Podium: Peering into the future of the Lords

From the annual Disraeli lecture delivered by the former Prime Minister to the St Stephen's Club
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AS A CONSERVATIVE, I believe our Party should try and save the Union from Labour's follies if we can. Let us turn our faces firmly against an English Parliament - an unhappy notion for a Unionist Party - and look at the options for an English element in our United Kingdom Parliament that can mirror the responsibilities of the Scottish Assembly.

The most obvious solution would be a Grand Committee of all English MPs, although it would have to be understood that their decisions would not be over-ridden.

The Government has boxed itself in by its devolution policy. There are many possible outcomes to the next General Election, including an outright win for the Conservative Party. But suppose the outcome were an overall Labour majority in the UK, but a Conservative majority in England.

That has happened before and been readily accepted. But devolution in Scotland and Wales has changed that and now the Government must deal with the consequences.

And we have the Jenkins Report. Unsurprisingly, a system has been proposed that offers two classes of Members of Parliament and a far greater likelihood of coalition government than ever known.

The essence of coalition governments is that deals are reached by backroom consultations after the election and not determined in the ballot box. Therefore, the Government is inherently less stable than when one party has a clear majority.

The Government is also proposing to reform the House of Lords. But to call what is on offer "reform" is a misnomer. What is on offer is piecemeal and self-serving: it is the abolition of hereditary peerages with no indication of what will replace them.

A proper reform is timely and I would welcome it. We must find a way of replicating the ironclad independence of the current House of Lords in its successors.

First, we should accept that reform can improve the Lords and advocate measures to do so. If hereditary Peers are to go - and they are - we should know what would replace them. Life Peers will continue. But how should we replace the departing hereditaries? I see two sorts of new Peers.

First, a limited number of elected Peers, but elected once only for a fixed tenure of, say, ten years. They would then be able to enjoy political independence in the Lords - and to ensure this is continuous I would debar them from seeking re-election to keep them impervious to party discipline.

Second, more Peers in the Lords by virtue of their everyday responsibilities representing significant parts of British opinion.

Here, there is a rich menu to choose from: Nobel Prize winners; major religious leaders to supplement those Church of England Bishops who already have seats in the House; representatives of the universities; heads of the Armed Forces; presidents of representative business organisations; former senior Civil Servants; leaders from charities or the media. We could select to taste. And again appoint for a fixed term.

Certainly, the appointment new Peers should not be by the unfettered will of the Prime Minister alone.

Ideally, the new Peers should be appointed as the result of recommendations from an independent, open and accountable Appointments Commission upon which each of the major national parties should be represented.

Appointments could require an agreed majority to ensure a high degree of consensus. Few guidelines should be laid down, but the primary aim should be to represent all sectors of civil society, but to allow domination to none. The Lords should reflect the little platoons of Britain.

Since I have argued that change requires consultation and broad consensus it would be invidious of me to propose pre-scripted change.

But let me offer some ideas. Whenever practicable the Government should send draft legislation to the Lords, for examination and comment prior to introduction in the House of Commons.

The Lords should be given statutory powers of examination of European legislation, of Treaty commitments and have a Standing Commission in place to consider our continually evolving constitution.

And we should look at the Ministerial roles too. Why should Ministers, although only able to vote and be a Member of one House, not be permitted to speak in the other? This would enable the number of Ministers to be cut back significantly

There is more than a whiff of arrogance about this government and we must use the legitimate mechanisms of Parliament to hold it in check.