HL Deb 31 January 2000 vol 609 cc9-12

2.58 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to establish the independent appointments commission, promised before the report of the Royal Commission on the House of Lords, to deal with nominations to the House of Lords.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, as I told your Lordships last week, the Government are making progress with the establishment of the appointments commission, announced in last year's White Paper Modernising Parliament Reforming the House of Lords. We have appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers, executive search and selection consultants, to assist in the process of identifying suitable candidates for chairman and independent members of the committee. Public advertisements have been drawn up and will appear very shortly. We hope to have the commission in place by April. However, I would emphasise that these are important appointments and we do not intend the process of making them to be skimped to meet a self-imposed artificial deadline.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for that Answer. Will she confirm that we are talking not about the appointments commission as set out in the Wakeham report but as set out in the Government's White Paper?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

Yes, my Lords, I am happy to do so. The appointments commission set out in the White Paper was the non-statutory appointments commission designed particularly to make non-political Cross-Bench appointments to this House. The proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, is for a much broader statutory role.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, again, I cannot believe that I am the only one who regards this whole process with a great deal of disappointment. Would it not have been far better for the noble Baroness to have come to the House with an oral Statement rather than feeding out the information rather vaguely in the shape of a Written Answer regarding the role of Pricewaterhouse? Also, is this not a rather a "meagre mouse" of an appointments commission? Should not all appointments to this House be properly vetted by a properly constituted appointments commission? And should that not be backed by law rather than the whim of the Prime Minister?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Lord is continuing the discussion we had over many months during the passage of the House of Lords Bill in which he and his colleagues proposed a statutory commission for the interim House—the House in which we all now sit. As I remember it, when the Bill returned from another place he did not press the amendment that had initially been carried. The key difference between the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and the present situation is that the Royal Commission recommends a split between membership of the second Chamber and membership of the peerage. It would clearly be much simpler to legislate for an appointments commission which made appointments, albeit very important ones, like any other, than for a commission that sought to interpose itself, as it would now be doing, in the exercise of the prerogative. The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has identified precisely that difficulty in the short term.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the noble Baroness pause for a moment and try to imagine the reaction had a Tory government proposed so important a constitutional role for a City firm of accountants? There would have been a howl of dismay and rage. Some of it might have been synthetic; nevertheless there would have been great indignation. Members on the other side would have been quick to point out the absurdity. It says a great deal for the gentlemanly behaviour of the party of which I am a member that we are so quiet in our protest. The noble Baroness and her Government are putting forward a totally unacceptable proposal.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I can only suggest that the noble Lord re-reads the discussion on precisely this issue during the Committee stage of the House of Lords Bill on 13th May, as I did at the weekend. The whole process was set out by myself, clearly and at considerable length. I re-emphasise that those at PricewaterhouseCoopers are not choosing members of the commission. They are using their executive search capacity to ensure that the widest possible number of potential candidates can be identified. The Government are attempting to act in the interests of an open process. I suspect that there would have been a great deal of synthetic rage about cronyism if the Government had simply announced the members of the commission.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, what particular expertise does the firm Pricewaterhouse have in helping government to man important committees of this kind? Has it done work of this kind before? How much is it to receive in fees? Will the noble Baroness assure the House that it has not given any money to the Labour Party?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I cannot answer any of the practical questions. I am sure that I can say clearly that the firm has not given money to the Labour Party. The noble Lord is showing extraordinary obscurantism in dealing with this issue. All that those at PricewaterhouseCoopers are being asked to do is to provide the practical back-up on an executive appointments system, very common in the outside world, in order to achieve a good trawl of candidates. They are acting as head-hunters. That does not enable them to have any constitutional role or any discretionary role in the final choice, which will be made by a committee chaired by the Secretary of the Cabinet.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister accept that executive search companies in the City and elsewhere have been used by successive governments to make appointments of all types, including the leadership of significant committees, certainly in my personal knowledge since the beginning of the 1970s?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for confirming that point. I re-emphasise the point I made in my reply to the original Question that the executive search process will also be assisted by widespread newspaper advertising. The text of the advertisement has now been agreed and it will appear within the next few weeks.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, the noble Baroness reminded us that we debated this matter as long ago as last May. In view of the extreme urgency, is it not disgraceful that she is only now considering how to appoint the chairman, and is only indicating that we may have the committee by April?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Lord will recall that his party passed an amendment to the House of Lords Bill requiring that the appointments commission should be made statutory. That was done against the advice to the Government that it would then become constitutionally inappropriate to set up the commission while it was in place. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, challenged me on various occasions on that point. I have had to remind him that we were given that legal advice by precisely the same experts who gave us advice, for example, on the questions of the Treaty of Union and the Writs of Summons, which were then challenged, and the Government were in a sense successful when the matter was dealt with by the relevant committee. That led to the process whereby the House of Lords Bill did not return to this House until mid-November. I am sure the noble Lord is aware, from his extensive experience, that public appointments of this kind take time to be appropriately dealt with.