I beg to move,
That this House has considered the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on reform of the House of Lords.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Howarth, for what I hope will be a scintillating debate. I say at the outset that none of what I am about to say should be taken as a slight or criticism on any individual Member of the upper House. I have, in my limited time in this place, worked with many of them in all-party groups and on various campaigns where we share the same objectives, and I have found them, to a man and woman, to be people of integrity and ability and to exude a commitment to public service.
That aside, the institution of the House of Lords is fast becoming a national embarrassment. It is something we urgently need to address. The House of Lords is the largest legislative assembly anywhere in the world, with the sole exception of the People’s Republic of China. It is an institution where no one is elected by the wider citizenry, and it is accountable to no one. It is staggeringly unrepresentative of the population at large: only 26% of its Members are women; 44% of its Members live in London and the south-east of England; and 56% of its Members are older than 70 years of age. That is an institution that in no way reflects contemporary society. It is also an expensive institution, costing almost £100 million for every year that it operates, £20 million of which goes on the expenses and stipends of the Members who serve in that Chamber.
We are fast approaching a situation where the legitimacy and credibility of the House of Lords will be in crisis. Unless we do something about it, that crisis of credibility will extend to us as well by implication.
The Parliament Act 1911 first established that the House of Commons, the elected Chamber of this Parliament, should have primacy over the House of Lords. The preamble of that Act noted that the intention was to introduce
“a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”.
For the 106 years since the passage of that Act, we have argued about how to make the upper House a popular and democratic institution. For most of that time, the argument has been led by this Chamber—elected Members representing the people—which has argued for shining the flashlight of democracy into the darker recesses of our Parliament. What we have today, however, is something quite remarkable. We have a situation where the Government of the day have said publicly that they will not countenance any reform of the upper House; they do not have the time or inclination to consider those arguments.
In frustration, Members of the upper House themselves have got together to beg the case for reform. That is a remarkable volte-face from the arguments we have had for over 100 years. I hope that the Minister, when he concludes, feels just the slightest sense of embarrassment at the situation. Here we are contemplating reform of the House of Lords not because of any motion or suggestion from an elected Member of the House of Commons but because the House of Lords is asking us to take action to try to salvage its credibility and reform its institution.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his contribution. Does he not think that one of the main reasons why many Members of the House of Commons are reluctant to push reform of the House of Lords is that they want to end up there? They see it is quite a cushy retirement number, rather than seeing any practical function that a second Chamber might offer. We should be proud of the Scottish National party’s long-standing tradition of not taking seats in the House of Lords.
I agree. It is inconsistent for someone to say they wish to abolish an institution but then prop it up by serving in it and trying to enhance its credibility. That, however, is a political contradiction that others will have to wrestle with. I am glad to say it is not one my own party faces.
I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s arguments and facts carefully, and he is making an extremely powerful case. I have no intention of going to the House of Lords—nor will I be invited, I guess. There is another case for not reforming the House of Lords. Some of us believe it is an affront to democracy and should be abolished. Reforming it gives it greater credibility. Does he not agree that there is a danger in reform and that abolition is the better solution?
I do indeed, although the way I would put it is that I wish the reforms to be so extensive that they are tantamount to abolition. Starting with a clean sheet of paper would probably be the best way to go forward. I will come to arguments for the alternative later.
As I read the report and read between the lines, I can almost sense the authors’ exasperation at the situation they are in: their remit has been necessarily constrained to a very narrow one about the size of the House of Lords. They are not able to take into account other matters, looking at the wider context of the institution. I also sense—it is mentioned several times—their frustration at having to search for ways other than legislative and statutory reform to try to achieve some sort of change. I applaud their ingenuity in finding ways within existing statutes and by using procedures such as the code of conduct to set out how they may be able to achieve some of their suggested changes without reference to primary legislation. None of that removes the need for us as an elected Chamber to look at legislative reform. It is an abrogation of political responsibility by the Government, as well as a kick in the teeth for public opinion, that they refuse to countenance bringing forward legislative reform.
The report is necessarily limited, but I would describe it as extremely small baby steps on the road to reform. To give an idea of just how limited they are, one of the key suggestions is to bring in a fixed term of 15 years for Members to serve in the upper House. The suggestion is to phase that in, and it would not be fully implemented until 2042. That’s right—2042. I doubt whether I will be around to see what happens in 2042. To understand just how modest the suggestion is, NASA intends to put a human being on Mars by 2042. We seem to be incapable of suggesting that we can bring in fixed-term appointments for the House of Lords before, as a species, we are capable of colonising other planets. That puts it somewhat in perspective.
Given that the Committee found ways, without reference to legislation, to suggest reform, we should embrace its suggestions and perhaps be a little more ambitious about their application. In considering the report, I suggest to its authors and the upper House that, if they have found ways to bring in fixed-term appointments, why 15 years? On what possible grounds is it okay for someone first to be appointed rather than elected and secondly to serve without sanction or accountability for one and a half decades? Why not cut that in half and make it seven years? Then we could accelerate the process of moving to fixed-term appointments much more quickly.
The Committee suggested through various procedures to reduce steadily the size of the Chamber by appointing one new peer for every two who die, resign or otherwise leave the upper House. If we can have two out, one in, why not have one out, none in? Why not have a moratorium on appointments until the House begins to shrink to a more acceptable level?
We should also be concerned about the things that the report, by its own admission, does not say, and the problems that it does not address—indeed, it recognises that its limited suggestions will exacerbate some of the other problems. Consider, for example, the hereditary peers. Not only are 92 people who are appointed to make the laws of our land not elected by anybody, but the only basis for their appointment is accident of birth. They are not even the aristocracy—they are the progeny of aristocracy from centuries past. That is such an anachronism that it is an affront to every democratic ideal that we must surely espouse. A rather sordid deal was done between the Blair Government and the then Tory Leader of the House of Lords—against, by the way, the wishes of the then leader of the Conservative party—to protect the 92 hereditary peers. That was seen as an interim step, yet every attempt to follow through and complete the abolition of hereditary peers has been blocked by the institution itself and those who support it.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that next year my private Member’s Bill, the House of Lords (Exclusion of Hereditary Peers) Bill, will have its Second Reading. The Government could accept that as part of the deal to reduce the size of the House of Lords immediately.
Indeed, and it is regrettable that an individual Member has to use the procedures of the House to pursue such an objective when it is so glaringly obvious that the Government should act on this issue to improve our democratic system. When he responds to the debate, perhaps the Minister will explain why the Government see fit to take no action whatever on Lords reform.
Hereditary peers are an anachronism and an affront to democracy, but under proposals in the report, which would reduce the size of the House of Lords from more than 800 Members to below 600, they are untouched. That means that their influence will increase as a proportion of the upper Chamber. Rather than tackle the problem, this tinkering will make it worse and give hereditary peers even more influence over the rest of us. We must do something urgently to tackle that democratic affront.
The report also acknowledges the situation of the Lords Spiritual, which is not to be reformed in any way, shape or form. I have many colleagues and friends who are active in the Church of England and I mean them no disrespect, but it is ridiculous in our multicultural, multi-faith society that, if any spiritual leaders are to be appointed anywhere in our legislature, that should be the preserve of just one faith and one Church in this country. That is an affront to people of other faiths and of none, and it is urgently in need of reform. I say that knowing that many people in the Church of England would agree with me and seek such reform themselves, yet the report says nothing about the issue. Indeed, it admits that the influence of the Lords Spiritual in the upper Chamber will increase under the proposals, rather than be reduced, because their number as a proportion of the upper House will increase.
The most glaringly obvious omission in the report, which its authors acknowledge, is the fact that we have not even begun to debate the method of constitution and selection of the upper Chamber. I believe in a bicameral system. I think there is a need for an upper revising Chamber, although the arguments for it need to be made. One argument most often made is not an argument for an upper House; it is an argument about the inadequacy of the primary Chamber. It suggests that we need the House of Lords because the way the House of Commons operates means that it is often capable of getting things wrong and making bad draft legislation, so everybody needs a second look and it must all be revised. That is an argument for improving our procedures in the House of Commons and considering how we originate, deliberate on and make legislation; it is not in itself a justification for a second Chamber.
I believe that there should be a revising Chamber as that has some merit in a democratic system and our parliamentary institutions. However, a fundamental tenet of my belief is that those who make laws over others should be accountable to those who serve under those laws. The governors must be appointed by the governed, otherwise they lose respect, credibility and legitimacy. If we are to consider a new upper Chamber by 2042, surely we must advance the argument that it should be an elected Chamber that is representative of the citizenry of the country. When devising a new Chamber we should take the opportunity to build in procedures that will overcome the current inadequacies and democratic deficits. We must ensure proper representation of women in the Chamber, and of the age range and ethnic mix in the country. We also need a proper geographic spread to represent the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. That is an argument whose time has come. It is something that we need to advance, and if we do so I think that many Members of the upper Chamber will be willing to join that cause.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister ever so gently whether he will reconsider his position, take off the blinkers, realise the degree of public concern about this issue, and commit the Government—not next week or month, perhaps not even next year, but before the end of this parliamentary term—to bringing forward the reforms that are so urgent and necessary. We are now at a crisis point. A report published by the Electoral Reform Society last week contained an extensive survey of public opinion in this country. It showed that only 10% of those polled agree with the House of Lords remaining unchanged as it is today. Fully 62% now believe that the upper Chamber should be elected. That number is increasing, and if we do not act it will increase further, and the political crisis in our institutions will continue. It is time to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing this debate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about this issue.
In my opinion, House of Lords reform is simple: I believe that it should be reformed, but the exact nature of how that reform should be enacted is up for debate. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that the House of Lords should be abolished. It has proven itself to be effective in its capacity to scrutinise legislation and hold the Government to account, and for that reason alone we should maintain a second Chamber.
The House of Lords also contains many experts in their fields, from Lord Winston in the sciences, and Lord Coe, who delivered the fantastic Olympic games in 2012, to Baroness Lane-Fox in business, technology and education. Those peers bring a wide range of backgrounds and expertise to these Houses of Parliament, and it would be remiss to do away with such expertise by simply abolishing the House of Lords.
The House of Lords Act 1999 retained many hereditary peers but restricted their numbers to 92, in order to ensure that any loss of knowledge and expertise caused by the removal of hundreds of experienced Members was limited. After 18 years, however, I am confident that the knowledge gap has been adequately bridged by subsequent appointments and, of course, the intervening years, and that we now have sufficient knowledge in the House of Lords.
If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that half of this Parliament should be made up of experts, why not the House of Commons? Why not just appoint experts to this House, rather than have elections every five years?
I will be addressing that point shortly in my speech.
There are, therefore, reasons why a second Chamber should be retained. To have experts as part of the Parliamentary process, able to sit outside some of the pressure of regular elections and to stay constant and think of the country’s good rather than the next election, is a benefit and a strength to the nation that should be retained. However, that does not mean the House of Lords is above reform, as I have said. All in, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, there are about 825 Members in the House of Lords, with a working number of 800. That is far too large a number to be practical in terms of work, or democratically justifiable for an unelected second Chamber. The Lords must therefore be reduced in size.
Will the hon. Gentleman address the lack of clarity about appointments that are made? There was much concern following appointments made by the previous Prime Minister, when he left office. How would the hon. Gentleman want that to be dealt with in future?
I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised that point. My favourite Prime Minister is David Lloyd George, a strong Welshman who was responsible for the “People’s Budget” in 1909, and who in 1911 pushed through reforms. However, he came unstuck on the issue of Lords and patronage in the 1920s, with similar issues to those that came a century or so later. There is a need for more clarity about the appointments process. I will come on to some of the suggestions in the report, but I think the process should be strengthened and there should be greater transparency. We should make sure that there is fair and transparent way to appoint Members in all parties, as well as independents and Cross Benchers.
I welcome the report produced by the Lord Speaker’s Committee, which proposes to reduce the number of peers to 600. It advocates that any new peers should have to sign an undertaking to serve a 15-year term before retiring from the House, requiring real commitment from them. It recommends a two out, one in system for life peers to get the number down from 800 to 600. After that, there would be a one out, one in system. Finally, it proposes a democratic link through the allocation of new peers to each party according to the average between their vote share and Commons seat share at the most recent election; it also proposes keeping 134 independent Cross Benchers, reflecting the current proportion of Cross Benchers who sit in the House of Lords. Those people are not bound by party loyalty, but are there to serve their country, and provide a valuable, independent voice.
Those are all sensible suggestions. The report proposes the implementation of meaningful reform without the loss of the beneficial aspects currently supplied by the Lords. It is important that any reforms should also respect the Parliament Act 1911 and ensure that the reformed House of Lords does not undermine the supremacy of the House of Commons, which I fear a fully elected upper House just might do. It is important to respect that principle, which has underpinned our parliamentary democracy for the past century; it is just as relevant now as it was in 1911 that those who have been directly elected and who have constituency links can have the final say on laws, and make sure that they are pushed through to reflect their constituents’ views.
I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East on one point: hereditary peers and Lords Spiritual. I am all for tradition, but as a democrat I cannot justifiably defend the continuation of such peers in the Lords, should any reforms be enacted. I would therefore push for the reforms to go further, with current hereditary peers allowed to complete their term, but an eventual phasing out of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman wants to push things further, but that can be done only through legislation—not the mechanisms suggested in the report. Would he support petitioning the Government for such legislation?
Yes, I would. I am coming to my point about that. House of Lords reform is always another decade away, but when we complete our current constitutional obligations through Brexit—which I think the hon. Gentleman will agree is challenge enough—I hope we can turn our attention to the House of Lords. Then people will not have to wait another decade before reform is allowed in that most respected other place.
I shall start with what is probably obvious: I have always voted for the abolition of the House of Lords, and given the opportunity I would vote to do so again. That, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) has said, is not because there are not good people in the House of Lords. There are; but I take the view that some element of democratic input is needed when legislation is passed on behalf of my constituents. I wake up every morning knowing that I have been sent to this House because crosses were put by my name. At the next election, those crosses can be put by another candidate’s name. That keeps me on my toes and tells me that I am held to account by those at home for what I say here. Those people can support me for what I say when I speak, or remove me from my seat in the future.
I would always vote to abolish the House of Lords; and self-evidently if that happened, we would need to consider how to do it, or seek a mechanism for replacing it. In view of the time, I do not want to put a detailed focus on the full report. There was little in the comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that I disagreed with. We can speed up the process and increase the number of people who are removed; we can do all sorts of things. I want to focus on something about which, as the Minister knows, I have a bee in my bonnet. I will continue to chew Government legs for the foreseeable future, until the goal is achieved. The issue is hereditary peers—raised by the noble Lords themselves in the report.
As hon. Members will know, there are 92 hereditary peers. I voted for the House of Lords Act 1999, which was brought in under the Labour Government and which rightly removed hundreds of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. As part of the deal to get the reform through with Lords approval, 92 hereditary peers were kept. It was intended to remove them in the future. Now, 18 years after that Act was passed, 92 hereditary peers still sit in the House of Lords. The report says:
“In the absence of legislation, the hereditary peers will make up a larger proportion of a smaller House, with a particularly significant impact on the Conservatives and Crossbenchers. The House, and perhaps more pertinently the Government, will need to consider whether such a situation is sustainable. Any change would require legislation, which could only realistically reach the statute book if it had Government support.”
Irrespective of the wide-ranging changes that are being proposed, the House of Lords, as part of its wish to reduce its number, has said, effectively, that the hereditary peers are unsustainable and that the Government need to consider a legislative solution to bring those matters forward.
It so happens that, as I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, I have a legislative solution. The House of Lords (Exclusion of Hereditary Peers) Bill was printed on 7 September and is due for Second Reading on 27 April 2018 and would abolish hereditary peers with effect from 2020, to give time for the transition to take place. I should like to know from the Minister whether, in the light of the House of Lords proposals, he would support that Bill. I recognise that parliamentary time is tight, but it does not take a great deal of effort to support such a Bill if the Minister has the political will.
The Minister will know that my noble Friend Lord Grocott has come top—No. 1—in the private Member’s Bill ballot in another place. I might say that he is good cop to my bad cop in the matter of hereditary peers. He wants simply to end the election of hereditary peers, and let them disappear slowly over time when election vacancies become available. I should like to know whether the Minister would support that Bill. There is parliamentary time available in the Lords to take it through in this long Session and end the election of hereditary peers. If the Minister cannot support the principle of my Bill, he could, potentially, support Lord Grocott’s. He will at some point have to vote against that Bill from the other place, because—it is not a secret—it has had a Second Reading and Lord Grocott will take it to Committee. He wants it to come to this place, so that on his behalf I can take it through this place in parliamentary time. Today the Minister needs to focus—if on nothing else—on what he will do about hereditary peers.
Why does that matter? I happen to take the view that the great great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of someone who did something 400, 500 or 600 years ago should not be making legislation on my constituents’ behalf today. Lord Mostyn, who lives in Mostyn Hall in my constituency, recently applied again to be a hereditary peer when the vacancy came up. His great-grandparents got their peerage because his great-great-great-great-relative fought on the King’s side in the English civil war. It does not seem to me that which side someone fought on in the English civil war is a basis to make legislation in the 21st century.
I am sure that my Scottish colleagues here today will appreciate the fact that Lord Fairfax of Cameron is currently in the House of Lords. His ancestor got his peerage because he was the first person to go to Edinburgh to meet the new James I of Scotland, or James VI of England. I am sorry, that should be the other way around—I am not very good at my royals, but the point is made. He got his peerage for being the first person to travel from London to Edinburgh to meet the new King. That does not seem to me to be the modern way of making democratic decisions. Lord Attlee sits in the House of Lords now. He has his peerage because Clement Attlee was given a hereditary peerage when he retired from the House of Commons. Lord Attlee is now a Conservative Member. I do not think there is a basis for having the grandchild of the architect of the national health service making laws and voting with the Conservative Whip when his grandfather was given his peerage for being a staunch Labour party member.
The election system that we have now for hereditary peers is absolute nonsense on sticks. I will give an example: Lord Thurso, God bless his cotton socks. He was thrown out of the House of Lords by the Labour Government’s House of Lords Act 1999. He stood for the House of Commons and was elected as the Member of Parliament for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross in the 2001 election, transferring his blue blood to his ordinary blood. He was thrown out by the electorate in 2015, losing his seat to a member of the Scottish National party. By chance, a Liberal hereditary peer died and there was a by-election in the House of Lords. Three Liberal Democrats put their names forward for that by-election. Lord Thurso got 100% of the vote and is now back in the House of Lords, having had a blood transfusion to blue blood again.
I ask the Minister: is that tenable? That is the simple question he needs to ask. Is it tenable for three people to vote 100% for somebody who has a peerage because of what their relative did in ancient history, who has been thrown out of the House of Commons and who is now back legislating in the Chamber? If this Parliament were an African country, the Minister’s colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would be calling for sanctions because of the families that had ruled the Parliament for generations and the lack of democracy.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Hold on a moment. If this were China and Chairman Mao’s grandson had a seat in the Chinese Parliament simply because he was Chairman Mao’s grandson, I bet the Minister would be calling for sanctions against China.
Having lived and worked in China, that is not the case, but on the right hon. Gentleman’s point about supremacy and democracy, does he not accept that under the Parliament Act 1911, the people of the United Kingdom are still sovereign and the Commons can still overrule the Lords? Although I agree that there should be reform in the Lords, let us not take the argument to the extreme. Democracy still rules in this country and it lies with the Commons.
I believe the right hon. Gentleman was about to conclude his speech.
Do not worry, Mr Howarth, I am. Trust me. The House of Commons does reign supreme, but I take the view that this debate is about a different system. Whatever else we do about the House of Lords, the Minister, who is a historian, needs to know that he is on the wrong side of history. He needs to know that he must bring forward a solution or he will be judged by history for failing to do so. I hope that, whatever else he does, he will remove hereditary peers and accept either Lord Grocott’s Bill or mine, or indeed bring forward his own and make history.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to add my voice to over 100 years of debate on the subject of reforming the House of Lords. The unresolved discussion on Lords reform has been going on for so long that an annual debate on the subject must surely now be considered a parliamentary tradition. In 1908, the Queen’s great-grandfather was the reigning monarch, while New Zealand had just become an independent country. It was also the year in which the Rosebery report made recommendations on how peers should be selected to the Lords. Such is the pace of change at Westminster that here we are, 110 years later, still tinkering around the edges of our bloated and unelected upper Chamber. After all that time, the proposed reforms before us today hardly seem worth the wait.
That is especially the case when we consider that it could take up to 15 years to reduce the size of the Lords to 600 Members. Why 600? I have read the report and nowhere does it explain why the Committee decided on 600. Did they consider how many Lords contribute to debates, Committees or groups? Some do. As was eloquently explained in the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), some make very valuable contributions, but do 600? When the Lords debated the issue, 61 Members took part—that is 61 out of the 799 currently eligible peers. When the Lord Speaker’s Committee launched a consultation, 62 Members contributed.
The reduction from 826 peers is undoubtedly progress, but we are merely reducing the size of the problem, not solving it. To underscore the timid nature of these proposals, new Members of the Lords would still have a guaranteed position for 15 years. We would retain 92 hereditary peers. We would retain the Lords Spiritual, 26 archbishops and bishops. We would retain the royal office-holders, Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain. Of course, reducing the peers to 600 but protecting the hereditary and spiritual peers would also mean they made up a greater proportion of the unelected House.
I ask hon. Members whether they are happy to go out into their constituencies and argue in favour of an upper House of unelected appointees with 15-year terms—a House that has no mechanism for the public to hold its Members to account, in which the ability or suitability of its Members is completely outwith the control of the electorate. Would they be happy to speak with constituents face to face and tell them that our modern Parliament should include unelected bishops and hereditary peers, the heirs of long-forgotten generals, admirals and landowning aristocracy? Where is the progress towards a balanced House, by gender, geography or religion? How do we know that minorities are represented? We do not, and we will not, because the Committee’s remit was to address only the size of the House. I acknowledge the good work done by the Committee, but its hands were tied before it even started to write.
Here we are, skirting around the issue and ignoring the core question of whether we should even have an unelected Chamber. What does that say about the nature of Westminster? The “mother of Parliaments” has spawned many legislatures around the world, many of which have long overtaken us in their ability to reform and adapt to the changed needs of their political systems. Westminster, on the other hand, limply staggers on without any of the energy or imagination that characterises other Parliaments.
We have heard comments from my side of the House in favour of reform, but the hon. Gentleman is characterising Westminster as something that limply goes on with no energy. This is the Parliament that brought in the NHS. It has introduced hundreds of technological innovations, spawned justice systems around the world and led the world in many innovations. To say that our Parliament is without energy and “limply staggers on” is unfair.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point perfectly. When did we introduce the NHS? It was in the 1950s. The last time I checked, this was 2017.
The buildings that make up this Parliament are themselves reflective of what is happening here. They are rotten and crumbling. According to a headline in The Guardian:
“Parliament’s buildings risk ‘catastrophic failure’ without urgent repairs”.
It is estimated that the final repair bill may be more than £3.5 billion. We know, however, that the problems facing this place are deeper than crumbling masonry and decaying stonework. The institutions themselves are in need of urgent repair but, with another opportunity to genuinely reform the House of Lords, we have decided instead to paper over the cracks. We have had a century of debates like this one on deciding what colour and pattern that paper will be, yet the cracks remain underneath.
Limiting the length of terms, reducing the size of the Chamber and minimising the number of appointments the Prime Minister can make represents progress, but they are the smallest possible first steps towards reforming the Lords into a Chamber fit for 21st-century democracy. Lord Burns said that these proposals are a
“radical yet achievable solution to the excessive size of the House of Lords”.
With respect to Lord Burns and the Lord Speaker’s Committee, these proposals are not radical and will only reinforce public anger at and scepticism of Westminster politics. Most people will simply look at this situation and see a Committee of Lords concluding that the privileged position of other peers should be more or less protected.
I know that Members from all parts of the House want genuine reform, but let us be realistic: the UK Government have no authority and are barely surviving. As the country moves steadily closer to a Brexit cliff edge, Parliament has neither the time nor the political energy to tackle Lords reform when so much else is happening. Meanwhile, people in my constituency of Inverclyde and across Scotland will look at Lords reform as just another example of this Parliament’s inability to change. They may soon decide that powers resting here may be better placed in a unicameral Parliament—and that Parliament is in Edinburgh.
Order. Three hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I will begin calling the three Front Benchers at 10.30 am, so in order to get everybody in, which I hope to, Members need to be careful about the time they take.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing the debate and leading us off so thoughtfully and powerfully. It was not for the first time that I agreed with every word he said.
I want to start on a positive note—or at least as positive a note as I can muster—by welcoming aspects of the Lord Speaker’s report. Any attempt to reduce the number of peers is progress of a sort towards abolition. Needless to say, in my view the report is a missed opportunity and goes nowhere near far enough. It has a number of interesting recommendations, such as capping the number of peers and 15-year term limits. However, with a two out, one in limit, combined with restricting the method of reducing the existing number of peers to retiring or expiring, progress towards the proposed limit of 600 will be glacial—a pace that, although undeniably revolutionary for this place, will be viewed unsympathetically elsewhere.
For those who support the House of Lords, I see why these recommendations will be welcome. They address some of the common criticisms levelled toward the Lords but, more importantly, supporters think it will kick the wider Lords reform debate down the road. The arguments for abolishing the House of Lords are well versed, and we in the Scottish National party have been consistent in opposing the undemocratic anachronism that is the other place. It is a matter of principle for our party that is held almost as strongly as independence itself and our opposition to Trident nuclear weapons. Quite simply, we believe that a second chamber should have representatives elected by the people, rather than appointed by party leaders.
As has been said, the House of Lords is a bloated institution that is largely manipulated by the Westminster-based parties to serve their own party political priorities. Its current gross membership stands at 821—some 171 more than the current elected Chamber. As we have heard, the Lords is the only second Chamber in the world whose membership exceeds that of the primary Chamber; only China’s National People’s Congress has more members. That is utterly ridiculous and completely indefensible. The SNP rightly has no peers sitting in the Lords; we are the only political party in Westminster to not play that self-serving game. In contrast, 70% of current peers come from the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
In the last Parliament, David Cameron appointed 40 peers per year, which is more than any other Prime Minister—even Tony Blair, who is comfortably at No. 2 with 37 peers per Session. Cameron, like Prime Ministers before him, exploited appointments to the House of Lords, awarding party members and cronies who had previously donated handsomely to the Conservative party; of course, I suggest no link between the two. That yet again highlights the deep-rooted flaws with the House of Lords, with the Prime Minister able to appoint any number of peers he desired without any kind of check or balance in place. How can anybody in their right mind say that that is anything but grossly undemocratic?
It should be noted that the report suggests that political appointments to the House of Lords mirror the results of a general election. However, this is not the first time that that has been proposed. In 2010, the coalition Government agreed as an interim measure that the appointment of new peers would reflect the vote share at the most recent general election, on the way to introducing a Chamber of 450, wholly or mostly elected by proportional representation. As we know, a Tory rebellion shamefully defeated that reform.
However, being led up the path of Lords reform is not new. The Labour government of 1997 came to power promising to abolish hereditary peers, but as we heard in the powerful contribution from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), in order to get that legislation, which was planned to be the first step, through Parliament, it was agreed that 92 hereditary peers, elected from the hereditary peers en masse, should be able to sit as a temporary measure until the second stage of reform was completed. As we have heard, we still await that second stage of reform 18 years on. In March 2007, 10 years on from the Tony Blair landslide, the Commons voted by a majority of 113 in favour of a fully elected House of Lords, and by a majority of 280 to remove all hereditary peers. Once again, the country was led a merry parliamentary reform dance with nothing to show for it.
The Electoral Reform Society, among many others, points out that the House of Lords is hugely unrepresentative—I am sure it will not come as a surprise to many—with just 26% of its members being female and nearly half coming from London and the south-east, which accounts for only a quarter of the UK population. Another issue the ERS highlights is that political appointees rarely show independence and instead vote with their party Whip the vast majority of the time.
I will play devil’s advocate, and going against my better judgment, I will take on board the points made by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham), but if we must continue with an unelected Chamber, I suggest that the newly reformed Canadian Senate serve as an example of an expert-appointed revising Chamber. I reiterate that that is not my favoured solution, but it would be churlish not to accept that there are some fantastically skilled people in the Lords who personally offer a huge amount to the legislative process. Like the House of Lords, the Canadian Senate was for decades hampered by individuals often being more motivated by partisan interest, rather than by effectively scrutinising and revising legislation. Under the new system brought in by Justin Trudeau in 2015, an appointment committee picks independent candidates to serve in the Senate, rather than people affiliated with any political party.
That has been widely welcomed in Canada, and moves it closer to having a second Chamber in which people serve based on merit, rather than loyalty towards any political party. However, I am a radical at heart, so despite offering that non-partisan, unelected Canadian alternative, I feel so strongly about the importance of electoral accountability that, if we cannot have an elected second Chamber, I would follow another Canadian example: the Assemblée nationale in Quebec, which abolished its unelected Chamber in 1968.
I readily admit that the House of Lords might not be the No. 1 issue raised with me on the doorstep or causing long queues at my constituency surgeries, but it says so much about the country we want to be, and equally about how the international community perceives us.
Would it be progress, and a sign of a mature democracy that would engage people more in the democratic process, if we had a fully elected second Chamber and abolished the House of Lords?
I could not agree more. That is the point almost every contributor has made thus far, apart from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire. It is obviously a given that, in 2017, we should not appoint any unelected member to a legislative body.
To be honest, as somebody who has been campaigning for Scottish independence since I was nine years old, I never feel more strongly about independence than when I view the farce on the day of the Queen’s Speech. I have always viewed the Lords as a kind of pumped-up parliamentary panto, and seeing all that ermine and fancy dress, and the Lord Chancellor playing Widow Twanky, is embarrassing in the extreme in 2017. I believe that the Lord Speaker’s report was probably as much as we could have expected, given his position and his narrow remit, but it falls spectacularly short of what any developed western democracy should be aiming for.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. At a time of austerity, with food banks being used across this great nation of the United Kingdom, I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing this important debate. I also welcome the private Member’s Bill promoted by my good friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), which will have its Second Reading next year.
At a time when we are looking at the budgets to run our country, and local councils up and down the country will be making severe cuts that will cost jobs, it is only right that we look at ourselves and that we start with the money of taxpayers, who are looking for accountability. This debate is about reforming the House of Lords, not abolishing it—I would welcome the second part of that statement, but that is for another day.
I welcome the debate, but we need to speed up the process. We cannot support people who cannot retire. We need a balance. This reform is overdue, and the Lords are overspent. The people of the UK want reform, and now is the time to start changing the establishment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am grateful to have caught your eye. I was not originally on the list of speakers, but the spirit has moved me—in fact, the Spirit rover, which has landed on Mars. We heard an eloquent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who made the case for the red planet to be represented on the red Benches. There is a great tradition of noble Lords taking their seats as a result of colonial expeditions or military victories overseas, so when humanity colonises Mars, perhaps we will see Lord Sheppard of Olympus Mons. Indeed, if artificial intelligence progresses at its current rate, we will see—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating analogy that he picked up from his colleague, but I hope he will not take it too far. We do not yet consider the House of Lords to be in outer space.
Thank you, Mr Howarth. I think the point is made—the point being that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East would not take his seat even if he led a colonial expedition, because SNP members do not take their seats in the House of Lords.
I want to offer a couple of reflections on why I agree with the cases being made for significant and rapid reform. A number of Members have spoken about the contribution that Members of the Lords make to all-party parliamentary groups and so on, with their vast experience. I agree. I have met many learned and distinguished Members on those groups, but a lot of that happens behind the scenes, outwith the scrutiny and shining light of the main activities in the Chamber. To me, there is an issue with that, because it enhances in some ways the lack of accountability.
Many of us, as Members, find that we have massive competing pressures on our time. Our first loyalty, of course, is to our constituents—the people who put us here. I often find myself leaving all-party groups or whatever else it might be because there are important constituency matters to attend to or matters to attend to in the Chamber or here in Westminster Hall. However, Members of the House of Lords can just take their time over these things.
There is an insidious back-room politics that is not seen. The system of lobbying while voting in the Lobby, as we were doing last night for many hours, also goes on in the House of Lords. People cannot watch that on television, but Lords can nobble noble Ministers and all the rest of it. We have to bear that in mind as part of the accountability question.
The key thing I want to ask the Minister about is article 3 of protocol 1 to the European convention on human rights, which is on the right to freedom of elections. It states:
“The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”
My question to the UK Government is: are they satisfied that we meet that criteria? Are we compliant with our obligations under the ECHR? The fact remains, as has been ably demonstrated by Members across the Chamber today, that the vast majority of legislators in this country are not elected. It is no wonder that some Brexiteers are so desperate to get out of the EU and the ECHR. I think they can see this coming. I have heard it mocked as conspiracy theories by the Brexiteers, but I think they are well aware that if we did somehow try to get back into the European Union after Brexit, we would be incompatible with the requirements of that charter. That is the significant question I put to the Minister.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on his private Member’s Bill. I notice that it is fourth or fifth on the Order Paper for that day, which is sadly yet another corruption and defect of the system we have here. The chances of him airing the Bill’s Second Reading are incredibly slim, but I hope the Government will see the sense of it and the opportunity it presents to bring forward reform of the House of Lords.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Howarth. What a very interesting debate this has been. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for securing it. There have been many debates on the House of Lords over many years. Indeed, some would say that many Scots have been arguing over its very existence since at least 1707. We should recall, too, that England has been far less timid about this in the past. Under Cromwell, the English House of Lords was abolished by an Act of Parliament that stated:
“The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, finding by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England”.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of the House of Lords’ credibility being in crisis, which, by extension, may affect the credibility of the House of Commons. He pointed out the shameful fact that the House of Lords has had to take action to address that because, as has been made clear in both the 2015 and 2017 Conservative manifestos, the UK Government consider electoral reform “not a priority”.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) in a characteristically passionate contribution made it clear that he supported reform, although he feels a fully elected second Chamber would be unworkable. I appreciate the fact that he wants reform, but, on his concerns about such a second Chamber being unworkable, I point out that such arrangements exist in many other countries around the world, including my country of birth: Australia.
It would be great to have some clarity on the SNP position, because we have heard a couple of different opinions this morning. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) talked about having a unicameral legislature such as China’s. Other Members have talked about a fully elected second Chamber. It would be great to understand from the party’s Front-Bench spokesperson what the position is: is the SNP for a unicameral legislature such as China, or a fully elected second Chamber?
In Scotland, happily, there is a long tradition of considerable consultation on these issues. I expect the people of Scotland to decide these matters after considerable consultation.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) spoke of his long-standing support for the abolition of the House of Lords and the need to decide on a good replacement. He also decried very much the presence of hereditary peers, which I will address.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), who as always made a very passionate contribution, described the report’s recommendations as timid and highlighted the House of Lords’ many democratic shortcomings. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) spoke of the SNP’s principled opposition to House of Lords membership for its representatives. I am certainly proud to be a member of a party supporting that position. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), in ebullient form, called for significant and rapid reform.
I rather admire the boldness of that statement in the Act from the English Parliament calling for the abolition of the House of Lords. I join in that sentiment and call for its abolition. I call for it to be scrapped. Many consider it to be nothing more than a retirement home for decaying politicians and people with nothing better to do than take a handout from the public purse. Some say it is a knacker’s yard for knackered politicians who refuse to accept that their time has passed. As an Australian, I have a special dislike for the idea that unelected people have a major role in governing a country. I am clearly far too young to remember Gough Whitlam’s Government, but his dismissal by an unelected Governor-General still haunts the politics of that nation.
With the help of the Library and the blog of the London School of Economics, I discovered a few things. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, there appear to be only two Parliaments in recognised democracies that have a Chamber of wholly unelected Members appointed for life: this one and Canada’s, though thankfully the one in Canada is soon to be reformed. Even Zimbabwe’s Senate is elected, and even Bahrain’s National Assembly has a four-year term instead of lifelong sinecure.
It is time to modernise properly and, if abolition is not on the cards, to introduce much greater term limits and elections. As has been mentioned, the report seems to see some difficulty in cutting the numbers quickly, but I, too, have a few suggestions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East asked, why do bishops sit in the legislature? We should remove them and the remaining hereditaries; if they think they have something to contribute, they can always stand for election. Then we could institute one of the report’s recommendations, but in a far more direct form—get rid of everyone who has served more than 15 years. That would extract a couple of hundred Members. If we got rid of former MPs, we would be down to about 350. If we removed people who had served in other Parliaments or on councils, lobbyists and those rewarded for internal party work, we would be down to about 250. We could cut the ones who have not turned up or not spoken in the past three years and the number would be down further. It is easy to cut the number if people are interested in a functioning parliamentary chamber.
As has already been mentioned, there is great concern about the criteria used to decide who is eligible for such appointments. Many argue that the second Chamber is riddled with people rewarded for blind loyalty, people who are there doing party work rather than parliamentary work, and people ennobled so that they could become Ministers because the party of government got incompetents elected instead of people who could do the job. It is considered by many to be a rotten borough and a cesspit of self-interest and entitlement. Any Government who believed in democracy would get rid of it.
The recommendation should not be one new appointment for every two Members who leave. We should ramp that ratio up—to three or four out for every one in—or hold all appointments until the number is down to below 400 at least. Alternatively, we could have it that two must leave for every one appointed and then let the appointments clean the stables. We could get rid of all the incumbents and think again about who we actually want in that Chamber—a revising Chamber, as some would have it. We could abolish it or make people stand for election. We could do practically anything to breathe new life into a museum, but what would be unsustainable would be tinkering at the edges to reduce numbers slightly over many, many years and keeping the same broken system.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. First, I convey apologies from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). Because of ill health, I, as the shadow Parliamentary Private Secretary, have been asked to stand in at the last minute.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing this debate to discuss the report by the Lord Speaker’s Committee. The hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate for reforming the other place, and I welcome any discussion on extending our democracy. Excellent points have been made by many hon. Members, and I agree with many of the arguments, especially those advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson).
Before dealing with the issue of the Lords in detail, let me just say that this is a crucial moment at which to consider Britain’s many constitutional arrangements. Our great nation is preparing to leave the EU, and that will bring many changes to the way the UK constitution functions. There was and is much appetite for extending our democracy, as we saw throughout and subsequent to the EU referendum debate. However, the Government have not responded well to the public’s concerns about our democratic deficit, whether in the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Their European Union (Withdrawal) Bill would put huge and unaccountable power out of the hands of Members of either House and into the hands of Ministers, sideline Parliament on key decisions and put crucial rights and protections at risk. Far from bringing control back to Parliament, it would result in a power grab for the Government.
In this context, Labour welcomes any discussion of how to increase the scale and reach of our democracy. However, it is somewhat peculiar that we in this House are discussing an internal report, proposed by the Lord Speaker, before any debate has taken place in that House. I have always tried to be a fast worker, but we have been so quick off the mark that the Lords themselves have yet to consider their approach to its recommendations. It is entirely possible that they will have views and opinions that we have yet to think of, so I hope that this discussion leads to meaningful debate and is not a waste of critical parliamentary time. Will the Minister please tell me whether he knows when the other place will have an opportunity to consider the report?
The report focuses on the subject of reducing the number of Members of the House of Lords. Notably, it considers doing so without any legislation, although that is actually unsurprising, as this Government have no appetite for bringing in any reforms. There is widespread agreement on all sides of the Lords that that House has become too large. It is one of the biggest legislative Chambers in the world. That is in part a consequence of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s years of packing the Government Benches there. In fact, Cameron appointed more peers per year and at a faster rate than any other Prime Minister since 1958, when life peerages were introduced, and more were from the Government parties and fewer from the Opposition. As he left office he appointed 13 new peers, becoming the first Prime Minister in a generation to have a controversial “resignation honours list”. This report illuminates how that Administration increased the number of Government peers at a much faster rate than previous ones. Do this Government have a prediction for how many Members the other place will have five or 10 years from now if reforms are not undertaken?
It is disappointing that comprehensive reform of the second Chamber is not a priority for the Government. That was something that the Conservative party outlined in its 2017 manifesto. The Government’s position on the matter is somewhat troubling.
Before calling the snap election, the Prime Minister attacked the other place, describing peers as “opponents” of the Government who have
“vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
She highlighted how they are not democratically elected. That was an astute and correct observation even if the rest of her statement that day was partisan rhetoric. If the Prime Minister was at that point so concerned about the undemocratic process by which Members of that House take their seats, why are the Government refusing to implement any necessary reform?
The Government’s lack of appetite to reduce the number of peers in the upper Chamber is especially peculiar given their determination to cut the number of MPs in this House. That is a cynical move that they claim will cut the cost of politics, yet they are still appointing so many Lords and doing nothing to reduce the size of that Chamber. There are costs associated with those Members, too. If the Government were really serious about cutting the amount that we spend on administering our democratic apparatus, they would be doing more to reform the upper Chamber. Will the Minister tell us what the Government will be doing to cut the cost of politics in the House of Lords?
While the Government are doing little to reduce the size of the House of Lords but trying to have fewer Members in the Commons, the casual observer might perceive on the part of the Government an 18th-century attitude, in which the principles of patronage or hereditary privilege, as seen in the Lords, are regarded as more important than the democratic mandates of the Members who sit in the Commons. With that in mind, can the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to safeguard our democracy in both Houses of Parliament?
Labour Members recognise that the other place has played an integral role in the UK’s constitution, complementing the work of the House of Commons while respecting its primacy as the elected Chamber. None of our criticisms of the lack of democratic accountability detracts from the hard work and expertise of the House of Lords. That body can be an excellent Chamber for reviewing legislation and complementing our work in the Commons.
There have been a number of significant wins and concessions as a direct result of the hard work of the Labour Lords Front-Bench teams, staff and Back Benchers, in collaboration with peers from across the other place. It was because of the efforts of Labour peers that higher education providers are now required to give eligible students the option to register to vote at the same time as enrolling with a provider. Labour Lords were able to gain concessions in relation to the then Pension Schemes Bill to make sure that a scheme funder of last resort is in place to ensure that funds are protected in the event of a pension scheme collapse.
Those are just a few examples. There is certainly a large amount of expertise in the current membership of the House of Lords. However, comprehensive reform is vital to address the growing democratic deficit in our country. We cannot defend one House of our legislature not being democratically elected or accountable.
This is a serious and thoughtful report, with some interesting recommendations on 15-year terms for new Members, plans to ensure the continuing flow of new blood into the Chamber, and the removal of the Prime Minister’s absolute power of appointment. We all look forward to discussing the recommendations with colleagues from across both Houses, but in the absence of upcoming legislation on Lords reform, we also hope for a constructive response from the Government. What is the Government’s position on the various recommendations put forward?
In Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto, we committed to establish a constitutional convention to examine and advise on reforming the way Britain works at a fundamental level. We must have a debate on what any reformed upper Chamber would look like and the principles upon which it would be built. The convention will include vital questions about our citizens’ relationships with Government and will look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, considering the option of a more federalised country. Together we must consider where power and sovereignty lie, in politics, the economy, the justice system and our communities.
Labour’s fundamental belief is that the second Chamber should be democratically elected. That is the standard we must work towards. In the interim period, we will seek to end the hereditary principle, abolishing the opportunity for some to become lawmakers by virtue of birth.
The hon. Lady talks about democracy in the UK and elsewhere, yet in the last Parliament the party leader, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), advocated reasserting direct control of overseas territories because he did not feel that they could manage their own affairs. Is it democracy or direct control, or is it just at the fiat of the good leader?
I want to point out that the last Labour Government massively reduced the number of hereditary peers who sat in the House of Lords, overthrowing the system of inherited political power that had previously dominated in the Lords. I will move on from that point if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
As I have said, it is important that the democratic deficit in this country is tackled. A root and branch system of reform must be undertaken, and quickly. We cannot allow the Government to continue their years of inaction on this matter. We must see some action on the issue.
I am grateful to you for chairing this debate so efficiently, Mr Howarth. I am also grateful that so many Members have taken part and given such passionate contributions to this debate. I am delighted that the spirits moved certain Members and that they decided to make last-minute contributions, which were all the more welcome. I thank the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) for standing in at the last moment on the shadow Front Bench. Please do give my best wishes to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith); I hope she gets better soon. This debate has obviously given the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich the opportunity to showcase her talents. I am sure that any forthcoming reshuffle will see her rapidly promoted through the ranks.
I also thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), whom I have sparred with on several occasions already since my appointment as Minister for the constitution. His dedication to matters constitutional cannot be doubted. He has called several debates before, on several different issues. Today’s debate on the publication of the Burns report is particularly timely, coming so soon after its publication on 31 October. This debate has given Members of the Commons the opportunity to reflect upon its recommendations and to put their views, however different and passionate, on record. I am sure this will provide an invaluable record for the other place when it discusses these matters—I will discuss that later—recognising the individual views of Members here today.
The Government believe that the House of Lords plays a vital role in scrutinising, checking and challenging the work of the elected House of Commons, and in doing so it brings a wealth of expertise and experience to bear on that work. We will ensure that the Lords continues to fulfil this vital constitutional role, at the same time as respecting the vital privacy of the elected House of Commons.
Hon. Members have already touched on this, but I am sure they will not be surprised to hear that the Government does not consider comprehensive reform—it is important to stress “comprehensive”—of the House of Lords to be a priority. It has been mentioned, but I will quote in full the statement in the Conservative party manifesto in 2017:
“Although comprehensive reform is not a priority we will ensure that the House of Lords continues to fulfil its constitutional role as a revising and scrutinising chamber which respects the primacy of the House of Commons. We have already undertaken reform to allow the retirement of peers and the expulsion of members for poor conduct and will continue to ensure the work of the House of Lords remains relevant and effective by addressing issues such as its size.”
While the Government have stated that their priority is not comprehensive reform, we still believe it is important—this is a crucial point—that where there is consensus, we have been able to undertake incremental reforms of the other place. We have worked with both Houses to introduce some focused and important reforms.
Will the Government seek to block Lord Grocott’s Bill, which is the No. 1 private Member’s Bill in the House of Lords, to end hereditary peer elections?
I had hoped to touch on hereditary peers later, but I will come to that point now. We had a debate in Westminster Hall in July. I recognise that Lord Grocott’s Bill had its Second Reading in September. The Government still hold their position that it must be for the other place to reach a consensus around reform. If the other place reaches consensus, we will work with the House of Lords to look at what incremental changes are taking place. Lord Grocott’s Bill and the issue of hereditary peers will be further debated. We will be looking at that Bill going forwards. Obviously we will be debating the right hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill, which he mentioned, on 27 April, and I hope to be in my place discussing those issues with him.
In order to take reform forwards—I will touch on the historical precedents at a later point—we need to ensure that we have consensus. With Government support, the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 enabled peers to retire permanently for the first time and provided for peers to be disqualified when they do not attend or are convicted of serious offences. We supported the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, which provided this House with the power to expel Members in cases of serious misconduct. The House of Lords Reform Act 2014, which enabled peers to retire for the first time, has resulted in over 70 peers now taking advantage of the retirement provisions. That goes to show that incremental change can have a significant and dramatic effect on the House of Lords—its reform and it size. As a result of the 2014 Act, retirement is becoming part of the culture of the Lords. We have had other Bills, such as the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015, which has allowed female bishops to sit in the Lords for the first time.
The Government are clear that we want to work constructively with Members and peers to look at pragmatic ideas for reducing the size of the Lords. It is by making those incremental reforms, which command consensus, rather than comprehensive reforms, that real progress can be made.
On that point, paragraph 10, on page 9 of the report, says:
“Since 1997, appointments have averaged 35 per year”.
I will skip through some of it, but basically it says that if we continue at this rate, we will
“settle at about 875 which, together with 92 hereditary peers and 26 Bishops…a total membership of nearly 1,000.”
That is the path we are on.
The Government are committed to seeing a reduction—they welcome a reduction—in the size of the House of Lords. The Government welcome the publication of the report and are looking forward to the peers debating it. It is not that the Government deny the growing size of the House of Lords is an issue; of course we recognise it as an issue, and one that needs to be solved. Where we might differ is in our view on how to reach the destination by which to provide a solution. We believe that the Lords themselves coming together, forming the cross-party Lord Speaker’s Committee on the back of the motion that was debated, provides a potential way forward, but it is not for the Government to lead on this particular issue. Rather, it is for the Lords to be able to come forward with proposals that we know will then be able to be passed by both Houses.
I personally have been involved in this myself. I have the scars on my back from 2012, when the coalition Government introduced proposals to introduce a partially elected House of Lords—measures that I personally supported at the time. Those measures failed to be enacted, because of a cross-party coalition of Labour and Conservative Members at the time who decided to vote against the programme motion. The lesson I learnt from that about reform of our constitution is that it is much better to take incremental steps to be able to deliver a dramatic change, such as through the retirement of peers legislation. We can then deliver a change to the statute book without having to march Back Benchers through the Lobbies and without marching parties to a stage where U-turns have to be made. I do not want the Government to make U-turns on their constitutional positions; I want the Government to be confident and not mislead Back Benchers and Members. We want to make change through consensus.
On consensus, surely the 92 hereditary turkeys would not vote for Christmas. They would not drive reform, but surely, as the sovereign, democratically elected Chamber, we should.
Well, we had our chance in the House of Commons to drive reform—[Interruption.] I know the hon. Gentleman was not there at the time, but Labour Members voted with Members of another party to block the programme motion. I do not want to revisit the details, but they show that we had the opportunity to introduce a partially elected Chamber. The coalition Government—this is now in the annals of constitutional history—attempted to introduce an elected Chamber, but that was not possible, so we have learnt that the best way forward is to work with the Lords to look at what is possible and achieve change within a realistic timetable.
That is why we welcome the work of the Lord Speaker’s Committee, which was chaired by Lord Burns. As Members are aware, in December 2016 the House of Lords passed a motion stating that its size should be reduced. The Government welcome the fact that the House of Lords had that debate and passed that motion. It is absolutely vital that the House of Lords recognised that its size should be reduced and that methods for how that might be achieved should be explored.
Following the motion, the Lord Speaker established a Committee, chaired by Lord Burns, to identify practical and politically viable options for reducing the size of the House that would not require primary legislation. Just as important as the point about consensus is the point about primary legislation. Achieving this viable change that allows us to reduce the numbers in the House of Lords over a period of time—I will look at the detail in a moment—is about the art of the possible and ensuring that we can begin the process that is needed.
The Government thank Lord Burns and his cross-party Committee for their work. It met 22 times and took evidence from more than 60 Members of the other place. They clearly put a great deal of work and effort into the report. Its key recommendations include a reduction in the size of the House of Lords to 600 Members, which would then become a cap. To reach the target of 600, there should be a guiding principle of two out, one in. When the target of 600 had been reached, all vacancies would be allocated on a one-out, one-in system. Vacancies should be overseen by the House of Lords Appointments Commission and allocated to each of the parties according to a mean average of their percentage share of the seats in the House of Commons and their percentage share of the national vote in the most recent general election. It also recommended fixed-term membership of the House of 15 years for new appointments, enforced by the House of Lords code of conduct.
The Government will consider the recommendations carefully. The report is incredibly detailed, and I encourage all hon. Members of both Houses who have not read the report to read through its pages.
I am keen to press the Minister on one point. The report’s introduction makes it clear that for the non-legislative reforms to work, they will require the consent of the Prime Minister of the day for the appointments they make to the upper House, both in terms of the number and the proportion across the parties. Is he in a position to say on behalf of the current Government and Prime Minister whether they will try to achieve those objectives or seek to frustrate them?
Following on from my key point about consensus, the history of Lords reform shows us that if proposals are to be effective and stand any chance of succeeding, they will need to command a consensus across the House of Lords. The Government want to listen closely to what peers have to say in response to the report. I believe that before the Government set out their position, it is important to test the mood of the House of Lords on the proposals to see whether a consensus will emerge.
On the question asked by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, the Government will make time for a debate in the Lords, and I can say today that it will take place before Christmas. I hope this debate provides material for the Lords to consider. It has been incredibly timely, given that the Lords will debate this issue in the other place before Christmas. The Government look forward to that debate.
I apologise if I missed this, but I do not think I heard the Minister answer my question about the compatibility with the European convention on human rights. If that is complicated and he wants to write to me, I will be happy to receive a letter.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for flagging up the point he raised, because it was remiss of me not to touch on that detail. The House of Lords fulfils its constitutional position in scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account, but it remains subordinate to the will of the Commons, whose Members are democratically elected. It is important that that prevails, but on his point about the legal framework in relation to the ECHR, I am happy to write to him. I assure him that he will receive a detailed letter from me setting out the Government’s answer to the finer points of his question.
The Minister rightly said that any reform should be a cross-party process. Bearing in mind that the Scottish National party does not take its seats in the House of Lords, would he find it useful for the SNP to clarify its position on Lords reform and say whether it is in favour of abolition, a unicameral system, or a fully elected second Chamber to be incorporated as part of the deliberations?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point. As this debate has shown, there is a wide variety of views across all parties, which goes to show how important it is that we have careful consideration of reform of the other place. Some people here are absolute abolitionists. Some are in favour of an elected Chamber. Some are obviously not in favour of UK Parliament—a position that has been taken by the Scottish Nationalists. It is regrettable that they do not take their seats in the House of Lords, as that would enable them to influence the debate. I hope that going forward, all parties can clearly set out their views on the report in detail.
We look forward to the debate in the House of Lords before Christmas and to seeing whether a consensus on the proposals can emerge. I thank all Members who have participated today, and I hope that we can move forward on measures to ensure that we are ultimately able to reduce the size of the House of Lords.
I do not want to repeat the points that I made earlier. I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate, including the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) in particular, and the fact that he will support campaigning for the Government to provide time for legislative reform. We will obviously not go as far with reform as I might like, but the fact that he says there should be some is useful.
I thank the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) and appreciate his efforts to get the hereditary principle addressed. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) pointed out, where his proposal lies on the Order Paper at the moment means that is unlikely to be successful, which underlines the need for a rather better response than we heard from the Minister about making Government time available to debate reform of the upper House. He says that the Government are not in favour of comprehensive reform, but I am struggling to understand which reforms they are in favour of and what time they will make available. The airing of issues today should be regarded as the beginning of the debate in this parliamentary Session. After the upper House has its debate, I hope that the Government will reflect on the need for the Commons to have a proper, considered discussion that will lead to legislative reform of the upper House. If we fail to act, I fear that we will increasingly lose credibility in the eyes of the wider electorate, for whom the time for reform is now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on reform of the House of Lords.