House of Lords (Peerage Nominations) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

House of Lords (Peerage Nominations) Bill [HL]

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Excerpts
2nd reading
Friday 18th November 2022

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My Lords, there is much of merit in my noble friend Lord Norton’s Bill, and it is hard to disagree with some of its common-sense suggestions for raising standards. However, I cannot support more power being given to an unelected body, as a matter of principle, as a solution to the problem it seeks to address. The main problem we wrestle with in this House is our legitimacy as an unelected body. The central criticism of the existing regime for appointments from the Bill’s proponents is that recent and successive Prime Ministers are undermining the House’s legitimacy, as an unelected House, by their approach to appointments and, in some cases, the people they choose to appoint. Indeed, the Constitution Unit argues, in the briefing it circulated ahead of this debate, that successive Prime Ministers are “deliberately” bringing the House “into disrepute” through their nominations.

I am certainly not here to defend any Prime Minister’s choices or the number of appointments they have made, but I champion the fact that a Prime Minister—or an Opposition leader—can be held to account by the electorate for their choices. It is clear that some appointments—although, I emphasise, very few—by recent Prime Ministers and today’s Labour Party leader deserve critical comment, and some people will question their respective judgments in making those appointments. If that legitimate criticism informs voters’ views of these party leaders, they can at least exercise their view via the ballot box. However, the same is not true for members of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, however noble and distinguished they may be as public servants.

I am proud to be a Member of your Lordships’ House and to sit in this Chamber among many talented, diligent and highly respected colleagues on all sides. In my view, our first priority in maintaining the legitimacy of the House of Lords must be our own conduct.

I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Norton and other noble Lords participating in this debate who have done much over the last 10 years to strengthen our disciplinary and sanctions regime. The power to expel, brought about in the 2015 Act, was a massive step forward—but there are still loopholes. There remain among us Members who have served prison sentences for more than a year for committing serious crimes predating that legislation. Just because we could not legislate retrospectively does not mean that we should ignore that fact. Indeed, we also introduced the facility for Peers to retire yet, when I sought it, I could not get cross-party agreement prior to the 2015 general election to ask these convicted Members to avail themselves of this facility before the start of a new Parliament.

Similarly, we also have yet to close the loophole of a Peer bringing the whole House into disrepute if we ignore any serious act of misconduct that shows contempt for the people we serve. That could be dealt with by amending our own code, which I also sought to do as Leader, but was thwarted at the final hurdle.

More routinely, there is the question of how we all conduct ourselves when scrutinising legislation. I remain most sincerely of the view that every piece of legislation is improved by the scrutiny that it receives from this House—but too often lately we approach our work with a distaste for what the legislation is seeking to achieve because it is in response to the demands of an electorate that noble Lords seem to think do not understand or know as much as we do.

Before we seek to constrain any Prime Minister, we need to be more self-aware and close any remaining loopholes that exist in our own conduct regime. Ultimately, we should not forget that the underlying problem of this House when it comes to its composition is a democratic deficit. That is why there is no satisfactory technocratic answer. There is only one real solution. Until or unless we become at least mainly elected, directly or indirectly, our main priority should be our own conduct, making sure that we are equipped and prepared to act against each other if we fail, in the way the electorate would want while they remain unable to.

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Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, as always, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. I must begin by declaring an interest in that I am chairman of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which I founded with my noble friend Lord Norton—my very good friend—more than 20 years ago. That is what makes it such a very special pleasure to be able to speak in this debate to congratulate my noble friend and to say that although every Bill is capable of improvement, particularly by an experienced scrutinising body, this is a good start. I hope it will follow the other incremental reforms that have come out of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, namely the Bill introduced by Lord Steel of Aikwood, which brought about provisions for retirement, and the Bill brought by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman—a former distinguished Lord Speaker—which enabled us to take action and to expel those who had transgressed in very serious ways. I hope the Bill will come along.

I am afraid I did not have any text with LOL in it, any more than the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, did, but I had a very good conversation with David Cameron when he rang me. I was delighted to be invited, but I said, “I will be a working Peer. I will come all the time. But I must say that I will regard it as my duty to exercise independent judgment and therefore to vote as I think appropriate.” He said, “Well, you’ve always done that in the other place, so I can’t really ask you to behave differently.” I have taken that as my licence ever since I got here and will continue to do so, because it is the duty of your Lordships’ House to examine critically, to ask the other place to think again and, if necessary—this is the ultimate, and we have not done it since I came here—to give a Bill a whole year before it can come back. There might be one before us at the moment where we have to take that sort of action.

I digress. It is very important that attendance accompanies membership. I would go further than many and say that unless a Member, without good reason or cause, such as serious illness, bereavement or whatever, puts in 20% attendance in the course of a year, he or she should be disqualified from being a Member of your Lordships’ House. You cannot be an effective member of a body unless you attend it fairly regularly and play a real part.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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Will my noble friend give way?

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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I cannot, really, because there is no time.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston Portrait Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Con)
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My noble friend is very kind. What he is asking for with a commitment to attendance, which I have some support for too, is something we could deal with through our internal procedures. That is not beyond our existing powers to implement now. Now that we also have the power to disqualify on grounds that we might consider fit, we can do all these things.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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I will take a minute’s injury time for that. I will not respond because my noble friend, for whom I have a high regard, misses the point. It is very important that we move forward here.

What has disturbed me more than anything has been the cavalier disregard for the constitution by Prime Minister Johnson, amounting almost to a trashing of it. It is very important that a Prime Minister has an ethics adviser and follows their advice. It is very important that we have an appointments commission on a statutory basis. The Prime Minister is in no sense prevented from making nominations but he should listen to the advice of that appointments commission.

My greatest concern of all is the position of the monarch. We have a new King. We must not put him in an invidious position, because he is the fount of honour. He has to award peerages on a recommendation. We should have a real sensitive regard for his position, just as we must listen to what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said. When we get this Bill in Committee, which I hope we will, we must try to make sure that there is no opportunity for the courts to be dragged in. That is very important.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, I took issue with my very good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and his letter to the Times. To say that there is broad consensus for an elected senate is not right. To have an elected senate with 400 people elected and 100 appointed will create two problems: first, the clash with the other place by the elected people; and secondly, the 100 who would inevitably be regarded as second-class Members. That is not a good idea.

When my very good friend the Minister comes to reply, I hope she will say that the Government will assist the progress of the Bill through Committee so that it can be critically examined and go to the other place. I think, like the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that it would then stand a real chance of going on to the statute book.