Skip to main content

House of Lords: Reform

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 9 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to bring forward proposals for incremental urgent reforms that would improve the functioning of the existing House of Lords, notwithstanding their proposals for more fundamental changes.

My Lords, we have no plans to bring forward additional legislative proposals to reform this House, but we look forward to considering the recommendations of the Procedure Committee to provide for permanent voluntary retirement and to make amendments to the arrangements for leave of absence.

My Lords, I assume that the Leader of the House is aware that the wording of my Question is lifted completely and exactly from the seventh report of the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which urges those proposing radical reform to address immediate issues and concludes:

“This is a pressing issue that cannot wait four years to be resolved”.

Does the Leader accept that?

Not entirely, my Lords, which is why I said in my initial reply that we were looking forward to some of the incremental changes, many of which were born out of the Bill that my noble friend originally proposed several years ago, such as permanent voluntary retirement and improving leave of absence. The draft Bill that the Government published on 17 May includes a whole range of proposals that, given a fair wind, could get Royal Assent by the end of the next Session.

My Lords, since the proposals set out in the Bill tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, are indeed contained within the draft Bill that the Government have produced, how can the noble Lord the Leader of the House not embrace them enthusiastically here and now? Would it not be sensible to make progress in reform as rapidly as possible in those areas where there is broad agreement?

It is all a question of time. I dare say that if we rushed through the welfare Bill, the Localism Bill and the health Bill, and found ourselves with a few extra days at the end of the Session, we might be able to look at this more constructively. However, given the pace at which we have approached government legislation this Session, I do not think that we will have that extra time.

My Lords, would my noble friend the Leader accept an amendment to the Steel Bill that put a cap on the number of Members of your Lordships’ House at, say, 800?

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Steel’s Bill is before the House. It has had its Second Reading and awaits a Committee stage. If my noble friend Lord Hamilton were to table an amendment, I am sure that it would be debated if the Committee stage came forward. I have no idea what the Government’s view on that would be, nor indeed what the House’s view would be.

Given that there has been no recent statement, as far as I am aware, that no further Members will be appointed for the next six years, is not the question of a statutory appointments commission urgent for the here and now if we are not to keep escalating numbers, which has such a disastrous effect on all aspects of the workings of the House?

My Lords, I do not recognise the words in the noble Lord’s preface to his question—that there would be no more Peers for the next six years. I am sure that there will be. I have said in the recent past that no government list is being worked on at the moment. The independent Appointments Commission has its own ways of producing names and I do not think that there is a moratorium on it. I and many other Members of this House were Members of a House of Lords that had far more Members than this one and it managed perfectly well.

My Lords, given the Government’s commitment to reducing the number of Members of this House, and faced with the rapidly increasing numbers, is there any intention to learn from the splendid example of these Benches and to bring in a facility to enable Members of the House to retire or to petition for the withdrawal of the Writ of Summons?

My Lords, there is certainly a proposal, which we shall be debating in the next couple of weeks, for permanent voluntary retirement for all Peers. I am not entirely sure that that will include Members on the spiritual Benches of the right reverend Prelates, who of course retire from this House not entirely voluntarily but when they reach their 70th birthday.

On Tuesday, the Leader of the House was emollient and relaxed about when the Joint Committee should report, the date being 28 February, as in the Motion that was passed, yet he has just told us that it is quite possible that a Bill could become an Act in the second Session of this Parliament and that this House could be on its way to being fully elected in the next Session. It seems to me that there is a bit of a conflict between his not worrying too much about the Joint Committee reporting by 28 February and his talking almost in the same breath about a Bill being introduced in the Session that begins next May. Can we again have it from his own mouth that he is quite relaxed about a committee of this significance taking a reasonable amount of time to reach its conclusions?

Although it is rather flattering to be called emollient and relaxed by the noble Lord, what I actually said earlier this week was that it was entirely in the hands of the Joint Committee when it decides to report back to both Houses. I hope that it will do that as quickly as possible. The words that I used in response to my noble friend Lord Steel were, “given a fair wind”. If the committee were to report and the Government were to decide to go ahead with a Bill, it could be in place by the end of the next Session.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain why the Government are sending out a message that they are against reform of this Chamber, for which there is substantial support and which is set out in the Steel Bill, and are instead going headlong down a path towards what can only be described as abolition of this House?

My Lords, this is where we get into a discussion about semantics. The Government are mad keen on reform. That is why they published their Bill. My noble friend Lord Steel’s Bill would create a wholly appointed House. I remind the House that no major political party stood at the last election in favour of those plans. All political parties stood for a wholly, or largely, elected House.

My Lords, the next part of the “mad keen” process will be consideration of the draft Bill by the Joint Committee. Can the noble Lord the Leader say whether all proceedings of that committee will be in public and whether all the papers pertaining to that committee will be made available to the public?

My Lords, I understand that it is normal for these sorts of Joint Committees to hear evidence and deliberate in public. I suppose that it is up to the committee exactly what rules it decides on. No doubt those who sit on it and whoever chairs it will take into account this debate and, if representations are made, I am sure that they will wish to be as open as possible.