HL Deb 17 December 2001 vol 630 cc6-9

2.45 p.m.

The Earl of Liverpool asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the context of their proposals for House of Lords reform, whether they consider that list systems will deliver appropriate levels of independence among the membership of the House.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

Yes, my Lords, any system of elections has to balance the independence of the representatives with the need for accountability to the people. Both of those attributes are desirable in a democracy and must be balanced against each other. List systems can deliver both.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, I thank the Lord Privy Seal for that reply. Does he agree that independence can come in a variety of forms and from any quarter of your Lordships' House, as was admirably demonstrated by noble Lords on the Government Benches last week? In the government White Paper on House of Lords reform, such independence is an element to which people attach the highest importance. Can the Minister tell the House what form of list system is likely to be employed? Am I right in believing that the closed party list is currently the Government's preferred option? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that any election system that is likely to lead to similar Whipping techniques as those that exist in another place should be studiously avoided?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl that independence is a prized attribute of most, if not all, Members of this House. I personally am a strong supporter of that. The Government have no closed view about closed lists. The White Paper suggests that there should be a list system and we have specifically said that we welcome observations on the type of list to be used.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, while hoping that my noble and learned friend may yet not decide to push ahead with a hybrid House, does he accept that with any system in which lists are selected by the parties, particularly one in which the order of the names on the lists are selected by the parties, one may just as well have appointments? The principle would be identical. Can he assure the House that, if the Government intend to go ahead with a list system, the legislation will include a clause preventing political parties proceeding in that way?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend speaks of a hybrid House. At the moment it is a hybrid House. It consists of Law Lords, Bishops, hereditary Peers and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. At the moment we do not have a blanket uniformity and nor shall we want that in the future. It is well known that elections in modern times are normally funded by political parties and political parties have a part to play. However, I agree with my noble friend's underlying theme; I believe it was the underlying theme of the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool. We want a House that is able to scrutinise the Government, whichever government are in power, at any particular time. I repeat my earlier proposition: the way that we work is as important as the composition of the House

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the Leader of the House bear in mind that the admiration that some noble Lords hold for political parties is very limited indeed? Is there any prospect that the noble and learned Lord will agree with me—I have said this before—that political parties are the only thoroughly nasty thing of which I know of which one needs more than one?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I always defer to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, because he has had a very long life, serving—I use that word neutrally—a political party. I am bound to say that, being an innocent in these matters, I have always thought that politics was a dirty business. Thank God I have nothing to do with it.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that attention has perhaps been deflected away from the working practices of this House and much attention has been given to its composition? Perhaps that will not help matters as regards the long-term prospects of the reform of this House.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. We need to attend not simply to the attraction of the moment, which is composition. Although that is deeply important, what will fundamentally matter much more to this House—I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate—is how we deliver, and that means how we work; how we scrutinise; and how we bring the executive to account.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord confirm that if the Government choose to proceed under the system of election in use in the European Parliament, both the nominated and elected Peers will be chosen by the parties in proportion to votes cast? Where is the difference?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, one needs to bear in mind—I hope that this will be borne in mind at some stage—that there will be very little opportunity to alter the composition of this House numerically because the life Peers have been assured that they shall remain as long as they choose. What will happen at the moment is that 92 hereditary Peers—in whose defence there is no stronger partisan than I—will be substituted by 120 elected Peers. I should have thought that by and large that was quite a good idea.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us who have maintained our contacts in the other House, and who meet people every day, know of no support whatever for a system of election to this House which in any way replicates the system used for the European Parliament? Indeed, we confidently predict that in the other House there will be the biggest rebellion of this Parliament on this electoral system if it is adopted in the way that someone suggested, although I cannot speak for what may happen here. I ask my noble friend whether we can discard that European-type system altogether now, immediately, and begin a proper debate on a way to elect Members to this House which carries both support in the country and in both Houses of Parliament.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is fair to say that closed lists have not been met with universal acclamation. I think that I hold the world record for ping-pong, since the matter went back and forth from this to the other place five times. I understand what my noble friend says. There is a debate which is going on. In talking to Members of the House of Commons, it is interesting that many of them—probably all of them—do not want the closed list, but none of them agrees on what they want instead.