HL Deb 25 November 1999 vol 607 cc580-2

3.11 p.m.

Lord Saatchiasked Her Majesty's Government:

When an independent appointments commission will be appointed to scrutinise the creation of life peerages.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, as I have explained to your Lordships, the Government intend to bring forward proposals for the appointments commission during the current Session of Parliament. The Government propose that the appointments commission should recommend Cross-Bench appointments and vet all new life peerages for propriety.

The Government are also considering their response to a recent letter from the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, asking for the setting up of the appointments commission to be delayed until the Royal Commission on House of Lords Reform has reported. The letter was copied to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and I have placed a copy in the Library.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that whenever the appointments commission is finally formed and begins to operate—I shall resist the temptation to read Hansard of 13th May in which the noble Baroness assured the House that the appointments commission would be fully functioning by the beginning of this Session—the first essential for its credibility is that it will behave under terms of reference laid down by statute in an Act of Parliament, which will ensure that it is completely independent of any government and any Prime Minister?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing the attention of the House to Hansard of 13th May. I do not think that he took part in any of the proceedings on the House of Lords Bill. Had he done so, he would have taken the point that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition moved an amendment to the Bill requiring a statutory appointments commission to be included. It was not until the other place considered the provisions two weeks ago that the amendment could be removed. Of course the person who becomes the chairman of the appointments commission needs to be independent. During the passage of the House of Lords Bill we discussed many times and for many hours whether that would be best done by a statutory process or, in the interim House, by a voluntary non-statutory process. I shall not weary the House by even precising the debates, but the noble Lord can be assured that the Government believe that the interim appointments committee is best set up as what is called a non-departmental public body under the Nolan rules.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in congratulating the noble Baroness on the speedy return of her voice, perhaps I may ask her whether I have understood correctly what she has used it to utter. Are we to take it that the appointment of a body to recommend occupants only of a fraction of the seats in the House and to concern itself with the remainder of the entrants to the House only as to their propriety is to be full and final settlement of the Prime Minister's undertaking to give the whole of his patronage to the commission? If that is the case, it takes something of a stretch of the imagination to do so.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for congratulating me on the return of my voice. I am afraid that it is not totally there yet. With regard to his question, the noble Lord may feel that that is the case, but that has been the Government's consistent position since we published in the White Paper our proposals for the appointments commission for the interim House. I suspect that the concerns expressed by the noble Lord may be reflected in some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, about the need, as he sees it, to wait until the Royal Commission reports before taking full and final decisions on this matter.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, has my noble friend noticed that, as one or two politicians on the other side of the House have got into difficulties over recent days, information has dribbled out that they have been rejected At some stage for peerages? Would it not be a good principle of the new body that if anyone was turned down that became public knowledge as well? Would that not be an excellent way of cleaning up public life?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I fully understand my noble friend's concern about the possible candidates for peerages who may or may not have been appropriately scrutinised in the past year. It has always been my understanding that one of the reasons for the success of the existing scrutiny committee, which would continue in its different form under the new interim appointments committee, is that its considerations are privileged and are held in private. As my noble friend suggests, this information usually dribbles out in the end anyway.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is increasingly clear that the noble Baroness does not have any answers to the questions that have been posed. I know that the noble Baroness is an honourable person and she must be as sickened as I am that no appointments commission has yet been set up and, as far as concerns today's announcement, there is no timetable for an appointments commission to be set up. I have already pointed out that it was perfectly possible for the Government to set up the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament without a Bill having passed through Parliament. Why could not the Government set up an appointments commission? The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has written to us. I have replied, as has the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, and I have today sent a copy of my letter to the noble Baroness. It is perfectly possible that she has not seen it. When can the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, expect a reply from the Government? Can the noble Baroness tell the House whether or not she will accept his recommendation that we should now wait for his report? I believe that putting that into effect will take too long. We should go ahead now and create an appointments commission at the very earliest opportunity.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for making his position so clear. I look forward with interest to receiving his letter. As I said in my reply to the original Question from the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, the Government will respond to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, very soon. That is entirely appropriate. I saw the letter for the first time last weekend. Other members of the Cabinet need appropriately to be consulted. But there is no question of there being any sinister motive for the delay as the noble Lord foresees it. I received the letter only five days ago.

On the question of whether we could have proceeded with the appointments committee during the summer while the noble Lord's rather obstructive amendment sat within the Bill, I have explained to the House on several occasions—but I shall do so again—that we received advice on this matter from the constitutional authorities who were advising us on the Bill. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords opposite that those were the same constitutional authorities who correctly advised us on, for example, the status of the Writs of Summons and on the Treaty of Union, which noble Lords opposite insisted on referring to the Law Lords for their review. I for one am totally confident in accepting the advice of the constitutional authorities on this question.