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House of Lords Reform

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered reforming the House of Lords and the number of peers.

Thank you for chairing this debate, Mr Hollobone. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship.

This debate is not designed to diminish the Lords’ responsibility, status or powers. I am trying to find a way forward that will allow us to retain the Lords’ expertise and keep them there for life, as was originally envisioned when they were appointed. It must not be seen as ageist or in any way derogatory to what goes on in the other place. I value the Lords; the Lords are valued. Their expertise is second to none, irrespective of their type, and their constitutional role should not be underestimated.

There are currently 786 peers, with 40 peers on leave of absence or otherwise disqualified from sitting. The Conservative party has 228 peers; the Labour party has 212; there are 178 Cross Benchers; the Liberal Democrats have 102; the Democratic Unionist party has four; the UK Independence party has three; Plaid Cymru has two; the Ulster Unionist party has two; the Green party has one; there are 28 non-affiliated peers; and there are 26 Lords Spiritual. It is a bit long-winded to state how many Lords there are, but it is important that I do so because our upper Chamber is one of the most highly-subscribed democratic institutions in the developed world.

The numbers in attendance by age were supplied to me by the House of Commons Library. The analysis reveals that the mean age is currently 70.4 years—in effect, 70 years. The median is roughly the same, implying a symmetrical distribution, with roughly as many peers above that age as under it. The oldest party is the UK Independence party, at a mean age of 76.3 years, although there are only three of them. The mean age of the Cross-Bench peers is 76.2 years; for the Labour party it is 71.3; for the Conservatives it is 70, and for the Liberal Democrats it is 70.3.

It is difficult to analyse peers’ activity, yet a brief analysis using Hansard data reveals that the mean age of the 20 most active Members of the House of Commons, excluding Mr Speaker, is 64.9, which is more than five years younger than the average of the House of Lords. That may suggest that younger Members are more active, although I would be cautious about drawing that conclusion, given that it is based on only a partial analysis of the data.

In the previous Parliament, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) wanted to have a partly elected upper Chamber. He proposed that the upper Chamber continue to be known as the House of Lords for legislative purposes; that the reformed House of Lords should have 300 Members, of which 240 are elected Members and 60 are appointed independent Members; and that up to 12 Church of England bishops may sit in the house as ex-officio Lords Spiritual. His proposal would have halved the number of Lords and created a semi-elected second Chamber, which would have huge ramifications for our unwritten constitution and our intellectual talent. I believe that that would be the wrong way forward, and would cause a drought of our intellectual talent in the other place.

Dan Byles, the former Member for North Warwickshire introduced a private Member’s Bill for the retirement of Lords. Some peers have utilised that provision. I contacted Dan, and he disclosed that the retirement age was always aimed at 75, although that was never mentioned.

My proposal is to reduce the numbers in the House of Lords. It could be seen as radical, although I hope it is not. I want it to be seen as a constructive way forward. I believe that there is a better way to slim down the Lords by 250 Members, so it becomes more proportionate to the Commons over a 20-year period. I propose that the Lords eventually settles at 450 to 500 peers, who should remain in the House of Lords as life peers, but retire from the Lords as we know it at the age of 75. They may wish to retire from the Lords under Dan Byles’s law, but that would be up to them.

I propose that Lords over 75 become the Lords council. They would still be able to attend functions and use the facilities of the House of Lords. In fact, they would be able to go about their daily business as they do now. They would still be remunerated, and it would cost no more than it does now. The problem is not the number of Lords, but the number we appoint, so we have to find a way forward that enables us to value our existing Lords and appoint new ones in a manner that reflects where we want the House of Lords to be in 20 years’ time.

Members of the new Lords council would be able to sit on Committees, based on their expertise and choice. They would be able to influence their colleagues and the Government as before. However, they would not be able to attend the Chamber and vote. That would have a significant effect on getting down the numbers, improving the working environment and creating a Chamber atmosphere similar to the Commons.

The benefits of my proposal are that it would enable us to value our peers without losing them as we reduce their number over two decades. It would allow a tapered reduction to take place in a sensible and measured manner. It would allow the more active peers to debate and work on a regime suited to their stamina. Therefore, the Lords who, to put it bluntly, are getting older and cannot attend the Chamber regularly will have options. They would not be able to go into the Chamber in the first place, although they would be able to advise. It would create a career path from the Commons into the Lords, and make both Chambers more efficient. The new appointees would be strictly limited and appointed in the same way as before. However, there would be constraints that I will not mention in this debate that will have to be looked at to ensure we have the correct political system at work. We must prevent the perception that the Lords is being stacked by political means. The main benefit would be that we retain the expertise of all ages and reduce the numbers sensibly.

As the median age is currently 70—there are as many under that age as over it—the maths naturally state that if the proposal were to become law, roughly a third of peers would go into the new Lords council in the first five to 10 years. The restriction of the numbers of new appointees would ultimately reconfigure the look of the new Lords structure. I firmly believe that my proposal is a viable and credible means of reducing the number of Lords and, more importantly, preventing the loss of our valued intellectual talent that an elected second Chamber would cause. It is very simple and straightforward.

I am happy with most of what my hon. Friend said, but I am concerned about the age being fixed. Some peers are very effective beyond the age of 75. I suggest a slightly different arrangement, whereby a percentage—I will not say what that is at the moment—retires or is requested to retire, and people compete for the remaining places. How about that?

That is a valid and constructive way forward, as an annexe to what I am trying to do. I would like hon. Members reading this debate in the future to understand that this is a simplified view of what could happen. Further debates would have to take place, and legislation would have to be enacted to make it actually work. However, what my hon. Friend has just articulated very well is that we could have a percentage of Lords who assist a transition, and so still retain the intellectual expertise in the other place—that is the whole ethos behind this debate.

I have nothing more to add, but this is an important subject. For literally decades we have been trying to sort out the problem of the number of Members of the House of Lords. Although I voted for the proposals of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam in their initial stages, I did not like them. We should look into the issue in a more measured and stately way—one that suits the House of Lords as it currently stands.

I must apologise, Mr Hollobone—I have not spoken in a Westminster Hall debate before and so am not quite sure what I am doing.

I am the SNP spokesperson on the House of Lords. Our policy is no longer to have a second Chamber, but I understand that this debate is about finding a way forward by reforming the House of Lords rather than getting rid of it. The way forward that has been suggested is really interesting and would reduce the number of Lords. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) mentioned that some Lords are active and effective over the age of 75; that was an interesting point and should be taken into account.

One concern I have with the proposal of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) is that in the interim period of 20 years he suggested there is a risk that the House of Lords as a whole will continue to get older. If we are aiming to reduce the number of Lords, presumably we will not be appointing many more in that interim period, which will push the average age up, even with a cut-off point of 75.

I agree with the hon. Lady. I have looked into this, and if we do the maths, as I said earlier, the average age in the Lords is around 70, and the average active Lord is 65 years of age. She is correct that there is a mathematical schism, in that not appointing new Lords would push up the average age. However, over a period of 20 years it would come down to how many Lords were appointed in the initial stages. We could have a calculated assessment that kept in mind the ages of the Lords and how many might be around in 20 years, which would allow us to work out a taper.

Absolutely. If the youngest Lords at the moment are in their 30s and we do not appoint any more, in 20 years the youngest will be in their 50s, which is a concern.

There could be a degree of election for the pool of life peers, as well as for the hereditary peers. The SNP policy is to abolish the House of Lords entirely, but if that is not going to happen, we want something that is closer to representative democracy. That would mean some form of election, and a House that represented the breadth of the population. A mean age of 70 is nowhere near doing that—I am not in any way being ageist, but simply suggesting that there is a lack of representativeness. If there were a system whereby a group of the current life peers was chosen democratically to continue in the House, we would be more likely to have a swathe of peers who were more representative of the population.

I understand where the hon. Lady is coming from and share some of her sentiments. However, we looked at that in the previous Parliament and could not get the proposals through the House. I think the House of Lords should be kept as it is now; the issue is how we get the numbers down. I do not have a panacea and am hoping that this debate will be the start of a process. I share her sentiments, which could be looked at in future.

Absolutely.

I do not have much more to say. I appreciate the chance to contribute to the debate and hope that we can find a constructive way forward that includes reform of the House of Lords and, in particular, reduces the number of its Members.

It is a pleasure to have you looking after our debate so carefully and in such an accomplished manner, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing this important debate. The debate on this topic has gone a little quiet in the past couple of years, and it should not have. It is important that we wake it up again. My hon. Friend has made a good start on that, and has perhaps lit some blue touch paper—I will come on to that in a minute.

I should start with a small declaration of interest, as my wife has recently been appointed to the House of Lords as a life peer. We have had the conversation over the breakfast table in which I tell her that I have already voted to abolish her and replace her with an elected representative at least three or four times during this Parliament; she has each time informed me, in return—with slightly too much pleasure—that she is no longer able to vote for me in general elections. I will not detain hon. Members any longer with the politics of the Penrose breakfast table, but thought I should make sure everyone knows that part of my family background, if I can put it that way.

To return to the argument of my hon. Friend, as he said, there have been attempts, big and small, to reform the House of Lords. It is a hardy perennial of debate both in this place and in debating societies up and down the country. It prompts deep and great thoughts among constitutional experts, from historians and academics through to think-tanks and policy wonks of all kinds. It has been so important because it clearly needs to be dealt with—any democrat looking at the House of Lords thinks it looks odd.

To be fair, their lordships understand that and in the past few years a number of different measures have been introduced both from the Lords and jointly by Members of the Commons and the Lords. My hon. Friend mentioned the Bill introduced by Dan Byles and Lord Steel dealing with the retirement of peers; there was also a Bill introduced by Sir George Young and Baroness Hayman on expulsion and suspension from the House of Lords. There have been successful attempts at Lords reform, albeit on a relatively small scale, as well as less successful attempts at grander Lords reform, such as the House of Lords Reform Bill that failed to make progress during the previous Parliament.

It is therefore a little odd that this area of policy seems to have run out of steam in the past couple of years. I thought my hon. Friend’s proposals were interesting and thought-provoking. His proposal for peers who are over 75 to be part of a Lords council would retain much of the Lords’ expertise and ability to provide advice. It would also reduce the number of voting peers while retaining their advice to be drawn on if needed.

I also found it fascinating that, even during my hon. Friend’s brief remarks setting out his interesting proposal, we heard a couple of additional suggestions from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman). Each sparked off the initial idea and contributed variations and additional thoughts—right here, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale has succeeded in beginning a revision and expansion of this rather neglected area of debate.

My hon. Friend has done something important by lighting that blue touch paper, and I would like him to carry on, if he is willing. If we can get other parts of the body politic that are interested in constitutional reform to start considering the issue with a bit more energy and focus—perhaps spurred on by his ideas—we may well get a series of other proposals. They could be tremendously helpful in broadening and enriching the debate.

The Government’s election manifesto states:

“We will ensure that the House of Lords fulfils its valuable role as a chamber of legislative scrutiny”.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend start his remarks by saying that he thought the House of Lords fulfils that role, and that it is an important role that should continue. We want to help the Lords continue to do that, and hold the Government to account.

Also, while it is difficult to envisage a return in the immediate future to the bigger, bolder issue of massive, whole-scale Lords reform, we want to continue to consider ideas about limiting the number of peers, and further ideas around retirement. My hon. Friend’s proposals are therefore bang on the money. They are exactly about where it might be possible, as a practical measure, to take these sorts of things forward, and that is why we should encourage other people to propose alternatives, so that we are not faced with having only one idea from one brave soul who has decided to try to light this issue up again; others should participate as well.

I encourage my hon. Friend not just to talk to think-tanks or constitutional experts outside Parliament; it is crucial that he gets the Lords involved as well. It was noticeable that the two successful attempts recently have been made in close conjunction between Members of the Commons and Members of the Lords, effectively as private Members’ Bills. That element of buy-in from the upper House has been absolutely essential. Who is better placed to make proposals that might get buy-in and consent from their lordships than other Members of the House of Lords?

May I suggest one problem? Throughout the period we are considering, that process would require a denial—a self-denial—from the Prime Minister, and I am talking about not only this Prime Minister but future Prime Ministers, because the number of peers created during the last 15 years has been staggeringly high. It cannot go on at that rate. I would like to know how we can persuade Prime Ministers of all possible political colours—I realise that only one is likely to be in Government—to prevent them from using their power to create too many peers.

My hon. Friend makes my point for me, which is that I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale is pretending that his proposal is a complete answer. I think that he is putting it forward as an interesting and thought-provoking contribution to a broader debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight is quite right to point out that this question about how we reduce the size of the House of Lords will depend not only on people leaving, standing down, retiring or—as this proposal suggests—entering as councillors, but on the number of people coming in and at what age they come in. This proposal does not necessarily address that issue directly—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale was quite straightforward about that—and that is why I suggest that we ought to have other people contributing to this debate, because it will require other proposals for us to come up with a full suite of potential answers.

I know that the Minister may not be able to answer this question, but could he possibly point me in the right direction in the House of Lords to like-minded Lords who would like to take this matter further? I know that previously Dan Byles worked closely and respectfully with the Lords.

I am sure that the Whips in the Lords and the Leader of the Lords will be happy to point my hon. Friend at particular people who might be interested, and I also suggest to him that he might want to talk to some of the Lords who sponsored the two successful private Members’ Bills that have gone through recently. They might be interested themselves, or they might know other colleagues who would be interested in picking this matter up. That would be my starting point.

I hope that other people outside Westminster Hall have listened to this debate, that their interest is piqued and that they will start to consider this important and—as I have said—currently unexpectedly neglected area of constitutional reform, because we have only just started to focus on it. Therefore, this debate is an incredibly valuable starter for 10—a way of beginning a wider debate and kicking things off—but we need to be clear that it is a starting point and not the final answer. To be fair to my hon. Friend, I do not think that he is positioning it as anything else but that.

With any luck, those outside this place will listen to what we have said today and start work. If they start work and then have weighty thoughts on a variety of approaches to pursuing this important area of constitutional reform, I will be delighted to hear what they have to say.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.