Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am delighted to open this short debate today on the interim report of the Leader’s Group, which was chaired admirably by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral. The group was established in July with the terms of reference,
“to identify options for allowing members to leave the House of Lords permanently”.
The group has consulted widely and today’s debate provides a further opportunity for consultation. I look forward this afternoon to hearing the views of those noble Lords who will be speaking and I am sure that other noble Lords who read the official record will write in with their views.
We should begin by rehearsing the context of today’s debate. Over some time, there have been comments by a number of noble Lords that they would like to find a way to leave the House, although not usually to surrender their title at the same time. In every Session since 2007, such comments have distilled around the House of Lords Reform Bill, a Private Member’s Bill first introduced as far back as 2007 by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood. We have the inestimable pleasure of the Bill’s resurrection once again this Session. Although my noble friend is not down to speak in today’s debate, we have only to wait until 3 December when the Second Reading of the Bill is scheduled.
The noble Lord does not need to wait until 3 December. I remind him that, in the days before we were locked together in unholy matrimony, as Leader of the Opposition he opposed my Bill, which included primary legislation on this very subject that is now recommended by the Hunt committee. Can I look forward to his support the week after next?
My Lords, I say again what a pity it is that we will not hear the noble Lord’s full speech this afternoon. The luxury of being in opposition was that I could make these decisions on my own. As a member of the Cabinet there is a process to undergo, but I shall let him know well before 3 December whether the Government will support his Bill on this occasion. That was the first point of context—the debates that we had on my noble friend’s Bill.
The second point of context is that a system of leaving the House has existed since 1958 under the leave of absence scheme. When the scheme was introduced, Lord Home predicted that some hundreds of Peers would avail themselves of it. I hear the same forecasts today. When I took my seat in 1986, there were 1,096 Peers with Writs and 133—12 per cent—had taken leave of absence. That figure rose to 169—more than 15 per cent—in 1987-88. Today, 738 Members are eligible to sit and just 19—2.5 per cent—have taken leave of absence. Clearly, the reported tide of desire to leave the place is not being reflected in the leave of absence scheme. One question that we are all interested to explore is: what is the mystery ingredient that would translate the mere 19 on leave of absence into the hundreds that some have hoped for? After all, average daily attendance here this Session is 424, which is well over 300 fewer than our total number.
The third important context is the coalition agreement, which announced that the Government will publish a draft Bill for reform of your Lordships’ House. The draft Bill will be published in the new year and will be scrutinised—no doubt in some detail—by a Joint Committee of both Houses. The draft Bill will include plans for transition. I can give an undertaking to the House that we will be looking to see whether the fruits that ultimately emerge from the Leader’s Group and from this debate will help point us in the right direction for transitional arrangements. I very much hope that they will.
My noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral and the other members of the Group are in the process of considering the options for reducing the current size of the House. Today’s debate gives noble Lords a further opportunity to add their views about what steps, if any, should be taken. The options fall into three broad categories, which are covered in the interim report. First, there are steps that could be taken by the House itself, without the need for legislation, to provide for retirement. While there may be some disadvantages to this approach, at least it could be done quickly. It would provide a means of retirement that many Members would like to see. The other two options would require legislation. One option would provide the legislative underpinning for permanent voluntary resignation. The other would involve an element of compulsion, which could involve, for example, Members being excluded on grounds of age or length of service or the holding of elections to determine which Members should remain in the House.
I should touch briefly on the subject of financial provision, simply in order to rule out any payment for retirement for the time being. In the current context it would simply not be understood by the British people.
Although the context is clear, today’s debate is not about wider reform. It is not even about the Government’s view on whether and how Members should be allowed, or made, to leave the House. Today’s debate is about consultation, about hearing the views of as many noble Lords as possible and about giving them the opportunity to respond to the options set out in the interim report. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral and I look forward very much to hearing those contributions.
My Lords, I welcome the debate. I did not testify to the Committee, but I believe that this is a very timely report.
One great problem that we always face is that, when we consider retirement or some other arrangement, we feel that we should wait for the big Bill that will reform the House of Lords as then all such problems will be settled. Although every now and then my hopes rise—they are about to rise again in the coming year—we cannot wait for the passage of a Bill for reform of your Lordships’ House. Even if a Bill comes before us sometime in the summer of next year, it will have to go through at least two rounds before the Government find the courage to use the Parliament Act 1949—which I very much doubt they will—so the status quo may continue, much to my regret. We will have to tackle the problem of the size of this House independently of the future reform of your Lordships’ House. For that reason, we ought to take this interim report very seriously and hope that the committee will come back with some more solid proposals.
I want to lay down a couple of principles. First, nobody should be compelled to go away, under any circumstances. We should have no scheme under which people feel coerced to leave your Lordships’ House, because we are a self-governing House and our principle of self-government also means respect for every Member of the House, regardless of what and how much they do. That principle has to be respected. Secondly, if we agree on a scheme, it should be non-discriminatory. It should not discriminate either on the ground of age, negatively, or on the ground of the number of years for which a person has been a Member or on the ground of non-activity. None of those criteria should be used, because they would be discriminatory and they would be resented.
I know that I am advocating a very mild, passive road, but I think it very important for the smooth working of your Lordships' House that we respect each other and let each person decide how much he or she will contribute to the House while they continue to be a Member. That leaves us with those who want to retire voluntarily and those who—we could mildly suggest this to them—have not been coming to your Lordships' House, who could perhaps be asked to consider that possibility.
We could suggest that, if people retire, they could continue to have access to the House’s facilities, which may be a point that they are worried about. If people could be allowed access to the facilities of the House, they may be willing to take retirement. Although they cannot attend your Lordships' House, they may be able to do other things, so that would be one way out. Perhaps a letter should go out to ask people whether they wish, for whatever reason, to take permanent leave of absence, as it were, to see what the response is.
There is an urgency to the matter, because the size of this House—including the number of working Members of this House—is getting beyond management. We are overcrowded. I know that we are only excluding people who do not come here any way, but sooner or later we will have to discuss other means of managing the size of the House much better on a day-to-day basis. However, that is for another day.
In the mean time, if we can get people voluntarily—almost gladly—to take leave of the House, that would be very welcome. I hope that we will make it non-discriminatory and will do it with as much dignity and respect for the Members of your Lordships' House as possible.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who has almost made my speech for me, but as a member of the working group, I wanted to add a few words about how I have approached this matter. I start by saying that it has been a pleasure to serve on the group. We are very ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, and have very good support from the staff here.
The group is working well together. We are committed to this House, to its work and to its Members, and we seek to arrive at a set of proposals which can command confidence and a broad base of support. We are considering the reduction of the size of this House as it is currently constituted. Although reform of this House is, in a way, the elephant in the room, we, like the noble Lord, Lord Desai, do not believe that this is a matter that can be left for resolution until that time.
There is no doubt from our consultation, both formal and informal, that there is an overwhelming view in this House that ways have to be found to allow Members to retire from this place. In some cases, this is expressed in humane terms: to give people who feel that they can no longer contribute a means of taking permanent leave of absence. The growing size of this House has led many Members to reflect on how its size can be made more manageable, encapsulated in a recent Sunday Times cartoon, which showed a tin of sardines, with one of them saying, “It is like the House of Lords in here”.
We have received more than 80 responses, but it is always difficult to know what to infer from the people who did not respond—whether their silence is an indication that they are happy with the size of the House. I think not; informal views, as well as those responses to the consultation, suggest not. There were many comments to the effect that there should be no further creation of peerages. With the new intake hotly tipped to be announced next week, that seems a forlorn hope. In any event, although there is an issue about the number of new Peers coming to this House, I do not think that any of us can really contemplate trying to pull up the drawbridge. If our main and enduring purpose here is to provide expertise, we have to ensure that the expertise is up to date.
Suggestions on how to deal with the issue can broadly be split into two categories. The first is what I call “compulsory redundancy”, although that is not a term I would use formally. There were suggestions that people over a certain age, or who had a certain length of service, or who fell under a qualifying attendance threshold could be disqualified. Some noble Lords thought we should have elections based on the precedent set by the hereditary Peers. Perhaps predictably, for each of those suggestions, there was a persuasive counterargument showing why it would not work.
The second set of suggestions favoured a more voluntary approach with provision for permanent leave of absence in which Members could retain not just their title but the ability to come into the House and use some of the facilities, as the outgoing hereditary Peers were able to do. Many Members took the view that realistically this is not an option that would be taken by large numbers of noble Lords—the point made very effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. If the aim of the House is to reduce the numbers significantly, this option would probably have to be encouraged by agreeing a modest pension or a one-off compensatory payment based on recent attendance, although whether, in the current financial climate, it would be possible to match the reality with noble Lords’ expectations, I am not sure.
My definite preference is for a more voluntary approach. I believe it sits better with the ethos of this House to find its own solutions to the problem. Evolution has always worked better than revolution with regard to this House and might be more swiftly agreed than something more prescriptive. I hope noble Lords will give particular attention to the innovative suggestion of what we call “associate membership” of the House. This would be entirely voluntary and would enable noble Lords to continue to use the House facilities, retain membership of all-party parliamentary groups and be considered for Select Committee membership where their expertise would be useful to the House. Organisations such as the CPA and the IPU could decide whether Peers could continue membership of those groups. Associate members would be able to speak in debates. The main difference would be that they would not be able to participate in the legislative process. According to the House booklet, The Work of the Lords, legislation now takes up 55 per cent of our time. For the sake of space, if nothing else, I think that associate Peers would not be able to participate in Question Time.
I genuinely believe that this idea has much to commend it and would like to hear from other noble Lords. It is a way of reducing the overall size of the House in a way which keeps the expertise and is not unduly harsh on people who have given many years of active and loyal service to this House.
My Lords, I suspect that many of us are going to say almost exactly the same thing, perhaps using slightly different words. The final paragraphs in Appendix 2 of this welcome report contain the key message that any permanent leave from your Lordships' House would require primary legislation, which is, as we know, not an impossible task, but one that does not necessarily lend itself to speedy action, and speedy action may be what is needed.
A wider question has already been touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. It is familiar to all your Lordships. It is whether reforms, such as the ones suggested in this report, are to be abandoned in view of the radical reforms that we are promised. I am of the opinion that smaller reforms are urgent and desirable. The rationale for this is that whatever is contained in the Lords reform draft Bill that we are promised for the new year, there will have to be a transitional period. No one denies this, but the question is how long that period should be. Pro-election advocates say, with some irritation, that we have been deliberating House of Lords reform for at least 100 years and that it is high time that we got on with it. However, even they cannot deny that reforms, both radical and incremental, have been taking place. The 1958 Act and the 1999 Act have had a profound impact, and the House of Lords is a very different place because of them. Lesser reforms happen almost imperceptibly. They include changes in how business is handled, such as delaying powers, greater use of Grand Committee, more opportunities for shorter debates and the appointment of a Lord Speaker with the attendant outreach programme, which is having an exponential effect on educating the up-and-coming generation on what this House does. The perception that this is a House shrouded in outdated and outmoded conventions and in need of a thoroughgoing shake-up may not be entirely accurate.
The second point that should be made is that the way in which parliamentary democracy works in the UK is a result of hundreds of years of practice, trial and error, and change and reform. Each change has had to bed down and, in some cases, has been reversed. The essential point is that the unknown and unintended consequences of major changes to the unwritten constitution are only revealed over time.
What is needed is a combination of care and caution when tampering with the legislative process. Profound change over the past 50 years or so and the need for a decent transitional phase from one system to another persuade me that we should be looking not only at incremental reform, but at implementing such reforms as quickly as possible. A House of Lords with an efficient machinery within and without the Chamber that enables it to carry out its major functions better is what we must aim for.
This brings me back to the question of taking permanent leave of absence. I do not think that anyone would seriously disagree that this House is overwhelmingly full. As I have said, this is the largest second Chamber in the world, which makes us liable to ridicule and justifiable criticism on grounds of cost alone. Closer examination shows that perhaps one-third rarely, if ever, attends.
Broad estimates indicate that this House needs about 400 to 450 Members to service the committees as they currently exist, and to take account of the fact that this is a part-time job. We will have close on 800 Members by the end of this year and the political leaders wish to do something—hence this report from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, and his team.
Several solutions are listed in the report and I should like to put forward three non-mutually exclusive suggestions that again have been adumbrated by previous speakers. First, primary legislation should be introduced to allow those who wish to take permanent leave to do so. The second would be to stop appointing new Peers of whatever grouping: just put a moratorium on the whole process. While one is at it, why not disassociate the conferring of a peerage with an automatic seat in this House? The third, as has already been said, would be to introduce different categories of Peers such as associate Peers. If we can agree that perception is important if not all, perhaps we could have a system of categories such as working Peers, regular attendees, non-working Peers such as those who attend, say, less than 10 per cent of the time, and retired Peers who have not attended at all, let us say, within the past 12 months, with, of course, suitable exceptions for those who have been temporarily infirm. Again, I have said in this House that more than 30 Cross-Bench Peers have not attended in the past two or three years. I would be extraordinarily happy to write to these people—sensitively, nicely and politely—to ask, “What’s up?”.
All the above, including, as has been said, associate Peers, could have varying degrees of access to the Library and Dining Rooms, and attend the Chamber, perhaps by sitting on the steps of the Throne but not by actively participating. This would be a start and would at least indicate to the sceptical public that not only is this House aware of the torrent of Members but that it is doing something about it. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, and all those on the committee for looking at this problem in such a constructive way and for allowing the maximum opportunity for consultation.
My Lords, I wonder whether the experience of those who have occupied this Bench may be of some assistance as we consider this report. Bishops have compulsory retirement at the age of 70 and most Lords spiritual, while rarely going before the age of 65, usually retire between the ages of 65 and 69. This means that we work on a one-in one-out basis, so the size of the Bench remains static. This also means that we have a regular turnover on the Bench. In fact, within the past five years, with the exception of the most reverend Primates the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, and the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Winchester, all four of whom automatically take their place in your Lordships’ House on appointment, we have had a complete turnover on this Bench.
One downside is that time spent on the Bench may be quite short, depending on the age of the new Lord spiritual, who could have spent anything up to seven years or even more as a diocesan Bishop before joining your Lordships’ House. It is therefore not uncommon for a Lord spiritual to serve only a three or four-year term, and indeed for some considerably less before their retirement arrives. So it is worth noting that the same might apply to parts of your Lordships’ House if an upper age limit were installed that was too low.
While Bishops will do their utmost to attend this Chamber as frequently as possible, it has to be recognised that another downside of being a Bishop in active service is that time spent in this Chamber can be squeezed because of diocesan, regional and other national responsibilities. But a real positive in having serving Bishops means that membership is linked to an active occupation outside the Chamber. I know that there are others in an active occupation outside the Chamber, and it means that, certainly in our case and that of other noble Lords, the Member is in contact on practically a daily basis with a wide cross-section of the community. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, not in his place today, pointed out in his submission to the Leader’s Group:
“The difficulty with Life Peers must be that although they may have been appointed on the basis of their then current activities and abilities to represent certain interests and concerns, they continue to sit in the House long after those criteria are no longer being met”.
However, neither I nor my brother Bishop from Lincoln would want to say that all life Peers should stand down when they cease to hold the offices or exercise the roles on the basis of which they were appointed; certainly not. Indeed, very occasionally certain Bishops have been granted life peerages on retirement from their dioceses. They go on to contribute widely to the life and work of your Lordships’ House, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, is clearly a fine example of this.
I warm to the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, summarised in paragraph 13 of the report, that a voluntary permanent leave of absence be offered, which in effect amounts to leaving the House. If it is thought that to delay change again is unbearable and that an ever expanding number of Members of your Lordships’ House is beginning to look ridiculous in the eyes of the general public, one example from the Bishops’ Bench might be considered: a temporary cap on numbers entering the House, at least until possible further reform is in place. Until such time, could consideration be given to a one-in one-out policy on appointments? Again, to ensure that your Lordships’ House does not suffer from lack of turnover, could serious consideration be given to the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on permanent leave of absence?
Finally, and again based on but not exclusive to the experience on this Bench, I hope that careful consideration will be given to the many benefits that can link membership of your Lordships’ House to an active occupation outside the Chamber.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for giving us this opportunity to debate a vital subject, and I should like to spend a few moments explaining why it is important. Like my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market, I and the other members of the Leader’s Group, all of whom are now present in the Chamber, are here primarily to listen. We shall meet tomorrow morning to go through each and every contribution that is made to the debate to ensure that we learn all the lessons that can be learnt from the points made.
First, I am acutely aware of how sensitive an issue this is for all noble Lords. When my noble friend the Leader of the House first asked me if I would chair the Leader’s Group and showed me the mission statement—to identify options for allowing Members to leave the House of Lords permanently—I was reminded of an impossible task I was once set by a previous Prime Minister, who said, “But, David, as a lawyer you can always explain the inexplicable”; I should have added, “and defend the indefensible”. I am grateful to all of your Lordships for the confidence and support you have been good enough to show me and my colleagues on the Leader’s Group in our taking on of this difficult task. I am also grateful for your willingness to share with us your experience and understanding of this House. I thank also the other members of the group for the wisdom, humour and openness which they have brought to our discussions.
In approaching our task of identifying the options for allowing Members to leave the House permanently, I have been unsure about whether we are being asked to find a short-term solution to a long-term problem or a long-term solution to a short-term problem—an issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Desai, has already referred—and, until the Deputy Prime Minister’s cross-party committee publishes its draft Bill, that will remain the case.
However, it is clear that there is an immediate issue which has to be resolved. We are all conscious of the increasing difficulty at times of finding a seat in the Chamber; of the increasing difficulty of finding a slot for an Oral Question; and of the occasions when the length of a list of speakers means that the time available for individual speeches is inconveniently short. Put simply, to quote a very great person, we need to consider how to manage our increasing numbers,
“because we are too menny”.
The written submissions received by the group are as diverse and wide-ranging as I thought possible. I should have expected that from a collection of independent-minded parliamentarians. The common thread I detect is a sincere concern for the effective functioning of the second Chamber of the United Kingdom’s Parliament and for our reputation. It is that common thread which emboldens me to hope that we might be able to establish a consensus view. I think it is possible and, after listening to the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, I sense that we are on the threshold of finding a range of solutions which might meet the approval of the House and enable us to take the initiative in reshaping the House for the better, whether fundamental reform should be achieved sooner or later.
Inevitably, as evidenced by the right reverend Prelate, the options proposed are influenced by our different experiences of the House and of life outside. Inevitably, some options are more realistic than others in terms of public policy. One objective of the Leader’s Group in giving in our interim report the range of options proposed was to remind everyone of the wide range of views on a single issue which it is possible for thoughtful and principled people to hold.
My noble friend Lady Scott and the noble Baroness the Convenor have just outlined the concept of the associate membership. A number of other Members have already raised it. We look forward to hearing any further views on that.
The objective of today's debate is to hear the views of your Lordships on the range of options which have so far been proposed and perhaps to identify any other possible solutions. I am grateful to my noble friend the Leader of the House for facilitating today's debate. There will be an opportunity for everyone to consider submitting further written comments to the group—we have put a deadline of 23 November on that.
Today’s debate is a further consultative exercise. The Convenor spoke of an immediate moratorium on new appointments to the House. I recognise that that may seem like a sensible move to some because of the need to manage our numbers, but it is not an idea which has very much attraction because the expertise and currency of your Lordships’ House have to be refreshed from time to time. To say to our political leaders that they will no longer have the opportunity to reinforce their troops, particularly when the political landscape changes substantially as it has done this year, would be a significant step which I would not want this House to take. I should mention to the Convenor that there is a view that we should separate the honour of a life peerage from the role of a Member of the upper House.
Let us all bring our collective wisdom and expertise to finding a solution to an intractable, but certainly not insoluble, problem.
Perhaps I may ask my noble friend two very short questions. Whatever may be the option, is it not wholly essential that the due process by which any Member of this House has imposed a leave of absence should first be accepted by the House? Secondly, in respect of all our peerages, whether life peerages or hereditary peerages, ought not the approval of Her Majesty the Queen be sought as a matter of courtesy?
The best and most direct answer to my noble friend on his two questions is that we will obviously report with our recommendations. If legislation were required, it would have to be debated in this Chamber and eventually have to go to the Sovereign for Royal Assent.
I sense that there is a wish to try to find a solution. If we can find that solution, we should take steps to bring it into force as soon as possible.
My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, I express on my own behalf—and, I am sure, on behalf of all Members of the House—our appreciation of the work that he and the small group of noble Lords mandated by the Leader of the House have already done, and the help that they have already tendered your Lordships’ House. Although he has indicated his optimism that a degree of consensus is arising, the very fact that we have this interim report and are having this debate suggests that we have not yet arrived at that consensus. I hope that after today his optimism will be fully justified, because it would be helpful. I have some doubt about it, not least because, in addressing this relatively limited issue of permanent retirement from your Lordships' House, another issue keeps getting folded in—the size of your Lordships' House.
There are a whole lot of contributory factors to the size of your Lordships' House. If we look at this proposal as the solution to the problem, we may be tempted not to move forward on something that is itself a reasonable proposition simply because it will not solve the wider problem—that being that a substantial number of new Peers continue to come in. Until we turn the tap down a little, if not off, simply working with the plug in at the other end will not necessarily provide a resolution.
I also have a certain scepticism, mirroring that of the Leader of the House, as to how far these changes in retirement will make a difference to the number of noble Lords who are active in the House. After all, if we simply ask those who are older or unable to be present or to participate in the work of the House to take retirement, it may reduce the overall numbers of the House, but it will make absolutely no difference to the number of noble Lords present at Question Time or to the crush that many noble Lords feel. Those who are not here then will still not be here. It will also make no difference in the main to the expense of running the House—although, in deference to the noble Baroness, I do not think that your Lordships' House, despite its size, is anything like the most expensive Second Chamber in the world. In fact, I suspect that it is substantially one of the cheapest. Dealing with the question of retirement will not make much difference to expense or to the number of noble Lords on the Benches during Question Time, but that does not mean that we should not move ahead with it for its own sake.
A lifetime commitment is increasingly unusual in today’s world. We heard an announcement today from the Leader of the House about what we very much look forward to and hope will be a lifetime commitment—that of the young prince and his belovèd. Lifetime commitments are a very rewarding thing when people can stick with them, but when I worked as a psychiatrist I became aware that there were an increasing number of divorces between elderly people, which had been rather unusual in the past. It became apparent that when couples had committed to each other when young, it was with the understanding—though not spoken at that early age—that they would not have to spend massive amounts of time with each other in the period of retirement. When they discovered that they would have 20, 30, 40 or more years together, all the time, undiluted in the course of retirement, it seemed a commitment that they had not intended to give in the first instance.
Similarly, with the improvements of medicine and all sorts of other things, there is an increased average life expectancy and an expectancy of productive, active years in your Lordships' House. But sadly, as will be an increasing problem for all of us in society, there is an increasing number of years that are not particularly productive. Those can be problem years for Members of your Lordships' House and their families as well as for commitments to loved ones and other sets of responsibilities. Many may, because of increasing physical or mental frailty, no longer feel able or be able to serve in your Lordships' House. It is appropriate to create a context in which it is possible for those who wish to, and in some cases perhaps should, for various reasons, to take permanent retirement from your Lordships' House. However, there is concern among some who would otherwise take retirement about some specific issues. First, there is sometimes a concern that if one left the House it would by a factor of one reduce the number of Members of one’s party. As the right reverend Prelate has observed, that may make an adverse difference, and colleagues may wish for a Member to stay when he or she may wish to go because it affects the number of votes—and sometimes these can be quite substantial. I therefore wonder whether there would be some value or assistance to your Lordships’ House if an understanding was reached, first, that there would be an overall broad limit on the number of its Members and, secondly, with due deference to the numbers in political parties relating to the votes in the last election, a principle previously enunciated, that when a Member took permanent retirement, it would in some way affect the number of nominations that came forward from the Prime Minister.
For a significant number of Peers—this is perhaps more true of some backgrounds rather than of others—the giving up of remunerative work for quite a number of years by Members of your Lordships’ House has left them substantially poorer than they might well otherwise have been. I will make one comparison, which I hope that noble Lords will kindly attribute to the strange background I come from rather than thinking it a proper comparison with your Lordships’ House. I remember discussing with a former member of the IRA the problems he was having after the ceasefire and the end of IRA activities. He said, “There is, you need to understand, no pension scheme for the IRA”. That is of course a wholly other circumstance, but there is no pension scheme for Members of your Lordships’ House and there are noble Lords who do not have substantial personal resources but who have, under command from Her Majesty and with a real and passionate commitment to their party and to the country, devoted themselves to your Lordships’ House. For some, the very modest expenses available are necessary for them or for their partner or family and they remain. It seems to me that that matter needs consideration.
The noble Lord the Leader of the House has said that no more money is available. However, I am not so sure that, in the country at large, the question of people who have given service having some modest recognition of that when they retire is quite such a difficult issue as some Members of your Lordships’ House think, particularly if it is linked to those who have had a certain minimum number of years of service and is related to the amount of service they have given in, perhaps, the last three years of their time. That may be an important issue. Mention has also been made of the considerable attachment that many noble Lords make to the House and to their colleagues. If there was some kind of arrangement allowing them to return to the House to engage with colleagues and use some of the facilities without being involved in any way with the process of legislation and scrutiny, that might well fulfil some of their own personal attachments but would leave a lower number of Members of the House.
There is and will be much more to say about this, but I simply caution, as I did earlier, that in considering this question we should not make the best the enemy of the good in the sense of trying to make this issue of retirement resolve all the other issues about the size of the House and the way it functions, then set it to the side because it simply does not accommodate all of those requirements. It has a purpose in itself and, if one made progress on that, there is nothing to say that the wider questions cannot be returned to at an early stage when we are clear about the proposals for your Lordships’ House, even before the end of this Parliament.
My Lords, having listened to the remarkable contribution of my noble friend Lord Alderdice, it made me realise how complicated this whole issue really is. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, who has shown today how conciliatory and understanding he is, has done a tremendous job with his committee to produce this interim report. However, I am not going to be very helpful for I am bound to say that I find the whole subject totally disagreeable.
We have all experienced some riveting debates in this House. I look back on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which always sticks in my mind. Contributions were made to it by, for instance, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, who I see is in his place, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester. They have produced some of the most stimulating, intellectual and philosophical debates to which one could ever aspire to listen, everyone trying to find a way through a deeply difficult ethical subject. No other House, no other Chamber, in any other parliament in the world could produce that form of debate and one of that quality. Many people know this and acknowledge it.
But now what is going to happen? Reform of your Lordships’ House is being peddled around the political arena again, in an effort to find some so-called perfection. All that we have is going to be thrown to the birds if we are not careful. Now we are debating how your Lordships can leave your Lordships’ House when your Lordships have had enough—or, worse still, when others think that your Lordships have had enough. If I were not in this Chamber, I would suggest that we have all gone stark staring mad, but that might be considered to be somewhat inappropriate language for your Lordships so I will temper it by saying that I think that your Lordships may be misdirecting yourselves.
The fact is that anyone who is made a Peer is in receipt of a huge honour, one that is bestowed on them by the monarch. When your Lordships are made a Peer or inherit a peerage, the patent that each Peer receives says that he or she is elevated to,
“the state, degree, style, dignity and honour of Baron”—
“to have and to hold unto him for his life”.
Those are pretty clear and trenchant words. That is what the patent says, it is what the constitution says, and it is what each of your Lordships is bound by.
It is difficult to see how a Peer should henceforth be able to say, “I think I’ve had enough now. I should go off and do something else”. Frankly, I find the proposal little short of offensive. Even if we were—wrongly, in my mind—to allow Peers to go, how would you get them to go? The usual way, I suppose: offer them money. A thousand pounds? No, there would not be any takers there. Five thousand pounds? None there either. Fifty thousand pounds? Well, there might be a flicker of interest. But how can you be paid not to do that which you have not been paid to do in the first place? The public row would be something terrible. Can one imagine how the Daily Telegraph would love it, and would probably misdirect us all at the same time? Or would we have a Star Chamber, in which various Peers sat in judgment on their colleagues and said, “He’s past it, poor fellow. He’s over 80”? I suppose that at this point I should declare an interest. All I would say is that there is nothing wrong with being over 80.
If you say, “Get rid of those who don’t attend”, that is fine, but they are not the problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said. If you say, “Get rid of those who don’t speak”, that is fine too—but they are not the problem either. It is the chattering classes who are the problem. Of course, there are too many people in the House; we have had to billow over to below the Bar. That is a pretty humiliating fact, but whose fault is it? It is the politicians’. That applies to the leaders of all the parties, including my own, and we have to live with that and realise that that is what has happened. They have made the absurd mistake of making too many Peers. That does not mean that we do not welcome each new Peer as he comes—of course we do—but it is a question of numbers.
They now say, “Help, help, we’ve got to do something about it”. People say, in that curiously absurd phrase, “Well, we are where we are and now we must proceed from here”. That is a way of saying, “We have made an appalling mess of things but let’s not refer to it. Let’s find a way out of the hole”. It seems pretty elementary: if your house is being flooded with water, first turn the hosepipe off. If you have too many Peers, the first thing to do is to stop making any more. But no—not under this arrangement. Another 50 or more are on their way, which will merely exacerbate the problem. I find that unbelievable. It is bringing your Lordships’ House into disrepute. Maybe it is the idea of some to make the House of Lords unworkable so that it has to be abolished and replaced with a senate. I do not know if that is what people intend, but let us be careful. If we are not careful, that is exactly what will happen.
As usual, it is the politicians who have mucked it up. You cannot continue to alter the constitution just because politicians have played fast and loose with the arrangements. I hesitate to say it but these absurdities never happened in the “good old days”. By the “good old days” I mean the very good “good old days”, before the Life Peerages Act 1958, which some of us remember, even though most of your Lordships were only in knee pants. Then there were arrangements such as the Salisbury/Addison rules, which enabled the House to get over the problems of the day. But along came a Labour Administration which got rid of practically all the hereditary Peers, the Law Lords and the Lord Chancellor. Some of us were ridiculed as silly old right-wingers when we said that if you start tinkering with the constitution in this way you do not know where it will end—and it is a fact.
There were around 1,200 Peers before the House of Lords Bill was passed. The number then dropped to 666; it has now got to 738 and rising. The result is that more than three-quarters of the Labour Peers who now sit in the House and more than half the whole House were made Peers under the Labour Administration. If we start messing around with the House again by inviting or allowing people to leave, with or without a cash handout, we will invite total ridicule. I am almost certain that we will also do so by allowing the House to be wholly elected. For reasons that we need not rehearse today, I am totally against that.
My noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach properly let the cat out of the bag last week. He was followed today by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. My noble friend Lord Taylor said that it was the coalition Government’s aim to have a mostly elected but partially appointed House. I find that an astonishing announcement. It was never what the Conservative Party wanted. I suppose it is the pound of flesh that the Liberal Democrats extracted as part of forming the coalition. The Liberal Democrats, bless their hearts, have some very funny ideas. We may be bound together with them but they are a pretty arm’s-length body—to remind noble Lords of a phrase used by my noble and learned friend Lord Howe last week about quangos.
We should remind ourselves that your Lordships’ House stands high in the opinion of people and organisations. We are part of that. Do not let us destroy it further by allowing people to choose to buzz off when they feel like it. After all, there is leave of absence. I am bound to tell your Lordships that I think it is wrong even to consider this. It would be a constitutional disaster.
My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, he referred during his very interesting speech to funny ideas. For the record, would he like to comment on the views that he held at the time of the Life Peerages Act about the role of women in your Lordships’ Chamber, and whether he has changed those views?
My Lords, the noble Baroness has produced the old chestnut. I am bound to tell her that I was giving the views of a young man, and the views of young men are always wanted to be known, are they not? I gave the views that I held at that time, which is what I thought and what a number of other people thought. Of course, things have happened since then and I have changed my mind. Peers are allowed to change their mind; even coalition Governments can change their mind. I do not have any regrets about that and I do not have any regrets about saying it because, after all, the noble Baroness will remember that it is important to know what young people want; and I consider myself still to be in that category.
My Lords, after the noble Earl’s speech there is not an awful lot left to be said.
What a ridiculous situation the coalition Government have got us into. First, they make 50 new Peers immediately on taking office—nearer 60, I believe—and the House has to sit early so that they may all be introduced before the Summer Recess. Next, they tell us that they are going to produce another 50 new Peers, I think before Christmas. Then they suddenly discover that there is no room in the Chamber for them to sit, so they set up a Leader’s Group to decide how to get rid of enough of the existing Peers to make room for the new boys. One does not need to be Einstein to have foreseen this farcical situation. If anyone thinks that enough Peers are going to absent themselves voluntarily, by taking leave of absence, to make an adequate impact on the seating problem—the bums on Benches problem—they must be living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Therefore, they are going to have to be sacked, and in order to sack Peers who sit here at the command of Her Majesty, as conveyed by their Writs, it will be necessary to pass primary legislation to which Her Majesty will have to assent. That has been confirmed by the Clerk of the Parliaments, and that will apply whatever grounds for sacking them are decided on.
I turn to the idea of paying Peers to go. The Freedom of Information Act is still with us—worse luck—and your Lordships may be quite certain that, the moment that the press get hold of a whisper about money being paid to Peers to go away and twiddle their thumbs at home, all hell will break loose. I wonder what sort of sum per Peer the advocates of this suggested piece of bribery had in mind. Any amount that I can envisage the Treasury being prepared to part with would be nothing but an insult to most Peers. Another issue for us hereditary Peers is that I do not see how any of us could decently accept a penny in view of how our friends and colleagues were sent packing in 1999. They were not offered a golden handshake and were treated pretty meanly as far as use of the facilities of the House was concerned. Of course, if I were to be offered a million pounds to go, I have to admit that I should be tempted, but I hope that I should resist.
Incidentally, it might have been a good idea to have one hereditary Peer on the Leader’s Group, but I do not suppose that it matters. I really am rather sorry for the group, which has been asked to perform a miracle and has produced a very readable report that says virtually that miracles are no longer available. What a mess this Government have got us into. I do not see any way out of it. Cancelling the next batch of new Peers would stop the situation getting worse, but it would not undo what has been done.
My Lords, there is no greater admirer of your Lordships' House than myself, but I think that it is agreed that the House has become too large. Perhaps I can remind your Lordships that this House is second only in size to the National People’s Congress of China, which has rather a greater number of citizens than the United Kingdom. According to my research, this House is the only second Chamber in any Commonwealth country that is nearly double the size of the first, so there clearly have to be some changes to our size.
The interim report of the group led by my noble friend Lord Hunt offers three main options. The first is an age limit, for which it is suggested that 75 might be the right age. That would get rid of about a third of your Lordships—some 250—and the size of the House would be about 500. On the face of it, that may be a sensible suggestion, but as we have heard from many of your Lordships—and as has been demonstrated by my noble friend Lord Ferrers—there are many in this House who are capable of giving virtuoso performances well beyond that age. However, a limit is certainly something that your Lordships must consider. On the second option, there is general agreement that a Peer who does not attend the House should not be allowed to remain. That must make sense. The third option is to consider length of service. To achieve a cut of about a third, the length of service would have to be 15 years. In my case, I would have overstayed my welcome by at least twice that amount—although some of your Lordships might therefore think that option to be a good idea.
However, whatever option is chosen—I perhaps prefer one defined by age—there should be transitional arrangements. We have heard from my noble friends on the Front Bench that there could be a form of grandfathering—so grandfathers, and even those who are not grandfathers, would be allowed to stay—which must make sense. However, we need to consider that, if High Court judges and right reverend Prelates have some age limit, such a limit must be sensible at least for any new Peers coming into this House.
My main point is that, if we do not come up with a sensible way forward, it will be imposed by another place. We cannot debate out or ignore reform. We know that something is coming. Unless we engage with the proposals, another place will insist on reform of this House that some of us will not want. As we know, the main political parties in their manifestos at the most recent election proposed a mainly elected second Chamber. That needs more debate. I am in favour of cutting down the number of your Lordships and having a proportion elected—perhaps based on Euro-constituencies, which I think would produce 76 elected Members—so as to allow us to move slowly in changing our constitution and to see whether the arrangements work.
While I do not think that there should be a moratorium on new Peers, I plead for some restraint on the numbers who are appointed to this House. If we have too many Peers, that will complicate how we take reform forward.
Finally, I thank my noble friend the Leader of the House for providing an opportunity for this debate and, in particular, for the fact that the debate is untimed. If there is one example of why debates in your Lordships' House need reform, it is the debate on reform of your Lordships’ House that took place on 11 October—for which I was unable to be here—when each speaker was allowed two minutes. The business managers for both the Government and the Opposition should be ashamed of that. I thank my noble friend for producing the report, which is welcome and should be taken seriously. I enter a plea that, if we do not work with another place to come up with sensible ideas for reform, those will be imposed on us without our having any input into what happens in the future.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, because I absolutely agree with him that if we do not do something ourselves, we will have change visited upon us. There has been an air of unreality in the debate so far.
I should like to start by looking at this issue the other way round. I am absolutely certain, although my experience is not as great as some, that this House has a valid and crucial role in the constitutional and political life of our country. I am also persuaded that, come 5 May 2015, it will be significantly changed. Other noble Lords may take a different view. Longer-serving noble Lords have said to me, “We’ve heard all that before. We can sit tight and do nothing and wait and see what happens”. I think that we should be much more practical and pragmatic, and think carefully about what the nation would expect from this institution come May 2015. I will answer that question by saying that by then the size will need to be reduced. There is a case for an institutional size for the House of Lords of between 400 and 450 Members. It would have a purpose and would do its job more efficiently. The question is how to get from where we are now to 5 May 2015 and to a position where we can withstand what might be coming in our direction from the House of Commons or wherever.
I will make one other broad point. I spent a lot of time working happily on the House of Commons Commission in my previous existence. It seemed that there was more of an institutional determination of what was in the House of Commons' interests among the professional staff and the Members who were appointed to the Commons Commission to work with the Speaker. I may be wrong—my experience is not as great as that of some other noble Lords—but I get a strong sense that no one in the House of Lords thinks about the House as an institution. The business managers do this in part through the usual channels. Obviously, the Leader of the House does it, but he has other considerations to bear in mind. We need to think about giving someone—perhaps the Woolsack or some other mechanism—a unique responsibility and duty to go to bed at night and get up in the morning thinking about what is in the House of Lords' collective institutional interests. That is absent, and that makes debates such as this much more difficult.
This committee has done excellent work. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is a very serious politician for whom I have enormous respect. However, he has been given a very difficult job. Someone has to come up with recommendations that we can vote on and agree, otherwise nothing will happen. If nothing happens, by 2015 something very unpleasant may be visited on us. I invite noble Lords to contemplate grafting grandfathering on to electing a third of the Chamber, and to contemplate what that would look like. We would start with 730, although by that time it will be 800, probably more—and then we would elect a third on top of that. One could go out on to the highways and byways of the United Kingdom and try to explain how that makes sense. I would not like to try that, because I do not think that it makes any sense whatever. The good thing about the coalition agreement and the changes that are being made is that we know that we have a five-year period in which to start thinking carefully about this. It does not make the decisions any easier, but we know the timeframe. We must make use of that time.
I always enjoy the virtuoso performances of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, but he recommends doing nothing—and doing nothing is dangerous. I invite noble Lords who do not believe me to talk to some of the staff. Ten days ago, I witnessed some of the custodians downstairs trying to deal with people coming in through a Peers’ entrance. Many noble Lords do not, as they should, give notice of the fact that they have guests. Sometimes the guests come in big numbers. When new Members come in, it is a natural thing to want to bring in guests and show them round. That is important and I make no complaint about it. However, the system that we have down there was designed for a much smaller House, where people were much closer to one another and Members were much better known to the staff who protect us. I make clear that on this occasion there were no complaints, but the staff were overwhelmed. I do not know whether anyone has ever asked them whether in their heart of hearts they believe that they can give us the level of protection to which they have always aspired, but I think that a House of this size makes that impossible. Therefore, if this is to be done properly, serious new security arrangements, for example, will have to be organised. I could give lots of other examples of what would really need to be done if you were going to be thirled to a House as big as this, and it is not just a question of accommodation—Oral Questions would be the least of your problems. I think that we should also take the staff into consideration.
I have the great privilege of being the chairman of the Information Committee. I am still quite new at it but I enjoy the work and, with colleagues, I am responsible for looking after the Library. For the first time I am looking at graphs relating to usage that are all exponential. I can tell noble Lords about costs per Member and I can tell them how many Members are active. The answer is 420. They make proper requests for information at the Library and they receive a service. However, that service will be diluted. If we leave things as they are until 2015, noble Lords can forget the levels of service that they have enjoyed in the past unless we move to digital support mechanisms, although I know that some colleagues are not as comfortable about that as others.
Therefore, if we do nothing, we will walk blindfold into a situation in which we will be behind the curve when this tsunami of change occurs. It is only my view that such change will happen and other noble Lords may have a different view about it, but even those who do not think that it will happen will have to admit that there is a risk that serious change will come in our direction and, if we do not get ahead of the curve, we will deserve all we get.
I want to say two other things. First, I believe that using age as a basis for any change would be discriminatory. I would want to see a House that reflected the population of the country, and the fact is that people are living longer. We must not forget that, and I would want people here, as already happens, making sure that that point of view is available when important policy-making occurs. If the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his committee decided to investigate the matter and to give people commissions to look into the issue, we could with a little ingenuity—I promise your Lordships that there are mechanisms, skills and procedures available—arrive at an index of activity that demonstrated whether people were contributing substantially to the work of the House. For my money, I think that we should certainly consider moving in that direction, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will look at that seriously. I would be very happy, working with the staff in the Library and others, to assist in that process if, as I hope, his committee deemed it a sensible thing to do.
My second point is that you have to be realistic about asking people to relinquish their roles here. Why would anyone in their right mind want to leave this place? We are looked after, it is comfortable, it is collegiate and it is warm in the winter. What is not to like about the House of Lords? It is a wonderful place to be, and anyone who wants to leave it must be off their trolley. Therefore, I think that one has to be practical, and I make an offer to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt.
I think that it is possible—the skills are available to us within the House—to work out the marginal cost of Members’ use of the Library and so on. There are businesses all over the country that do that kind of thing. They carry out cost-benefit analyses of how, if you reduce your staff load over the distance, you save money. It is an invest-to-save policy. There are distinguished civil servants among our number who have been doing that for years. Therefore, there is a value-for-money case to be made—the figure arrived at might not be £50,000 but it might be significant—for saying that between now and 2015, for argument’s sake, some of the institution’s resources would be freed up, and that we should encourage some of our colleagues to consider what would be a rather grand redundancy package. I certainly think that that work has to be done. I do not know whether the figure would come out right; I do not know that many would take the money even if they were offered it. We have heard that some colleagues would not go for £1 million—I would seriously think about £1 million. Figures can be established and worked on, and I would be perfectly prepared to go into the high streets of the United Kingdom and say, “In the interests of the institution”—
Yes, I have thought about that. It is an important question, but there are commercial and business standards for reducing workloads that are long-term cost-effective to an institution. I would be brutal and say that the needs of the institution are such that we have to change the system of introducing new Members—whether by elections or otherwise is a debate for another day. The figure could be worked out and justified by saying how we arrived at the per head offer. It would not be age discriminatory as that would be indefensible.
My plea to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is that we must do something about this, although I know that it is not for his committee to decide. He must come to a conclusion and make a recommendation. I hope that he will think seriously about the practical approach that I have suggested. I know that I may be in a minority, but if he does not do that, the danger is that we will stagger on to 2015, which is not in the long-term interests of this institution. I am convinced about that.
We are all agreed that we need to do something about the size of the House, but I am having difficulty in following the noble Lord’s logic. His party is a driving force behind the movement for the abolition of the House of Lords as early as possible, so why is he saying that we must do something now to reduce its size when his party’s policy is to abolish it? I am not sure about the logic of his plea to do something immediately. That also applies to what the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said. Why the hurry to do something immediately if your intention is to abolish the House, which would take care of the problem?
The Liberal Democrat policy might be slightly out of date, but I thought that we were in favour of a substantially elected House, which is a long way short of abolition. Maybe the noble Lord knows more about it than I do. I am making a practical suggestion; I am not making any value judgments. I am giving a practical reaction to what I think will come from the House of Commons in the next five years.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral on his report, and indeed his committee on producing a number of options. People have been critical and said to me that this report should have come up with much more definitive proposals. I do not agree with that at all; I think that it lays out all the options that are open to us. They are all unpalatable; we have to choose the least unpalatable of them.
We have to ask: why are we in this position? There is no doubt that the previous Labour Government seemed to be committed to an elected House, yet they were determined to stuff this House like a Strasbourg goose with Peers. We have now reached the point, as has been pointed out, of becoming an object of ridicule. The problem must be addressed. If it is not, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is right that it will be addressed for us. It is our duty to try to grip this.
I am confused by our new coalition, which has come up with a rather strange formula that somehow the results of the election should be represented in this House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, has pointed out before now, this is the first time that the Government have a majority over the Opposition in this House, so I do not know why it is necessary to put in so many extra Members. We now have a Government who are more committed to an elected House—I totally oppose that and believe in an appointed one—than any previous Government have been.
We have to ask the Liberal Democrats, as our coalition partners, why they are particularly keen on an elected House and are, at the same time, putting forward many of their friends and supporters to become new Members of this House—they thereby exacerbate the problem that we shall face should we get an elected House. I know that my noble friend Lord Tyler follows me in this debate; perhaps he would explain to the House what seems to me to be that conflict of interests. I know it is irresistible if one has the opportunity to bring one’s friends in here, but one has to look at the constitutional implications of what one is doing.
We have to look at how we can reduce the numbers. I shall start with what I am totally against—I do not think that some form of compulsory retirement of those who are too old is the answer. I think that a judgment based upon what age people are is an arbitrary one. There are certain Members of this House who are completely ineffectual and are quite young and there are other Members of this House who are quite ancient and extremely effective, and I think that we would miss them desperately if we produce some arbitrary age limit by which we pick them out. I think that length of service is equally arbitrary and should be discarded as an option as well.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Strathclyde that voluntary retirement is a wonderful idea, but without massive financial inducements I do not think we are going to see serious numbers leaving voluntarily, so we need to start looking at other options. I originally put down that I thought that a moratorium on new Members would be a good idea; I certainly accept, like my noble friend Lord Astor, that perhaps some restraint should be made on the number coming in. It is absurd that one of the problems has been caused by this new Government in terms of the enormous influx that we have seen and, indeed, having another 50 to come.
When we consider what we should do to address the problem of numbers, I come down to the least of all evils and that is a form of election, very similar to that which was carried out by the hereditaries to reduce their numbers. To talk in round figures, if a party has 200 Members here and it is thought to be right to reduce numbers in the House overall by 25 per cent, then they would vote for the 150 they felt should stay. Noble Lords would make a number of considerations in that election as to the contribution people have made—the amount that they attend the House, or whatever—but who is better to judge who should stay and who should go than our fellow Members within our parties, or, indeed, on the Cross Benches, where they would have to do the same thing? This would have the advantage of removing from the Executive the odium of making arbitrary decisions about who should go and who should stay, which commends it in many ways.
I do not believe, unfortunately, that we can entertain the idea of compensation in any form. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, is absolutely right; it would be totally unacceptable to public opinion if we were to pay people for no longer being here. It is very sad that that is the case, because people being forced to leave this House would undoubtedly suffer financial hardship, but I am afraid that that is just the way of the world: it is very tough, but in the times of economic hardship in which we are now living, it would be completely unacceptable to pay people for having left this House.
We have to address this problem, we have to do it ourselves and we do not have the option of waiting for legislation to come along at some later date. This problem has to be gripped and it has to be gripped now.
My Lords, I am very tempted to follow my noble friend and try to explain the massive underrepresentation of our party in the past, particularly when the leader of his party refused to make appointments from our Benches. As I understand it, all our new recruits have already committed themselves to vote for substantial radical reform when they come here, which is a step in the right direction.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues, because it is a very good report. It has the advantage of brevity, which is not always the case in your Lordships’ House, and I confess that I have changed my mind as a result of his and his colleagues’ persuasion. I thought that we had a relatively simple issue here, and that as long as we avoided either excessive financial remuneration for those leaving or some enormously bureaucratic IPSA-like machinery, we could find some way through. I am not sure that that is the case.
I also thought that the key issue was the disentangling of the honours system from service in Parliament. I think that that is a critical issue. As the noble Baroness the Convener of the Cross Benches said, we must face up to that as soon as we can. Whether we have to wait for the wholesale reform that I will come to in a minute, I am not so sure, but I am persuaded by the report that the issue is a great deal more complex.
However, I am also persuaded, as is my noble friend Lord Kirkwood, that if we have to wait for the full reform package, which I estimate can come as a Bill—not a draft Bill—only in the Queen’s Speech of May 2012, we must do something earlier than that. There must be an interim solution. That is why the report is so helpful. It has caused me to react in two distinct ways—which are, potentially, I have to say, in conflict.
First, noble Lords may have examined table 3 on page 11. I am staggered that in Session 2009-10, 79 Members of your Lordships' House did not attend on one single day. As I understand it, that does not include those who had taken leave of absence; 79 Members who thought that they still were active Members of the House never attended on a single day. Why should the taxpayer pay for them to continue to stay away? That would be totally illogical. As my noble friend Lord Alderdice has already said, they are not here, so there is no point in paying them to stay away; nor, if we now introduce new qualifications, should we encourage them to come, because that would make the situation even worse.
Why should any taxpayer feel confidence about recompensing those who simply turn up to claim their allowance?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, has misunderstood me. I was suggesting that it would be wrong to pay them not to come in future, because they are not here anyway. That is all I am saying. I think that the noble Lord made a similar point earlier, and I am very sorry if he misunderstood me.
Why should we now recompense people who, frankly, turn up only to draw that allowance—who do not make a contribution, do not speak, do not ask Questions and perhaps only occasionally vote as the Whips tell them? That is not a real contribution to the work of your Lordships' House. Occasionally, I hear Peers say that we can take credit for being unsalaried. As has already been said, if you are not salaried, surely that precludes any redundancy payment or pension payment, by definition.
I was struck by the contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. We should consider very carefully taking a leaf out of the Bishops’ book. The idea of one in, one out, is admirable. Whether the different party groups and the Cross-Benchers would find that acceptable I do not know. As I understand it, when those on the Bishops’ Bench take retirement on an orderly basis, they do not get any golden goodbyes.
Incidentally, it is important to think for a moment about why the Bishops are here. They are not here to be the conscience of the nation; they are here because their ecclesiastical ancestors had to be in the counsels of the monarch of the time because they were hugely important landowners—feudal barons. They were important at Magna Carta. It was important to have them on your side if you wanted to go to war because they had a lot of money.
I am told on good authority that in medieval, feudal times, there were more Lords Spiritual than Lords Temporal, including abbots and abbesses. The first women in the English Parliament were pre-Reformation abbesses. That was nothing to do with the conscience of the nation, and predated the established church. I may be misled; I am a historian rather than a politician really, underneath, but perhaps there is a Henry VIII lesson for us here. If there is a political and practical imperative, that will have to take precedence over every other consideration. That is why my noble friend is so right: we simply cannot wait to have a new solution imposed upon us.
I did not think that I would ever say this, but I have to echo the words of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers—that is something new for me. I thought he was absolutely right. If I were really devious—and, of course, I am not—I would support the most absurd, ludicrously generous retirement package for those who cannot be tempted to go otherwise because it would undoubtedly increase and harden the public’s support for reform of your Lordships' House, which I believe in. That seems to me to be the right answer. If we want to get this on the road, let us be ludicrously generous because that will increase the public’s support for real reforms, but I do not think that is what is here.
My Lords, the noble Earl should take credit for persuading me, as he has this afternoon. He said that the public would never wear a really generous package to persuade people to retire. That has been echoed by other noble Lords. I believe he is right, but my view is that if we were to go down that track, it would simply increase pressure for the real reform package that I hope will come in due course.
I come to my conclusion. I believe that we are living in a fool’s paradise if we really think there is a huge reservoir of public enthusiasm for your Lordships' House in its present form, just because the other place is so unpopular. Therefore, we have a risk ahead of us. If we were to introduce such a generous new regime to persuade people to retire in the interim period, it would damage the reputation of this House. If this issue is addressed with the usual mixture—which we have had this week—of self-satisfaction and isolation from public opinion by some Members, the public will say, “Roll on reform” and amen to that.
My Lords, can the noble Lord correct what may have led to a misunderstanding on my part? He appeared to be advocating a system of removing people, or people going from your Lordships' House, on the basis of how often they have spoken or intervened at Questions. As a former Whip, it rather filled me with terror to think that those reading it could think that their way of guaranteeing their place in future would be related to how often they spoke from now on. Would he like to correct that quickly?
The noble Baroness makes a very fair point. If I had had a bit more time—and I am conscious that there is a very important debate to follow—I would have said that I had a great deal of sympathy with the point made by my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom. There is a good case for the one in, one out idea that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn referred to, and there is a good case for the party groups and Cross-Benchers deciding, as was the case with the hereditaries, who should go. That is probably going to be the best way forward. As I hope I have indicated, I think a very generous financial package would be discriminatory, an age would be discriminatory and trying to make the package dependent on a certain level of activity in the House is, for the reasons the noble Baroness said, also going to be most ineffective. I have much more sympathy with my noble friend. That will surprise him too.
My Lords, my contribution will be comparatively brief because I am just recovering from a severe cold and I have a slightly troublesome cough that may well interrupt what I am saying.
More than 21 years ago, in 1989, I received a life peerage in the Birthday Honours List. I accepted it with great pleasure and pride. I regarded it as an outstanding honour. For someone whose father had been a primary school head teacher in a mining village in Durham county and whose grandfather was a miner, in my youth I could never have contemplated such a possibility. That honour and sense of pride has stayed with me through all the 21 years and more in which I have served in your Lordships’ House.
I was grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for commenting on my contributions to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I have had many wonderful experiences in this House. On behalf of your Lordships’ Select Committee on Science and Technology, I chaired inquiries into international investment in UK science, into research in the National Health Service and on complementary and alternative medicine. I take pride in the fact that the reports of those inquiries in every respect had a significant influence on government policy, as did the ad hoc Select Committee on Medical Ethics, which I chaired from 1990. It has been an immense challenge and a wonderful experience to be a Member of your Lordships’ House over the past 21 years.
However, when I read this splendid report, on whose production I must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues, the possibility—I say no more than the possibility—of an honourable retirement began to have its attractions. I know that with passing years it is possible for one to take leave of absence, but one can still withdraw that leave of absence. On leave of absence, you are still, nevertheless, a Member of the House. I regard my Writ of Summons by which I have a peerage for life as something that I treasure and greatly enjoy.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, made a most wonderful and entertaining, if slightly iconoclastic, speech—he always entertains and adorns the House and is well worth listening to—but the point that I want to make relates to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, whom I often see travelling down on the train from the Scottish Borders. Now that I am in my 89th year, the prospect of getting up at 5.45 am, driving 15 miles in the dark and in winter weather to the station at Berwick-upon-Tweed, travelling on a four-hour train journey to London to come to your Lordships’ House and then having a return journey with another 15 miles drive at the other end begins to be—how shall I put it?—just a little irksome at times. For that reason, the idea of a possible honourable retirement—I stress, an honourable retirement—from your Lordships’ House carries certain attractions.
If the committee or working party or Leader’s Group comes out with a final report that makes such a retirement a possible option for Peers, in the fullness of time—I am not prepared to say how long—I would be prepared seriously to consider it. However, that would be on three conditions. First, I trust that, if an honourable retirement were possible, there would be no question of my relinquishing my title. If I relinquished my title, I can imagine the views of my friends and colleagues in the community in which I live. They would assume that in losing the title I had committed some serious misdemeanour, which is a matter that I would not be prepared to consider.
Secondly, I hope that we would have the opportunity of what are often referred to as club rights; that is, the right to a limited return to the House, as with the hereditary Peers, to entertain friends and family from time to time to lunch and to show them around the Chamber and the House of Commons. Today, I showed around one daughter, two granddaughters with their husbands and five of my seven great-grandchildren. I gave them lunch. It would be a pleasure to bring them back in a few years’ time to see them as they grow up and to see how much they remember of the visit today. Club rights are important.
I know that several Members have spoken about financial questions, which are very tricky. They are sensitive and extremely difficult. As the Leader said, the public at large would not be at all enamoured of an idea whereby substantial payments on retirement were introduced. However, paragraph 39 of the report suggests:
“Most respondents suggested that any financial provision should be cost-neutral (that is, that it should pay out no more than a member might otherwise have expected to claim in expenses, on the basis of past patterns of attendance) and that it should be available only to those who had been regular contributors to the work of the House”.
There is a case for considering a modest retirement gratuity based upon years of service, and I hope very much that the group will consider this matter when it comes to produce its final report.
The other point that I would like to make is that I trust there will be no suggestion—not even a hint—of compulsion. When I chaired the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, I recall that one of the reasons that we decided not to recommend the legislation of euthanasia was because elderly and vulnerable people might feel under unremitting pressure through feeling that they were a burden on their families or that others regarded them as ancient and no longer worthy of staying alive. They might then be pushed into accepting euthanasia. All I wish to say in ending my contribution is that, if honourable retirement comes about as a possibility, I trust that none of us elderly Peers who are regular attenders here would be likely to meet colleagues who say, “What, are you still here?”.
My Lords, perhaps I may add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Hunt and the members of his committee on their very clear report which, as other noble Lords have said, is commendably brief and to the point. It contains a great deal of factual material from which no doubt each of us can find evidence to support our particular views or prejudices as the case may be. My particular view or prejudice concerns, first, the reputation of the House; secondly, the effectiveness of the House; and, to a much lesser extent, the number of Members of the House. I say that because, as many noble Lords have pointed out, the answer to that lies not here but with the activities of the party leadership.
I know that the House has important Second Reading business to conclude after this debate, so I will cut straight to the chase, and if the need for brevity makes me sound unusually brutal, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me. First, I entirely support the point made by my noble friend Lord Astor about the need for the self-regulatory framework to be followed. It is consonant with the way in which we have operated ourselves in the past and it enables us to keep control of our destiny. I strongly support that point of view.
That having been said, put simply, I am firmly of the view that there should be a compulsory retirement age for membership of your Lordships’ House. In my commercial experience, it is a hard and unpleasant but inevitable fact that mental agility and performance decline with age. The point and the rate of decline may vary, but decline there is, and it is difficult to argue that the list of compulsory retirement ages set out in paragraph 19 of the report is based entirely on prejudice against age. It is not, it is based on experience. There are additional examples not given by my noble friend. When the directors of public companies reach the age of 70, they are subject to compulsory annual re-election. Of course I accept that there will be hard cases and exceptions to the rule, but the outside world has found a compulsory retirement age to be of value, and I argue that your Lordships’ House cannot be an exception. For we are not just responsible for helping to run a company, a court or an ecclesiastical see, we are participating in the governance of our country, for which there can be no higher responsibility. Therefore the dignity of the House demands that each of us shuffles off the stage before we start dribbling into our All-Bran.
As to age, it seems to me that the age of 80 is pretty satisfactory, but if it is not to be 80, I would say 75 rather than 85. But I am afraid that I would go further because, like the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I find it astonishing that, according to table 3 in the report, each year between 40 and 80 of our colleagues find it impossible to attend the House at all and take no part in our proceedings. I argued in my letter to my noble friend’s committee that there is a need for a cross-party committee to address what I call lack of interest. If noble Lords are inclined to ask me how I would define that, I have no precise answer, but I would reply that you will know it when you see it. Flexibility will be needed, of course. A hard definition would not address cases of, say, a noble Lord or noble Baroness who has been ill and perforce has been away for some time. But at root there needs to be an element of the famous phrase, “Use it or lose it”. If I were a director of a company and for 12 months one of my fellow directors did not turn up to any board meetings, I would ask the chairman exactly what role my fellow director was playing in the governance of the company. Again I would argue, particularly at the present time and given the cynicism among the public about Parliament and what goes on here, that the dignity and the reputation of the House demand it.
The process must be conducted with absolute dignity. The noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, said much of what I want to say. It is not in our power to refuse club rights or the right to sit on the steps of the Throne: in effect, to refuse anything except the right to speak and vote in the House and its committees.
My noble friend Lord Hamilton put his finger on the issue of a financial settlement when he said that that would not be possible in the present circumstances. However, if in future years the financial sun rises a little, the proposals made by my noble friend Lord Alderdice may be worth revisiting. I accept the danger of this leading to nominal attendance and box ticking, but I argue that that risk is far less than the risk of doing nothing.
I take part in the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme, an excellent innovation, and I never fail to learn from my visits to schools. In one sense, the classes are like a mirror in which one can see a reflection of oneself and this great institution, often with slightly uncomfortable results. For the information of noble Lords who wish to see how we are seen, the most frequently remarked upon website is TheyWorkForYou.com. Many A-level students go there to see how we, in our individual ways, are performing our roles as members of the legislature of the United Kingdom. While one should not be guided only by the views of 18 year-olds, it is not easy to argue the case that the laws of our land can be made, in part, by men and women of very great age whose attendance at Parliament can be spasmodic to say the least. My private view is that unless the House grasps this issue, there is a danger of a press campaign, which could rapidly run out of control, to the detriment of all this House stands for and the reputation of the many Members who give so freely of their time.
My Lords, it is a joy and a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I apologise to the House because I had to leave the Chamber for a period during the debate and so have not heard everyone. However, everyone I have heard said something to commend itself to me. It is not a black and white issue. In producing the report, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his committee must have felt that it was like treading on eggshells when trying to avoid people taking offence at some of the suggestions.
When I entered the House in 1983 there were 1,200 Members. I do not possess information about the assiduity of those people—how they applied themselves to doing the job—but clearly, although the House was large, its make-up ensured that it governed itself. The nature of the House today has radically altered from what it was 30 years ago. There are far more, to use a clumsy phrase, “working Peers” now, or Peers who look upon their membership of this place not only as an honour and a pleasure but as a duty.
I come to this issue on the basis that if we do not take a decision ourselves, someone else will take the decision for us. This has been said more than once. At the same time, I am not galvanised into saying that we have to do this by 1 April or even 1 September next year. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, whom I deeply respect from 20 years’ experience in the House, would be wise to prepare the ground carefully before we take major steps.
The group should take on board the views of Members of this House before coming to its own view. We need to find out, for instance, how many people who are not vocal but who have an interest would be prepared to leave the House with what has clumsily been called a “package of honour”. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Walton, for drawing attention to paragraph 36 of the report, which in effect states that the group needs to take into account the view of those who would wish some recompense for leaving. If the average number of days on which the House sits is 150, and the average attendance is 120 days at £300 a day, a Member is entitled to claim £36,000. He would forgo that if he was no longer a Member. A calculation has to be made as to how one weighs that kind of consideration.
Of course, a variety of circumstances exists around the House. Some people have good pensions; others do not. There are people for whom coming here provides only a second or third income, but the nexus of money plays a part. If there is to be no element of compulsion in leaving the House, there has to be some incentive. I have not spoken to all my colleagues, but I have a strong suspicion that many, like me, fought very hard to get into this place and will find it particularly hard to leave with a thank you. That is not being mercenary, and I shall not talk about the figures.
Age is important in the make-up of the House; I am not saying that it should be a criterion but it is important. When I first came into the House, four of my colleagues on the Labour Benches—Manny Shinwell, Douglas Houghton, Fenner Brockway and Philip Noel-Baker—were well into their nineties. Manny Shinwell rose to his feet on his 100th birthday and made a marvellous and entertaining intervention. We have just celebrated the birthday of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who is 96 and attends every day. We know that he has physical problems, but he is as sharp as a tack. He speaks his mind and he votes—always the right way. He is steeped in it.
I have no hang-ups about age, but people are old and getting older, and because of the call of their party—this goes for Members on all sides—and their love of this place, they drag themselves here when they would be much better off at home. When the group makes up its mind, it should bear in mind the offer of the incentive. Some have said that the public will never wear it. What they really mean is that the press will never wear it. If the figures are correct, and some Members have to give up or gainsay £36,000 a year for—let us say—four or five years, there has to be some quid pro quo, or many quids pro quo. I am quite relaxed and content. I hope that I am here until I die; I hope that I am here for as long as I want to be. As long as I am able to get here and make a contribution, I am happy.
On the question of a contribution, I have been as disgusted as everyone else in the House that the record shows that a number of colleagues—I think it was 79 or 80—do not attend at all. If that figure is broken down, I think we will see that it involves people on all Benches, not just one. People like that should be excluded from any inducement to leave, although we should take into account the non-attendance of those who have domestic responsibilities; we have to be a bit tolerant of that. We have to sell the package produced by the committee not only to the House but to noble Lords’ families and friends. I think the phrase, “an honourable settlement”, was used. We need something that is seen in general by the public to be worthy of this place.
Anyone who has been here as long as I have—and I have been here for nearly 30 years, and 10 years in the other place—will respect the institution. This is not a party issue, but an issue in which all parties are involved. I picked up from one or two contributions the suggestion that parties should have some say in how to reduce the number. If we have 750 Members at the moment, which in a few days will be up to 800, and we want to get that down to 400 or 450, there has to be an incentive to people to leave voluntarily. That is not a dirty word; it is a sensible way in which to meet the problem—and there is a problem because, with the number of incoming Members after the election, conditions are becoming if not intolerable then worse and worse. So on practical grounds there is a case for doing that. I know that this issue is all wrapped up in forthcoming consideration of the legislation, but, so far as I am concerned, the committee would be wise to be as broad as it can in its final recommendations. Before it makes them, however, it should trawl the options by questionnaire. We have those options in writing, but the committee should put a bit of flesh on their bones and consider them.
We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and I rest my case.
My Lords, it has been a fascinating debate. All sorts of views have been expressed, but there is one thing on which we can all agree—that the House is too big. I am not saying that its size prevents it doing its job properly. Obviously not. But I am saying that it could still do its job properly if it was half the size and that, as a matter of principle and common sense, this House should be smaller, not bigger, than the House of Commons, whose Members have to represent constituents. But while the House of Commons is coming down in size, this House is growing. Unless something is done, it will grow with each succeeding year.
This continual growth is an inevitable consequence of our being a nominated rather than an elected Chamber, because after every general election resulting in a change of Government, there must be an influx of new Peers if only to correct the party balance and give the new Government reasonable representation. We are not here today to discuss the respective merits of a nominated or elected House, although, clearly, after a transitional period, a wholly elected House would present no numbers problem. But we are here surely to recognise that, if we remain a nominated House, the size of the House and the cost of running it will go up and up and the public’s blood pressure will go up correspondingly. Those who wish the present set-up to continue had better try to do something about it; otherwise those who do not wish to see the present set-up continue will be rubbing their hands, because they will see us sow the seeds of our own destruction.
One thing could be done at once. It would not reduce the size of the House but would make a modest contribution towards limiting its future growth. Legislation could and, in my view, should be introduced to alter the terms on which new Peers are appointed. They, or some of them, could be appointed without the right to sit in the Lords. That was hinted at as a possibility by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. They, or some of them, could be appointed with the right to sit if, and only if, a vacancy occurred when, as a result of deaths, the membership of the place fell below a cap set by legislation. The right reverend Prelate hinted at that. I then wonder whether various devices could be used to stop incoming Governments being able to use the excuse that they had to pack the place with new Peers just to give themselves proper representation. For instance, an outgoing Government could say that a number of their Members, while keeping their right to attend, would happily give up their right to vote. I am sure that there would be no shortage of volunteers. Sensible arrangements like this could do an awful lot to ease the pressure.
In my view, we have to think up ingenious schemes like that because the only real alternative—compulsory retirement on age or other grounds—would be fraught with difficulties and dangers and, in some cases at least, cause real unfairness. Let us be clear: it might be thought right to deprive a long-standing non-attender of the right to sit or, as suggested in the Steel Bill, to deem that he has taken permanent leave of absence. Surely, it would be another thing entirely to remove from the House a person granted a peerage for life by Her Majesty when he or she is willing and able to continue carrying out the duties of that office. To do so would, in my view, be nothing less than a constitutional enormity. I also wish to point out that it would be unfair to the House, because it is very difficult to think of any cull that would not sweep up and out of the House the useful with the not so useful: the elderly statesman along with the Peer of declining powers; the Peer who only comes to draw his allowance along with the Peer who comes rarely but, when he does, speaks on a subject on which he is the acknowledged expert.
I simply cannot imagine that my noble friend Lord Tyler would really like that outcome, although it would be the result of what he suggests. I really do not think that my noble friend Lord Hodgson would want that outcome, yet it is what he is suggesting. No: compulsory retirement could also, incidentally, result in actions in the courts, but whether or not that is a real possibility, it would be quite wrong to deprive an individual of the right to sit here, whether on grounds of age, limited attendance or, least of all, because in all-party arrangements to reduce numbers proportionately, he has lost a party beauty contest. I really part company with my noble friend Lord Hamilton here; that is the biggest nonsense of all. To have compulsory retirement and then make it the result of a party beauty contest is the biggest nonsense one can possibly imagine.
As for voluntary retirement, I am sure we can all agree that legislation to provide for this would be entirely proper and that there could be nothing wrong at all in the powers that be trying to persuade people to go voluntarily. In my view, however, such persuasion would not be very successful—I share my noble friend Lord Kirkwood’s views on that—and it was for that reason that I wrote to that group suggesting some modest financial incentive.
Obviously my noble friend Lord Alderdice is thinking along those lines as well, but I have to disappoint him: I have changed my mind, like the Deputy Prime Minister. Originally, I thought of only a modest payment, not more than the equivalent of what an individual had drawn in allowances in the previous year, and I concluded that at the present time, of all times, it would be quite impossible to persuade the public that compensation, even at that modest level, would be appropriate. In short, such payments would be much more effective in inflaming the public than in persuading colleagues to go.
So, no compulsory retirement; no offers of compensation; legislation to provide for voluntary retirement; arrangements between the parties to change the party balance by some Peers, after an election, giving up the right to vote; and, most important of all, a change in the law so that becoming a life Peer does not necessarily carry with it the right to sit in this House—that is my modest contribution to a difficult problem. I close by thanking my noble friend Lord Hunt and his colleagues for all the work that they are doing on this matter.
My Lords, may I intervene in the gap? I apologise for not being here at the beginning of this debate but, having listened to the very able contributions from all sides, I wanted to stress my strong belief that a fixed period of service is the best way to move forward and that a figure of 20 years is probably right, although it could be less—perhaps 15. That idea is better than the limit by age.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to wind up from the opposition Benches on this interesting debate. Today’s debate has acted as a trailer for the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on 3 December, which we are all looking forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, respond to—although I am not sure that he quite shares that anticipation. I say to him that it was a great pity that his party would not agree to the sensible provisions in the Constitutional Renewal Bill just before the election; it would have allowed retirement from your Lordships’ House.
I have had the pleasure of being a member of the Leader’s Group. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, for his chairmanship, which is of the highest order. As we have seen, there are, like many things in your Lordships’ House, many different views among noble Lords in relation to potential retirement options. That has been seen in the evidence from the 80 or so responses that the group has received, it has been seen in this debate and no doubt it will be seen if substantive proposals are put forward to your Lordships’ House.
We have heard some interesting contributions today. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn spoke about the “one in, one out” principle, a model which, although fascinating to your Lordships, many noble Lords are not entirely convinced of, though I detected some enthusiasm from the usual channels around the House. My noble friend Lord Graham and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, made some interesting points about Members’ expectations and the potential of financial inducements. That would be difficult, though, not only at the current time but at any time, although we await the response of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on that point, notwithstanding the lack of hope and expectation that he gave on that question in his introductory remarks.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred to the extraordinary debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the agreement, after a seven-hour debate, to extend the purposes for research that the authority could give. I was the Minister during that debate and I well remember the extraordinary quality of contributions, not least from the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, who played an absolutely critical role in the discussions.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, also recalled what he described as the good old days before the Life Peerages Act. I have to say that one or two of us here are quite well disposed towards that Act, as indeed we are to the noble Earl. He and my noble friend Lord Strabolgi offer wonderful examples of the contributions that Members who have many years’ experience in your Lordships’ House can make. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that they illustrate the problem of simply picking one option, such as an age of retirement. They show that what might, on the face of it, be a simple, straightforward approach comes with many difficulties.
The question of retirement from your Lordships’ House is a very sensitive matter. If the House is to come to a view on this, it must be involved in discussion and eventual decision. That is why this debate is important. I hope that noble Lords will reflect on the encouragement that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, has given Members to continue to provide evidence and submissions to the group. I noted that my noble friend Lord Graham suggested the development of a questionnaire, which no doubt members of the group will want to consider.
Before we come to consider the retirement options, we need to reflect on the purpose of this second Chamber. Our debate has, to an extent, wandered somewhat wider than the question of retirement. It is somewhat ironic that the Leader of the House, though genuinely concerned about the size of your Lordships’ House, is shortly to welcome another 50 or so new Members to it. I ask the noble Lord to address this matter. Could it be that he is rather more concerned to ensure that the Government win every Division that takes place in your Lordships’ House than about the size of the membership? If that is the intention, it clearly undermines the ability of the House of Lords to be a revising Chamber. If a Government cannot be defeated and do not fear defeat, how can this possibly be an effective revising Chamber? I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that that is of much more concern to the public than the size of the Chamber.
The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, made some interesting points but it seems unlikely that the House would agree to mandatory retirement in the absence of a full reform package. I favour a voluntary approach, on which the group has come up with some useful ideas. I particularly commend the idea of voluntary retirement, which the noble Lord, Lord Walton, spoke about, or the associate membership advocated by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market. I hope we can make that associate membership as attractive as possible. It might embrace the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, which one can trace back to the 1960s and the intention then to place hereditary Peers in a category of non-voting membership whereby they would none the less be allowed to speak in debates. There are some excellent examples of how we might deal with that issue.
Of course, the proposals are mainly aimed at non-attenders or infrequent attenders, of which we have many. Noble Lords have referred to the 79 Members who were unable to attend one day of your Lordships’ House in the 2009-10 Session. A further 68 attended between one day and less than 10 per cent of the sittings. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, would say that that does not really deal with the problem of space and facilities, as the Members in that category make very few demands on the space and facilities. However, it would be a start and might get our number down to about 600, so such a proposal is well worth pursuing.
A number of noble Lords have suggested that we go further. I am sure that when they come to substantive reform of your Lordships' House, the Government might be tempted to go for a cap on numbers and a cull of current Members in order to meet that cap. That clearly is one of the options being considered and is a sort of development of the right reverend Prelate’s “one in, one out” proposal. However, I urge the Government to exercise caution in going down that route. Noble Lords have referred to the election of the hereditary Peers as a result of the 1999 Act to reform your Lordships' House. However, we should recall that the original intention was that no hereditary Peers would go forth into the new House, so in a sense the election was a reprieve for many hereditary Peers. That election took place in very quick time indeed, but even then one observed certain hereditary Peers changing parties and positioning themselves in order to get elected. When the draft Bill is published—its publication date is moving from December to January to February, but let us say that it will be published early next year—and if it contains proposals for a cap and a cull, one has to think that we will probably be in for a four-year period of electioneering among the current Members to enable them to go forth into the new House. I invite the House to think of the dynamics of that situation. Many of us have been involved in political life for many years and know of the benign influence of the usual channels. Some of us have even come across slates. Life would be almost intolerable if it were known that, in around April 2015, there would be an election to decide which current Members would go forward into the new situation. Indeed, I suspect that it would make FIFA’s approach to the choice of a World Cup venue appear utterly exemplary.
I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that we need to address the inevitable changes coming to the second Chamber and that we need to work with the other place. As an advocate of reform, I have always felt, though, that the successful passage of a reform Bill would be influenced by the generosity of any transition package put forward. Therefore, I would argue for a decent length of time to be allowed for as regards existing Members going forward into the new situation. That is what I have always understood the term “grandparenting” to mean. The problem is that I do not think that the members of the coalition who wrote that part of the agreement understood it in that way. Legislation that has gone through this House over the past 20 or 30 years is clear that grandparenting means that experienced members of a profession who go forward into a new situation where they are subjected to regulation continue as members of that profession. That suggests to me that active Members of your Lordships' House should go forward into the transition period. Therefore, I caution the Government against adopting any arbitrary approach to culling the number of Members in your Lordships' House. I think that it would be much better, particularly in the next year or so, for us to concentrate on a voluntary approach.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, in his excellent leadership of this group, has shown the way in which that might be done. I very much hope that we enjoy the support of your Lordships' House in taking some of those proposals forward.
My Lords, what a fascinating, good natured and good humoured debate this has been. Noble Lords have dealt with this extremely interesting subject that affects all of us with great sensitivity, which is what it requires. This is my opportunity to respond to it. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I will not give the Government’s view, any more than he gave the Opposition’s view, as this is still a consultative process and, clearly, we have not made up our minds on what we should do about retirement from this House or about a longer-term transition under a reform process. However, as I said earlier, a Bill will be published early in the new year, which will, no doubt, allow us the opportunity to examine these issues.
As for the Bill of my noble friend Lord Steel, which we are to debate on 3 December, the response that will be given from this Dispatch Box will not be my response but will reflect the carefully considered view of the Government on the merits of my noble friend’s case. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, questioned the need to have new Peers. Other speakers in the debate admirably made the case for needing new Peers. We need to freshen up our numbers from time to time and we will be doing that very soon. If the only motivation for doing that is to allow the Government to win more Divisions, we would not be giving the Labour Party any extra Members at all. I can confirm that the Labour Party is currently the largest party group in the House of Lords, and after the new Peers enter the House it will still be the largest single party in the House of Lords. Even the coalition is still a minority and will continue to be a minority in the House as a whole.
I am afraid that is the case. If we take that into account, then the coalition Government have a practical majority in your Lordships' House. Over the years this House has developed a wonderful reputation as a revising Chamber. However, with the greatest respect, if the House is not able to cause the Government to think again, how on earth can it be a revising Chamber?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that I have absolutely no doubt that in the rest of this long Session the Government will be defeated on many occasions, not least with the support of Members of my own party and, indeed, of the coalition. As the noble Lord rightly says, this is a revising Chamber and we have all been here for long enough to know that that is exactly what happens.
I said that this has been an interesting debate and it has. Perhaps one of the most entertaining speeches was that of my noble friend Lord Ferrers. Those who heard it were not surprised to hear a vintage speech. If we ever have an age limit, it should be a movable one which should always be set at a year older than the age of my noble friend. I noted that the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, jumped up and reminded my noble friend of his views on women Peers in the 1950s. As we would expect, he dealt with that in a very gentlemanly way. However, he ought to remind the noble Baroness that in the House of Commons the party that voted against the introduction of women Peers was the Labour Party. The noble Baroness has cause to be glad that her party lost that vote in the 1950s. My noble friend Lord Ferrers said that we should blame politicians for the state that we are in, but we are where we are and we must go on.
I was also grateful to my noble friend Lord Alderdice. I am not sure whether he is a good Peer because he is a psychiatrist, or whether he is a good psychiatrist because of all his experiences that he has built up in the House of Lords. Whichever it is, his contribution was extremely helpful and he accepted the case—as many who spoke did—that we need to reduce the size of this House. There is a problem we need to look at. If it was easy, we would have got to the solution a long time ago and I would not have needed to ask my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral to sort this out, but I must say that after today’s debate I am very glad that I did. He is going to have a bit more work to do.
In his interim report, my noble friend cleared out some of the undergrowth. The next stage is to perhaps prune up one or two options to take forward. There was some consensus on the fact that the House was too big, but there was not overwhelming consensus on anything else, although some Peers felt more strongly about some things than others. I thought it was useful that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn spoke, because he said that the age limit on the Bishops worked very well. There is a time limit for Bishops, which works well and there is a system of one in, one out. Our problem is that we want to get to a lower number overall before we start a system of one in, one out.
On the question of money, there was some support for financial provision, but one or two Peers were wholly opposed. The public mood—or perhaps the press mood—is not with us at the moment, but that may change over time. It depends on how long this process will take and the business case that could be made.
Apart from my noble friend Lord Hodgson, who spoke bravely on the subject, there was not much demand for compulsion through the arbitrary nature of an age limit. Likewise, I join many Peers who said that dealing with those who do not attend does not really deal with the more fundamental problem. I feel very strongly that there are some Peers who come to this House very occasionally, but make very eminent contributions which are worth a little more than those of some of our noble colleagues who like to speak every week on many different subjects. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ferrers for introducing me to the concept of the chattering classes in the House of Lords. Of course he is right. We are in this post-election phase whereby in the House of Commons there is a clear change of numbers. In the House of Lords, there is also a clear change of numbers, but it is very often as a result of those who were in another place coming here. They bring with them some of their habits from another place and they are all very keen to demonstrate that they have a lot to say. Many on all sides of the House do that. We are in a period of assimilation, and I suspect that in the next six or 12 months we will find that the incidence of participation will reduce. I certainly hope so, if that does not sound too much like the usual channels speaking.
My noble friends Lord Astor, Lord Hamilton of Epsom and Lord Tyler said, among other things, that we need to prepare for change and to do something, and some of them felt that the proposal that Peers should be elected out—the culling that the noble Lord from the Opposition mentioned—was a blunt instrument, which it is, of course. We have been through the process 11 years ago, it is well precedented and we have seen how it would work. But my noble friend Lord Waddington said that he would be wholly opposed to a party slate—a beauty parade with all the difficulties that that would bring in. What was interesting about the original hereditary Peers’ election was that many of them chose at that time to retire and not to stand in the election. There are those who believe that if we had a system of compulsory retirement through election which may be set at about 10 per cent or 15 per cent, quite a lot of Peers would be prepared to take that opportunity. I do not know, but perhaps that is something my noble friend could explore.
My noble friend Lord Kirkwood and the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, asked, in slightly different ways: why would anyone want to leave this House? The noble Lord, Lord Graham, said that he did not want to leave until he absolutely had to and had no choice in the matter, because by that time he would be dead—which would be a great sadness to us all, because I have known him for a great deal of time and I always enjoy what he says.
We have given my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that there is not a great deal of clarity in what has come out of this afternoon. The opportunity is that everyone wishes for something to be done and for him to come up with a proposal. I am extremely grateful to him and his committee for the way that they have approached the subject with tremendous skill and sensitivity. We are always being urged to seek a consensus. He has certainly done so, I wish him well in his endeavours and I hope that he will be able to produce a final report relatively shortly.