Motion to Agree
That, notwithstanding the normal practice of the House, this House resolves that no introductions of new Peers shall take place until the recommendation in paragraph 67 of the First Report of the Leader’s Group on Members Leaving the House, chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral (HL Paper 83, Session 2010–12), has been followed.
My Lords, I want to make it clear at the beginning that it is my intention to accept the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I have listened carefully to Members in all parts of the House and I think it would be more constructive to have a debate on the three issues set out in that amendment than to have a rather arid discussion about the royal prerogative and introductions into the House. I hope, therefore, that in a short debate we can concentrate on the three issues that are raised in what I hope will become the amended Motion.
Of course, the three issues are the same as those set out in the Bill that we sent to the House of Commons in September of last year. I want to make it clear that it is no longer my Bill and I hope that we will hear no more references to the “Steel Bill”. I will read out what it says:
“A Bill to make provision for Peers to cease to be Members of the House of Lords by way of retirement or in the event of non-attendance or criminal conviction”.
Fortunately, my name has disappeared from the Bill. It is no longer my Bill; it is our Bill. It is a Bill that we approved unanimously back in September. It is due to appear again in the Commons tomorrow, when Eleanor Laing will again present it, but it will as usual be blocked by the government Whips. Frankly, we are so near the end of this Session that there is no realistic chance of the Bill passing.
I want to remind the House that on 6 February, in a Question raised by our former Lord Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the noble Lord, Lord Hill, said to me:
“He, I am sure, can use his powers of persuasion with colleagues in his own party, including the Deputy Prime Minister. I know that he will try and we will then see how we get on”.—[Official Report, 6/2/13; col. 261.]
Armed with that wonderful quotation, I indeed sought to have a meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister. This proved rather difficult. We were about to go into recess; he was in Africa. I was in Kenya and Uganda throughout the Recess and one of my colleagues, who has a rather warped sense of humour, suggested, “You and Nick should have some Ugandan discussions”—as though we do not have problems enough.
We ended up having quite a lengthy and amicable telephone call on the subject on Monday evening. But I am afraid I have to report to the House that I failed in my powers of persuasion. The nearest concession that I got from the Deputy Prime Minister was that he would have further discussion with our Leader, the noble Lord, Lord Hill, and I understand that that is going to happen. I hope very much that his powers of persuasion will prove more effective than mine. I intend to pass the ball back to him. I hope that if the House approves the amended Motion today, that will strengthen his hand in the arguments with his colleagues in the Government.
I want to draw the attention of the House to a Written Answer that appeared in Hansard, perhaps significantly, on Thursday 14 February, which was of course the day that we rose for the Recess, so very few Members will have seen this when it was published on the Friday. It was a Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft:
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to offer support to the House of Lords (Cessation of Membership) Bill [HL] in the current parliamentary Session”.
The Written Answer is as follows:
“The Government do not intend to offer support to the Bill. In the absence of full reform, it is the Government’s view that there is no easy set of smaller reforms to the House of Lords. In a modern democracy it is important that those who pass legislation should be chosen by those to whom the legislation applies. So reform measures must include introducing elected Members to the House of Lords.
Also, the three core measures of the Bill would not deal with the size of the House of Lords. Provision for retirement is an extension of the non-statutory voluntary retirement scheme, already in place. Only two noble Lords have taken advantage of this so far. Members would only be required to attend once every session to sustain their membership and only future criminals would be removed from the House of Lords”.—[Official Report, 14/2/13; col. WA 176.]
We should analyse that extraordinary Written Answer. The first point is that, of course, the question of fundamental reform of the Lords will come back again, presumably at the next election and in the next Parliament.
None of us knows which party or parties will form the next Government, but it will take years before we get fundamental reform. In the mean time we should consider what we do with the present House in its unreformed condition. This is purely a housekeeping measure intended to improve the workings of the House. It is not, in any sense, a reform measure.
We also have to bear in mind that it was in the coalition agreement that the balance of the House should be altered to reflect the views of the electorate at the previous election. I think I am right in saying that this was an agreement made in the time of the previous Government as well. All three parties agreed that this should be done. If that is the case, we will get into a position where we could have leapfrogging of increases after every election. If there is to be an interim strategy of that kind as part of public policy, there needs to be an exit strategy as well. That is why we are pressing for these three changes.
As for the assertion that a retirement scheme is already in place, which only two Members have taken up, it is not a retirement scheme at all. It is simply an extension of leave of absence and those two Members who think they have retired will find that they get in the post a Writ of Summons for the next Session in two or three months’ time. The Chairman of Committees and his committee are trying to reduce the amount of postage and costs to the House—as they told us by sending us mail on only the second day. Yet here we are sending out mail to people who think they have retired.
If that is right, I accept the correction, but the basic principle is correct. Members have not retired; they have simply got leave of absence. That is the point I make. It is technically correct to say that the Bill does not reduce the numbers in the House, but that is not a valid point. What it does is to give this House the statutory authority that the original report, by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, said we needed to devise a scheme of retirement. All sorts of schemes have been put about. If these were not times of austerity, we could have had a retirement or resettlement grant, or the opposite—a cut in the allowances paid to Members who have served over a certain number of years or reached a certain age. We could leave it to each of the parties and groups in the House to come to some arrangement. We could even have an age cut-off in our Standing Orders. All these are possibilities, but there is no point in debating them because we do not have the power to do any of them
All we ask of the Government is to let us have the statutory authority to bring to an end the present law, which says that, whether you like it or not, you are a Member of this House for life and that this the present situation. As for the sentence that only future criminals would be removed from the House of Lords, what does that mean? Are the Government seriously suggesting that the Bill should contain retrospective legislation? It simply does not make sense. This Written Answer was in the name of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire. He is not just my noble friend in a technical sense, he is a very old personal friend, going back to the time before either of us was anywhere near the Palace of Westminster. I know that he is a highly intelligent man. He could not possibly have written this stuff. These phrases and assertions appear time and again in the briefing given to the Deputy Prime Minister when he appeared before the Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee and in letters that he wrote to me and to others.
Somewhere in the machinery of Whitehall, these arguments are being put about, which are unsustainable. The House should reassert what it said back in September and say bluntly to the Government, the House of Commons and the public that we are keen to see this modest housekeeping change so that we reduce our numbers and our costs; and say to the Leader of the House that we wish him all the best in trying to get these measures through to the Government. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
To move, as an amendment to the above motion, to leave out from “that” in line 1 to the end and insert “this House affirms the recommendation in paragraph 67 of the First Report of the Leader’s Group on Members Leaving the House, chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral (HL Paper 83, Session 2010-12), that “restraint should be exercised by all concerned in the recommendation of new appointments to the House”; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to support proposals, in line with legislation passed by this House, to.
(a) allow members of the House to retire permanently from the House;
(b) provide for the exclusion from the House of any member who does not attend the House during a Session save where that member has leave of absence in respect of the Session in accordance with Standing Orders of the House, or where a Session is less than six months long; and
(c) provide that a member who is convicted of a serious offence and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of more than one year shall not attend the sittings of the House.”.
My Lords, in moving my amendment to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, I mean no criticism of the noble Lord. Indeed, I—and, I am sure, all Members of the House—are grateful to him for his determination to bring this matter back to your Lordships time after time.
The substantive point, surely, of what the noble Lord has said is that we have a pressing issue today concerning the size of the House, appointments and recruitment. We need to deal with this matter now, rather than let many more years go by before we engage, as the noble Lord has said, in sensible housekeeping.
The failure of Mr Clegg’s substantive Bill on reform surely means, as the noble Lord has said, that it will be a matter of years before a substantive proposal for reform could be put into practice. Indeed, if one took the proposals of the current coalition Government and those of the previous Government, it would be 2020 even if a substantive Bill were presented and passed after the next election—both of those being subject to some uncertainty given the history of Lords reform over 100 years.
We need to make progress on incremental, sensible changes to your Lordships’ House. I detect a real consensus for some progress to be made today. We are already experiencing considerable tensions as a result of our size. We have had the proposals from the Chairman of Committees, speaking for the Privileges Committee, on reforming the system of Oral Questions because of the problem of the number of Peers wishing to ask them. Often noble Lords are not even able to get into the Chamber for Question Time, which is surely much of the focus of our daily activity.
It is disturbing that there are rumours around this place that the Government intend to appoint dozens more new Peers in the next few days or weeks. I am sure that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will point to the coalition agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, has also referred to it. We were certainly not party to any such agreement before the last election. I am mindful of the paper from Meg Russell, the distinguished academic from UCL, who wrote in April 2011 that the objective of a House of Lords membership that is proportional to general election vote share is unrealistic. She said then that it would require the appointment of, at a minimum, 269 new Peers, and that this would have disastrous consequences for the operation of the Chamber, would be unpopular with the public and would be a foolish and unsustainable course to pursue. It if were continued as a principle at every subsequent general election, the size of the House would spiral ever upwards unless some mechanism for removing Members were also adopted.
I understand that there clearly is a need for fresh blood to be introduced into your Lordships’ House from time to time. I certainly also understand that if the coalition Government were finding that their core legislative proposals were not able to get through your Lordships’ House, their case for making more appointments would be stronger. However, that is not the case. The coalition is winning most of the votes that take place. My understanding is that, in this Parliament so far, the Opposition have won about 22% of the votes. That compares to the Opposition winning about 30% of the votes against the previous Government. Even from the Government’s point of view, it is difficult to see the argument that they need a huge number of new Members because of difficulties in the process of getting their legislation through.
My Lords, that is certainly a point of view. However, I am hoping today that the House might adopt a rather consensual view because I sense that, whether we come from one of the parties or from the non-aligned or Cross Benches, there is a genuine concern about the need to sort out issues to do with the size of the House and retirements and appointments. I will therefore desist from responding to the noble Lord’s intervention.
The Leader of the House enjoys enormous respect here and rightfully so. I ask him to take note of this debate, put aside further large-scale appointments to the House, and work with others in the House to suggest a sensible way forward that deals with the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. The fact that rumours of large-scale appointments have been with us for many months suggests that the Government know it is not the right thing to do.
The sentiments behind the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, are perfectly understandable and I am most grateful for his acknowledgement that he is prepared to support my amendment. I put my amendment down because I did wonder whether it was right for the House to seek to prevent the introduction of new life Peers who had already been appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. As the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has such a distinguished pedigree, I did wonder what Mr Asquith would have made of his Motion, given that, with the King’s approval, Mr Asquith threatened to flood the place with new Members if the House resisted the Parliament Bill in 1911. At that time the House agreed to let it through. I wonder what Mr Asquith would have made of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, if their Lordships had prevented the flooding of the House in that period. I am also aware that the noble Lord has received a letter from the chairman of the Appointments Commission, the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who is concerned that if the Motion were to be put into effect Cross-Bench appointments would not be allowed to take place.
We all agree with the sentiment behind the noble Lord’s Motion. My amendment deals with these matters in a sensible way. Above all else, this is not about politics but is an attempt to achieve consensus and to recognise that many Members of your Lordships’ House wish to see progress made. It is an indication to the Government that they need to desist from making large-scale appointments at a time when the House is already full. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will be brief. Perhaps I may remind the House that I try hard to speak personally, especially on occasions such as this, and that I have no authority to speak on behalf of the Cross-Bench group. That will become all too evident very shortly.
The noble Lord, Lord Steel, has vast experience in both Houses of Parliament and indeed far beyond. Furthermore, he has an enviable record of championing changes designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of this House. However, as I hope the House will understand, I was extremely unhappy about the content of the Motion that he has put down on the Order Paper. I am grateful and pleased that he has accepted the amendment.
The one thing on which we can at least agree is that the membership of the House is too large. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has made plain, this results in colleagues feeling frustrated when they are denied the opportunity to serve on committees that are dealing with matters of special interest to them and, moreover, when their important contributions to our debates are limited to three minutes or even less. There is a real issue to be faced about the membership of this House. In my view, the Motion is not helpful. I was going to speak about the report to which the Motion refers but as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has accepted the amendment I will move on.
Only yesterday two new Cross-Bench Peers were announced. I very much hope that at the appropriate time your Lordships’ House will make those new Members extremely welcome. This House has a record of doing that and we should avoid the danger of giving the impression that we are resisting new Members. My concern is solely about tactics and timing. My fear is that the amendment will be perceived to be either irrelevant in the current situation or, at worst, provocative. I well recognise the thought that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has given to the amendment and I do not doubt for one moment the good intention behind it. However, I still fail to see how it will have a significant impact on reducing the size of this House and, in particular, the pressure on the facilities and costs. We already have a voluntary retirement scheme that has not been a great success. Any form of financial inducement to make such a scheme more popular would, in my view, especially in the current circumstances, be inappropriate. Trying also to reduce the membership of the House by excluding those who do not, for whatever reason, attend regularly could be counterintuitive in that it would run the risk of encouraging them to attend your Lordships’ House.
The frustrations frequently expressed are sincere, although I cannot help but feel that we are in danger of giving the impression that we want to resist any newcomers into our House. That would be to the disadvantage of the work of this House in revising and improving legislation for the benefit of our fellow citizens and holding the Government to account. In recognising that the House is too big, I nevertheless fear that the amendment will not have the desired effect. I hope that out of this will come something that will be a stimulus to much more detailed discussion across the House in order that we can work towards achieving consensus. That said, I will, as always, listen carefully to the debate.
My Lords, I am a great admirer of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, who has given great service to our nation and to this House. Although I agree with him that the two new Members who have been announced should be given the warmest of welcomes—we all agree with that—I regret to say that I cannot follow the logic of his other remarks. I wish to give my strong support to the initiative taken by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood, to whom we are all in debt, and very much to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who has moved his amendment moderately and persuasively, and I hope in a way that will have garnered support in all parts of the House.
If that became the will of the House we would all have to accept it, wouldn’t we? My old and mischievous friend from another place makes his point with his customary tact. It is now 11 years since my noble friend Lord Norton and I formed a group called the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. My noble friend Lord Norton, who did that group great service as our convenor throughout those years, cannot be here today because of his teaching duties at his university. We miss him and the contribution he would have made. We formed that group, over which I have had the honour to preside, because we believe that this Chamber is effective but could be much more effective. We were always committed to an appointed House rather than an elected one, but we also recognise the fact that the House as it exists can and should be improved even though many people in this House—by no means the majority, but a number of very distinguished Members—would like to move towards election. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has made that his position in the past. Nevertheless, surely we can all recognise that the House as it exists is not only capable of improvement but cries out for improvement, not only in its size but in the way in which we do business. We all owe a great deal to noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, who have been working hard in this regard over recent months and years. Whatever one’s ultimate view is, surely we should not stand in the way of what the noble Lords, Lord Steel and Lord Hunt, have referred to as “housekeeping reforms”.
To the Deputy Prime Minister, who has shown an interesting flexibility of mind and memory in recent days, I say, “If you believe that the best is elected, then do not let the best be the enemy of the good”. We think that this House as it exists—and on Mr Clegg’s own admission it cannot be fundamentally changed for some years—should now be changed in the way proposed in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. We all hold my noble friend the Leader of the House in the highest regard. I very much hope that he will take it upon himself as Leader of the House—leader of all of us—to convene a meeting to discuss ways and means of approaching the problems referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Steel and Lord Hunt. He would be doing us all a very great service if he exercised his initiative in that regard and I very much hope that he will. Of course, our expertise and experience, notwithstanding the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, must be refreshed and revived, but if many more Peers are introduced into this House without addressing the current problems we will bring this House into disrepute.
Like the rest of us, my noble friend sees the expected approach of large numbers as rather like a torpedo. He is now choosing one of two paths put before your Lordships and I would like to know his explanation of that. On the face of it, the admirable amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is actually hortatory—it advises and says that something may be done—whereas the principal Motion is prescriptive and states that it shall be done. The second is not in our gift; the first is. If you want to put out a net to catch the torpedo, surely it must be the first and not the second.
I understand and sympathise with the point made by my noble friend, but the fact is that there are issues like royal prerogative that have to be taken into account. We do not want to precipitate—this was implicit in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt—a major constitutional crisis. What we want to do is address the housekeeping issues in this House. That is a simple and reasonable aim. This is declaratory, of course it is, but, if we have a vote at the end of this debate, I hope that the House will declare that it really is concerned about these matters. We are asking the Leader to do what he can to bring some common sense to bear.
Surely it is wrong that a particular person should be the stumbling block in the face of sensible reform. Mr Clegg has many admirable qualities, but he should not be allowed to be the arbiter of our constitution. That is wrong. He introduced a Bill, which failed. I am proud to wear this morning the tie made by the 91 stout Tory rebels who frustrated that Bill in July by saying, “You cannot get this through because we will not give you the time to do so”. Mr Clegg recognised that, and he should now recognise that if he believes in parliamentary democracy, and if he believes in this House as being a fundamental part of this democracy as it is the moment, it should be as effective as it possibly can be. If we continue to appoint new Peers without addressing the issues so eloquently talked about by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, we will run the risk of making this House fall in public repute and indeed become something of a laughing stock, which it should not be. That would fly in the face of history and of what has been achieved by so many, particularly over the years since 1958 when life Peers were introduced. If this comes to a vote, I urge Members to vote in significant numbers to show that there is indeed a consensus in this House on these modest proposals.
My Lords, I want very briefly to put a couple of points to my noble friend the Leader of the House before he responds to the debate. I wonder whether he might reflect on the fact that in the previous Labour Administration, some 40% of the new recruits to this House were added to the Labour Benches, compared with 21% to the Conservative Benches and 15% to the Liberal Democratic Benches. Even more significantly, in May 2010, immediately following the general election, there were additional recruits to your Lordships’ House—28 Labour Members, 18 Conservative Members and nine Liberal Democrat Members. Will my noble friend reflect on the very interesting Pauline conversion, if I might put it like that, of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who suddenly seems to find the overpopulation of this House such a terrible problem? Apparently it was never a problem under the previous Administration, nor was it a problem even in May 2010. I am the last person to turn against a sinner who repenteth, but there is an important question to put to the opposition Benches about their change of attitude.
Would my noble friend also note that some of the Members who now object so strongly to further appointments were indeed the most vociferous when the Government came forward with a proposal to end a fully appointed House? My noble friend Lord Cormack, who is a very staunch defender of the primacy of the House of Commons, may have forgotten that the Government’s Bill received a considerable—indeed, a uniquely—sizeable majority at its Second Reading. That was an attempt to sort this problem out. It had indeed built very firmly on the proposals put forward by Mr Jack Straw, in which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, played a very important part. Again, he seems to have changed his attitude.
I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that this Motion as amended would still be inappropriate at this time. Having had, I accept, an expression of concern on all sides of the House about this problem, I very much hope that the Motion, even amended, is not put to a Division because I think it will have more power if it is not seen to be something that is divisible and therefore divisive in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I was just sitting here quietly, looking forward to the conclusion of the debate without, I hoped, a Division, but hoping that if there was a Division it would result in a resounding majority for the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and my noble friend’s amendment. However, the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, make it impossible for me to remain in my seat because I think he suggested that the previous Labour Government paid no attention to what he now considers a very sensible proposal that the membership of this House should reflect the result of the previous general election.
I remind the noble Lord of the facts. I know that facts can sometimes ruin arguments, but the facts are as follows. He may recall that the 1997 general election resulted in a Labour majority of something over 150 in the House of Commons. I will be honest enough to say that I almost wish I had thought of this at the time. It would have been extremely tempting to argue that the membership of this House should reflect the huge majority that the Labour Party had in 1997, and on which it was re-elected, with an almost identical majority, in 2001. The noble Lord can do the maths rather than me, but there would have needed to be a colossal addition to the Labour Benches in this House to reflect that.
I ask for a little indulgence and sympathy towards my dear old party from all quarters of this House. The Labour Party eventually became the biggest party in this House in 2005: that is, eight years after we received a colossal overall majority in two successive general elections. We have been the biggest party in this House for eight years out of the 110 years of our existence as a political party. I do not think it is being greedy to say that eight years is not too bad. If the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, did argue for a huge influx of Labour Peers at that stage, it was obviously on one of those days when I did not attend the House. I simply put it to him that he ought to reflect on that.
Perhaps one other matter on which the noble Lord should reflect, in this of all weeks, is the election in Italy, a country which adheres to the constitutional principle that the second chamber should be elected and have pretty well equal powers to those of the first chamber. He should reflect for a moment on whether that is a good idea to incorporate here. While he is about it, he should reflect on whether the proportional representation system of election to the Italian Parliament provides stability and security for a Government. One or two of the noble Lord’s theories have been road tested this week and I could not forbear but to refer to them. On that note, I will sit down.
My Lords, tempted as I am, I will not follow the reflections of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on second chambers across the world. During my time as Lord Speaker, I developed a very good 45-minute lecture on second chambers around the world, but I suspect that the House would not appreciate hearing it today.
Like others, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for giving us the opportunity to consider this issue today and, if I may say so, even more grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for bringing a proposition before the House that I think is in many ways more acceptable than the original one of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, given the interpretation that people could put on that and the suggestion of constitutional impropriety or of being unwelcoming to new Members. I appreciate what the noble Lord, Lord Laming, had to say on that. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Steel, I was deeply depressed when I read the Written Answer that appeared in Hansard on 15 February. While it is understandable that the Government should feel frustrated at the loss of their proposals for an elected House, those proposals were indeed lost. The reality of the situation is that we have two and a half years until the next general election and some time beyond that during which this House will continue to be an appointed House. It is constitutionally and politically irresponsible not to take at least some modest measures now to take us forward.
I am not a supporter of an elected House. I am a supporter of a rather radical reform of this House which is not encompassed in what is before us today, or the Bill before another place. However, I have to accept that that reality cannot be achieved at the moment. The elements in the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, provide a minimum basis for us to take forward some of the changes that are need in your Lordships’ House. It will not radically reduce the numbers but, having been deeply involved with these issues for some time, I believe that not having a legislative base on which to build the House’s consensus—as I hope it will develop—on retirement is a terrible impediment to going forward. One thinks of resources as being about money and people, but as a Minister I learnt that, in politics, resources are also about legislative time. Allowing retirement to be a reality—in future “life” not meaning “for life”—is enormously important.
The issue of those with criminal convictions, though very small, narrow and, of course, not retrospective—how could it ever be?—is important for this House. It is also an important basis for our own disciplinary action in future. Even this minimalist legislative change is enormously important and would give us the basis on which to go forward. The other day, I asked the Leader whether he would do the service to this House that could be done by allowing us that minimum basis. I am very encouraged by the fact that there are those who, like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath—though unfortunately not the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—believe in an elected House but still recognise the problems and the reality of the years ahead. Noble Lords who want to participate in the business of the House sometimes cannot because they cannot be within the Chamber. That is not a proper way for us to continue. We want to welcome new Members and if we are to do so, we also have to find a way in which membership of this House can cease. It is our responsibility to try and do that. We will not achieve it overnight. There will not be immediate unanimity about the grounds for retirement and how we go forward. However, since 1999 we have had constant reasons why proposed changes were not exactly right. We have had constant reversals to proposals for incremental change on the basis that we were going to have all-singing, all-dancing proposals for election. It has got us into terrible trouble over numbers and over financial support for Members. Those who were arguing that we needed to change that system sooner were told, “Don’t worry because very soon we will have a Bill, we will have elections, we will have a salaried House”.
It is not responsible to continue to do nothing. We have to make a start somewhere and I hope very much that the House will today make that view very clear.
My Lords, I very much welcome this debate. It is important that we bring pressure on the Government to carry out the urgent changes that have been set out by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and those on the Opposition Front Bench. I certainly welcome that. Like others, I was concerned about the Written Answer to which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred.
The noble Lord on the Opposition Front Bench pointed out that it will clearly be a long time before there is any likelihood of our moving towards an elected Chamber. However, there is another point. I am optimistic on that issue because it is absolutely clear, despite the rather mixed procedure on voting in the other place, that its Members now clearly understand that it is not in their interests to have an elected House of Lords with regard to the situation both at Westminster and in their constituencies. It is high time that it is recognised that this is the case and that we should not go further forward on that point.
In all events, it is important that we deal with the issue of the size of this House and the other issues mentioned in the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, referred to the arrangements set out in the coalition agreement. Again, the coalition should recognise that that is not a sensible way of dealing with the size of this House. We do not know on either of those points what will appear in the manifestos—the reality is that manifestos are cooked up behind closed doors, with virtually no consideration at all for Members of Parliament in either House. We cannot tell, but I hope that on both matters such proposals will not be included in either of the main parties’ manifestos.
The Motion proposes that there should be no increase in the number of Members until the size of the House is determined—I do not have the exact wording. However, it is extremely important that the Government clearly set out how they envisage the programme for the House of Lords. The House is getting bigger and bigger and, presumably at some stage, its size has to be reduced. The danger then, particularly after an election, is that it increases again. The Government need to say what they think is the maximum size possible within that transitional period and what the ultimate aim ought to be. We need some guidance on the optimum size of the House.
The other points that have been debated concern the various amendments in what I am still inclined to call the Steel Bill. We should simply go ahead with them, and the block in the House of Commons ought to be removed. It is difficult to avoid the impression that a sense of pique on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister is leading to that block. We ought to go ahead with those changes, and we can perfectly well do so way before the date of the next general election.
Finally, perhaps I may make a more controversial point. Paragraph 47 of the Hunt report suggests that provisions for retirement might be made. I realise that this is highly controversial, but once a Treasury Minister, always a Treasury Minister. If there is one crucial issue in the Government’s policy at the moment, it is to reduce the deficit. On the proposal that one should create, for example, an incentive scheme whereby a modest payment was made based on the expenses incurred in the previous full year, minus travel expenses, it would be helpful to see to what extent that might produce a significant reduction in the size of the House. At all events, it is a means of saving public expenditure, which I hope would be acceptable.
I have one final point about the position of my own Front Bench. I am told that the position normally is that they vote against things that are not government policy. That is a rather strange doctrine: many good proposals are not government policy; that is no reason to vote against them. As for the proposals in the amendment, I think it is clear that the House has already approved them in the shape of the legislation sent to the other place. To then go and vote against them seems a very strange attitude to take.
My Lords, I think that we have a good debate and that the outlines of the issues that the House will want to consider are already clear. The points that have been made very forcefully by a number of noble Lords have been well made; obviously I have heard everything that has been said. Although I recognise that I am new to this job, one issue on which I can be in little doubt about the opinions of this House is that which we have been debating today. Noble Lords have already been extremely generous—I might say unstinting—with the advice they have given me at every possible opportunity. I am glad to say that I have had a chance to discuss these issues with many noble Lords who have already spoken today and I will continue to do so in future, because I think that that is the right way to take the matter forward.
Coming new to the subject, I cannot have the great expertise and history that many noble Lords have on this matter. We have seen it again demonstrated by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and my noble friend Lord Tyler. These issues go back a long time. However, I do at least bring a fresh pair of eyes to some of these issues. Given that the underlying issue to which all noble Lords have referred is the size of the House, I thought that I should start by going back to look at the figures to see by how much the House has grown. This is what I found.
The House that Tony Blair inherited on taking office in 1997 had 1,067 Peers eligible to vote. Of course, that was before the removal of most of the hereditary Peers following the 1999 reform. The House that Gordon Brown inherited on taking office 10 years later in 2007 was smaller: there were 738 peers eligible to vote. As of this week, there are 761 Members of this House eligible to vote; that is 23 more than in 2007. We have had some discussion about the proportion and size of the number who have been introduced, so I looked at the numbers for the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Cross-Bench Peers in particular. In 2007, 698 Members sat on those Benches and were eligible to vote. I accept that the equivalent figure today is higher: today it is 704, which is six more than in 2007. Those figures come from the House of Lords Library note of 27 June 2012; for this week’s figures, I consulted the online House of Lords registry.
Given that the overall number of Peers eligible to vote is not so different from five or six years ago, that brings me naturally to the important question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, about the exercise of restraint in new appointments to the House, which is referred to both in his amendment and in my noble friend Lord Steel’s Motion.
I am coming on to talking about attendance and participation, which I recognise as an important issue. As far as the exercise of restraint is concerned, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, refers to the Leader’s Group recommendation on the creation of new Members of this House. That read:
“Whilst we cannot recommend that there should be a moratorium on new appointments to the House—since, while the purpose of the House is to provide expertise, we must ensure that that expertise is refreshed and kept up to date”—
a point, I think, on which all noble Lords agree—
“we do urge that restraint should be exercised by all concerned in the recommendation of new appointments the House, until such time as debate over the size of membership is conclusively determined”.
I would argue that this recommendation has been followed and that the Prime Minister has indeed shown restraint. Since the well publicised lists of May and November 2010, a total of eight new peers have been created, six of them on the Cross Benches; 42 life peers have, sadly, died. I suggest, therefore, that the Prime Minister’s record is consistent with the recommendation from the Leader’s Group, both in terms of exercising restraint and in ensuring that expertise is refreshed and kept up to date.
I now come to the point about which I was asked. The real issue is not so much the absolute number of those entitled to vote but attendance. Surely we all agree that attendance and participation are good things that we ought to encourage. That is one of the reasons why I am extremely keen, as a new Leader, to try to find new ways to help a wider range of Members to play a greater role in this House. That is why, as an early priority, I shortly plan to put proposals to the Procedure Committee that will provide more time and opportunities for Back-Bench Members to lead debates. My intention is to build on the work of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who, with the support of the Liaison Committee and the House, initiated a modest expansion in our Select Committee activity to include more pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny as well as a greater emphasis on single-session committees. I am keen to do that in order to ensure that a wider range of Members have the opportunity to serve on our Select Committees.
Noble Lords have raised the matter of Question Time. I welcome the fact that the Procedure Committee is due to come forward with some revised proposals on how we might make it easier for a wider range of Members to table Oral Questions. There is also the question of how we might encourage more Members to come in on supplementary questions and broaden participation. I am acutely conscious of how crowded the Chamber is during Question Time, just as it is at PMQs in another place. When you spend as much time as I now have the pleasure to do in your Lordships’ House, it is clear that, at other times of the day, this House is not as crowded as it is during Question Time.
As well as talking about the need for restraint, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, reiterated the support of this House for the proposals in the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood. Indeed, the House has already made its position clear. We passed the Bill without a Division and sent it to the other place last summer. It contains measures which my noble friend Lord Steel described as “housekeeping” and for which it is clear that there is widespread support in this House. I know that my noble friend is keen that the Government should take the Bill forward. As he said, he made his case directly to the Deputy Prime Minister earlier this week; he was the right person to talk to, as he is the Cabinet Minister responsible for this matter. Despite that, the Government’s position remains that we do not wish to facilitate the passage of the Bill. I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister made clear why that is the case. As my noble friend Lord Tyler said, it is because the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly last year in favour of an elected House of Lords. With that in mind, no Government could credibly support a package of measures that could be perceived as anointing an all-appointed House.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. I find this a confusing argument. If the will of the House of Commons was so clear and unambiguous, why are we not now spending our time debating the House of Lords Reform Bill? The fact is that the House of Commons purported to will the ends but refused to will the means. If you do not will the parliamentary time, you do not will the statute. I suggest to the noble Lord the Leader that the view of the House of Commons was not quite as unambiguously in favour of an elected House as he suggested.
Clearly I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that there was a difference between the extremely clear view expressed—a 71% majority in favour in principle of an elected House—and what happened. As she said, when push came to shove some of the consequences of an elected House, such as the issue about the balance of powers between the two Chambers and so on, perhaps became less compelling. However, that was the situation and the Government have made it clear that they will not bring forward further legislation to reform the House in what remains of this Parliament. This position was welcomed by many in the House.
I am keen to preserve the spirit of consensus that my noble friend Lord Hunt generated. However, with respect to the Leader of the House, who I hope will be engaging in discussions with the Government and other authorities, the question of legitimacy that he raised—that it would not be legitimate when something had been done to appear to do the opposite subsequently—must be truly addressed. Does he recognise that not only was the idea of proportionality lost in the proposals for this House but it was previously rejected under this Administration by the country in the referendum on the alternative vote system? Given that there is an apparent consistency about the legitimacy of the processes and non-contradiction, will the Leader assure us that, given the fact that proportionality has been rejected by the country in an overwhelming vote and then lost during the proposals for reform of the House of Lords, the idea of proportionality through appointment to this House will not be pursued?
On the point about proportionality, the noble Lord will know that in the coalition document, the parties set out their position—although, as I argued earlier when I referred to the exercise of restraint, progress towards that form of words has not been put into effect in the same way. I agree with him about the importance of this being a consensual debate. I do not seek to make it political.
Perhaps I may just finish this point. As things stand, it is clearly the case that the proportion of Labour Peers in this House is greater than was the case in the popular vote at the general election. It has not been the case since then, in 2010 or subsequently, that the Government have sought to redress the balance in a dramatic way. As we heard, many new Labour Peers were created. Therefore, I hope that restraint and the measured way in which the Government have proceeded with new appointments have provided the noble Lord with some reassurance. We are not saying that we rule out the measures that the Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, seeks to enact. We are saying that they should be considered in their proper context as part of a wider reform of the House.
If I may, I will say something briefly about the effectiveness of the measures proposed in the Bill to substantially reduce the number of Members who attend this House each day. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. In other words, would my noble friend’s Bill tackle the problem of size that it seeks to address? There has been mention already about the non-statutory, voluntary retirement scheme that has been put in place. Two Peers have taken advantage of it. Therefore, there must be some reason for the reticence of Members in volunteering for retirement. I am not personally persuaded that making the scheme statutory would overcome that reticence. Some supporters of my noble friend’s measures suggest that some kind of payment might help overcome this reticence. I should make clear, as I have done before, that the Government do not support making taxpayers’ money available to Members of the House to encourage them to retire. That would be wrong, and it would be seen to be wrong. I am glad to hear that my view on this is shared by all groups and all parties.
On excluding infrequent attendees, I say that those Peers currently put no pressure on the Benches at Question Time. If pressure is to be reduced, the people who need to retire are those who attend, not those who do not. I agree strongly that criminals should be excluded, but, unless there is a grand conspiracy in the House of which I am currently unaware, the suggested policy would not reduce the number of those currently attending the House.
My Lords, as a member of the Leader’s Group under the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and as a Whip in your Lordships’ House, I would not hazard a guess as to the number of noble Lords who would take permanent leave of absence. However, I recollect, when I was in both those roles, a number of noble Lords who attended quite regularly and with great difficulty because they felt that they had been asked to come in and serve for life. I would not dream of naming them, but some are quite regular attendees because they feel honour bound to attend because they feel that, were they to cease to attend, their expertise, which some have said they feel is a little out of date, would not be replaced in the interest of not making the House too large.
I understand that point. As is normally the case with the noble Baroness, it is sharp, perceptive and fair.
I am conscious that the House would like to move forward. I will say a brief word on the Motion that was moved by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood and about our powers of regulation in this area. The Leader’s Group got it right when it said that it could not recommend a moratorium on new appointments to the House. That must be correct. The Life Peerages Act 1958 gives the Queen the power to create peerages for life, with the right,
“to receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords and sit and vote therein accordingly”.
Therefore, I agree with the way that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and my noble friend Lord Cormack approached the issue. I cannot see that our right as an individual House to self-regulate includes the power to override that Act of Parliament.
I have set out why I believe that the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Steel calls for much action that has already been taken, and restraint that has been exercised. I have listened to the debate and recognise clearly that Members on all sides feel very strongly about the question of size. However, I hope that the figures that I shared with the House demonstrate that some beliefs about the issue of overall size are not quite borne out by the facts.
I believe very strongly that we must do more to accommodate rising attendance and the consequent increase in demand from Members, especially newer Members, for opportunities to take part in our work. I have strong sympathy with those who are uncomfortable about Members convicted of a serious prisonable offence returning to the House. Pending primary legislation to exclude Members on those grounds, I would certainly support steps to explore measures that we ourselves might take to discourage Members in that category from taking part in the work of our House.
Those are two areas in which we can help ourselves. On the remainder, noble Lords have set out their clear views forcefully. I have attempted to set out the Government’s position. I have no doubt that our discussions, both on the Floor and elsewhere, will continue. I will certainly play my part in those. In the mean time, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, will withdraw his amendment.
My noble friend asked for restraint. Perhaps I may suggest some restraint on the part of Her Majesty’s Government. I can think of no more appropriate opportunity to put this point. I have watched the House of Commons for a great many years. I have noticed how it changes during a Parliament. At the beginning of a Parliament, the wisdom and experience of those who have served is diluted by many who come in with their head full of theories but no understanding of what the effects would be. As we have been not promised but led to expect legislation in the next Parliament, perhaps I may ask my noble friend to exercise his greatest efforts to see that reform is not undertaken in the first two years, so that those who talk about it will know about it.
My Lords, I shall respond very briefly. I welcome the willingness of the Leader of the House to seek advice from Members of your Lordships’ House. He is a fresh pair of eyes and we very much look forward to working with him. I also very much support his work in trying to encourage Members who perhaps are not as active as possible to participate more in the future. Ultimately, though, I was disappointed with his response. He started to trade statistics and there always seems to be a risk in doing so. My general conclusion is that whatever Government are in power, in general and over time that governing party will tend to see an increase in the number of seats they hold in the House of Lords. I certainly agree that we need fresh blood form time to time, and I actually agree that restraint has been shown so far. As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, the issue is the future. The rumours which have been around this House for quite a long time now are that the Government want to make a very large number of new appointments in the next few weeks or months. Above all, I hope that the noble Lord will consider this. The plea of restraint is very much directed at those future appointments.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, helpfully reminded the House of my own views on Lords reform. I was hoping that my noble friends behind me might forget that, but they are right—I have consistently voted in favour of an elected House. However, the Leader of the House essentially says that because the Commons voted at Second Reading for Mr Clegg’s Bill, that means that it would be wrong to put to them proposals for incremental housekeeping. As someone who favours an elected House I strongly refute that. First of all, that Bill did not go through. Secondly, under the proposals of Mr Clegg, or indeed those of my right honourable friend Mr Straw, if a party pledged an elected House of Lords and that party came into power in 2015, the first element of elected Members would not come to your Lordships’ House before 2020. That is seven years away. For the Leader of the House to say that no useful housekeeping or incremental change can take place before that moment is a matter of regret. I think that is the implication of what he said.
I do not think that we can wait. We need to indicate to the Government that sensible change ought to happen as soon as possible and say that we very much hope that restraint will be exercised in the appointment of new Members. It is important that the House has a way of indicating its support for those intentions, so I will put this to the vote.
My Lords, I beg to move formally the substantive Motion as amended and, in doing so, would say simply that the House has spoken very clearly, which I hope will strengthen the hand of the Leader of the House in future discussions with the Government.
Motion, as amended, agreed to.