I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the size of the unelected House of Lords which, with more than 800 members, is considerably larger than the elected House of Commons; believes that there is no case in a modern democracy for the number of members of an unelected chamber to exceed the number of members of the democratically elected House; cannot condone any Government action that may increase the number of unelected members while reducing the number of elected Members of Parliament, particularly when there are no published plans to concurrently reduce the number of Ministers or amount of support to Government departments; believes that, in the event of an exit from the EU, the return of significant powers will mean additional work for a smaller number of Members of Parliament; calls on the Government to put in place plans to significantly reduce the number of unelected Lords; further calls for a full review of reform of the House of Lords; and calls on the Government to abandon any plans to reduce the number of Members of Parliament until the issue of the size of the unelected chamber is resolved.
May I be the first to congratulate the worthy winners of the Select Committee elections? I also congratulate everybody on making it such a little festival of democracy within these hallowed chambers. Everybody appreciates the opportunity to have a say in who sits on these Select Committees once again.
What on earth is going on in our so-called parliamentary democracy? How can we possibly reach a state in which we have more parliamentarians in these Houses of Parliament appointed by a Prime Minister than elected by the people? In what sort of parallel political universe can it be a good thing to continue to increase the membership of an unelected House while simultaneously seeking to reduce the number of directly elected Members of Parliament? Has anyone had a look at that place down the corridor? Has anyone taken a cursory glance at its membership? It is an utter undemocratic disgrace. It is an antiquated, absurd Chamber stuffed full of cronies, donors, placemen, former MPs and failed MPs.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He asks whether anyone has seen how the other place operates but—come on!—has he heard any of the debates? Has he heard the contributions from distinguished lawyers, surgeons, architects and others, some of whom have more expertise than those in this place?
I want to go on to forensically look at the membership of the House of Lords, and I hope the hon. Gentleman listens carefully to the type of people we have assembled in that place because they are undemocratic horrors. There are now 812 Members of the House of Lords, making it the second largest legislature in the world behind the People’s Congress of China.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should reduce the size of the House of Lords and that we could do so simply? We could get rid of 21 of the 26 bishops, along with 92 hereditary peers, and we could have mandatory retirement, whereby peers retire after 20 years—this would be based not on age, but on length of service. That would easily take care of 212-plus peers and the House of Lords would be smaller than House of Commons.
I say to the hon. Gentleman, whose interest in this issue I recognise, that that would be a start but that much more needs to be done to address the anomalies of the political circus down the corridor. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). He is right to say that there are people serving in the Lords who are technocrats and the great and the good. These people have been appointed by the independent Lords Appointments Commission, but they are a tiny minority. The House of Lords tries to project this image of itself as inviting in the great and the good to help us with our legislation, but the overwhelming majority of the membership of that House is appointed by a Prime Minister from the list supplied by the leaders of the UK parties. That is why we find the cronies, the placemen, the donors and the failed or former MPs.
I find myself discombobulated in agreeing with some of the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. Do I infer from his comments that if the other place were to take a decision in the future with which he agreed but then set its face against the Salisbury convention and a commitment enunciated in our party’s manifesto in government, he would not support the Lords and would reiterate his view that peers are unelected and that they lack democratic accountability and authority?
I would support Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and their many hordes if it helped to defeat this Government. I have no issue or problem with supporting the House of Lords when it gets something right, but that does not make it any better on these issues. I have sensed the pain in the past few months of so many Conservative Back Benchers who have looked at this place and got increasingly upset that the Lords has defied its will. This Government do not particularly like to be challenged, but the fact that they are being challenged by an unelected, undemocratic House is beginning to disturb the Conservative party, and so I say join us in dealing with this undemocratic disgrace.
I agree that we should be doing something about the House of Lords quickly. I know that the hon. Gentleman is an intelligent character, so perhaps he can help me out with some maths. The current Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister have wanted to cut the number in this place from 650 to 600 to save £12 million, yet they have stuffed the other place, costing £34 million. To me, that sounds like a cost, not a saving.
The hon. Gentleman is spot on, although actually it is worse than that, as the last figures we have are for 2014-15, when the cost of the House of Lords was approaching £100 million—that is what we are actually spending on it. Instead of reducing that, this Government’s sole intention and ambition on the House of Lords is to continue to increase the size of that place.
Let us take a cursory look at our latest batch of new parliamentarians—the 16 new appointees from the former Prime Minister’s resignation list. This list was oozing and dripping with patronage and cronyism. We now have 16 shiny new parliamentarians to welcome to these Houses of Parliament, but let us look at who they are. Thirteen of them are Conservative—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Let me tell people exactly what they are like before they say that. Five of them were senior members of staff in the former Prime Minister’s office, with one a former special adviser to that Prime Minister. One was a special adviser to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. One is a Conservative treasurer who just so happened to have given the Conservative party millions and millions of pounds over the years. Curiously—this is the one that gets me—one is the former leader of the Conservative remain campaign, who, I suggest, is not getting a peerage for any great success that he has delivered to the Conservative party.
I rise to correct the hon. Gentleman. The Conservative leader of the remain campaign is a she, not a he. If the hon. Gentleman professes to be an expert on appointments to that Chamber, it would at least be appropriate for him to recognise that it achieves gender balance as well as having many other virtues.
There are many things that can be defined as redeeming features, and that is one that I accept, so I thank the right hon. Gentleman for pointing it out.
The new parliamentarians of Great Britain are strangers to the ballot box, but very good friends of the former Prime Minister.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The new creations are exactly the savvy sort of people that we should have in the House of Lords. However, the reason why we are in this position of an unreformed House of Lords is that there was insufficient consensus in this place on how to replace it. Is he going to set out his plan for the other place?
If anything, that sounds like a manifesto from the right hon. Gentleman to get himself a good place in the House of Lords, and I wish him all the best in that ambition.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) for mentioning the hereditaries, because that brings me on to my next point. Although the new appointees are bad enough, there are some other cracking undemocratic horrors skulking in the corridors down the road. They are the aristocrats, the 91 Members of Parliament who have the opportunity to design, fashion, shape, issue and supervise our laws because of birthright—because they are the first son of a family that won a decisive battle in the middle ages. The one thing I do like about the hereditaries is that they bring an element of democracy to the House of Lords—did Members know that? It is the surreal and bizarre contest that they have when one of their number dies. The earls, the counts, the barons, the lords and the ladies of the land get together to replenish their numbers. It is the weirdest electorate in the world. It may be the poshest and most exclusive electorate that can be found anywhere, but at least there is that element of democracy in the House of Lords.
Among the posh selectors was a group of three Liberal life peers who chose one of their number. On the point about bringing democracy to the Lords, would not a small improvement be a ballot of the life peers, so that we at least have a natural way of getting rid of some of them while perhaps injecting some democracy into their veins, despite them not liking it?
Once again, I will have to correct the hon. Gentleman on a point of fact. This is not the mother of all parliaments. The original phrase the “mother of parliaments” refers to this country, not to this institution, and the “mother of all” is a prefix associated with the Iraq war. If he is going to pack so many factual errors into his speech, how can we possibly take him seriously as a constitutional or any other sort of authority? He was a marvellous player and lyricist for Runrig, but as a constitutional theoretician, I am afraid that, sadly, he falls short.
On that point, perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. The department of economics at Oxford has a breakdown of the average cost of each peer in the House of Lords. It is very interesting reading: £100,000 for Conservatives, £140,000 for Labour and £99,000 for Liberal Democrat Members of the House of Lords.
Again, that is probably average estimated figures.
There we have it. Those are the aristocratic Members of the House of Lords. Just to make it even more surreal —I think that somebody has mentioned this already—26 places are reserved for bishops in their cassocks. They are not just any ordinary bishops in their cassocks; they have to be Church of England bishops in their cassocks. Again, this is the only legislature in the world that has a place reserved for clerics other than the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The coup de grâce, the ultimate horror of the membership of the House of Lords, is not the aristocrats or the bishops. It is the fact that we still have 104 Liberal Democrat peers. Roundly rejected by the electorate, the Liberal Democrats are kept alive in that crypt on a political life support system. People of Britain, welcome to your legislators! We have aristocrats, bishops and unelected Liberal Democrats. Is that not a great contribution?
If the hon. Gentleman is serious about reducing the size of the House of Lords, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) mentioned a moment ago, has he thought of a system whereby we have indirect elections based on the number of votes cast in the general election, with each party having an electoral college, with perhaps a ceiling of 500 peers, as an interim measure? That would suit the hon. Gentleman’s party and it would remove the outrage of 104 Lib Dem peers in the House of Lords.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable suggestion, but I am not going to suggest how we conclusively deal with the issue. All I am saying to the House today is that we must deal with it. We cannot continue to increase the numbers in the House of Lords while decreasing the numbers in this place. I would respect any suggestion that came forward, as long as it deals seriously with that.
While describing the other place and all its undemocratic horrors, we still have the audacity to lecture the developing world about the quality of its democracies. We have the gall to tick developing countries off about corruption, patronage and cronyism when we have a Chamber down the corridor that is appointed by a Prime Minister. How dare we suggest that to the developing world when we have such an absurd, chaotic system?
Because the House of Lords is a stranger to democracy, because it is in the hands of a small elite and because it is an appointed, created Parliament, there will always be a temptation to delve into the outer edges of corruptibility. The only qualifying characteristic and feature that some of the appointees seem to have is the ability to give large amounts of money to one of the main UK parties. This was tested to the limit by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) when he raised the question of cash for honours, one of the biggest political scandals of the past decades, where we saw a sitting Prime Minister being questioned by the police and some of his key members of staff and fundraisers actually elected. That is what we have done. We have created a Chamber that is immensely corruptible, and we should take that on board.
I intend to vote for the hon. Gentleman’s motion this evening because I agree with much of what he is saying. He said that money was the only qualification. Does he accept that one of the other qualifications that appears to be gaining ground is to have been rejected by the electorate? On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), I was always a big supporter of the House of Lords because it was full of people who were the most eminent in society. Now it is becoming full of second-raters and people who have been rejected by the electorate. Perhaps that is why the Lib Dems are not represented in this debate—maybe they are embarrassed about their representatives down in the other place.
I will vote with the hon. Gentleman tonight and I think it is a good motion, but I am not certain where this will lead. He talks about a reduction in numbers. Would not the best course be to abolish the other place? I had the privilege in a previous Parliament of proposing that, so that we start from zero. Will the hon. Gentleman outline a plan to replace the House of Lords?
I shall suggest certain things that we could consider to replace it. The House of Lords is unreformable and there is nothing we could do with it. It has got out of control. It is like a huge undemocratic leviathan cloaked in ermine that would continue to feed on patronage and cronyism. It has very few redeemable features.
I, too, find myself entirely in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. Is not the real issue for constituents and our democracy not just the absurdity of the House of Lords, but the boundary review that sees the number of seats in this place being reduced, the use of an out-of-date register leading to people being disfranchised, a political system that does not represent our nations or regions properly in our constitution, and a Government who have taken away the powers of civil society to criticise them? There is a package of things damaging our democracy.
I thoroughly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful for his support. I will come on to the reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in this House, because it is important. I thought it was important to link the issues of us growing an unelected House while shrinking the number of representatives of the people. It is right that those issues are linked, because they are going on concurrently. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point.
May I make a bit of progress, if that is all right? I have been very generous in giving way. I will try to give way later.
I want to speak about one of the other major features of the House of Lords: the deference—all the forelock-tugging to all these lords and ladies, and this idea of the high and mighty. We still have this political culture in the 21st century of showing deference to these people in ermine and of knowing your place and respecting your betters. Imagine designing a Chamber where that was still a feature of how we conducted our parliamentary debates.
I actually looked for the House of Lords TV channel the other day, and I came across the fantasy adventure “Game of Thrones” instead. I was listening to some of the language being used, and it struck me that the House of Lords is so like “Game of Thrones”, but without the dragons, beheadings and the proper bending of the knee— that is how ridiculous that institution down the road is. One of the first things we have to do is get rid of all this 13th-century, medieval deference and create a modern, 21st-century establishment, to make sure that we get proper representation in the second Chamber.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are countries around the world that we can learn from? Countries such as Australia, ironically enough, have upper Chambers that are based on ours, but they have managed to leap ahead and to have elected Chambers. Actually, the Queensland Parliament has abolished its upper Chamber, which is now a tourist attraction. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we do not make progress, we will fall behind in the world in terms of the democratic process?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would love to see that place as a tourist attraction. We could stuff some of its Members so that we could see them. They are all dressed like a demented Santa Claus. It would be fantastic: maybe we could have a Christmas fantasy or something as a feature of a visitor attraction. That is where we are, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.
What is the Government’s intention when it comes to the House of Lords? Well, there seems to be only one ambition, and that is to stuff it full with even more cronies and donors. We have seen the latest additions. I do not know whether this is the Government’s intention—perhaps the Minister could clarify—but I get the impression they are trying to secure a majority in the House of Lords, because they are unhappy with the defeats they have experienced at its hands in the past few months. I have not done my sums properly on that, but I suspect that it would still involve another 30 to 50 new Members, taking its membership up to 900. That would bring it very close to overtaking the People’s Congress of China. Is that what the Government really intend to do?
At the same time—this is the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)—the Government seek to reduce the number of elected Members of this House. This House—this nation—should be appalled at that prospect; we should be demanding that it is addressed and reversed. How on earth can we, as a Chamber, agree to the idea of stuffing that place even fuller, while the Government reduce the number of representatives of the people—us, the directly elected Members of Parliament.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I quite like his motion, as it happens; it certainly has the virtue of being better than the previous one we debated. He has hit on exactly the point, which is the oversized nature of the House of Lords. It is a serious point. Does he agree that, in the context of the diminution of the expertise that appointees to the House of Lords are able to bring, there is nothing more “ex” than an ex-expert? Does he agree, furthermore, that one way of dealing with that lack of contemporaneous knowledge and understanding that the Lords bring is to limit their term of office? As a short-term measure, we could create something called a “term peer”, which would reduce the numbers and make sure that those in the House of Lords are actually contemporary.
There is very little about that that I cannot agree with—it is a very good suggestion. The reason we brought this motion to the House was to invite such contributions from Members.
I know that lots of Conservative Members will not support our motion, but—I am taking this as a positive—I am beginning to sense a desire to address this, and we should work together as a House to do so. We first have to accept that there is something drastically wrong with the second Chamber—that it is not working and is starting to embarrass us. In the past, Conservative Members have always said that it is not an issue for them—“Why touch something that people are not concerned about?”—but I am beginning to sense a turnaround in that sentiment. A number of national newspapers have taken this up as a campaigning issue that they want to have addressed. As I have seen in my mailbag, more and more people are concerned about the quality of our democracy. If we allow a political circus like this to stand, we diminish our own role as the nation’s representatives. We are allowing it to continue as a feature of our democracy when we should be tackling it. I encourage hon. Members, even if they are not going to support us tonight, to look seriously at how we start to do so.
I was in the House when we previously looked at this—I am going back about 10 years now—and I voted for all the proposals that suggested replacing the Lords with a majority of elected Members. There was another failed attempt to address it at the time of the coalition Government. It is now incumbent on the Leader of the House—I am glad that he has joined us—to come forward with solid proposals on how we address this, because we have to do it: we cannot let it stand.
Today I, along with all my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who has left us, found out about our new constituencies. The Government intend to reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament from 59 to 53—six will be lost under their proposals to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600. I had a little look to see how many Scottish Lords there are. I found 61 who have registered addresses in Scotland, and that is apart from the aristocrats and landed gentry who have lands and estates in my country. The number of Members of Parliament in Scotland has been cut from 72, when I was first elected, to 53, so we now have more Scottish peers than Scottish Members of Parliament.
Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps the starkest illustration of how bad things have become is that if the United Kingdom—or what was left of it at the time—tried to get back into the European Union at any point, it would be disqualified from membership because countries that were under Stalinist dictatorships 25 or 30 years ago are more democratic?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, which I will let stand on its own merits.
The Government say that they are reducing the number of Members of this House to save money. Of course, if the number is reduced from 650 to 600, savings will be made—that will happen as a natural consequence of spending less.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, so I will try to make a bit of progress and come back to him later if I have time.
We are reducing the number of Members of this House to save money, but at no point do we look at what is going on down the corridor. As I said earlier, the cost of the House of Lords is now a cool £100 million—that is the operating cost for a year. Members of the House of Lords get £300 just for turning up or £150 for working from home, and these are tax-free allowances. That figure of £100 million works out at about £100,000 per peer. For the same cost as these 800 part-time peers, we could have 300 democratically elected and accountable peers on an MP’s salary.
Two of my constituents, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, sit along there in the House of Lords. Last year, Lord Forsyth cost £46,346 and Lord Robertson cost £19,708. I was on the front page of the local paper because of how much it costs for me to come down here and do my job and employ staff. I wonder when newspapers will print that kind of information about how much our Lords are costing us.
My hon. Friend makes an important point that brings me on to my next subject—value for money.
We know how hard we work in this place. We have constituents whom we have to represent and make sure that their interests are brought to this House. The Lords have none of that. Some of them barely turn up. Some of them have barely been in for a debate or made any parliamentary contributions at all. Yet we are prepared to have this huge expense to sustain that place while the number of Members of Parliament who come down here and work hard for their constituents day in, day out is being cut.
I want to say a couple of other things about the reduction in the number of Members of Parliament. The Government are in the process of taking us out of the European Union, and when the 73 Members of the European Parliament, who have significant powers, are no longer there, we will be expected to take up that work. An increased workload will fall on a smaller number of Members of Parliament when we no longer have Members of the European Parliament working for us in Brussels and Strasbourg.
Although the Government intend to reduce the number of Members of Parliament, they have absolutely no plans whatsoever to reduce the numbers in Government. Instead of attempting in any way to reduce the size of Whitehall, they have made sure that there are more Departments, more special advisers and more civil servants. If there is to be any reduction in the number of Members of this place, surely there should be a reduction in the number of people who serve in this Government.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting point. Our workload will increase if and when Britain withdraws from Europe and we no longer have any Euro MPs, and the change in the boundaries will increase the workload further.
Absolutely, and we have an increasing population. I still do not know the Government’s case for the reduction in the number of MPs—well, I think I know why they decided to reduce the number of MPs. I think it was an attempt to stuff the Labour party, but the Labour party does not need any favours, help or assistance in that regard. It seems to be doing a pretty good job of that on its own.
The hon. Gentleman is being very unfair on that point. I think that the decision was made to reduce the number of MPs because in 2010, when the policy came forward, there was a great deal of public feeling that MPs had become too expensive. It was a response to the national mood at the time.
Of course there is a national mood in favour of such a cut. If we were to ask any member of the public whether they would like to see the size of Parliament and Government reduced—I am sure I will find this when I go back to my constituency at the weekend—they would say, “Yes, of course.” My point, and I believe that the hon. Gentleman might respect this, is that we seem to be reducing the number of elected Members but letting the other place grow exponentially. That is the key point. I am beginning to get the sense that the public are starting to look at what we have got down the corridor and deciding that we have to do this. Enough is enough.
My hon. Friend has mentioned that there are 61 peers from Scotland but the number of MPs is going down. Is that not simply more grist to the mill and another reason why people will, this time, vote for independence in the second referendum that will come within two years of the triggering of article 50?
Order. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has been generous to a fault in giving way, and I think that that is appreciated by the House. May I very gently make the point that 11 Back-Bench Members wish to contribute, and the Chair will be looking to call the Front-Bench wind-ups at approximately 6.40 pm? There will have to be a very tight time limit on Back-Bench contributions, a fact of which I know the hon. Gentleman will wish to take account in the continuation and conclusion of his eloquent contribution.
As you say, Mr Speaker, I was coming to my peroration. I have been as generous as possible when it comes to interventions.
Enough is enough. Surely, now is the time to address this matter. We have to look at what we are doing with the House of Lords. I am immensely proud of my party for failing to take places in the House of Lords, and I appeal to the Labour party to take no more places in the House of Lords. Several things have to happen almost immediately. There must be no more new Lords. We need a moratorium on appointments to the House of Lords. The Leader of the House must bring forward plans to reduce significantly the membership of the Lords, with a view to abolishing that place.
The House of Lords is a national embarrassment that should shame the country. It needs to be looked at and it needs to be reformed. Let us make this nation proud by creating a second Chamber that represents this country. Let us start to look at ways to address this. No more cronies in ermine; let us have a democratic Chamber.
It is a pleasure to open for Her Majesty’s Government in this debate, and a particular pleasure to debate with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), if saying so is not too deferential for him.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important subject. It is vital that our Parliament works effectively, and the House of Lords plays an important role in scrutinising and revising the legislation that governs us all. If I may say so, I think that the hon. Gentleman does a disservice to Members of the House of Lords who work very hard and are very valuable public servants. In many cases, they have been public servants for decades and devoted their lives to public service. In that House, there are leaders of industry and business who bring to it incredibly valuable expertise. There are Law Lords—formerly Lords of Appeal in Ordinary—as well as former Cabinet Ministers and Chiefs of the Defence Staff, so there is vast experience and expertise that is not available in this House or in many second Chambers in bicameral legislatures around the world. That House is replete with considerable expertise and experience.
One of two things follow from what the Deputy Leader of the House has said. He is saying either that it is such a good arrangement down the corridor that we should abolish the Commons and repeat that arrangement in this place, or that other countries in the world should follow the same arrangement, in which case which ones would he advise to do so?
I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that this country has centuries of history, and we should recognise that our system has evolved over those centuries. That does not alter the fact that the House of Lords has vastly experienced people from all fields of life—doctors, lawyers and the like—but we recognise, as was clear from the Conservative party manifesto last year, that it cannot continue to grow indefinitely.
We must keep the question of the size of the House of Lords in perspective. Members of the Lords are not full-time or salaried. Many peers balance professional lives outside the House with work in it, so they do not attend all the time. It is a mischaracterisation to portray it as though 800 Members were permanently in the House. In fact, when one looks at the average daily attendance in the last session—I invite hon. Members to do so—we see that it is below 500. The figure is 497, which is well short of the number of Members of the House of Commons. To use a journalistic phrase, 800 is the figure for the available talent.
Did my hon. Friend notice an omission from the witty and erudite speech of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)? He had the brass neck to complain about over-representation, but Scottish National party Members, who receive the same salary as English MPs and have Members of the Scottish Parliament in near-coterminous constituencies to take the burden off them, vote against the boundary changes that will ameliorate the situation in which massive electorates in constituencies in England are represented by just one MP.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House answer one question? Does he support the principle of hereditary peers in the 21st century, or will he support the ten-minute rule Bill to abolish them that I introduced last year or Lord Grocott’s Bill to end them that is now in the other place? Will he confirm that he could now do so?
As I have said, as was set out in the Conservative party manifesto, the Government recognise the need to reduce the size of the House of Lords. However, comprehensive reform of the House of Lords is not considered a priority in the current Parliament, given the other pressing constitutional matters, not least, I should say, the further devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales. We consider there to be higher priorities.
The House of Lords has not stood still in the past few years. In the last Parliament, it took forward some important reforms, with Government support. Although there is more to do, that Chamber has constantly evolved. The House of Lords Reform Act 2014 allowed peers to retire formally and permanently for the first time. It also provided for the expulsion of peers for non-attendance. Previously, a peer had to apply for a leave of absence. The Act was promoted by Lord Steel.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way because I have been trying to get in for some time. He tried to make a virtue of the fact that so many peers work part time. Does he not share my concern that that leaves things open to conflicts of interest in a way that even this place does not have? Does he share my concern that so many party donors are in the House of Lords?
I do not accept that characterisation at all. There is a proper process for appointments to the House of Lords by committee and a proper vetting process. The reality is that, as I have been saying, the House of Lords is a constantly evolving Chamber. The 2014 Act provided for the expulsion of peers—for example, for non-attendance—and for their retiring, a process that has seen some results. Further reforms introduced in 2015 empowered peers to expel Members for serious misconduct and suspend them beyond the end of a Parliament.
I would like to go back to last year’s Conservative manifesto and the desire to reduce numbers. Did David Cameron not singlehandedly put more than 230 peers into the House of Lords? That is more than 25% of the House of Lords appointed by him alone.
I thank the Minister, who is indeed being generous. A moment ago he said that not all the 800 or so Lords turn up, but the fact is that they can, and often do on some of the most controversial legislation. People were flown in, for example, to vote on tax credits, and the bishops voted on equal marriage legislation, which many of us found pretty unacceptable given that the bishops are only from the Church of England. The fact is that they can turn up. They have a vote in our system on our laws. Surely that is the fundamental principle: they have more votes than we, the elected House, do.
We have a process whereby we accept that the size of the House of Lords needs to be looked at, but there are priorities, and that is not a priority in this Parliament. Attempts were made in the last Parliament. This Parliament has pressing business. Although the size of the House of Lords is recognised as large, reform needs to be dealt with in due course, and preferably by consensus.
I need to make some progress, if I may. Time is moving on, as Mr Speaker said.
The coalition Government also introduced some small-scale reform under the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015— the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) referred to bishops—which fast-tracks female bishops into the House of Lords by prioritising them in filling vacancies for the next 10 years. The reality is that there have been reforms. The first female bishop was introduced about a year ago in October 2015.
I should point out that the House of Lords has cut its operating costs by 14% in real terms since 2010. Its membership has changed, too. More than 150 peers have left the Lords since 2010, with more than 50 retiring since that facility was introduced two years ago. Indeed, there are 400 fewer Members of the House of Lords now than in 1998. The House of Lords is not as large as it was but is substantially smaller than in 1998.
It is right that the House of Lords continues to look at how it can work more effectively. Where further possible steps can command consensus, Her Majesty’s Government would welcome working with peers to take reasonable measures forward in this Parliament. If that is possible in consensus with peers, we would welcome doing so.
At the same time, it is vital that we continue to reform parliamentary boundaries. The Conservative manifesto commitment was to
“address the unfairness of the current Parliamentary boundaries, reduce the number of MPs to 600 to cut the cost of politics and make votes of more equal value.”
It is crucial that votes are of more equal value. Without the implementation of the boundary reforms, MPs will continue to represent constituencies that were drawn up on data that will be up to 20 years old at the 2020 general election, disregarding significant changes in the population. The principle of equal-sized constituencies, endorsed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, is one that I would have thought Members on both sides of the House accepted. It is crucial to have votes of equal value across the United Kingdom.
I need to make some progress. There are a number of people who wish to speak and I have given way several times.
The reforms have already been delayed once by the Opposition parties and it is vital that they are not waylaid again by mixing them up with a discussion about reform of the House of Lords.
The Minister says it is not a priority to deal with the House of Lords in this Parliament and that there are other issues. If he has other important issues—I can say this with authority, because my constituency is not affected—why is it so important to deal with the House of Commons? He wants a situation with fewer democratically elected parliamentarians, while he stuffs the other place. That does not ring true. We know full well that it is an attack on the Labour party, an attack on Scotland and an attack on Wales. That is the long and the short of it, and he might as well be honest about that.
There is a public demand for value for money and to reduce the cost of politics. In all areas of public life, savings have been made so that we live within our means. It is right that this House should find savings, too. By reducing the number of MPs, we will save up to £66 million over the course of a Parliament.
The Minister is right to talk about the importance of democratic legitimacy. Does he accept that it is democratically illegitimate to have hereditary peers sitting and having any say in our democratic process? It gets in the way of the legitimacy of some of his other arguments when that very simple change could be put forward to help him carry through some of the arguments he is making about constituency equalisation.
As I have already said, the Government recognise the need to reduce the size of the House of Lords, but comprehensive reform is not considered a priority in this Parliament. I would have thought that the Scottish nationalists recognised the priority being given to other pressing constitutional matters, particularly the further devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales.
As I was saying, by reducing the number of MPs, we will save £66 million over the course of a Parliament. It is therefore right that we move forward with these proposals. The boundary proposals need not be tied with reforms of the House of Lords, not least as we do not believe that now is the right time to embark on comprehensive Lords reform. There are many different views on what form the House of Lords should take, and without any consensus there is no practical possibility, frankly, of taking such reform forward. There needs to be some practical realisation that, without consensus, it will not be possible.
My hon. Friend makes the point about reducing cost by reducing the number of MPs. Will he commit to reducing the size of the Government by the same proportion as the number of MPs he is trying to cut? If he does not do that, it will give the Government more control over Parliament, which to many of us is unacceptable. Of course, if he reduced the number of Ministers, he would save a bit more money as well.
The appointment of Ministers is ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister and I am certainly not going to comment on that. Ministerial numbers must reflect what the Prime Minister of the day feels she or he needs for the Government to work effectively.
I recognise that—the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975, I think—but that relates to the maximum, not the minimum. However, the appointment of Ministers is a matter for the Prime Minister.
There are many different views on what form the House of Lords should take and we have heard some of them this afternoon. Without consensus, as I have said, there is no practical possibility of taking such reform forward, and this was clear from the attempted passage of the House of Lords Reform Bill in 2012. It was withdrawn not for lack of commitment from the Government, but because there was no overall agreement about what that reform should look like. When there are so many pressing constitutional reforms, not least devolving more powers to Scotland and Wales and delivering all that is necessary for the UK’s exit from the European Union, it is on those subjects that we should focus our attention in this Parliament. It would not be right to distract from or derail important reforms elsewhere by making House of Lords reform a priority. That is why we do not support the motion.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
The Conservative party manifesto said that the Conservatives would
“address issues such as the size of the House of Lords”.
Why does the Minister think that the electorate thought that was less important than some of the other things in the manifesto? How can he get into the heads of the electorate? This was front and centre of the manifesto.
The Government have decided that it is not a priority for this Parliament to address that issue. The fact of the matter is that attempts were made during the last Parliament, as I have said, and there is no consensus. There are high priorities, including exiting the EU and further devolution for Scotland and Wales. Those are the priorities. That is why we do not support the motion, as I said. That, Mr Speaker, is the conclusion.
I am absolutely delighted to participate in today’s debate, particularly at a time when, owing to Conservative gerrymandering, the UK’s democratic structures look more fragile than ever. Under the previous Prime Minister, as numerous speakers have said, appointments to the unelected House of Lords were made at a faster rate than under any other Prime Minister since life peerages began. Incidentally, the outgoing Member for Witney will be replaced tomorrow—hopefully by the Labour candidate, Duncan Enright. Perhaps we have not seen the last of the former Prime Minister—perhaps we might see him in the House of Lords in future.
Astonishingly, between taking office in 2010 and leaving this year, the former Prime Minister added 261 peers at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of somewhere in the region of £34 million. Frighteningly, it is thought that up to 20% of all appointments to the House of Lords have been people who have given substantial donations to the Conservative party. Others appointed include the former Prime Minister’s cronies, his head of operations, the head of his No. 10 policy unit and the head of external relations.
If the hon. Gentleman looked at the statistics on trade unionists, he would find that appointments by the former Prime Minister were completely different.
The bloated Lords now has over 800 Members and leaves the UK noticeably as the only bicameral country in the world where the second Chamber is larger than the first. Indeed, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), the only Chamber that is bigger is the national assembly of China. It is an absolute outrage. Let us be honest about it: we are a laughing stock in this regard. It is worth remembering, of course, that China’s population is 28 times the size of the United Kingdom’s.
I think that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House may have misremembered. It was not that there was no consensus; there was a Bill on which we all agreed, or which certainly had the support of the House, but it was the hon. Gentleman’s party that withdrew support for the programme motion. We could have had a reformed House of Lords, had it not been for the machinations of the Labour party.
I think there is more to the history of that than blaming the Labour party. I think it was the coalition Government that suffered a slight hiccup in their relationship at that point.
While what I have described was clearly bad enough, it came at the same time as the Government sought to reduce the number of elected Members of Parliament from 650 to 600. That was done under the guise of making politics cheaper, but it barely scraped the surface of the additional costs of the unelected Lords. Just where is the logic in reducing the size of the democratically elected Commons? If we want consensus, we can all agree to abolish the Boundary Commission review. We are being asked for consensus by the Minister, and that is fine, but if we want consensus in relation to certain issues, we should have consensus in relation to democracy. That is simple.
During the last Parliament, the attempt to rig democracy in favour of continuous Conservative control failed only because the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the threatened Liberal Democrats, rebelled—a point that I made to the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). They did not rebel over the much trumpeted 2010 anti-austerity policies. They were not terribly interested in opposing in-year spending cuts, increased tuition fees, or even the fundamentally illiberal “gagging Bill”. The truth is that the Liberal Democrats spat out the proverbial dummy because of the Government’s failure to back their poor compromise on reform of the Lords, which they themselves sought to stuff with their own peers. [Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] Absolutely. I was waiting for an intervention then, but, looking around the Chamber, I see that there is no one from the Liberal Democrats here to intervene.
The coalition agreement on Lords appointments would have meant an additional 186 peers, costing an estimated £24 million. All of them would have been Liberal Democrats or Conservatives. Interestingly, the Dissolution honours list contained more Liberal Democrats than their current parliamentary cohort. I hear people say that that is not hard to achieve, but it is nevertheless an important point.
Although the Liberal Democrat rebellion scuppered the 2013 review, the legislation was never repealed, and the unfettered Conservative Government have returned to the task. Their proposals to redraw constituency boundaries are grossly unfair, unjust, undemocratic and wholly unacceptable. They are based on an out-of-date version of the electoral register with nearly 2 million voters missing, a disproportionately high number of whom are transient and poorer voters: students, and families forced to move as a result of changes in the benefit system. The changes fail to take any account of the myriad bits of additional work that the vote to leave the European Union and a return of powers would bring.
The hon. Gentleman has suggested that the Boundary Commission, and therefore the commissioners, are guilty of a gerrymander. May I invite him to reflect on that? We have independent commissioners who are looking at our parliamentary boundaries. To impugn their honour, their integrity and their independence belies the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but I did not in any way suggest that the commissioners were gerrymandering. My view is that the Conservative party—this Government—are attempting to gerrymander the boundary changes. They are the ones who want the reduction from 650 to 600. I do not believe that there is any other party in the House of Commons that wants that. That is my point, and I wonder how reducing the number of MPs from 29 to 25 in my native north-east or from 59 to 53 in the west midlands fits in with the Tory devolution agenda. I am unsure, but perhaps the Minister will answer that at some stage.
I have absolutely no objection to equal-sized constituencies, but I do have an objection to gerrymandering and changing the boundaries to ensure there is a distinct advantage to one party rather than another. But perhaps the Minister will respond to the point about devolution.
The Conservatives have once again done what the Conservatives do best: look after themselves and their party despite the real needs of this country. While on the Opposition Benches there is broad agreement about equalising the size of the constituencies, we cannot support this Tory attempt at what we would class as establishing perpetual rule. Let me make it absolutely clear: the Labour party will emphatically oppose the proposals of the Boundary Commission.
On the question of the second Chamber, it is my party that has always sought to reform the Lords. We passionately believe in the role of the second Chamber in our great democracy: we believe that no Government of any colour should be able to implement legislation without the proper scrutiny that a bicameral legislature provides. But while this is true, I must add that my party firmly believes that the House of Lords should be a democratic Chamber, not one appointed to through the patronage of the Prime Minister. We will not support any curtailment of the powers of Cross-Bench Lords and other measures designed to weaken the ability of the House of Lords to properly scrutinise, and where needed oppose, Government policy.
Under this Government, the use of secondary legislation has soared and is now being used for controversial and far-reaching policy changes such as tax credit cuts that traditionally have been introduced through primary legislation. Last year we were left with the sickening sight of Lord Lloyd Webber being flown back to the UK to try to defeat attempts to stop the Tory Government punishing hard-working British families through the Tory tax credit cut. I think it is appropriate at this point to put on record our sincere thanks for the great efforts and deliberations of Labour Peers and others who ensured that the attack on tax credits was defeated. It is vital that the Lords are able to continue to use the powers they have to scrutinise the Government’s plans and prevent such disastrous Government policies from being introduced.
I have already said I believe in equalisation, but not in the reduction in the number of parliamentary seats from 650 to 600. I firmly believe we should be looking at the equalisation of constituencies, but that is not the issue here: the issue is the unfairness of reducing the number of MPs while at the same time stuffing the other place ram-jam packed with people who are unelected and unaccountable. That is totally and utterly unjustified.
It is inevitable that during this Parliament the Lords will be required once again to properly scrutinise, and if necessary overturn, the actions of a Government increasingly dominated by right-wing populism, although in this we must be careful about the recommendations of the Strathclyde report, which was a rapid response by the Government to these actions and designed to render the second Chamber toothless against such authoritarian measures.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, the House of Lords must be allowed to get on with its vital role of scrutinising legislation. The process is likely to throw up an enormous number of statutory instruments, and without the Lords they would probably go through on the nod.
Labour has long called for reform. In the reduction of the Lords and in government, we have sought to find consensus. It is important to remember that it was a Labour Government who cleared out most of the hereditary peers, but we fully acknowledge that fundamental reform is essential.
Given the vote to leave the EU, the Government’s boundary review and the political estrangement felt by many voters, this is a timely debate. We live in a changed society in a modern age, where leaps in technology have resulted in an increase in people across the UK becoming more interested in political issues, but participatory democracy feels alien to many and, with a few noticeable exceptions, wanes every year. Many people feel that politics is unable to change their lives, their area or their country for the better. As parliamentarians and politicians, we face a huge challenge of how we widen democracy in this country and give people the power to make things better.
Some people may wonder why the SNP has chosen once again to focus on constitutional issues rather than its day job of governing Scotland, but I will leave that to its Members. It is very interesting that the party should take such an interest in matters relating to the House of Lords. In Scotland’s devolved Parliament, no such second Chamber exists. The forensic scrutiny of the Lords in the UK is said to be provided by the Scottish Parliament’s Committee structure, but sadly the political balance of those Committees allows the Scottish Government to proceed very much as they wish.
That said, I am happy to inform the House that the Labour party will vote in favour of the SNP motion, but this should be only the beginning. The Government have many questions to answer on the issue of democracy; perhaps the Minister will address them at some stage. Will the Government agree to abandon the proposal for boundary changes until a review of the bicameral system in its entirety has been conducted? [Interruption.] Somebody shouted “No” from a sedentary position. The Minister spoke just before me and pleaded for consensus on our democratic processes, but I am not sure whether the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) was present at that point. We need to look at the system in its entirety.
Will the Minister give a guarantee that those Tory MPs who may lose their seats under the proposed boundary changes will not be stuffed into the House of Lords as a solution to the problems that the Conservatives themselves face as a result of those changes? When will a plan be put in place to deal with the unwieldy, unelected and unaccountable second Chamber, and to replace it with something more befitting the 21st century? How will we bring democracy back to the communities that feel abandoned by politics?
We have an opportunity to rebuild democracy in this country, making politics relevant to people’s lives, and to rebuild trust. We need to put giving people a real say in their communities and workplaces at the heart of our work as public servants. Labour sees transferring power from Westminster, Whitehall and, indeed, the boardroom to our communities as imperative to the future of our democracy. We want real devolution of power, not the phoney Tory con of regional mayors, designed simply to pass on the blame for swingeing cuts. Democracy needs to be revived in every nation and region of our country, and in every community, town and city. It must be transparent, it must be fair and it must be accountable. It must be a major improvement on the current Tory plans. We need progress, and we need it very quickly. We need an agreed workable timeframe. Democracy cannot be seen to be ignored; it needs to be embraced. I am pleased to say that the official Opposition will support the motion.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate after three outstanding Front-Bench speeches from three individuals—the hon. Members for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis)—who had distinguished careers outside this place before they came here.
Many of us, I suspect, will be familiar with the political gambit that is the dead cat. Popularised by my friend and colleague Sir Lynton Crosby, the idea is that when one is in a position of deep political embarrassment one throws the equivalent of a dead cat on to the table. The purpose of so doing is to divert attention from what was just being discussed because, whatever the controversy that has been raging beforehand, people suddenly say, “Oh my God, there’s a dead cat on the table.” The conversation having changed as a result, embarrassment—such as my own at my execrable Australian accent just then—is avoided.
In this debate, the House of Lords, perhaps appropriately for an ermine-clad Chamber, is the dead cat. The SNP has chosen a discussion of the future of the House of Lords for this Opposition day debate because of a wish to divert attention from a number of other issues. The question I have to ask SNP Members is this: when they think about the issues that their voters bring to them in their surgeries or by email or correspondence, what are they? Overwhelmingly, they will be education, health, law and order and the economy. Why is the SNP not talking about those issues today? I will tell the House—[Interruption.] Order! The SNP is not talking about law and order because its centralisation of power in the hands of Police Scotland has been widely viewed as illiberal and is thought by local authorities in Scotland to have been a disaster.
We are not hearing about the NHS because there is an NHS crisis in Scotland. The SNP lost a vote in the Scottish Parliament not long ago as a result of its mishandling of the NHS in Scotland. Recently, efforts to ensure adequate recruitment of general practitioners in Scotland failed. Why are we not hearing about education from the SNP? [Interruption.] Just a minute. We are not hearing about education from the SNP because recently, and humiliatingly—
Order. We allow a little bit of movement, but the right hon. Gentleman is concentrating purely on education when we are discussing the size of the House of Lords, and even I struggle to see the connection. I would have expected a connection by now, and as there is not one coming I am sure, Mr Gove, that you will want to get back to the subject of the size of the House of Lords and what we are debating.
Indeed. One of the challenges, as has been pointed out by those on both Front Benches, is that when SNP Members put forward proposals for the House of Lords, they offer no alternative method of scrutiny. They simply propose unicameralism. Not only that, but they do not observe the basic pragmatic principle of the British constitution that we should preserve what works. Like the monarchy, the House of Lords is an institution that works, despite the fact that it might not succumb to every rational imprint. I speak as a Minister who has been held accountable and who has been cross-questioned—[Interruption.] An ex-Minister, I should say. I have been cross-questioned by Select Committees in the House of Lords with a greater degree of pertinacity and effectiveness than I have found in any other cross-examination I have ever faced.
The logic behind the SNP’s position is that if it objects to any constitutional model that does not fit its own preconceptions, it should object to the monarchy. The real thrust behind the SNP’s position is that it opposes the institutions that bind the United Kingdom together and are a focus for loyalty in this country, such as the monarchy, because of its single-minded pursuit of separation and independence come what may. If SNP Members really object to unelected figures meeting in a fashion that results in democratically elected Members of Parliament finding the will of the people frustrated, why are they so keen to stay in the European Union? If they object to unelected, unaccountable and out-of-touch figures wielding power, why do they not object to the existence of the European Council in its current form? Again, the answer is that they are only interested in separation.
One final point. We scarcely heard anything from the SNP on the vital importance of ensuring that all parliamentary constituencies should be of equal size. Having parliamentary constituencies of equal size was a demand of the Chartists in 1838, yet we still do not have them. I may be a young man in a hurry, and I may be an impetuous radical determined to bring about change at a pace faster than many would account, but surely, after nearly 200 years, the Chartists’ demands should at last be honoured. All votes should be equal, all constituencies should be equal and democracy should be honoured.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). It is just a shame that he has done a disservice to the House and to himself by refusing to discuss any part of the motion on the Order Paper. Let us consider the predicament into which the political class in this country has now gotten itself. Since the introduction of adult universal suffrage, there has been concern and sometimes embarrassment about the anachronistic nature of our bicameral legislature, in which one completely unelected House has the powers that it has. Over the decades, there have been attempts—many of them successful—to limit those powers and to assert the primacy of this House.
Now, however, we are embarking on a journey on which two things will happen simultaneously. The number of Members in the unelected House will increase to unprecedented levels and without any limit. At the same time, the number of people elected to make laws in this country will be reduced. In my view, that is a serial affront to the democratic values on which this country is based. That could be viewed as simply a matter of constitutional theory, but it is much more important than that. It speaks to the character of our democracy and our country. It lowers the esteem in which we are held abroad and, most importantly, it lowers the esteem in which this legislature is held by its own citizens. I believe that this is one of the contributory factors to the anti-politics, the disillusion and the alienation that have emerged in this country, and unless we do something to counteract this, we are all going to be in a lot of trouble.
As it happens, we do believe in an elected second Chamber, but the case for a bicameral Parliament has to be argued; it cannot just be assumed to be the default position. In fact, 16 of the 28 member states of the European Union have a unicameral Parliament. That is the norm throughout Europe, so we cannot assume that bicameralism is automatically the default.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong and telling point about the size of the upper House when compared with the number of elected Members. However, when the official Opposition in this place are in disarray and clearly not up to the job of official scrutiny, the bicameral system means that efficient scrutiny can be done in another place. Does he agree that we should cherish that safeguard?
I want to come on to that. A frequent argument for a revising or upper Chamber is the inadequacy of the first Chamber, and I want to look at some of the imperfections of this House. To start with, we may be elected and accountable, but we can in no way be described as democratically representative of the population who elected us. A system that results in a majority Government with 37% of the vote can never be described as such. Our system is also much more centralised than that of any comparable country. We in Scotland have been on a home rule journey, which we are anxious to speed up, but I actually feel for colleagues in England, who represent the bulk of the United Kingdom, about the absence of any meaningful regional or democratic local government beneath this level. If we actually looked at the matrix of governance underneath this place, we could relieve many of the pressures on this House.
Our procedures for policy review and scrutiny are not fit for purpose. This adversarial system—two sword lengths apart—often militates against a consensual or at least a majoritarian approach to developing public policy, which is why mistakes in this place often have to be rectified somewhere else. However, that is not an argument for the House of Lords; it is an argument for improving the procedures of the House of Commons. The truth is that we need to consider our legislature as a whole and bring in major reforms to both Houses of Parliament. If we do not do that, our system of governance will fall further into disrepute.
I cannot give way because of the time. To say that the House of Lords is justified because it compensates for the inadequacy of the House of Commons is completely wrong. In fact, it exacerbates many of those inadequacies.
Turning to the imperfections of the House of Lords, that it is unelected is taken as given, but it is also profoundly unrepresentative for an appointed chamber. It is old, male and almost half of its Members are domiciled in the south-east of England. In no way does that even attempt to recognise our country. It is also very big—my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) noted that it is second only to the legislature of the People’s Republic of China—and very costly, with each peer costing an average of £120,000 a year and its operation costing almost £100 million. If the Government are serious about reducing the cost of government, I suggest that they look first at what is happening along the corridor.
It is time to begin the process of change. We should be looking at having an elected second Chamber. Indeed, that pledge was in the Conservative manifesto, so it has ceased to be an argument of principle; it is one of priorities and the timing being right. The time is absolutely right to begin the process of considering change and I recommend that this House do so.
I think I will get into trouble if I give way.
I want to consider the boundary changes, because the two things must be looked at together—they are two sides of the same coin. No case can be made for reducing the number of elected Members of Parliament at a time when this Parliament’s responsibility will increase as a result of leaving the European Union and the repatriation, in whatever form, of a vast amount of powers. At the very least, the pause button should be pressed until the Brexit plan is established and we see how this country manages to survive outside the European Union.
I commend the motion to the House. I am actually pleased with some of the comments from the Government Benches about being prepared to consider it. I point out that the motion does not call for the abolition of the House of Lords or any of the structures of the House of Commons or for electoral reform. It is a motion that says, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” It is one that says, “Press the pause button.” Let us look at the plans for the future. Let us pause the reduction in the number of seats in the Commons. Let us pause the escalation in the size of the House of Lords. Let us see whether we can come back with proposals for reform that will command support from across the House and endear us much more to the people who put us here.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), and I should probably start with a declaration of interest, as my wife is a recently appointed life baroness in the Lords. I should add, for the benefit of Members opposite, that I believe she is now reconciled to the fact that before she was appointed I had voted repeatedly to abolish people like her, so it would be rather self-serving if I changed my mind now, as I hope everyone would agree. I am happy to inform the House that we are still talking even so. Although I instinctively support Lords reform, I oppose this motion. Why? It is because it uses Lords reform not as a dead cat, but as an excuse to delay boundary reform, a much-needed and overdue improvement to the plumbing of our democracy.
As we have heard, our current constituency boundaries are based on voter data that are already 15 years old or more. If we do not reform the boundaries now, they will be 20 years out of date by the next general election. As the old boundaries produced constituencies that varied tremendously in size, votes in one part of the country carried far more, or far less, weight than votes in another. It is a fundamental principle of our democracy that everybody’s vote must count the same as that of their neighbour. It does not matter whether you are rich or poor, what colour your skin may be or what god you worship, my vote carries no more weight than yours, Mr Deputy Speaker, and yours is worth no more than Nicola Sturgeon’s. Without that, our elections will not be fair.
Not at all. I am making an impassioned plea for equal-sized constituencies and for votes to weigh the same. I can think of nothing more dangerous for our democracy, and nothing more corrosive of trust in politicians and the political system, than a sense that some favoured voters get a better deal than others in other parts of the country.
I really must continue. So votes must carry equal weight, but without boundary reform they will not. Anyone proposing delays to the reform will inevitably face the challenge, unfair and unworthy though I am sure it would be in the case of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), that delaying reform has a party political advantage, too. That is because many smaller constituencies have historically been in areas with lots of Labour and, in some cases, Scottish National party, MPs, so it has historically required fewer voters to elect Labour MPs than Conservative ones.
In other words, some people—not all, but some—want to delay boundary reform because they want to hang on to a system that gave them unfair, unearned, unjustified and undemocratic privilege. They will not admit it in public, of course, but that is what is behind it. So I say to those people, particularly those in the political parties with proud and distinguished traditions of progressive politics and of standing up for what is right against the forces of reaction who oppose reform, please think very carefully before voting to delay boundary reform, for you will lay yourself open to the charge of putting party advantage ahead of democratic principle and fair elections. If I, as a Tory, can vote for fair elections, so can you.
Linking reform of the undemocratic Lords to separate, much-needed reforms for fairer elections to the democratic Commons is just wrong. It is a recipe for endless delay, and will only fuel the cynics who believe the whole system is fixed against them. The referendum vote on 23 June was, in part, a howl of frustration—a cry of rage against an unfair system where some favoured electors’ votes count more than those of others. The sight of MPs voting to hang on to a cosy, unfair system will only make things worse. It will corrode trust in our democracy even further, so I urge, even at this late stage, the SNP to withdraw this motion as fast as possible.
On 14 January, I rose to introduce an Adjournment debate on this very issue, and I could easily reiterate the points that I articulated to the House then. Well, for the avoidance of doubt, I will and I will take great pleasure in it. All that has changed since we last discussed reform of the unelected, unaccountable House of Lords is that there are more of them—more party donors, more party hacks, less openness, less transparency, and more ermine.
At the same time, the reviews of the boundary commissions—yes, there is more than one—have sought to reduce further the number of elected Members to this House of Commons. While this House is reduced in number and relevance, the House of Lords, at its present velocity of expansion, will soon exceed the National People’s Congress of China. It has already exceeded the size of the European Parliament, which is directly elected by more than 400 million European citizens. It seems that we are taking back control and handing it on a plate to the barons and baronesses of the unelected upper Chamber. At least on the SNP Benches, we have spoken and will continue to speak with one voice. In our manifesto at the general election, we placed our proposal before the entire community of Scotland. “Abolish it”, we said and we won.
If we as Members are to work effectively and with electoral legitimacy—
Forget it. The right hon. Gentleman can sit right down.
If we are to work with electoral legitimacy, Britain’s upper Chamber should resemble less the National People’s Congress of China and more the revising and advisory chamber of the people’s Parliament of a 21st century liberal democracy.
Let us turn now to the hope of many Members of this House—a hope that is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who should wear with pride his title of leading abolitionist—that any future reform of the upper Chamber should not only consider its size, but limit it and remove with haste its ability as an unelected and unaccountable Chamber to generate legislation [Interruption.] Members should listen; they might learn something. Once again, let me state that this is an affront to my constituents and an aberration at the heart of the British state.
I have previously likened the antics of the previous Government to a “Carry On” movie. Their antics had the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) cast as the arch-villain, Citizen Camembert, and the former Prime Minister as the good cop and leading man, the Black Fingernail. I do hope that the new cast of actors are less like the Duke de Pommefrites. That said, however, we may end up with Citizen Bidet, and we all know where that ends—down the cludgie.
I continue to believe, in this parliamentary term at least, that this aspiration will probably be a lost cause given that the hierarchy of the Conservative party—and even those punted to the Back Benches—has a long-term love affair with the upper Chamber. Over the previous Parliament, 200 unelected and unaccountable peers were added to the Lords. Even the new First Lord of the Treasury has appointed 16 new Members, 15 of whom are Tories.
Of the peerage, let me turn again, as I did on 14 January, to a certain cadre. I will be louder this time, because they did not seem to hear me the first time. I am talking about the archbishops and bishops of the established Church of England. Many have likened their position to that of the theocrats of the Islamic Republic of Iran. My direct challenge is this—
No, sit down, son. I have told you once and I will not tell you again.
Those bishops and archbishops have no place in the governance of the nation of Scotland. They have no right to vote, if such a thing should occur, on the civic or legislative life of our nation. Let me make myself clear. It would be easy for me to vent frustration, but I shall make one call tonight, which is to abolish it. Listen to what the nation of Scotland said at the last general election: get rid of them.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who expressed himself with such vim and vigour.
The motion tabled by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is an important motion and a proper subject for us to debate. It is something that we have been debating for hundreds of years. The earliest debate I can find for deciding to limit the House of Lords is in 1719, and we will all remember that the Parliament Act 1911 states that it is a temporary measure until a more democratic means of choosing an upper House can be found.
These problems are not new, and there are serious problems with the House of Lords. I do not think anyone would try to pretend otherwise. It is not by any means perfect and its imperfection is partly in its size, partly in its unaccountability and partly, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire so rightly said, in its Liberal Democrats. I do not say that as a cheap shot against the Liberal Democrats, though those are perfectly fun. I say it because the very large number of Lib Dems who are there, who are abusing their position in the Lords to thwart the will of the elected Government, have made a real problem for the Government and for the democratic legitimacy of the House of Lords. There are unquestionably problems, but what is the solution?
What we have considered in previous Parliaments is a democratically elected upper House. That sounds very sensible in theory, but there is a fundamental problem for us in this House that if we have a democratically elected House of Lords, its powers will be equal to ours. Even if the letter of the law allows us to overrule the Lords, that will soon cease to be a political reality. A democratically elected House of Lords challenges the Commons, and if a democratically elected House of Lords is on a different electoral system, it might even claim a higher validity than we have and therefore the right to overrule us. Then we would probably have a gridlocked system like that in the United States, with the two Houses being unable to co-operate and an inability to govern and to get legislation through.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Liberal Democrats were complicit in the failure of their once-in-a-generation opportunity for House of Lords reform by bringing forward a ludicrous proposal for a 15-year non-renewable mandate, which would have challenged the authority and mandate of this House?
That was part of the problem. The other problem was that they were quite unwilling to set out what they would do between the conventions that both Houses have. If those conventions are legislated for, who is to determine whether the conventions are followed? Would that be the courts, and then would the courts interfere in Parliament? Or would the conventions be decided by consensus between the two Houses? In that case we would be back to the gridlock that I was warning about.
That is why the problem has not been solved. There is not a good democratic solution unless we are willing to downgrade the House of Commons, which I personally would be very much against doing. With our constituency-based relationship we have a wonderful system of democracy through this House. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made a very powerful speech, but I disagree with him in thinking that the reform to constituencies is gerrymandering. It really is not. It is getting the numbers to be equal, which is a proper thing to do.
It would be wrong to fight the next general election on the electoral roll from 2000. That needs to be updated, and although the later the date the better—so I am not unsympathetic to the call to move it on two years later— that is not practical. It cannot be done on the absolutely last electoral roll, but by doing it every five years, we ensure that there is continuity in updating and a regular fairness in the size of the constituencies. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that point and think it is important, through that constituency link, to defend the primacy of this House, which is the democratic House.
That is why I am less worried than the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire about the failures of the House of Lords. Ultimately we are in charge. We can use the 1911 Parliament Act. We may decide to use that to do something on statutory instruments if the House of Lords challenges the Government on their democratically mandated implementation of policy. The democratic right overrides the undemocratic element. That gives me certainty and security that the nation is not becoming the People’s Republic of China, Lesotho or whatever other random examples have been brought up, because they do not have that democratic underpinning. Therefore, the size of the House of Lords is just a problem that we will have to live with.
In 1719, the main reason for opposing a limit on the numbers in the House of Lords was that a limit would make the Members who were already there more powerful because their power could not be diluted by adding more peers. That remains true today, because the one great authority this Chamber still retains over the House of Lords, via the Prime Minister, is not so much the 1911 Act, but the threat of creating many more peers, which was, of course, threatened in 1832 and in 1911—on both occasions to ensure the democratic will could prevail. We must maintain the ability to do that, even while recognising that the House of Lords is too big and has problems. However, this needs to be an evolutionary reform, which I would happily go into, Mr Deputy Speaker, but on another occasion.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), who always makes very substantial contributions when he speaks in the House during our deliberations. I rise in support of the motion from my SNP colleagues, and it is a pleasure to follow the lead of my good friend the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who gave us his usual majestic performance while opening the debate.
Since being elected, I have been immensely impressed with the robotic discipline of some Government Back Benchers when it comes to political messaging. The most infamous catchphrase during my first term here was “the long-term economic plan”. We have not heard much about that since the EU referendum, for obvious reasons. Another famous battle cry in my time here has been “cutting the cost of politics”. Today’s welcome debate on House of Lords reform gives us the opportunity to deconstruct that myth once and for all, because it is impossible to divorce culling the number of MPs from the deliberate bloating of the upper House by this Government.
Over a quarter of Welsh MPs are set to be removed under the boundary review—proportionally more than in any other constituent nation of the UK or region of England. Wales faces a double whammy: a poorer constitutional settlement in terms of powers, when compared with our friends in Scotland and Northern Ireland, yet the largest cut in representation in this place. I have no problem with equalising the size of constituencies for this House, but for that to happen and to have my support, Wales must have the same constitutional settlement as the other devolved Administrations. However, the Wales Bill, which has just made its way from this place to the other House, is a terrible Bill if we look at the powers offered to other parts of the UK.
At almost 800 Members, the House of Lords is now the second-largest Chamber on earth—beaten to the top spot only by China’s National People’s Congress, which I am led to believe has nearly 3,000 members. China, of course, has a population 28 times the size of the United Kingdom’s. Between this House and the other place, Westminster has over 1,400 politicians, and there is nothing stopping that number climbing even higher; there is no limit on the number of peers the two big parties can send to the other place, whether that involves failed career politicians or just favours to old friends. The cost of running the Lords, as we have heard, is around £100 million per annum, according to the Electoral Reform Society. Each peer costs taxpayers in our respective nations £120,000. Culling the upper House therefore seems the most obvious way of cutting the cost of politics.
It is also important to remember that Members of the upper Chamber can become Ministers: they can not only amend our laws, but make them, and that point has been missing so far from the debate.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are many defects in our constitution at the moment? One of the principal ones is the small number of Members of the Welsh Assembly. Their work has trebled, and they are under great strain—some of them are on three or four Committees. If we are to have the reforms that we need, it would be far better not to do things piecemeal and not to reduce the number of MPs only, but to have a convention, so that we can get a balance and reduce membership in other places, and that can be done only by an overall, comprehensive reform of the constitution.
I am very grateful for that intervention. I have often suspected that the hon. Gentleman—my honourable comrade—has mind-reading abilities, because that was exactly my next point.
The National Assembly for Wales, which is responsible for major public services in Wales—the health service, education, economic development and many other issues—has just 60 elected representatives. Discounting Welsh Ministers, that leaves only 42 Back Benchers to scrutinise a Government making vital decisions in my country. If the Wales Bill makes its way through the House of Lords and gets a legislative consent motion in the Assembly, although that might be in question, it would also have, for the first time, responsibility for fiscal powers in Wales. That is a clear case for increasing the numbers in the National Assembly.
Before the latest cramming of the Lords when the former Prime Minister handed out peerages to his friends, 27% of peers listed representative politics as their main profession prior to entering the Lords. Most of them had been MPs; it must be the only legislature in the world where losing elections helps people gain seats. Many colleagues have mentioned the Liberal Democrats. I am not going to attack the Lib Dems, but I remember that the Lib Dems filled two of the bottom Government Benches during the last Parliament, and when I recently went to see a debate in the House of Lords, they were all sitting there in the right-hand corner, much to my surprise. A further 7% of peers had been political staff, and twice as many had worked as staff in the royal household than as manual or skilled labour. It is hardly a Chamber that is representative of our various communities across the United Kingdom.
For as long as decisions affecting Wales are to be made in the other place, Plaid Cymru will continue to press for equal representation for us. However, we believe that there is no role for patronage and an appointment system in a modern democracy. Following the Brexit vote, the UK faces a stark choice between two futures: do we return to a very centralised system based here in Westminster or move towards a more voluntary Union, as advocated by more sensible voices such as Lord Sainsbury in the other place? In my view, this place should turn into a Parliament for England, and the House of Lords should be reformed to become a confederal Parliament.
I am going to do something very brave and propose a solution to the problem down the corridor. I do not want to get rid of any of the lords, so I will not vote for this motion. Without wanting to be controversial, I have a bloodless solution. If we retired lords at 75 years of age, we would remove approximately 250 of them straight away. Let us not forget that the lords are there not to represent but to scrutinise. We do not want to get rid of every one of them, because there is expertise down there that can outweigh expertise in this Chamber—especially on the SNP Benches.
The average age in the Lords is 70, believe it or not, while the average age of those who actually contribute in the other place is 65. After that age, attendance drops off dramatically. We have to look at this in the round. If we reduced the Lords by 250 Members—those aged over 75—we would bring it down to approximately the size of the Commons. Those lords would then stay on to advise. They would not get paid or claim expenses, but go on to a higher Chamber called the Lords council, and advise their own Committees. They could then feed into the legislative process without any cost to the taxpayer.
Outside this Chamber, nobody is talking about the Lords—it is only us in here. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater; we should look at a grown-up way of getting the numbers down. Once we have done that, over a period of 15 years, natural attrition will take its toll. The 250 who have been put into the higher status could still call themselves lords, still have the gravitas and the gratification they want, and still contribute. They will go, and we can have an apportioned system, with so many Conservatives, so many from Labour and—dare I say it?—so many from the SNP. We can break it into segments. They will be able to scrutinise sensibly in a cross-party manner. I hope to have brought some kind of sense to this subject.
I want to lay my cards on the table straight away and say that I support the motion and I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). I have been here for nearly 25 years, and in that time I have voted on every available occasion to abolish the House of Lords. If I have not been able to abolish the House of Lords—self-evidently, I have not—I have voted for change in the House of Lords.
I will propose some changes that the Government could deliver, should they so wish, to improve democracy without achieving my ultimate objective of massive reorganisation of the formulation of the House of Lords. It is not tenable in the 21st century to have an unelected House deciding on policy. It is not tenable to have hereditary peers deciding on policy. It is not tenable to have hereditary peers who are elected by other hereditary peers, with very small mandates—sometimes as few as three votes—deciding policies that affect the lives of my constituents. At a time when the Government are seeking to reduce the membership of this House from 650 to 600 and to remove completely Euro Members of Parliament, whose powers and responsibilities will be transferred back to this House, it is not tenable for us to allow the House of Lords to continue unchanged.
The recently appointed Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, is a former Conservative MP whom I remember being a member of the Cabinets of Mrs Thatcher and John Major when I first came here. He has said that there is no way the Lords can defend its current size of 820 peers and that
“we’ve been faffing around on this for some time now. And my fear would be that unless we take the initiative here someone else will”.
Let me suggest some simple initiatives. I will set the bar very low, because the Government’s position appears to be that they cannot make massive change, so they will make no change. A proposal to bring some things back into kilter is something that we in this House should support, and I suggest these three simple changes. First, let us remove from the House of Lords the 92 hereditary peers, 91 of whom, as I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), happen to be men and only one of whom is a woman. Those 92 hereditary peers are elected by as few as three votes.
As the right hon. Gentleman has just said, those hereditary peers are elected. The motion states that the Government should
“put in place plans to significantly reduce the number of unelected Lords”.
Is he proposing that the number of hereditary peers should stay the same, if he supports the motion?
If the hon. Gentleman listens to what I am saying, he will hear that I have three small points to make—three very low bars. The first low bar is the removal of the hereditary peers. The second low bar is not to fill any more vacancies with unelected peers until the House of Lords gets down to a reasonable size, below that of the House of Commons.
On hereditary peers, let me just say that one of those recently elected is the Lord Fairfax of Cameron, whose great-great-great-great-great-great-something grandfather got his peerage because he was the first Englishman to travel to Scotland to swear allegiance to the new King James I. I happen to think that in the 21st century, we should pick our legislators on more than the fact that one of their ancestors knew how to get to Scotland quite quickly. That is no way to run a modern House of Lords.
Lord Thurso, the last Member to be elected as an hereditary peer, was an hereditary peer but he renounced his peerage, came to this place and sat on the Liberal Democrat Benches until he lost his seat, when he suddenly rediscovered his blue blood. That is no way to run a modern democracy. In April this year, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to abolish hereditary peers. A Bill in another place in the name of my noble Friend Lord Grocott is designed to do something very similar to what the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) has suggested: not to fill the position of hereditary peers who retire or die. Those are both simple steps that could be taken now to remove the hereditary peers. Those things would be part of a wider package in due course, but the Government could certainly do them now. I am sure that no right hon. or hon. Member of this House would object to a small Bill to meet those objectives.
My second suggestion is not to fill vacancies until the size of the House of Lords gets down to that of the House of Commons. What is wrong with that? I want massive change—I have voted to abolish the Lords—but in the absence of consensus, let us look at how we can reduce the number of Members over time. That is perfectly reasonable.
The third suggestion may be revolutionary, but it is an attempt to find a compromise. I agree with the Government that Members of Parliament should represent equal numbers of constituents. Let us do that, but let us keep 650 MPs and have a boundary review on that basis, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said. In my part of the world, Wales, we would lose seats under such a review—we have 55,000 to 60,000 electors in each constituency—but we would have the same number of constituents and reasonable representation. But, no, this Government are seeking to reduce the representation from 650 to 600 Members, while in previous 18 months the former Prime Minister appointed 132 peers to the House of Lords.
I am sorry, but I happen to think we need radical surgery and radical change. I have three simple suggestions to get the ball rolling: remove the hereditaries, freeze appointments and consider keeping 650 Members of Parliament with equal numbers of voters, including—dare I say it?—in the Western Isles and the Isle of Wight, which are slightly different. Let us look at those things and make sure we make some radical changes on the road to democratising this Parliament and giving a lead to the rest of the world.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this very interesting debate. It is disappointing that SNP Members set their face against what could have been quite a consensual motion. I cannot support it because it conflates boundary changes with House of Lords reform, but we could have developed a consensus in the debate.
The House of Lords is of course an anachronism in a modern liberal democracy. We would not chose to invent it from scratch, were we able to do so, but we must nevertheless concede that its Members have the skills, knowledge and experience that we need. Because they have more time—they do not have the guillotine—and are not whipped so hard as we are, they can in some ways do the work of scrutiny, overview and improvement better than we can in this House.
We must also concede that the royal prerogative of absolute medieval monarchy has been transferred over the centuries from the king or queen through the House of Lords to the Executive of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, so there has been an accretion of powers. Under such an incremental approach, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), powers have been given away so that the upper House cannot vote against the Finance Bill —following the people’s Budget of 1909, and the Parliament Act 1911—and its powers have been otherwise circumscribed.
The flaw in that argument is that we had an opportunity for a once-in-a-generation change. As I mentioned earlier, because of the ludicrous proposals put forward by the Liberal Democrats—the 15-year, non-renewable terms would have meant that authority was contested between the mandates of the two Houses—that opportunity was wasted, as most Government Members would never have supported them. The issue about the authority of the two Houses is still a problem. I do not buy the argument that unicameral Parliaments are therefore better. The reason why so many EU countries have them is that so much legislation, policy making and governance is done by the European Union rather than in their own countries, but that will end very soon—because Brexit does mean Brexit.
I am an agnostic on the House of Lords—I have not made up my mind one way or the other—but my concern is that it is beginning to infringe some basic constitutional proprieties, such as the Salisbury convention. Its Members have taken it upon themselves to cut across the views of the elected Government as set out in their manifesto, which is absolutely wrong and unacceptable. Of course, we have moved on in other ways. We no longer recruit the Executive from the House of Lords but mainly from the House of Commons.
I put to the House this prospectus. It is not necessarily for the Government to bring forward legislation to reform the House of Lords. It is for the Lords themselves to do that—mention has been made of Lord Fowler’s views. I believe that the Lords are potentially in the last chance saloon, certainly with regard to their authority and the belief, faith and trust of the greater public in the system of which the Lords are a part. The challenge is for the Lords to reform themselves as they have done in the past. If they do not, I fear that another Government—although perhaps not one of my own political persuasion or political colour—will take drastic, draconian action. That will be damaging to the constitutional firmament and settlement of this country, in which to a certain extent the Lords have played an important role over many hundreds of years.
My disgust at the undemocratic, unaccountable, unrepresentative House of Lords has been aired in this place on a number of occasions. Let us be clear that there is absolutely no case in any kind of modern democracy for the number of unelected peers to so greatly exceed the number of democratically elected Members in this place. It is quite simply astounding that plans to slash the number of democratically elected MPs are proceeding, further widening the gross disparity—
No, I am not giving way.
Boundary proposals have been issued. Tomorrow, Scottish voters will wake up to the news of a complete reshuffle of Westminster constituencies north of the border and firm proposals to remove six of their MPs. People will rightly be outraged.
It is vital that the Government understand that outrage and acknowledge that frustration. The reason that so many formerly disfranchised voters registered en masse and voted yes in the Scottish independence referendum was that they were fed up with the unrepresentative nature of the democratic process. They felt that Westminster did not speak to them or for them. We stand for doing things the way they ought to be done—for having a vibrant, representative democracy that reflects our diverse society. Those of us in the SNP will never take seats in an appointed Chamber.
Around a quarter of Lords appointments since 1997 have been former MPs who lost elections or resigned. It is no wonder that so many people in the UK feel disillusioned and disfranchised when unsuccessful ex-MPs get returned to our democracy through the back door. Although rejected at the ballot box, the appointed peers are able to collect £300 tax-free per day just for turning up. Between February 2014 and January 2015, £21 million was spent on Lords’ allowances and expenses. That will continue to rise as the already bloated House of Lords continues to see its ranks swell. We are told that the purpose of reducing the number of MPs is to cut the cost of democracy, so why is the cost of the Lords allowed to spiral ever upwards?
I would be doing a disservice to myself and my party if I did not acknowledge that some peers are incredibly hard working and conscientious. Some contribute a great deal to society, and I have had the pleasure of working with them in a constructive manner on all-party groups.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the fundamental difficulty is that peers appear to be selected for who they know rather than elected for what they know?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. That is the problem, and that is why there are so many of them.
The efforts of the Members of the House of Lords whom I was talking about do not go unnoticed, and so they should surely have nothing to fear from standing for election to a democratic second Chamber. There have even been occasions when the House of Lords has played an important role in blocking or amending legislation. Imagine how much more important a function our second Chamber could play in shaping legislation if it were fully elected and fully representative. More than half of peers are over 70. I know we are facing an ageing population but to even suggest that that is representative of wider society is absurd. Twice as many peers used to work for the royal family as have worked in skilled or manual labour. That simply is not right and cannot deliver the real-life experience needed in an effective second Chamber.
It simply is not right that the boundary plans proceed. We need plans to vastly reduce the number of peers and a full review of reform of the House of Lords. In the meantime, the Government must discard their plans to reduce the number of democratically elected Members of Parliament.
This has been a really interesting and wide-ranging debate. We have heard a number of people propose changes to the House of Lords and ways in which we can go forward. What we have not heard is anybody saying that they think the House of Lords is wonderful and that we should keep it as it is. I think there is a general feeling across the House and across the country that, in the absence of abolishing the House of Lords, we need to reform the House of Lords.
I particularly enjoyed the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) was typically thoughtful in his contribution on this matter—I have previously enjoyed his contributions—and the speech from the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) was, erm, interesting.
I am very grateful that a fellow Gordonian has given way. Can the hon. Lady clear up for me an area of doubt and uncertainty? The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said that the SNP spoke with one voice on the issue of House of Lords reform. He said that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was an abolitionist and that that was SNP policy. However, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said he did not want to abolish the House of Lords, but merely wanted to reform it. What is SNP policy? If it is abolition, is the hon. Member for Edinburgh East out of line?
The manifesto we stood on said that the SNP would abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a fully elected second chamber. The motion we are putting forward today gives the Government a slightly more gentle way forward. It does not suggest full abolition at this stage. It suggests making positive changes.
I want to talk about a few things that were mentioned during the debate today.
One of the rotten things about the House of Lords and the system of patronage is the fact that Ministers who are unaccountable to the electorate can be appointed by the Prime Minister. One recent example is Baroness Ros Altmann, who campaigned on behalf of the WASPI women. She then became a pensions Minister and suddenly had selective amnesia. Is that not just typical of the system that exists?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will come on to the make-up and appointments system of the Lords.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire pretty much had those of us on the SNP Benches weeping in hysterics at some of the things he pointed out. He was just highlighting the ridiculous nature of the House of Lords. It is absolutely ridiculous that in 2016 deference and fawning are required. We have people dressed in ermine robes and we are expected to genuflect to them. It is absolutely ridiculous that we live in a society where that is still okay.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare said that everybody is equal in this country when we vote. Everybody is not equal in this place. Those people in the other Chamber are somehow above the rest of us and that is not right. They have not been democratically elected to those positions and they should not have preferential treatment as a result of the appointments system.
The appointments system is—well, it is frankly ridiculous. We have a Prime Minister who was not elected to be Prime Minister. She was elected to Parliament—absolutely —but she was not elected to be Prime Minister of this country. Now, because of the appointments system to the House of Lords, she has the power to choose the people who will legislate. She has the power to choose the people who will sit in that other Chamber and make laws for this country. It is ridiculous that somebody can have this power without being elected to that position.
As has been stated by a number of my colleagues and Members across the House, appointments to the House of Lords are not always made on the basis of the people who best know what they are talking about. One Member mentioned that people may be experts in their field when they are elected, but their expertise very quickly disappears. I suggest that somebody who was a teacher 20 years ago is no longer the best person to be an expert on the education system, unless they have been particularly good at keeping up with changes. We have a whole House full of former experts—of ex-experts—and it is very difficult for us because we cannot get rid of them.
Absolutely. I have been a member of a Select Committee in this House, so I am well aware that we are able to bring people who are genuine and current experts before such Committees to give evidence. We also have a great system whereby people can submit evidence in respect of legislation.
Let me make a couple more points on the make-up of the House of Lords. As of last year, there were only two Members of the House of Lords who were under 40, which is totally unreflective of society. On the cost, the Minister mentioned that there is an average attendance of about 500 each day. At £300 a day, that is £150,000 a day just on the allowances. Let us be clear that those allowances are totally tax free. They are not salary, but tax-free allowances—and the Treasury does not even get a cut of that £150,000. Most of those Members should be paying at least 40% tax. When it comes to making changes to the cost of Government and Parliament, I suggest that that might be a good place to start.
I want to be clear about the link in the motion between reform of the House of Lords and the Boundary Commission review. If the Government are serious about reducing the cost of Parliament and about making the UK and the nations that make it up more democratic, their attempt to reduce the number of MPs—comprising the truly elected Chamber—is completely the wrong place to start. To begin with, we have the first-past-the-post system, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East mentioned, is not democratic. There are so many wasted votes. A number of them do not count because people are voting for someone who can never get elected in the seat. A system of proportional representation would be a much better way of extending democracy than trying to equalise the numbers in each constituency.
If the aim is to make the political system in this and other countries more democratic, it would be possible to make the Government a bit more transparent. The Cabinet Office is tasked with making government more transparent, but it has failed spectacularly—and I do not mean only this Government; I am not blaming this one alone, because previous Governments have spectacularly failed, too. Governments like to be in power; they like to keep power for themselves, so they like to make sure that people are not very clear about what is going on.
There are a couple more things that could be done to reform the House of Lords. We could get rid of the hereditary peers and the bishops. We could also—I think this would be a great thing to do—stop the House of Lords being able to introduce primary legislation. Why is the so-called “revising Chamber” able to introduce primary legislation? That Chamber is appointed, not elected. Members of the House of Lords should not be lawmakers in the countries of the UK. They are supposed to be part of a revising Chamber, so they should spend their time revising, not bringing legislation forward.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in the debate, and the wide-ranging contributions that we have heard from across the House. I am particularly grateful for the support we have received from some Conservative Members, which is unusual and welcome. I thank all Members who have contributed, and I hope the House will support the motion.
It has been an honour to listen to this well-attended and, at times, feisty and passionate debate. I must admit that I am somewhat surprised at the SNP’s obsession with this particular issue and that they would choose this subject for their Opposition day debate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) noted, we could have discussed other issues. I lost count of the number of times that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) talked about ermine.
Let us look at the public mood on this matter. A YouGov poll of June 2012 asked a simple question on the proposition:
“Reform of the House of Lords is vital: it should be a priority to change the system”.
Only 18% agreed, with 20% saying the House of Lords should be left alone. The overwhelming majority—52%—said that it was not and should not be a priority. The 2015 Conservative manifesto agreed with this principle by saying that it was “not a priority” in the next—meaning this—Parliament.
As the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons said at the beginning of the debate, the House of Lords has begun reform in the last few years. Important reforms have been introduced and they have been successful because they have been driven by the Lords themselves. Since the introduction of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, for instance, peers have been able to retire simply by giving written notice to the Clerk of the Parliaments.
That is an interesting point, which I do not think has been made before in the debate. The motion could, in fact, suggest that the number of elected peers remain at 93, which would cause something of a constitutional abnormality.
Since the introduction of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, peers have been able to retire. Such retirement is permanent, and cannot be rescinded. More than 50 peers have chosen to retire, including 16 so far in 2016. That important reform has had an impact not just on the numbers in the House of Lords, but on the way in which it operates. The Act also provided for peers to be expelled for non-attendance, and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 gave the Lords new powers to expel its members for serious misconduct. The cost of the Lords has also been reduced by 14% in real terms since 2010.
Let me now deal with some of the excellent speeches that have been made today. I welcome the return of the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) to the Front Bench. We once engaged in a debate together in Westminster Hall, but I am glad to see him back in the Chamber, and I am glad to see the rest of the shadow ministerial team as well.
When speaking of the number of peers who had been created, the hon. Gentleman conveniently forgot to mention that it was a Labour Government who created 408 of the current number. More recently, Labour used a peerage to appoint Baroness Chakrabarti to the shadow Cabinet. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman decided to undermine her position here today.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath made a fiery speech highlighting the essential fact of the British constitution—what matters is what works—and the vital role of the institutions that make up our Union. He also cited a key fact about boundary reform, pointing out that the call for equally sized constituencies had been a clarion call since the Chartists and the People’s Charter of 1838.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), my excellent predecessor, said that he was even willing to put his own marital relations at risk for the sake of his belief in reform of the House of Lords. He also said that boundary reform to bring about equally sized constituencies was an essential priority.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend is talking about equalising constituency sizes in the House of Commons, and also about the importance of a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament. Will he reflect on the fact that the United States House of Representatives has just 435 members, and the French National Assembly 577?
That is a good point. I also recall that back in 2010, I think, the Liberal Democrat manifesto called for a reduction in the number of seats to 500. It is unfortunate that not a single Liberal Democrat is present today to discuss House of Lords reform.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) made a lively and hyperbolic speech in which, perhaps somewhat disconcertingly, he demonstrated his expert knowledge of the “Carry On” movies. My hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) dated Lords reform back to 1719, but as a Tudor historian I can tell him that the issue of membership of the House of Lords and the detested appearance of so-called new-made parvenus such as Thomas Cromwell, the Thomas Audleys and the William Cecils suggest that today’s debate fits very nicely into the finest traditions of history.
My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) spoke about the issue of retirement. I am pleased that that is already happening, as I mentioned earlier, but I think that if those in the other place have been watching the debate, they may be slightly concerned by his talk of attrition.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) mentioned recent comments by the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, about the size of the House of Lords and the fact that it needs to take the initiative on the issue. The Government agree that the House of Lords is too large, but believe that it must be for the Lords themselves to lead the process. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) raised the same issue, and I entirely agree with him. He also spoke about his agnosticism on the subject, and highlighted the need to protect historic precedents such as the Salisbury convention. I agree with that as well.
Let us be clear about the motion that we are discussing. This is not just about reform of the House of Lords; this is an attack on a Government’s manifesto commitment that we are determined to introduce—equal-sized constituencies and a reduction in the cost of politics in this House. At a time when many areas of public service have made sensible reductions and savings, the public will not forgive us if we do not put our own house in order.
Let us be clear: this motion does not seek simply to delay the boundary changes and boundary reform. We have already had a delay thanks to a motion, put down and voted on by Labour and Liberal Democrat Opposition Members. If we went into the 2020 general election with things as they are now, we would be elected on data and figures dating back to 2000 in England and to 2001 in Scotland. That status quo is simply unacceptable.
There is also an historical injustice, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath highlighted. There has been a clarion call to address unequal seats for nearly 200 years, and this Government are determined to enact the historic principle of equal seats. At the moment, some seats are almost twice the size of others. For example, North West Cambridgeshire has around 90,000 electors and Manchester Central has around 87,000, compared with Wirral West, which has approximately 54,200, and Kensington, which has 55,400 electors.
The boundary changes will address the unfairness of these current parliamentary boundaries. In Scotland, the independent Boundary Commission publishes its provisional maps and figures tomorrow drawing up the new-sized constituencies. They are provisional data, and I would encourage anybody watching this debate to get involved in the consultation process; it is closing in England and Wales on 5 December. The independent Boundary Commission is currently touring the country and anyone who is interested in constituency boundary reform should get involved.
Does the Minister accept that consideration must be given not only to the number of electors, but to geography? Constituencies such as mine in Scotland already have a landmass of 12,000 sq km. When we have constituencies that are so large, how on earth are we supposed to represent and be visible to all our constituents? This is not just about the numbers of electors; it has to be about geography and fairness for the electorate.
When legislating on this, the previous Government absolutely recognised that point, and there is special provision in the current boundary proposals published tomorrow to protect Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, even though those constituencies are particularly small in voter numbers, given the wide area that they cover. Those remain unchanged. But let us look at the numbers for Scotland. Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has an electorate of 45,898. In comparison, Linlithgow and East Falkirk has an electorate of 83,593. That is a difference of 37,695. There are almost twice as many electors. I cannot believe the SNP is defending having one elector whose vote is worth twice that of another; that is an historical injustice that this Government are determined to correct.
I am the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Why not reduce the size of seats to an electorate of 45,000 across the UK, instead of increasing them to 75,000?
It is up to the independent commission to draw up the figures, but this Government are determined to ensure that we will be the Government to introduce the proposals first advanced in the clarion calls of the Chartists 200 years ago to have equal-sized constituencies and equal votes across the United Kingdom.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. On Monday, I asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign and whether the Government were going to take mitigating measures to compensate the worst-affected women. He responded that the Scottish Government could use their powers to compensate them. At the end of questions that day, I raised a point of order. I was generous in my choice of language and suggested that perhaps the Secretary of State knew something that we did not—namely, that powers over pensions were coming to Scotland. I asked the Secretary of State, through the Chair, if he would correct the record, knowing full well that section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 specifically excludes the possibility of the Scottish Parliament having competence over pensions. I was somewhat enraged to receive a letter from the Secretary of State this afternoon which assures me that his statement was correct. We all know that people spin from time to time, but that is disingenuous to say the least, and the Secretary of State should really come clean and recognise that he has misled the House. I ask for your support as to how we can—
Order. First, we should not say that a Member is disingenuous or that they have misled the House. Let me see if I can be helpful here. Obviously there is a disagreement over the views and the interpretation, and I think that there is a way to deal with this—[Interruption.] Just bear with me. This could be helpful. You know me better than that. Give me a chance. There is a way to deal with this through the Procedure Committee, but it might be better to have a face-to-face debate in Westminster Hall. Why not put in for an Adjournment debate where this can be settled in the best possible way?
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for your advice, but there is an important issue here. The Secretary of State is giving a level of competence to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government that they do not have, and it is important that we in this House have the opportunity to call him to account. I say clearly that he was wrong and that he should correct the record.
I understand that he says he is wrong; the hon. Gentleman has made that point. What I am saying is that a face-to-face debate would be a much better way to put the case and get the answers. That is the way forward. There is also the option of the Procedure Committee, but I think that a face-to-face debate would be a much better way to set out categorically where the answer lies.