HL Deb 04 July 2002 vol 637 cc354-62

3.37 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the Commons message of 20th June be now considered, and that a committee of 12 Lords be appointed to join with the committee appointed by the Commons to consider and report on issues relating to House of Lords Reform;

That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Lords be named of the committee:

  • L. Archer of Sandwell,
  • V. Bledisloe,
  • L. Brooke of Alverthorpe,
  • L. Carter,
  • L. Forsyth of Drumlean,
  • B. Gibson of Market Rasen,
  • L. Goodhart,
  • L. Howe of Aberavon,
  • L. Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay,
  • B. O'Cathain,
  • E. Selborne,
  • L. Weatherill;
That the committee have power to agree with the committee appointed by the Commons in the appointment of a chairman;

That the committee have leave to report from time to time;

That the reports of the committee from time to time shall be printed, notwithstanding any adjournment of the House;

That the committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;

That the committee have power to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom;

And that the committee do meet with the committee appointed by the Commons on Tuesday 9th July at half-past ten o'clock in Committee Room 20.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I have no wish to delay the House or the approval of the House for the Motion, but noble Lords will have noted from the Minutes of the Committee of Selection that sat on 10th June that I moved— and lost, on the casting vote of the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees—an amendment seeking to increase Cross Bench representation on the 24-strong Joint Committee from just two to three members. I owe it to the House to explain my reasons for that untoward step.

I make it clear that I imply absolutely no criticism of the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees. My Motion, having collected an equality of votes for and against my proposition, presented the noble Lord with a most difficult situation. He dealt with it entirely correctly as he should, and my Motion was defeated. Nor would it be right for me, at the risk of delaying the establishment of this important Joint Committee, to attempt to persuade your Lordships to invite the Committee of Selection to reconsider its recommendations.

For some years, by custom and practice it has been conventional for the usual channels and the Committee of Selection to work to an allocation ratio of two:two:one:one—that is, two each for the Government and main Opposition parties, and one each for the Liberal Democrats and Cross-Benchers for every six members on committees. I asked the Library to research whether there was any record of the introduction of a 2:2:1:1 ratio. It found none; and it found only two specific references in Hansard to the ratio—both by me, as it happens, in recent weeks.

There have been variations in the allocations on a very few committees when Cross-Bench numbers have been better than the 2:2:1:1 ratio would allow. But the Cross-Bench share on those committees was not unreasonable or excessive for the number of Peers who sit on these Benches.

Noble Lords will recall that the latest totals are: 219 Conservative; 192 Labour; 65 Liberal Democrat; 26 Bishops; and 180 Cross-Benchers—almost three times the Liberal Democrat numbers, and now 24 per cent of the total House of 690 Peers, if the 12 Lords of Appeal in Ordinary are excluded.

Some will suggest that party/group representation on committees follows no more than a loose convention which is in many cases ignored. My experience in the two and a half years that I have been Convenor is that 2:2:1:1 is not ignored. It has almost invariably been the starting-point for discussion on forming any new committee and has not infrequently been the end result.

The make-up of many sessional and other longstanding committees was also settled some years ago. Rotation of members on these committees follows a tradition of replacing one for one from party or Cross-Bench group. So the shares of membership of these committees is little changed over many Sessions and has not kept pace with changes in the composition of the House.

My rationale for raising committee membership allocations is that, as Convenor of 180 Cross- Bench Peers, I should like to see—a view backed by noble Lords on these Benches—their numbers and expertise deployed to the benefit of the House and the country. With the considerable changes in your Lordships' House since the end of 1999—in its make-up; in the introduction of the independent appointments commission Peers; and in the widely acknowledged part that a strong independent element plays in the second Chamber—I felt that only two independent members on a Joint Committee of 24 on Lords reform was insufficient. I had to accept that it would not be possible to increase the total numbers on the committee, nor to press for the Labour share of 12 members of the Joint Committee to be reduced to make room for another Cross-Bench member. The Motion that I moved in the Committee of Selection was the only option available to me.

I have argued, and will continue to argue, in the usual channels and elsewhere for an approach that would allow for fairer Cross-Bench representation as well as, when appropriate, representation from the Bishops Benches or from non-grouped Peers—the so-termed "others".

I have drawn encouragement from expressions of greater willingness to be flexible in the sharing of membership of committees. Thus, I hopefully assume that the 2:2:1:1 ratio will not be the accepted norm from which departures are difficult or impossible to achieve, however well justified.

If that had been the case in settling the membership of the Leader's Group on Working Practices or in the make-up proposals for the Joint Committee on Lords Reform which are now before the House, I should not have had to trouble your Lordships today.

3.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, those of us on these Benches are pleased that we have moved to form this committee to seek progress on the reform of this House. As I understand it, there is a desire, expressed in this process, to draw together our several voices to find, if possible, a way forward which wins widespread consent. Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear me say that I am therefore disappointed that a mechanism has not been found for including someone from these Benches to contribute to the committee.

The composition of this House touches upon two crucial aspects of our constitution: the nature of our parliamentary democracy and the establishment of the Church. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor made it very clear in this House on 22nd May that the Government have no desire to enter into the minefield of disestablishment. He said: it would be an enormously complex undertaking to pull out the threads of the established status of the Church of England without damaging the tapestry of the constitution".—[Official Report, 22/5/02: col. 812.] The presence of Bishops in this House is part of that constitutional tapestry. We have sovereignty in this country vested in the Crown in Parliament under God. In our own particular history that is expressed in the structure of this House. Radical changes in these arrangements could lead to the unravelling of other aspects of the constitutional settlement.

In the contributions made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in the Wakeham Commission, and in all the speeches made from these Benches on the reform of this House, it has been made very clear that we wish to play a constructive part in achieving an acceptable and principled reform. We are wholly committed to finding a representative and credible shape for the future of this House.

The Bishops are here not primarily to speak for the Church of England, narrowly conceived as a denomination, but for the spiritual and moral needs of the whole community. That is why we have stood for holding on to the best of our inheritance as we seek a more representative and inclusive shape to the whole House, including its spiritual aspects.

Contributions have already been made which indicate that we might have some practical ideas about how this can be achieved. I therefore find it extraordinary in the light of this history that a mechanism has not been found for these Benches to be at the table and contributing throughout the whole discussion. I cannot see how the task can be done in our absence.

Yes, it will involve more work for one of our number, already busy in the Lord's vineyard. But if there is a desire and a way can be found, it can be done. Do we not have a collective responsibility in this House to ensure that all the aspects of our shared life are participating in questions concerning its future shape? The failure to include this perspective will make the task much harder; it risks the inadvertent opening up of issues that will lead us into difficulty; and it will mean that we are less likely to deliver a solution. Failure to find a solution which strengthens our parliamentary life in the 21st century would be very bad news for our people.

I regret having to speak in such strong terms. We have a duty on these Benches to seek to fulfil the role entrusted to us, and we are determined to do all that we can to ensure that the richness of what this means is not only preserved but shaped for the emerging needs of the people. I hope that we may hear some constructive responses to these concerns.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, I have no wish to delay the passage of this Motion. But like the noble and gallant Lord, I, too, was sorry that the Committee of Selection decided on the ratio that it did as regards the Cross-Benchers and noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

I have the greatest respect for the Liberal Democrats, sometimes even some admiration. But so far as concerns the numbers in this House, it would have been more appropriate had three Cross-Benchers been proposed for the committee and perhaps, therefore, only one noble Lord from the Liberal Democrat Benches. Be that as it may, the committee decided as it did, and that is that.

I strongly agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford about the absence of a Bishop from the Joint Committee. It would have been highly appropriate to have a Bishop on the committee. I am very sorry that it has been decided otherwise. It will no doubt be said that we should have had to sacrifice one member from one or other of the political groupings in this House. But why should that be so? Why could not a right reverend Prelate be added to the list? It is perhaps too late for that. None the less, I confirm my considerable disappointment, very much for the reasons expressed by the right reverend Prelate, that there is no Bishop on the list that is before the House.

Lord Elton

My Lords, my noble friend said that it is perhaps too late for that. I have no wish to make things difficult for the Chairman of Committees, of whom I am an admirer, but we have now heard from the Convenor of 180 or so Members of your Lordships' House, and from a spokesman of 25 Members of your Lordships' House—a total of more than 200 Members—that they are not satisfied with the Motion. I wonder, therefore, whether this is the right moment to put the Question or whether the committee should reconsider.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in case your Lordships think that it is has influenced my opinions, may I say that I have been in Parliament for 57 years—34 years in the other place and 23 years here? During those 57 years, I have seen the amount of representation of people accustomed to responsibility decline at various times in another place. There was a time when every profession was well represented. There were nearly always about 20 Queen's Counsel. At the beginning of this Parliament, however, the Government could not find a Queen's Counsel in the other place fit to be appointed Attorney-General, nor one fit to be appointed Solicitor-General. We now have the advantage of the Attorney-General being in your Lordships' House. Numerous other changes have taken place during that time.

On the other hand, your Lordships' House has not only retained the eminence that it had years ago before many changes were made; it is now truly representative of the professions, business, farming and land-owning. Whatever responsibility is required can be found among your Lordships. The remarks of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the Convenor of the Cross Benches, about representation of Cross-Benchers are very important. Like my noble friend, I agree entirely with what the right reverend Prelate said too. It would be very unfortunate if the representation of your Lordships' House was inadequate and not representative. Therefore, I hope that further consideration will be given to the matter.

I turn to the detail of the powers being given. I agree broadly with the last five. However, the first one states: That the Committee have power to agree with the Committee appointed by the Commons in the appointment of a Chairman It seems to me to be wrong that the Lords' representatives on the committee will have to agree, even if they do not. I should have thought that they should have the power to agree or disagree and the matter could then be referred back to both Houses for a better solution. I hope that I have said enough to prompt reconsideration of the issue.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, I support my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig of Radley. Every authoritative voice on second Chamber reform has said how important it is to have a strong independent element in this House. We have heard that there are 180 Cross-Benchers as against a total roll of 690. It is therefore extraordinary that there are only two Cross-Bench Peers in a committee of 24. Despite the temptation, it is right not to seek today to challenge the decision, arrived at incidentally only by a casting vote, of the Committee of Selection.

I emphasise that I am grateful that there is a new spirit abroad to challenge and, ultimately overthrow, the infamous 2:2:1:1 formula, which, for far too long, has dominated the selection of some—not all—important committees in the House. Flexibility, common sense and a duty to be seen to be fair should be the guiding principles as we enter a new age in this House. I look forward to that flexibility taking account of the strength and diversity which exists on these Benches. I wish the committee well in its Herculean task. It is not too much to say that the health of the parliamentary estate very much lies in its hands.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is always difficult to get a fair balance of people to form a committee. I understand the Cross-Benchers feeling as they do. My concern lies with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford. It is a thousand pities that the bishops are not incorporated in this committee at all. They form a unique part of the House; their experience is totally different from that of everyone else; and they bring a breath of fresh and different air to the House. We may not always agree with them but that does not matter, especially when they are already threatened with being emasculated from 25 to 16, or whatever the figure is. They should have been included on the committee: it is a great pity that this brand of Peer is not incorporated. I hope that those in charge will think again.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I speak as a member of the Committee of Selection which made the decision. I hope that the House will accept its views.

I do not know the individual opinions of any members of the committee as regards the form of this place. Perhaps I know the opinions of one or two, but not those of most members. However, I know that they are people of integrity and honesty who will do their best to listen to, and reflect, the views of all parts of the House. I hope that that will be seen as the basis on which the committee will proceed. Otherwise, we would be saying that we have no confidence in Members of this House or the committee because we do not think that they will fully take account of the views of the Cross-Benchers or bishops.

I reject that. I have full confidence that all those who sit on the committee will seek the views of others. I am quite sure that the bishops will be asked to give evidence to the committee, and that it will reflect in detail the views that we have heard expressed here. I believe that the Committee of Selection has got it right. I have full confidence in it; I hope the House has too.

Lord Dean of Harptree

My Lords, in view of the anxieties that have been expressed, I wonder whether the Chairman of Committees can give any indication of whether special priority will be accorded those who are not members of the committee to give evidence to it at an early stage.

Lord Roper

My Lords, I shall be brief as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, reflected my remarks. I have much sympathy with what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, said. I recognise the contribution that Cross-Benchers make to the work of the House. None the less, I believe that the Committee of Selection reached the right decision. We had difficulty in considering the matter raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford. The constructive way in which he put his points today reinforces our concerns, but our hope was that once the committee had been established it would be able to take views as fully as possible, especially those of the Bench of Bishops.

I hope that those noble Lords who will be nominated to serve on the committee, having heard the debate, will find ways in which to do that.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I, too, am a member of the Committee of Selection. Both in the committee and more widely we were extremely sympathetic to the point made by the noble and gallant Lord the Convenor of the Cross Benches. Indeed, we supported the points that he made by voices and votes. As has been said, the committee was deadlocked, so the chairman had to cast his vote, leading to the decision we are discussing today.

We thought it important that on this committee there should be a substantial representation of the independent element of your Lordships' House and also of Parliament as a whole. There is little or no equivalent to the Cross Benches in another place. We thought it important not least because of the importance attached by everyone—the Royal Commission and others—who made proposals. Most proposals lay emphasis on the importance of an independent element in the reformed House.

The Committee of Selection took its decision and we have no amendments before us today. We were sympathetic to the position of the bishops, as set out by the right reverend Prelate. It is important that the views of the bishops who are our colleagues in this House, as well as the faith communities more widely, should be taken into account by the Joint Committee. I hope that the right reverend Prelate and his colleagues will give evidence in writing, verbally and in person on those points. They will be listened to with care.

One of the proposed powers of the Joint Committee is that of appointing specialist advisers. It could perhaps consider appointing a number of special advisers to determine whether some of the points made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford can be taken into account in its deliberations.

4 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I hope that the words spoken in this House today are listened to by all members of the Joint Committee. They are obviously sincerely and properly held. I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, for his comments about my vote in the Committee of Selection. I was faced with a difficult situation. One Member of your Lordships' House described my action as despicable. I am sorry that the Member concerned felt that way.

As chairman, I had to maintain the status quo; I did that. Whether I agreed with the status quo is a different matter. As the noble and gallant Lord said, the status quo relied on a 2:2:1:1 split for a considerable time. It is not for me to tell the usual channels what changes there should be, even if I believe that there should be changes. Neither of the two larger parties in your Lordships' House offered a seat to Cross Benchers or bishops.

I have considerable sympathy with the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford. There was a serious discussion in the Committee of Selection on that very issue. It did not go unnoticed. The only comfort I can offer him is that I hope there will be an opportunity for evidence to be taken. However, I believe that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, for an early evidence-taking session may not be the case. As I understand it, the first phase of the committee's work will be to sort out the possible options. It will then move on from there.

However, there is a lot of evidence, and much time has been taken in producing evidence in relation to the reform of your Lordships' House. The Royal Commission contained a Member of the Bench of Bishops in the shape of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford who made a big contribution. His chairmanship and membership of various committees is a good example of the way in which Members of the Bench of Bishops contribute to your Lordships' House. We are extremely grateful.

I cannot take the House much further at this stage. I sincerely hope that what has been said today will be conveyed by our representatives and made plain to Members of another place and the whole committee. I hope that careful attention will be paid to their remarks. The question of the split between the major parties, the minor party and the Cross Benches is a matter for another day; it is not a matter for me.

Lord Renton

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is he suggesting that the House should now reach a decision to approve the Motion that he has put forward? In spite of what has been said, is he excluding the possibility that the matter should be adjourned for a few days so that the matters mentioned can be borne in mind and the Motion improved accordingly?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord is saying, but I would have no confidence that if it went back to the Committee of Selection any different solution would be achieved. To rebalance these matters will take rather longer than between now and next week. Therefore, the answer is yes, I have moved the Motion as it stands.

On Question, Motion agreed to; and a message was ordered to be sent to the Commons to acquaint them therewith.