party in Parliament is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. The amendment does not go nearly far enough to be acceptable. I merely mark for your Lordships the great danger in which we stand.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, although one is exceptionally pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, thought it better to compromise than to capitulate, I, like the noble Lord who has just spoken, question the removal of the originally proposed appointments commission, the composition of which was to be eight members of the Privy Council, no matter that their title might be necessarily by succession.

The reason given by the House of Commons for disagreeing with the original amendment is that, it is not appropriate to make statutory provision for an Appointments Commission". Very well. But what is to prevent the proposal contained in the original amendment being pursued through secondary legislation? Surely the collective opinions of eight wise men would be better than the opinion of only one man; and it would be very much fairer to that single person.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am surprised that the Government rejected the amendment in another place. After all, the Leader of the House told us that this would be done when it was proposed a few months ago in the summer. But that is not the beginning of the story of the appointments commission; it is quite a long way into the book. The Government promised an independent appointments commission as long ago as May 1997 and then did nothing about it. They repeated that promise in their quite dreadful White Paper on this House. Even then not a shred of action was taken. The Government made the same promise in the Labour Party's evidence to the Wakeham commission. They said, in what I believe are rather ludicrous terms which were repeated yesterday in another place by the Minister, Mr Tipping, that, "Tony Blair is the first Prime Minister to relinquish his powers of patronage". I am bound to say, when looking around this Chamber, that I do not see much evidence of that. Promises, promises: how many times must a dead horse be flogged before it rings hollow? "Trust Tony" may be an article of faith for many on the Benches opposite but it cannot be elevated into a constitutional doctrine.

In the amendment before noble Lords, we took the Labour Party's own proposals from its own documents and have tabled a measure to put them on to the face of the Bill. The ideas in the amendment are not our ideas. They are not even the ideas of the Liberal Democrats. They are the Labour Party's ideas. But it appears that they were unacceptable to the party opposite and I believe that we are entitled to ask why.

As we move closer and closer to the creation of a patronage-dominated House without any statutory defence against the abuse of patronage, it is high time that the country also began to ask why. Exactly what is the Prime Minister's game in respect of this House? The case put forward by the Minister in another place was greeted on all sides—quite rightly—by an enormous belly-laugh. The Minister said that your Lordships' amendments had stopped the Government setting up an appointments commission because a proposal was before Parliament.

The fact that the Scotland Bill was before Parliament did not prevent a fortune being spent on preparing for the Scottish Parliament, nor did the Government of Wales Bill in relation to the creation of the Welsh Assembly. Even in the Bill before us, the Government have been quite happy to have elections of Weatherill Peers. Only in the case of an appointments commission does it seem that nothing can be done. As my noble friends have said, in particular my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley, the whole argument is as spurious as it is shallow and as self-seeking as it is spurious.

The Minister in another place also said that it would be wrong to have a statutory appointments commission because the new House might only be temporary and it might be necessary to change a statutory system if a reformed House were ever introduced. Did the Minister in another place not realise that a new reform of this House would require a new statute in any case? It would be just as easy to amend an appointments commission as it would be to amend the powers or composition of this House—and perhaps even a good deal easier. The argument sounds rather like, "Even though it is raining heavily I won't put on a raincoat because I might need a T-shirt next summer". The argument is an insult to the intelligence of Parliament and, I believe, to the people of this country.

I do not pretend that there would be any point in pressing this issue today. The Government have spent two-and-a-half years promising an appointments commission and then doing nothing. They will not change their mind today of all days. For that reason, I hope that my noble friend will not press his amendment, excellent though it is in spirit and much though I agree with the intention behind it. I do not believe that the amendment is practical and I do not think that it would be right to enshrine this particular proposal in legislation.

I prefer the last vote in the old House to have been the smashing victory over the Government on the matter of the penalising of disabled people who have saved. The House was right on that matter. The Government refused to listen then and they will not listen to my noble friend's arguments this afternoon. I think that we should let the Government rest in embarrassment and shame on this matter.

However, when the noble Baroness comes to reply, I hope that she will be able to answer one or two questions. First, when will the appointments commission be created? Will there be a Statement in this House next week? Will the Millennium Honours—about which we have heard so much in recent months—be covered and, if not, why not? If the answers to those questions are not forthcoming when this House meets again, we should seek other ways to make the Government stand by their promise.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I shall be delighted to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and indeed to the new amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, sought to range much more broadly than the amendment before us and to revive the discussions held at every stage of the Bill about the position of the appointments commission. In regard to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I would say simply that I would be very happy to debate those with him in the new House when it becomes relevant—as it will—to the transition. However, on the particular point that he made today—it is one that he has made many times before—with regard to the fact that what he has proposed and that what was in the amendment when it went to another place is exactly the same proposal as that in the Government's White Paper, I could identify five substantive ways in which the amendment is completely different from the Government's White Paper proposals. If I were not aware that the House would like to press on, I would stretch the patience of noble Lords by repeating them. However, they are substantial differences and they are the reason why, although there was a proposal that that amendment be included in the legislation as it stood, it would be impossible to set up an appointments commission. However, to suggest that no preparation has been carried out would be equally false.

The noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, was kind enough to say in his opening remarks that of course he did not dispute the intentions of the Government (as they depended on the Labour Party's manifesto in the 1997 election; the Government's ability to carry them out being enshrined therein) to take these steps on the automatic right of hereditary Peers to sit in this House. However, the second sentence of that particular commitment stated that this would be a stand-alone reform, not dependent on future reform. I think he would therefore agree—I know that the noble Lord has studied the matter very carefully—that that is consistent with the position we have taken.

This is the third time that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, has invited the Government to address the specific point in his amendment. On Report, he introduced an amendment which he said at the time formed part of a wider proposal on the appointments commission. He raised it for the second time at Third Reading when he tabled a less prescriptive form of requirement that the appointments commission should report on whether the criteria he was suggesting had been met. In this variation the noble Lord has suggested that the Prime Minister should ensure that at least half the Members of this House have experience outside Parliament. The noble Lord will know, because he has been a most attentive participant in our debates on this subject, that throughout the proceedings the Government have said that they intend, for example, that the Cross-Bench element in your Lordships' House, which to a great extent represents a different point of view and a different form of experience, should continue to be substantially represented. He will know that that is our general intention. However, on the specific way of achieving that, the amendment before us suggests that more rather than less authority and power to intervene in the nominations of other parties should be given to the Prime Minister. I am sure that that is not the intention of the noble Lord.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way and I apologise for interrupting her. If I correctly understood her remarks, there was no indication given in the way the noble Baroness addressed the question of the appointments commission about when we can expect the Government to bring forward proposals. Before the noble Baroness sits down, can she favour the House with some indication of whether she would be prepared to give an undertaking to bring forward proposals for an appointments commission in the next Session of Parliament?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, that is a commitment I am certainly prepared to give. I had feared that the noble Viscount was going to suggest that it should be done in the next week, which might have been a little premature. That would suggest that we were able to take on board the detailed work that has genuinely been suspended because of the inaccurate amendment included in the Bill when it went to another place.

Noble Lords


Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, that is so and that is the advice that we have been given by the constitutional authorities whom I, am least, am not about to challenge.

I shall return to the points made in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, insisting that the Prime Minister should ensure that the criteria the noble Lord wishes to see should be introduced on a statutory basis so as to obtain such a cross-section of interests in this House. In those circumstances, the Prime Minister's hand might be more constrained than it is at the moment. He would not necessarily be able, for example, to forward recommendations from other party leaders to the Queen because his suggested criteria might already have been fulfilled and the balance of interests sought by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, might already have been achieved. Indeed, the easiest way for the Prime Minister to ensure that the criteria were met would be to take the whole responsibility for nominations into his own hands.

We also return to the slightly subjective point which we discussed on the noble Lord's previous amendments about how these people would be determined in terms of their external interests. The noble Lord earlier dismissed our concern about that point by saying that he could tell within a few minutes of meeting someone whether or not he or she knew anything about agriculture. With all due respect to the noble Lord's expertise in that industry, I think that those subjective criteria, on the basis perhaps of "I know one when I see one", would not be sufficient to enshrine this proposal in legislation.

We have discussed very widely and deeply on many previous occasions the extent of the appointments commission. The amendment requires the Prime Minister to exercise a subjective judgment about the overall balance and composition of the House of Lords which I would suggest is inappropriate for an amendment. We have given the commitments, which the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, seeks to challenge yet again, about the Government's overall ambitions as regards maintaining the wide interests which the House presently represents. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, that this is not the moment to pursue the matter on a statutory basis and urge him to withdraw the Motion.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness a question. I noticed that the one time she had a smile on her face was when my noble friend Lord Strathclyde suggested that we did not support the amendment. If there were to be, as I understand that there may be, some additional life Peers created in the New Year's Honours List in January—it is now November—would those be as a result of appointment by the Prime Minister or the appointments commission?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, that would be venturing into the realms of the Prime Minister's arrangements, which it is not for me to do.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that my peerage dates from Walpole, Pitt and now Mr Blair, for which I thank him very much indeed? We elected Peers, an experience which the noble Baroness has not undergone—

Lord Carter

My Lords, we should remind ourselves that the rules on the consideration of Commons amendments are the same as for Report and Third Reading. The only noble Lord who should speak after the Minister is the mover of the amendment unless there are short questions of fact.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I do not intend to delay the House and I do not intend to press this Motion. I do not intend either to answer many of the noble Baroness's questions, particularly those about the appointments commission, because we have done it all before.

I wish to make two points. One is in reply to my noble friend Lord Elton and indeed to the noble Baroness. I would like to have gone much, much further. I liked the "sunrise" or "sunset" amendment of my noble friend Lord Tebbit, but I do think that this is the wrong time to do that. All that I felt was proper at this time was a fairly minor amendment, which I hope your Lordships will accept it is.

As far as concerns the remarks of my noble friend Lord Elton and the noble Baroness, I am sure that it would be very hard indeed to make into Lobby fodder the type of Peers that I am suggesting should be appointed. They will have better things to do than that and they will have strong views on their subject.

Some noble Lords will have said that we are wasting your Lordships' time. I totally disagree. I was anxious that the final words on the demise of your Lordships' House should not be a history lesson of what good or indeed evil your Lordships have done since Magna Carta but on the future of your Lordships' House. This Motion draws your Lordships and, it is to be hoped, those outside your Lordships' House into the matter of who should succeed us. I hope that is kept firmly in the minds of the Government and everyone else. Therefore, with some regret, I must ask your Lordships' permission to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 2 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 2A.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 2 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 2A.—(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I shall be brief. I have studied the debates on this matter in another place. It is a simple amendment and it would have been so easy for the Government to accept it. I am amazed that they did not. Yet the Government made another meal of it. I just wonder whether the noble Baroness will consider further in due course the arguments which the Government put forward yesterday. Is there any chance that in the same offer as she made to my noble friend Lord Ferrers she will consider whether this would be an appropriate subject to return to in the new Session?

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, before the noble Baroness speaks, perhaps I may make one specific point—

Noble Lords


The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)

My Lords, there is some discussion going on to which I am not privy. When one of your Lordships is on his feet, it is not for the occupant of the Woolsack to intervene.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I believe the position is that the noble Lord on the Woolsack should put the Question.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am grateful for that very proper intervention from Her Majesty's Government's Front Bench. The Question is that this House do not insist on their—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I think that a noble Lord was trying to make an observation and it would be appropriate if he were to be allowed to make the observation as opposed to being shut up by the Front Bench opposite.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I do not see any other noble Lord on his feet

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, I am most grateful to the two noble Lords who have spoken. I am wholeheartedly in favour of this new amendment as a postscript to Clause 2, especially having read the reason given by Her Majesty's Government for disagreeing to our Amendment No. 4; that was: Because it is unnecessary to protect further the position of the Septennial Act 1715". I shall not need the microphones because—

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I hesitate to intervene again but I do think there is some confusion. I agree that the procedure is a little complex. One has to have a GCSE in double negatives to understand the procedure. But believe—and I would seek the support of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition on this point—that we are on the Question that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 2 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 2A, and not the later amendments or any new amendments.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, the Question is that the House do not insist—

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, perhaps I may—

Noble Lords


The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, for the sake of guidance to the House, I should perhaps indicate, because I believe that there is a slight misunderstanding, that I put the Question for the first time before the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rose. Indeed, I paused before he did so in order to see whether it was appropriate for me to collect the voices. I think that that guidance might be appropriate.

The Question is, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 2 to which the Commons have disagreed. As many as are of that opinion shall say "Content"; to the contrary "Not-Content". I think the "Contents" have it. Clear the Bar.

Lord Carter

My Lords, there seems to be an almost total misunderstanding of what is going on. We have debated the first group, on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, relating to his proposed amendment, which he withdrew. The House can now only formally accept the Motion on Lords Amendment No. 2. There is no procedure on which the House can divide against it. I see Members all round the House nodding. We must now formally accept the Motion, which relates to Lords Amendment No. 2. We then move on to that which relates to Lords Amendment No. 4.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords—

Noble Lords


Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps I may remind the Government Chief Whip that the occupant of the Woolsack has put the Question, and I think that the Question should indeed be put.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, it is for the occupant of the Woolsack to collect the voices after putting the Question. However, in view of what has happened, for the convenience of your Lordships, I shall put the Question again.

The Question is, That the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 2 to which the Commons have disagreed. As many as are of that opinion shall say "Content"; to the contrary, "Not-Content". I think the Contents have it. The Contents have it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.