30 October 2000
Order! Order! Seemed more like chaos. Last week's seven-hour marathon to elect Michael Martin as Speaker of the House of Commons was something of a shambles. The tradition has always been that the Speaker is "dragged" to the Chair, being reluctant to take office. The spectacle was, however, of a multitude of would-be candidates fighting for that distinguished office. No such problems in the Lords. We do not have a Speaker. Proceedings are conducted in a dignified and courteous way. Not only do we use words like "my noble friend", we actually mean it. Speaker after speaker rises in an orderly fashion. No one is ever called to speak - we just rise. No one needs to fight to be heard - it is all based on respect for our fellow peers. It is still, however, an amateur house, and most want to keep it that way. No one is paid to be a peer. Apart from subsistence allowances, members of the House of Lords give their services for free.
This, then, is the job description being circulated by the House of Lords Appointments Commission as it seeks nominations for the House of Peers. All entries must be received before Friday, 17 November 2000. Nominations will continue to come direct from political parties, and so the commission is looking only for non-party political peers. The choices will be made by six commission members, chaired by Lord Stevenson of Coddenham. Dennis Stevenson and I started public life together sitting on the then Government's Advisory Committee on Pop Festivals. Neither of us has looked back since. He and his colleagues explained that they will be looking for 8-10 recommendations to Her Majesty the Queen every year for appointments to the cross benches. Dennis is now charged with drawing up another code.
Since the Government abolished the hereditary system, there are now 692 life peers, of whom 164 are cross benchers. They wield increasing influence. Often, votes in the House of Lords are decided by the votes of the non-political peers demonstrating their independence from any political party. Neither the Government nor the opposition have a majority.
In recent weeks and months, the House of Lords has taken over the mantle from the House of Commons as the longest-sitting parliament in the world. Now sitting virtually every working day, often till past midnight, the Lords, with its amending and revising functions, has become the main scrutineer of legislation. Surely you can guess my conclusion.
We need lawyers. Only 5 per cent of all peers created since the 1950s are lawyers, and very few are practising solicitors or barristers. Those that are make their mark. Lord Mishcon always delights the House with his sound advice, and Lord Philips of Sudbury - still the legal eagle - is always to be found seeking to amend or improve legislation. But we need more.
How do you apply? The forms are available if you ring 0117 982 1171 or visit www.houseoflordsappointmentscommission.gov.uk. The commission tells me it is looking for nominees with an outstanding record of personal success and achievement in their chosen fields; independence and integrity; commitment to the highest standards of public life; and the ability to contribute effectively to the work of the House of Lords.
The under-representation of lawyers needs to be corrected. I therefore want to see a record number of applications coming from our profession. I have always felt strongly that, throughout our society, lawyers demonstrate a strong and personal commitment to the principles and higher standards of public life. Trained in being trusted advisers, lawyers are well suited to respond to this new demand. The commission tells me that so far there are but two applications from lawyers. Academics and accountants abound - so let us redress the balance. It could not be a more exciting time to join. Reform is still underway. Sadly, there has already been too much change for change's sake but there is still time to build a new House of Peers. Get a form now - there is less than three weeks to go.