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House of Lords: Reform

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how, in considering proposals for reform of the House of Lords, they define the present role of Members of the House of Lords.

My Lords, I find that a strange Question from a noble Lord who has been in this House for 37 years. In our debate on 12 July, a number of noble Lords defined what they thought their role here was. One said that it was as a parliamentarian, another said that it was as a legislator, another said that it was to hold the Executive to account, another said that it was to influence government policy and yet another said that it was to make a nuisance of themselves. I think that that combination makes a full job for a Member of this House.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, but perhaps I can inform him a bit better, having been here 10 years longer than he said. My noble friend will, of course, know that the House of Lords Library and the SSRB have declared that a Member of the House of Lords does not have a role or a job to do. The only people who do are Ministers and office holders, who are remunerated. The rest of us are holders of a dignity. Could my noble friend describe to me what a working Peer is? I would like to be one but, if I have to stand upon my dignity, I am concerned that there will be nowhere to sit down when the new Peers arrive.

First, I have checked and, yes, the noble Lord has been here for 47 years, which may explain why I am in the Ministry of Justice and not in the Treasury. This definition of dignity, which is the last refuge of—

I am thinking of those wishing to talk to the Inland Revenue. I go back to what I said. It is very interesting and like Attlee’s definition of an elephant: when you see a working Peer, you recognise one. I recognise a lot around this House.

Does the Minister agree that the main functions of this House—to revise legislation and to hold the Government of the day to account—would be adversely affected by the Government having an overall working majority?

That is why I think that the present arrangements, where the Government have no overall working majority, work excellently.

In the lead-up to the publication of the reform Bill at the end of this calendar year, will the Government consider proposals to delimit the functions of the two Chambers better to share out the burdens of parliamentary scrutiny and to enhance the effectiveness of our oversight?

I think that that is the kind of discussion that can go on in parallel with the proposals of my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister on the reform of this House and the work that is going on in reforming the working procedures of the other place. The activities that are going on at both ends will help to make both Chambers more efficient and better at doing their proper job of, as my noble friend said, holding the Executive to account and properly scrutinising legislation.

Does the Minister have any special means of ensuring that, with the new arrangement, the House fulfils its historic function of keeping the Government under control and does not become a poodle of the Government, particularly if, as rumoured, there is to be a new wave of appointments that will further bolster the majority of the coalition?

I think that the best way we can ensure that is to move quickly to reform this House. We will have that opportunity in the Bill that my right honourable friend has promised for the end of this year and the pre-legislative scrutiny that will take place next year.

My Lords, is it the view of Her Majesty’s Government that your Lordships’ House is currently failing the people of our country? If it is, how best should we correct ourselves at the moment?

On the contrary, I think that successive Governments have the scars to show that this House does a very good job. One reason why this House has survived is that it has shown an ability to bend rather than to break—to recognise the case for change. We need only look at what is happening now, long before any Bill, to see that the process of change is already carrying on—and we are all the better for it.

Would my noble friend like to think about this? At the moment, we seem to be having more introductions to this House than one would find at the average dating agency, yet my noble friend seems to be—if I may put it this way—slightly less than coherent in explaining to the House what it is that these people, including us who are already here, should be doing. Should we not get a little more precision and coherence into it before we provide for a new system for bringing more people into the House?

I am sure that when my noble friend—I could tell how easily “noble friend” tripped off his tongue—looks at Hansard tomorrow and reads my first reply today to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, he will see perfectly encapsulated the job of a working Peer. As to new Members and the size of the House, this is one of the problems that a House with no retirement age but with a need to be constantly refreshed will run into. We look forward to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, who is looking into these matters for us.

Does the noble Lord agree that the role and function of this House are extremely important to society as a whole, which is why reform of this Chamber is a profound constitutional issue? If so, does he further agree that the people of this country should be able to make their views known about such reform in a referendum on the issue?

I noticed and I readily acknowledge that that was the policy put forward by the Labour Party at the last election. We will be bringing forward a Bill, which will go to pre-legislative scrutiny. I cannot imagine that somewhere along the way, as a good and effective Opposition, the Labour Party will not put down an amendment to that effect.