Motion to Take Note
To move that this House takes note of the case for reducing the size of the House of Lords.
My Lords, the proposition I wish to put to the House is straightforward. In terms of membership, the House of Lords has grown, is growing and ought to be reduced. There is an immediate problem; there is an even greater prospective problem.
My starting point is that this House does a good job in fulfilling functions that add value to the political process. It complements the elected Chamber, not least in carrying out tasks that the other House may not have the time, resources or political will to fulfil. However, the fact that we do a good job does not mean that we could not be even more effective than we are. Enhancing our effectiveness has two elements. One is making changes to how we operate and the other is bolstering public confidence in what we do. Unlike the other place, we cannot take our legitimacy for granted. We have to earn it. The changes that would enable us to fulfil our functions more effectively and enhance public support go well beyond limiting how many Members we have. However, addressing the size of the House is critical because of its relevance to fulfilling the functions of the House and our public standing.
There are two aspects to the size of the House. One is the total membership and the other is the active membership. The total membership is especially relevant to how the House is seen by the public, and the active membership is relevant to the capacity of the House to do its job. In terms of total membership, the House has grown markedly since the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999. At the start of the new Session of 1999-2000, we had 666 Members—in other words, a membership slightly larger than that of the House of Commons. Today, we have a total of 835 Members, making the House more than a quarter larger than the House of Commons. We are the largest second Chamber in the world. That remains the case even if we exclude those who have taken leave of absence or are ineligible. Excluding those who are ineligible or have taken leave of absence, we have 781 Members. However, we have to take into account the fact that ineligible Members, such as those holding judicial posts, will in due course be able to resume their seats. Some of those on leave of absence because of the positions they hold, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, may well resume their seats upon completion of their current posts.
However, even working with the figure of 781, imagine what will happen if a new list of Peers is announced. Then think ahead to the next Parliament and the likely creation of another list. There may be ebbs and flows—we lose some Members each year and there is a lull between lists—but the underlying trend is clear. That is demonstrated graphically in Figure 2 of Meg Russell’s pamphlet, House Full, published in 2011. As she points out, the largest single number of Peers to be created in any one year since 1999 was the 117 who were created in 2010-11.
The number, be it of all Peers or just of eligible ones, is rising and has risen most markedly in the past three years. It is not beyond reason to envisage a House at some point in the next Parliament with a total membership close to, or even in excess of, 900 Members. A House of that size, whether active or inactive, does nothing for the reputation of the House; it is difficult to defend in the public arena.
One can certainly justify a House similar in size to that of the other House, given that we need a large membership to sustain an active House of part-time Members. We benefit fundamentally from Peers having outside links and maintaining current expertise. This House forms an invaluable arena for discourse by civil society. However, the more that we grow in number beyond the size of the other place and, like Topsy, just grow and grow, it is difficult to defend against the criticism of being primarily an expanding repository of political patronage.
There is no obvious justification for the expansion in terms of fulfilling the tasks that are core to our activity. The more that we grow in size, the more that the position becomes indefensible. It would not be bad if there were a rational argument for the growth in numbers, but there is no clear intellectual basis for it. The composition of the new membership in this Parliament bears little relationship to the stated aim of the coalition agreement in terms of membership proportional to votes in the general election. To achieve proportionality now would require a further, substantial injection of new Peers.
There is a more tangible problem in terms of the resources of the House. The growth in membership in recent years has brought in Members who contribute regularly to the work of the House. This is reflected in the daily attendance: the average daily attendance in the Session 2009-10 was 388, while in the most recent session, 2012-13, it was 484. As Meg Russell records, this substantial recent growth in the active membership generates three problems. First, it puts pressure on the limited resources of the House. Secondly, it puts pressure on the work of the House, not least in terms of demands to contribute to Question Time and debates. Thirdly, it has a negative impact on the culture of the House. The more that Members are brought in quickly and in large numbers, the more that this makes it difficult to socialise Members in the accepted norms of the House, and the danger is that the House may become more fractious and partisan.
The pressure on resources is fairly obvious, not least in terms of space. Members have always been underresourced relative to Members of the other place. This is shown in the extent to which Peers are allocated not offices of their own but rather desk space. The pressure is also obvious in the Chamber, in that at various times it is not able to accommodate all the Members who wish to attend. We have a smaller Chamber than that of the other place but a larger membership. The Commons has seating for more than 60% of its Members; we cannot match that, even based on the average daily attendance, and the situation is clearly growing worse.
The increase creates particular problems in a House that works on a fairly lean support base. The cost of this House is notably less than that of the House of Commons. In the previous Session, the cost to the public purse of the House of Commons was £392 million while the cost of the House of Lords was £87 million. We may take some pride in delivering value for money, but making a case for more public money at the present time is difficult. We are expected to make efficiency savings. That will be difficult with an influx of new and active members, each eligible for an attendance allowance and transport costs and adding to the demands on the resources of the House. There is clearly a problem in how this will be seen by the public. There is also the problem of how we can cope within our existing physical capacity and administrative support. The demand is in danger of outstripping the ability of the House to meet it.
So the situation that we are in is clearly problematic, and if there are many more creations then it will likely become unsustainable. What, then, is the answer? There are various steps that can be taken, although in taking them it is important to have regard to certain principles. One is that no party or coalition of parties forming a Government should have an absolute majority. Another is that there should be a protocol, a formula, on the balance between the parties in order to prevent another escalation in membership. Any reduction needs to have regard to the balance between political groupings in the House. A third is that we should work towards a membership that is smaller than that of the House of Commons. That may take time but it is a useful aspiration; it provides a framework for managing the reduction in numbers.
One immediate and rather modest step would be to put a limit on the size of the House. One proposal is to have a moratorium on the creation of new Members. I would propose a cap on membership. That way, one could create new Members but only when existing ones had demised. One could develop a formula of creating, say, only one new Peer for every three who left the House. That would gradually reduce the size of the House; it would be a slow process, but over the course of the Parliament it would reduce the size of the House by at least 50.
Other steps include those embodied in the Bill introduced in this House by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and that in the other place by Dan Byles, such as removing Peers who hardly ever attend. That would not affect the active membership but would have a beneficial effect in terms of public perception. Another provision of the Bill would create a form of retirement provision, which would have the effect of the Members ceasing to be Members of the House, with no provision for retirement to be rescinded.
More radical proposals have been canvassed. These include proposing a mandatory retirement age or imposing a set period for which a new Peer may serve, such as 10 or 15 years. The problem with each of these is that it has the potential to rid the House of Members who are making a substantial contribution to it. There is another proposal that would not have such an arbitrary effect and could be geared to the need to maintain a balance between the parties in the House and allow for some recalibration in each Parliament: to determine the number that each political grouping should have in a Parliament and to allow each to elect from within its own ranks those who should remain within the House—in other words, a scheme not dissimilar from that employed in 1999 to determine which hereditary Peers should remain in the House.
My purpose this afternoon is not to put forward a particular proposal, but rather to emphasise the necessity to address the problem. The more we can get on record the need to act, the sooner we may be able to achieve some steps by government to address the compelling need for some corrective action. Accepting the need for a cap on membership would be a starting point.
Given that, may I invite my noble friend the Leader of the House to focus not simply on where we are now, but on where we are likely to be in two, five and 10 years’ time? In terms of creations already announced, could he give us some indication of the additional costs estimated to be incurred in a full financial year once the introduction of the current tranche of new creations has been completed? Does he accept that a further list of Peers in the current Parliament will create not just additional but significant difficulties in terms of the finite resources of the House? Projecting ahead, would my noble friend accept that the problem will be exacerbated in the next Parliament, especially in the event of the return of a new Government? That will be the case if the new Government is a majority Conservative Government. Would not the new Government expect to create more Peers? If my noble friend accepts that there is a problem, either now or prospectively, what steps does he anticipate the Government taking to address it?
The problem has been touched upon by various bodies in recent years, including the Leader’s Group chaired by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, who I am delighted to see in his place, as well as more recently by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place. My noble friend told the committee that he found that there was a broad consensus among Members that the current House is too big and the overall size should be reduced. Given that there is such a consensus on the problem and what should be done about it, I look forward to hearing from my noble friend, speaking as the Leader of the House, what he plans to do to give effect to the will of the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, may I point out to the House that the timings are very tight indeed for this debate? I can help.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on this very timely debate. He and I gave evidence to the Select Committee of the other place that looked at this issue, and I shall briefly refer to its report because it was rather useful for people outwith this House to look in, although it has to be said that very many distinguished Members of this House gave evidence to that committee. My noble friend referred to some of the issues looked at—for example, the proposal that there should be legislation to expel Peers who have been convicted of a serious offence. I do not think that reform would produce a serious decrease in the size of the House; I would hope not.
The committee recorded strong agreement that action should not be taken in two areas: first, in relation to the introduction of a long-term moratorium on new Peers, and secondly, in relation to the introduction of a compulsory retirement age. It specifically said that it did not think either of those things were appropriate or would receive proper support in either House. The committee went on to say that there seemed to be some widespread support for no longer replacing hereditary Peers in the House of Lords when they died. That has proved very contentious in this House, so maybe there was a certain naivety at the other end of the building on that issue. On the other hand, the committee quite sensibly pointed out that tackling the issue of persistent non-attendance is by definition not particularly useful in dealing with problems of overpopulation in this House. It is a classic non-solution. Finally, it said that it thought that the evidence about introducing fixed-terms appointment for Peers suggested that it would prove to be just as controversial as some of the more major reforms that both Houses have been looking at in recent years.
The chairman of that Committee, Mr Graham Allen MP, said in introducing the report:
“Establishing a consensus about the principles that should determine the relative numerical strengths of the different party groups in the House of Lords, and for codifying such principles, is probably the most contentious of all the issues we considered in this inquiry, but it is also the most crucial to any further progress. We call upon the Government and political parties in the Lords to set out their positions on this matter and to engage in dialogue that will establish a consensus before the next General Election, so that both Houses can act upon an agreed reform”.
My noble friend the Leader of the House may be able to respond to that challenge. I was disappointed that the committee did not see fit to take evidence from my noble friend because on a number of occasions in this House he has given a very effective, robust and rigorous analysis of the issue of active membership of this House, which is not fully explored in the Library note, which is otherwise excellent.
The search for consensus is fascinating in politics, not least in this building. My very good friend Dr Chris Ballinger of Exeter College, who has given evidence to a number of committees, said recently that,
“seeking a perfect reform through consensus is a fast track to inertia”.
I suspect that is where we are again today. Already we can see that Dan Byles’s Private Member’s Bill, which has now come to our House and is based on the previous Bills introduced in this House by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood, whose Bill was passed by this House, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is likely to be squeezed out in the current Session by the Conservative high command’s insistence on giving precedence to the European Union (Referendum) Bill. Is there really a chance of making progress in this Session—I doubt it—or the next Session, a few months before a general election? Presumably we can now confidently assume that all three major parties will reiterate their previous and repeated manifesto commitments to full reform of this House. It would presumably be perverse if Labour failed to commit itself to legislation which incorporated all the main features of Jack Straw’s White Paper of July 2008, including specific recommendations on the transitional, steady reduction in the size of the House. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in his place this afternoon. He was not only a crucial author of those proposals; I think that he was really the godfather—I mean that in the nicest sense, not the Italian sense.
I just say to the noble Lord that I continue, with him, to seek consensus in this matter.
We may both of us lose more hair before that happens; even so, I welcome his support.
There was in both Jack Straw’s White Paper and the Bill a specific, careful, planned reduction in the size of the House. Can we expect those proposals in the Government’s 2012 Bill to see the light of day again? There is a mystery here. I heard just recently in your Lordships’ House a distinguished Member—indeed, a distinguished former Member of the other place—say that the Government’s Bill had been defeated. Not so: that is a myth. It was not defeated. On 10 July 2012, the House of Commons gave the coalition government Bill a record majority at Second Reading of 338 votes. Even more significantly, there was a substantial majority of supporting MPs in all three major parties: 193 to 89 Conservatives; 202 to 26 Labour; and 53 to zero Liberal Democrats.
As we all know, the Labour leadership, understandably perhaps, refused to support a programme Motion—any programme Motion—so the Leader of the House had to announce that no progress could be made. The Prime Minister sought agreement to press on but failed to achieve it. The Bill was pulled, not defeated. Indeed, had Labour not sacrificed its principles and manifesto promises on the altar of temporary expediency, there would now be a reform Act, or one on its way, as a result of the Parliament Act. The problem of the long-term size of the House would have been solved, but by the votes of our fellow citizens rather than by the contrived patronage or blackballing of party bosses.
We can all speculate about the outcome of the next general election in May 2015. Maybe there will be a dramatic swing to the right. Maybe it will end up with a coalition between UKIP and the Conservatives, but I think that that is unlikely. It therefore seems to me that in May 2015, which is not that far ahead, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt and I may well see a consensus in the other place that we should make progress on a Bill with that considerable support. This problem, so well identified by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, may therefore be on its way to a solution, not because of what the parties say but because of what the people say.
Winston Churchill was once a great Liberal—some people think that he lost his way later on in life—and at one point he said, “Let’s trust the people”. I think that that would be my position.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on having secured this important debate. In so doing, I declare my own interest as chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, raises an important issue which has implications for the practical discharge of the work of your Lordships’ House, as he rightly pointed out in his excellent introduction to the debate. It also has an important impact on the external perception of your Lordships’ House and therefore more broadly on the regard and standing of Parliament.
It is therefore vital that we look at the size of your Lordships’ House in the context of what the ongoing role of a second Chamber might be in the 21st century, in a bicameral Parliament where the primary Chamber enjoys the democratic mandate and has reserved for itself specific powers with regard to supply and confidence; and where there is a convention that your Lordships’ House does not frustrate the will of the primary Chamber but, rather, plays an important and active role, respecting the democratic mandate of the primary Chamber; in scrutinising and revising legislation, ensuring that our fellow citizens can live under the best possible laws that have been informed by active consideration in your Lordships’ House; by holding the Government to account, applying itself in a rigorous and fastidious fashion, questioning what the Government are doing and how the Executive are discharging themselves; and, of course, stimulating and initiating debates and inquiries which address concerns of national importance.
To discharge those functions, your Lordships’ House has concentrated on work in the Chamber, but also in Grand Committee and a number of Select and ad hoc Committees, currently over 30, populated by noble Lords who bring unique insights and expertise to their work. It is in that context that we need to consider how your Lordships’ House should be populated in the future. A driving principle of membership of this House has been that it brings experience, insight and expertise to much of the work that it does.
That has been an important and distinguishing characteristic of the composition of your Lordships’ House and it helps us to distinguish it from the other place. Therefore, in considering questions of the future size of your Lordships’ House it is important to understand whether at the heart of that particular question your Lordships and those who are in a position to make appointments to the House are fully cognisant of the current composition of the House and, in particular, what expertise exists within it.
For instance, do we have any clear understanding of the range of expertise that is required in a Chamber of this nature to be able to address issues of complexity in terms of modern legislation? How frequently is the declared expertise brought to bear in addressing in detail—in Committee and in work in the Chamber—the kinds of issues of legislation that your Lordships’ House is faced with, to ensure that the citizens of our country can be certain that they live under the very best laws, which have been thoughtfully considered? How often are we able to refresh that expertise to ensure that we are able to discharge our constitutional responsibilities? How can the House go about identifying the kinds of issues—and therefore the kinds of expertise—that might be required on the horizon to ensure that we can continue to discharge our responsibilities to scrutinise and revise legislation appropriately?
An important example of one of the areas where your Lordships’ House has taken a particular leading role in this Parliament is on the question of the scrutiny of legislation from Europe. I declare a further interest as a member of Sub-Committee B of your Lordships’ European Union Committee. The work of that network of European Union committees is highly regarded. It informs debate in the other place, and of course it informs further consideration among the European institutions and among other member states. How are we to ensure, when considering the size of a future House, that we retain that type of expertise?
Your Lordships’ House has another very important function in this bicameral Parliament. That is to ensure that Parliament, in the broadest sense, is able to reflect the diversity—in age, gender, ethnicity and in geography—that reflects our country as a whole, and which may not always be achieved through the ballot box and our particular electoral system in terms of membership of the other place. It would be a great pity, when considering questions about the size of your Lordships’ House, if those important defining characteristics were lost through the application of arbitrary solutions. That is not to say that the question of size is not an important one, but in addressing that question, your Lordships and others must be sensitive to the fact that your Lordships’ House, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said in his introduction, works well, discharges those important responsibilities, and must be able to do so in the future.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, and I agree wholeheartedly with what he said about arbitrary solutions. I thank, as have other noble Lords, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for initiating this important debate. However, sometimes, and increasingly, it seems that debates about our own future are becoming like the story of Penelope’s tapestry in Homer’s Odyssey: great labour, ingenious designs, but of it there never comes an end.
That this House should be comfortable with itself is important. But if the belt fits a little tightly at some times and in some places, is that the end of the world? We did not need too many sharp elbows to get to our places this afternoon; some looking on will be bemused at the idea that a House so allegedly overcrowded looks so empty. What is so urgent or damaging about this alleged problem that it claims our monthly attention? Surely it cannot be that some, as well as not wanting hereditary peers any more, do not want too many more like ourselves. I express my unqualified welcome to new Members of the House on all sides—I am sure they will enrich our work.
Most of your Lordships have recently rejected a reduction in the size of the other place. The House also set its teeth, as my noble friend Lord Tyler said, against the solution of election of a set number of Peers to stock the political Benches of this House. That would be the easiest way to set a cap on the political sides of the House, while preserving through appointment the independent expertise of the Cross-Benchers.
This House is still one of the cheapest in the world. Why are we agonising so much about cost? It continues to be a House of expertise, unpaid and part-time. Few here want to change that. Such a House inevitably needs a larger pool of Members from which to draw to do its work. There are high hopes of proposals for permanent retirement, and I welcome them, although I could not support a payment to leave. Voluntary retirement would be preferable to compulsory ejection of Members who reach a certain age—and I agree fully with the comments of my noble friend in the report of the Commons Select Committee on this issue.
In a country where policy-making and comment on it is ever more dominated by people under 45, while the growing majority of the electorate is—and will continue to be for the foreseeable future—over 45, it seems highly eccentric to seek out one of the few parts of our constitution where the voices of older, more experienced people are regularly heard and to force them out. It is often a little more experience and a much longer view we need in the counsels of the state, not less. So I am against age limits.
The arguments for a formal cap on the size of an appointed House raged three centuries ago over the Peerage Bill in 1719, and were skewered very effectively by Robert Walpole in debates on that legislation, not only by frightening his fellow MPs that, if they voted to limit the size of the House of Lords, a pleasant retirement home would be denied them, but on the more serious basis that a firmly capped unelected House could not be overborne by new creations if it brought a government to deadlock. Creation to secure the Crown’s business was needed or threatened in 1711, 1832 and 1911, and some of us are old enough to remember hearing Tony Benn call for 1,000 Peers to carry Labour’s programme of 1976. Even with the cumbersome blunderbuss of the Parliament Act, an unelected House can still disrupt business, as we all recently experienced. There needs to be an ability to break a cap, and defining that would be difficult.
Nor is a moratorium reasonable for obvious reasons of renewal and political balance. Roughly half the existing life peerages were recommended under the Blair Governments of 1997 to 2007. It is a little chary, in this light, to chunter that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is overegging it. Mr Blair allowed only 49 Conservative Peers in his first two Governments; my right honourable friend has allowed 44 additions to a Labour Party that was already the largest in the House in one as yet uncompleted term. In his first three years, Mr Blair appointed Labour Peers at a rate 50% faster than that allowed himself by Mr Cameron in appointing Conservative Peers. Mr Cameron has, by contrast, been actually restrained.
We have been through a stage of exceptional creation—a missile-building period—and the House will take time to get over the hump of those massive creations. But I think that it can return progressively, as I hope that it will, to the lower rates of creation that were standard in the past. There may well need to be a steady decommissioning of the stacks of Back-Bench ICBMs, waiting in the Bishops’ Bar to come into Divisions—but with patience and a will, it can be done. Even in the quarter century from 1905 to 1929, which included the Lloyd George era, the average was 11 creations a year. In 1929 to 1955, with many changes of Government, it was 12. Those figures are less than the number of those leaving the House in every year so far this century—and, with an average age of 70, sadly, the number of leavers is likely to be steady in the years ahead.
We should be far more relaxed on this score, stop constantly fussing about the matter and turn our attention to other affairs of state, although I think that ingenious heads might come together in the usual channels to consider the active House and the escalating size of Divisions, the main reason why many are called to the House day by day. Pairing would be extremely difficult in this House, partly because of the coalition but also because of the existence of Cross-Benchers. However, a search for a START treaty in the usual channels might bear fruit, if searched for. If some of the Peers who do not intend to take part in proceedings could be slipped from the duty to vote, the House could keep, and draw on, the pool of their wisdom while not flooding the byways of the House for the more humdrum Divisions that punctuate our lives. That task would be difficult but I hope that the Front Benches might rise to that challenge and prefer it to mechanistic and legislative solutions.
My Lords, this House owes a debt to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for his assiduous work towards creating a more effective second Chamber. As usual, he has today rehearsed very clearly and effectively the case for reducing its size.
It seems to me that the challenge is clear. In spite of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord True, there is surely overwhelming agreement with the fundamental proposition that this House is too large. The question, therefore, is to find ways not just of agreeing with the principle of creating a smaller House, but to give effect to it. In that sense, this debate is part of a wider discussion upon which hangs the reputation and credibility of the political class.
A noble and right reverend former Bishop of Durham said about Lords reform a few years ago:
“I would rather be a Member of an upper House which works effectively as a revising and scrutinising Chamber than retain membership of one which is not fit for purpose”.
For the avoidance of doubt, I do not quote this in order to offer up this Bench for abolition but rather to make a different point about what will bring about change; namely, that the overriding issue for examination needs to be what makes for the good governance of our country. On that point hang successive submissions from the Church of England in the past 10 years, and I believe it is on this basis that the debate should proceed.
This Bench supports the thrust of the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Norton. We passionately believe that the function and, therefore, the character and composition of this House need to be different from that of the other place. To achieve that, any reduction in size needs to maintain true and impartial accountability and to represent the breadth and diversity of civil society and intellectual life. Therefore, any reduction in numbers will need to have regard to the proportion of independent Members as the pressure for political appointees continues to mount.
We will see nothing but serious dysfunction if these principles are not given effect soon. The coalition agreement appears to enshrine the doctrine that membership of your Lordships’ House should reflect the proportions of votes cast at the 2010 election. Unless there is change, and if this doctrine continues to obtain, we all know that the consequence will rapidly become unmanageable. If the suspicion is to be allayed that the necessary limited reforms of this House are being frustrated in order to create the conditions for more radical reform, surely we need to proceed to action soon. This House is not, and never has been, a Chamber embodying the doctrine of proportional representation—our character, purpose and raison d’être lie elsewhere.
I speak from a Bench whose Members are required to accept the disciplines of a cap on numbers and a final retirement age. Certainly, those limitations have not prevented this Bench playing a full part in the range of policies and laws which come under scrutiny in this House. Indeed, a process of appointment which is time-limited and number-limited enables Members of this Bench to reflect our regional involvement and speak not out of self or party interest but rather reflect the truth that profound moral and ethical questions surround a great deal of the work of your Lordships’ House. From this experience we have consistently argued in favour of measures to allow for the expulsion, retirement and suspension of Members of a reformed House of Lords, believing those measures to be the interests of this House and of Parliament more widely.
However, we need to be open also to reform on this Bench. We have indicated in evidence to the Select Committee on the Clegg Bill that we would be willing to work with government to find ways in which a small Bench of Lords spiritual in a proportionally reduced House could continue to play its full part in its proceedings and offer rather more than is presently possible. More immediately, we have begun to explore the possibility of modification to the Bishoprics Act, which governs the succession of Lords spiritual after a vacancy, in order to make it possible for women who may be ordained as bishops in the next few years to be fast-tracked to this Bench. I am glad to say that the Prime Minister was able to give an encouraging response to the Second Church Estates Commissioner when asked about this recently at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Many of the issues raised by this debate were extensively explored by the Select Committee of both Houses, of which I was a member and which gave pre-legislative scrutiny to the Deputy Prime Minister’s reform Bill two years ago. I cannot remember a single witness to that committee, or a single member of it, arguing that the present size of this House is optimal. What we do here is of vital importance to the nation. We surely cannot tolerate increasing and inevitable dysfunctionality. My hope is that this debate will help us to define some practical proposals around which it will become possible for all of us to gather, and soon.
My Lords, I express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing this debate—and for doing so in a thoughtful way, as is his wont.
I must say, however, that the real question that has to be asked about this House is: does it do its job properly and with effectiveness? The answer has to be that it does. That is increasingly clear. Meg Russell, probably the greatest scholar on this House, has indicated the impact that we have on the legislative process. That impact has grown since the reform of 1999, when there was a self-denying ordinance to some extent. The Select Committees of this House also give great scope, perception and insight to others who are contemplating legislation in these fields. As a member of the Select Committee on the European Union and its sub-committee on external affairs, I am conscious of how well regarded the work of the committee is, not just in this country but in the other member countries of the European Union.
The main problem that we face, which has been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, comes from the lack of understanding of the role played by this House, which is largely due to the press and media—particularly the press, which used to quote in columns what was said in the debates in the House. In the broadsheets, that gave some weight to our deliberations. I regret that we now suffer mostly from comment that is to some extent derisory and does not convey the practical reformative work that is being done here.
There are modest changes that could be made and they have been largely encapsulated in the Bill produced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman: the changes providing for permanent retiral, ending by-elections of hereditary Peers’ successors, enabling those who do not attend a full Session of Parliament to come back, and excluding serious criminal offenders. Those all seem commonsensical. The probability is that they would not have a massive effect on the Members of this House but they would meet the observations of those who want to see some change. I hope that they might be considered in legislation before the end of this Parliament.
However, I think it would be wise if we looked at the wider functions of this House and its representative nature in a much broader context. We are, after all, facing the possibility of a restructuring of the governance of the United Kingdom. We face the possibility of Scotland becoming independent, and it seems to me that we are tinkering at the margins if we become obsessed about this House before we have understood how the nations of the United Kingdom are to be governed. If there are changes, they might have to be reflected in the structure of the second Chamber.
Consequently, I repeat what I indicated not very long ago in a debate in this House: I think that it would be wise to establish a convention on the future governance of the United Kingdom. That should not be done in a hurry; it should be deliberated upon and attract input from the citizenry of this country so that they can sense that what is being done is based on a consensual decision with the backing of the majority. I do not believe that including reform of the House of Lords in a manifesto will necessarily give that kind of legitimacy. Manifestos list dozens of policies, and what moves people’s minds in elections is not necessarily the small print of manifestos. The structure of our governance is so important that it needs to be considered not in an election period of three, four or five weeks but in a wider context involving expertise and the general will of the British people.
I hope that before the Scottish independence referendum an announcement might be made that such a convention will be established; otherwise, as I have said before, the Scots might think that there are only two choices—independence or the status quo. However, it would also have a much wider impact on the thinking about the effectiveness of our governance.
My Lords, I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on introducing this debate with his usual clarity and intellectual analysis, and on his passionate commitment to this House and the way in which it does its job. It is a commitment shared by all those who have spoken, most notably the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, who enjoined us to look at the quality of the work that we do rather than having an obsession with size.
Size does matter, actually. Political balance matters, and the balance between the political appointees and the independent appointees matters. It matters because the function of a second Chamber, particularly one like ours that is not elected directly, is to ask the directly elected Chamber where power resides to think again. That is a very important responsibility of this House, and it is important that the House can discharge that responsibility, not least when, as we know because of timetabling in another place, much legislation comes to this House without having been scrutinised.
The role of this House is not to overturn or to have the final say, but it is very important that it should be possible for a Government to be defeated in this House so that the other place can have second thoughts—or sometimes first thoughts, because it has not looked at the legislation at all. It is imperative to safeguard that. The quality of the work that we do is not essentially posited on the size of the House. We all agree that we probably need a larger House than we might think at first glance, because of the part-time nature and the quality that is added to our work by the fact that people have interaction with the outside world.
When I joined the House in the Session 1996-97, the absolute membership was 1,204 and the daily average attendance was 381. In the previous Session, 2012-13, the absolute membership of the House was 810 and the average daily attendance was 484. Where was the decision taken that we needed a 25% increase in average attendance to improve the quality of the work that we were doing? This has happened. It has happened because of some of the political dimensions that the noble Lord, Lord True, spoke of, and without an analysis of the need for it to happen.
It is really important to stop, take a breath and think about that. I have a question for the Leader of the House. I asked it twice in Written Questions of his predecessor, and never got what I would call a satisfactory Answer. I asked to which of the political parties that fought the previous general election the pledge that the House of Lords should reflect the votes cast in that election applied. It is quite an important question.
What has been done is that the membership of the House has been changed in line with the two major parties that form the coalition, not by taking a totally proportional view and bringing in minor parties. I do not particularly mind not having the votes cast for the BNP or indeed UKIP at the previous general election represented in membership and appointments to this House, but it is very important that we understand the terms of engagement going forward into the next general election. We need consensus and convention on this. The famous definition of consensus—that it is what the House of Commons votes for—does not do it in this respect. We will not get unanimity on many of these issues, but it is important that they are addressed.
I welcome the Bill that Dan Byles introduced into another place. It is true that not many criminals will be barred, but it brings disrepute to this House if any people who have committed serious criminal offences can return as Members. It would not make a huge difference to numbers if non-attenders were not allowed to attend. However, some of us with long political histories know that there is danger in having a group of people who may not participate all the time but who have the right and the power to participate in moments of great political crisis. If I have not been clear enough in my message about that, I will say only three words—the poll tax. So it is important that the membership of this House reflects those who are active and participatory.
I have no desire to introduce mechanistic or arbitrary solutions to this issue. I do not believe in a moratorium on new Members because I also welcome what the new Members have brought to this House and continue to bring. However, we cannot just continue to expand. I sometimes said when I had the honour of representing the House and acting as its ambassador that I sometimes thought the Government believed that the Chamber of the House of Lords was the TARDIS—it got bigger and bigger inside so that it could accommodate whoever came in. It is not quite like that. This is not only about having enough seats but about having time to speak in debates—a one-minute limit on speeches—and a whole range of issues.
I hope that the Leader of the House, with support from the Government—I am not as pessimistic as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on this—when Dan Byles’s Bill becomes law, will undertake to have discussions with leaders of the other parties about retirement provisions and how we could make progress on reducing the size of the House in a sensible, constructive way that will not damage our performance. However much we know that 800 is not a bad thing at the moment, the outside world finds it difficult to understand those kinds of numbers and we should do something to reduce them.
My Lords, a Session of Parliament without a regular debate about ourselves would not be the same. We have become so used to having such debates over the past 15 years, or even longer, and our regular navel gazing has become part of each Session. I therefore thank my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for introducing the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, hit the nail on the head when he said, “What is the purpose of a second Chamber?”. Once you have the role of second Chamber, you can then decide how that is best fulfilled, and on its numbers. However, deciding on a role for the second Chamber depends on the role of the first Chamber—in our case, the House of Commons. Despite joining Europe and many powers going to Europe, both Houses have evolved to the state they are now in, and perhaps we ought to stand back and say what we really want from them.
It was interesting and a matter of concern to read that, despite the low level of scrutiny of legislation in another place, the number of amendments tabled in your Lordships’ House, and the number agreed, have gone down. The statistics on this from the Library are interesting. In the period 2005-06 to 2010, the number of amendments tabled in this House dropped from around 10,000 to about 2,000. We pat ourselves on the back and say that we are doing a good job, but I do not know whether we are. When I cast my mind back 44 years to when I first came here to the job the House was doing then, and a Conservative or whatever Government of the day were defeated, just as today’s Government are defeated, I wonder whether we are doing a better job than our predecessors. There are more people and we are doing more work, but is it better? I am not in a position to answer.
My noble friend Lord Maclennan made a good point when he mentioned the work of the European Union Committee sub-committees. When he said that, I immediately thought of two reports, one of which was on the common fisheries policy. That report had a marked effect on the thinking of the Commission in Brussels, because most of the ideas set out in it were taken up and brought forward as proposals in EC legislation. The other report is one that I have been involved with: the report of Sub-Committee A on the financial transaction tax. It made our Government think again and led to them submitting a legal objection to the Commission. Those are two instances where our reports have had a marked effect, but I wonder whether in the generality, despite some extremely good work, our reports are getting the attention they deserve.
On the question of our work, another statistic that has both surprised and alarmed me is the number of Written Questions that we are putting down. The rate is on an almost perpendicular upward trend at the moment. Each Written Question costs a lot of money to answer and takes up a lot of civil servants’ time. Why has there been this sudden trend? The population of the House has not grown markedly over the past couple of years, and yet the number of Written Questions has, and that is a potential cause for concern.
My noble friend Lord True mentioned the age profile, and of course he is absolutely right. I agree entirely that it is very good that an older House up here complements the young enthusiasm of the Commons, but a closer look at the statistics shows that we now have only 31 Members under the age of 50. I think that some of us regret the passing of the hereditary Peers in 1999, because at least a lot of young people were brought in, which added to the balance of the House. At the same time, 24 Members of the House are over the age of 90, and 13 of them are active. The great majority of the House, something like 66%, is aged between 60 and 80, and the average age is around 70. I cannot think of any job or organisation in the world that I could have been a member of for 44 years and still be under the average age, and I am extremely grateful that I am still here and able to participate. But perhaps it is something that we ought to contemplate.
As long as we have the Prime Minister’s prerogative to create peerages, we are never going to solve the problem of numbers. I do not think that past Prime Ministers, such as Prime Minister Blair and Prime Minister Brown, did this House any good, and in fact I am not certain that my Prime Minister and the Leader of the Liberal Democrat party and Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, have done us any good with the number of people they have appointed. That has changed the House quite markedly. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said that the House ought to be politically balanced. To an extent that may be so, but if every five years there is a marked swing in another place, a whole lot of new Peers will have to be created here—
I apologise for taking up time in a timed debate, but I did not intend to say that I thought that the House should be politically balanced. I said that I thought there should be some agreement on the parameters of political balance, and on the balance between political appointees and non-political appointees.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that clarification. However, if one follows the argument that one needs political balance, if there is a dramatic swing in 2015, more Peers will have to be created to reflect that balance. If there is a sudden drop in support for the Labour Party—which I fully anticipate—I am sure that some Labour Peers would want to resign from here in order to get that balance, rather than see the creation of new Conservative Peers.
The suspension of the succession of hereditary Peers has been raised, but that would not be effective. Any Government—particularly a Conservative Government, because our party has the most hereditary Peers—would just appoint life Peers, most of whom would be older than the current possible successors to those hereditaries, so that would not be very good.
I have a couple of suggestions for my noble friend on the Front Bench. Why not create the equivalent of the Irish peerage? We could offer people a peerage, but no right to sit in this House. That would be a good thing. Then there are the ex-MPs, who make up 22.7% of this House. I welcome them. Most are Labour, and have kept this House even though they were all part of a party that wanted to abolish it. However, perhaps there ought to be a five-year moratorium after someone has been an MP before they are offered an active peerage in this House.
My Lords, I am sure noble Lords are all grateful for the explanation of the age paradox from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. I hope I am correct in saying that the main speaker in the debate so far who has not been worried about size in the future was the noble Lord, Lord True, whose points I can understand. The general sense of the debate so far, as far as I can tell, is that size is a problem and that something needs to be done.
The Bill from Dan Byles MP in another place has 11 very able and senior members of all the parties acting as sponsors, including some of course who are also in favour of an elected House of Lords. When it comes to this House, it will have a very tight timetable for us as well, as it will follow the European Union (Referendum) Bill, with its equally stringent timetable. I hope that there will be ample time for discussion. The Dan Byles Bill is really the intellectual and psychological follower of the four earlier Steel Bills—which were, incidentally, ignored by two Governments, not just by one. If we add Peers who do not attend during a Session and do not apply for a leave of absence under the Standing Orders, ceasing membership would be an important part of any future elements.
All the way through the efforts that I have detected to make rational progress on the successive Steel Bills, as I will call them, the hope was entertained that the Government of the day would pick up the Bill and make it central government business. There is still an opportunity for that and I think more and more Peers would support that aspiration. Although the three or four measures for reducing individual membership seem to be very modest and at the margin, the practical effect would be quite rapid over time. It is crazy that we contemplate the fact that this Chamber is literally too large with some calmness at the moment—although I hope not too much. It is around the size of the entire European Parliament, which represents 28 member states. The latest text of the Bill, which began its Second Reading before June 2010, in February 2009, added the helpful provision of non-attendance producing disqualification.
Whatever the fate of the fundamentalist parts of these ideas—mostly having elected Members in the future—in the Joint Committee’s plans published at the end of April 2012, the stage has now been decisively and helpfully set to bring about a reduction in numbers if this legislation becomes government business. To my mind, the Commons would never have accepted the election plan. Although there was a huge majority on Second Reading of the fundamental reform Bill, ironically it began to unravel almost immediately after that. Many members of the leading coalition party refused to ordain new laws which they feared would inevitably lead to the upper House challenging their unique powers and legislative primacy. Eventually, beyond the inaugural Session of a new elected House of Lords, they would presumably want to turn themselves into an ambitious senate in no time at all. There were articles about this saying that there would eventually be senators in the House of Lords demanding office facilities and staff expenses of £1 million per office to deal with all the correspondence and work that would now arise as a result of being elected. The House will indeed be large and expensive if attendance claims rise, even if, as we hope, they rise because of expanding membership rather than individual claims as the number of days goes down.
This has been a long, drawn-out, painful episode of various bits and pieces. The provisions of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill of July 2009 that covered the suspension, resignation and expulsion of Members were taken out of the text in the final version; hence the reintroduction pledge by my noble friend Lord Steel. He repeated his view then that the Bill did not deal with future composition. The Bill also provided for the end of the hereditary Peers’ by-elections, which were described as farcical by some, but that section was later taken out.
All these matters lead to the fact that a good number of non-Tory Peers have always agreed with Tory traditionalists in both Houses that an elected senatorial peerage would be bound to challenge the superior powers of the other place. In the mean time, the size problem has acquired the ominous characteristic of an almost grotesque situation, with Parliament being unable to make rational progress on these matters, in a perverse and ridiculous setting, which gives rise to very great public dismay. The most recent intake of nominated Peers, we remember, had to be announced deliberately after the House rose for the summer holidays. There was an outcry in the press and it is very difficult for the public to accept the seeming illogicality and absurdity of yet another large increase.
It gives me no pleasure to say these things about the financial side of it but the reality that we now face is that the incidence and weight of the Tory party’s very large tribe of donor Peers gives much offence to the public—I am sorry to say that but I have to—especially among those who happen to believe that the House of Lords does a pretty good job as a revising and improving Chamber, which I feel is definitely the case. Of course, all parties have donors so I will avoid smugness. I will only mention in passing that we Liberal Democrats have donors only from time to time; they do not come along in serried ranks. Labour, too, has a good crop nowadays, which only underlines one of the great weaknesses in British politics, which is the failure in recent times, mainly in the Commons, to reach consensus on vital factors affecting Parliament as a whole.
We should think of the damage that has been done by the terrible imbroglio over the MPs’ expenses saga and our own expenses saga, when the Times took the lead because it was annoyed that the Telegraph had the priority with the previous articles, and the fact that there was not any consensus between the party leaders. I understand the pressures but the competition between political parties is now so excessive that no party can admit that it believes in anything that the other parties are suggesting—apart from the coalition parties, of course. The pressure is very strong.
We should work to persuade people in the Commons to listen to this and to revive the suggestion of £5,000 maximum personal donations with, if necessary, further restrained sums of public money for essential party infrastructure spending. The opposition leader’s offer to break the trade union membership nexus is a concrete, positive step, which might help to get the parties around the table soon, but this has been going on for an awfully long time and it is about time they reached agreement on this matter.
The only time when an independent recommendation for a salary increase for MPs was accepted was when Edward Heath was Prime Minister in 1972. All the others were blocked, once again because of the lack of consensus. This is doing damage because these are parliamentary matters rather than matters of different policies and competition between parties on policy. If we can separate those two things out and see how the Dan Byles text makes progress in our House and goes back to the Commons in unamended or amended form, we can begin to see the beginnings of common sense in size reduction. I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to give us some guidance today.
My Lords, it is about 12 years since my noble friend Lord Norton and I formed a group to which many of your Lordships come quite often: the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. Over the years, my noble friend has with assiduity acted as our convenor, and I have chaired the sessions, and we have had some fascinating discussions. We are all grateful to my noble friend for the clear, forensic way in which he introduced the debate today.
Our group was formed because we believed in a second Chamber that was appointed and not elected and therefore did not challenge the unambiguous democratic mandate of another place. I still strongly believe that there is a real place for such a second Chamber and I believe that we have demonstrated that in recent years. We all know those wonderful lines from “Iolanthe”, looking back to previous eras:
“The House of Peers, throughout the war
Did nothing in particular
And did it very well”.
Well, we have over the past 12 years and more done quite a lot of particular things and done them very well. We live in a time, as has already been referred to, where much legislation comes to us not having been discussed at all in another place. The skill with which the experts in this place analyse and scrutinise is of incalculable importance to the people of this country.
That is why it is important that the reputation of this House should stand high. I believe that it does. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester made an interesting speech, but he referred to our being dysfunctional in some respects. I do not think that we are. There are of course dangers, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and others have been right to refer to them, but my noble friend Lord True was also right to refer us to an era when only 12 or 15 Peers were appointed each year. The answer to the problem of size—and it is a problem—lies in three things. The first is an abandonment of any idea of a ratio to the last general election; the second is a degree of self-restraint; and the third is underlining in the appointments that are made the fact that this is indeed a House of expertise.
I welcome as others have done those who have recently joined our ranks. It would be invidious for me to pick out a whole list of names, but I give just four to your Lordships to illustrate the importance of bringing in fresh blood: on these Benches, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, who has remarkable experience in commerce; my noble friend Lord Bamford, who has achieved so much in industry; and from the Cross Benches, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, who is already making a real mark in this House and who knows more about the technological revolution than most of the rest of us put together. And then one thinks of the former Governor of the Bank of England, the noble Lord, Lord King, to whom I was speaking yesterday. The appointment of people such as this enriches this Chamber and therefore enriches the counsels of the nation. It is very important that we should continue to do that.
But there must be an abandonment of the ratio idea and there must be a paring-down of the number of Peers who are appointed each year. As someone earlier pointed out, sadly, we lose 12 or 15 Members each year on average. If the number of annual appointments was of that order, we would certainly not be inflating the size of the House. My noble friend Lord Norton in his very admirable speech referred, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, to the average attendance now being 484 per day, but we must bear in mind that they are not the same 484 people day after day. If we are to draw upon a wide range of experience and deep reservoir of talent, we must not be over-worried about numbers, although we are right to be concerned. Concern is something we all share. We are concerned about the reputation of this House.
I very much hope that Mr Dan Byles’s Bill will complete its passage through another place, come to this House and be given an expeditious passage. In effect, it was passed here last year. It can then get on to the statute book with the Government’s support and it is right that it should. But I will just make one specific request and one suggestion to my noble friend the Leader of the House, fully appreciating that he cannot comment in detail on the first point that I will put to him. When people are being appointed to this House, let us bear in mind the need for expertise. Let us ask ourselves the question “Do they also serve who only come to vote?”. To appoint people to this House who play really no part in our proceedings and merely vote in the Lobbies is not serving the nation or Parliament as it should.
Apart from that comment, I put two suggestions to my noble friend the Leader of the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was an admirable Lord Speaker of this House. In her just as admirable speech, she suggested that party leaders should try to get together. I agree with that but something else should be done. I say this with a degree of hesitation and reservation because I do not want to see a proliferation of committees, but in the last year of this Parliament there is a real case for establishing a Select Committee of this House to consider the sort of suggestions and comments that have been made this afternoon and to try to draw up what might be a blueprint for the House of Lords as we move through the 21st century.
There will always be a need for a place like this. There will always be a need for men and women of expertise and experience to debate the laws of the land. There will always be a need for those set-piece debates—we do not have enough of them—such as we had on Syria where the enormous and varied experience can bring to the counsels of the nation a true balance and some real worth.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate and particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton. We are indeed fortunate in having such a constitutional expert as a Member of your Lordships’ House. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, while I do not always agree with all the emanations from the group that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, chairs, there is no doubt that it has added very much to our knowledge and enabled us to debate some of the very important issues that we must when it comes to reform of your Lordships’ House.
I tend to agree with the key point made at the beginning by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that your Lordships’ House has grown, is growing and ought to be reduced. I think I share the following point with a number of noble Lords: while the size of the House is important, much more crucial is the question as to whether it is effective in acting as a check on the Executive and as a revising Chamber, and in adding to the effectiveness more generally of parliamentary scrutiny.
As ever in your Lordships’ debates, most noble Lords who asked that question have tended to come to a view in the affirmative. Of course, we all understand the strengths of your Lordships’ House but we ought to examine its effectiveness in the context of the impact of coalition government. We have a situation where the coalition parties in your Lordships’ House have a political majority over the opposition. I would argue that that threatens the effectiveness of the House. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hill, when he comes to wind up will refer to the defeats that his Government have suffered here but the rate of defeat is much less compared to the period of 1997 to 2010. I know that it is a little early to draw conclusions from the impact of the latest appointments to your Lordships’ House but, certainly from this side of the House, it would appear that the Government are able to win votes which in normal terms they would not have done. The problem with that is that if a Government are no longer able to be defeated in your Lordships’ House on a regular basis, this can no longer call itself a revising Chamber. We need to consider that very carefully.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, on substantive reform in the sense that we surely need to see the outcome of the referendum in Scotland and any constitutional fallout from it. Substantive reform of your Lordships’ House cannot be considered in isolation from either wider constitutional issues or the impact on the primacy of the Commons. At the risk of tempting the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, to get up and remind me of my past sins, in the joint working group chaired by my right honourable friend Jack Straw—the noble Lord is right that I served on that, with its cross-party talks—there was a failure, which the Deputy Prime Minister repeated, even to contemplate how an elected second Chamber fits with a House of Commons when there is a pretty consensual view that we wish to retain its primacy. That failure, in my view, led to the failure of Mr Clegg’s Bill. In the end, that was a failure; it was quite clear from what was happening in the other place that it did not stand an earthly chance of getting through.
The question of size was discussed by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on which I had the honour to sit. It came up with a proposal to allow Members of your Lordships’ House to retire and it has been enormously successful, as noble Lords will know. I think we have not quite yet reached double figures but one is ever hopeful. The Hunt committee said that the problem with an ever increasing size is that it risks the reputation of the House, that it probably makes conducting business more difficult and that the effect of the additional Members on the resources of the House and its ability to do its job would also be adversely affected.
We are right to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hill, the Leader of the House, what the Government’s intention is with regard to any further appointments between now and the general election. Are the Government intent on implementing what was in the coalition agreement or have they stood back from that commitment? Does the Leader of the House accept that the general view of Members of your Lordships’ House is that there should be very few appointments between now and the general election? Does he agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that there ought to be a cap on membership, and will he institute cross-party discussions as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler? The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggested that there might be a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House and there is an argument in favour of the political parties and the Cross-Benchers discussing these matters in a small group or in a more formal Select Committee. It would surely be useful, in the run-up to the election, for there to be some discussions across the House.
Does the noble Lord, Lord Hill, agree that if the size of the House is limited, in the end there have to be questions as to how to achieve a party balance? It is not possible to have a cap without some general agreement on how the parties should be balanced in your Lordships’ House. That would also need to reflect on Cross-Bencher representation and on the number of Bishops who should remain in your Lordships’ House in the event of such agreement.
Does the noble Lord, Lord Hill, take the point raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester that if we see women bishops, as many of us devoutly hope, will there be a way of accelerating them to membership of your Lordships’ House? I am not sure whether this is a question of law or of practice, but no doubt the noble Lord will be able to inform us of that.
My next point is one that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norton: what advice would the noble Lord, Lord Hill, give to an incoming Government in 2015 faced with a political majority against it? How many noble Lords does he think an incoming Government ought to appoint if we are to keep to the mantra that he has stuck to over the past three and a half years? I must say that I rather warmed to the reference by the noble Lord, Lord True, to Tony Benn’s 1,000 Labour Peers; that has a certain ring to it.
I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hill, about time and the question of whether a fair wind will be given to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on the assumption that she takes through Mr Dan Byles’s Bill. I was rather shocked by the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that the time taken for the European Union (Referendum) Bill might crowd out Mr Byles’s Bill. I do not think that that would be the will of the House; I think that the will of the House would be that the noble Baroness should be given a fair wind.
Lastly, I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hill, about finance. I have been riveted by the debate on the recommendations of IPSA regarding MPs’ pay, but I noted the Prime Minister’s comment that he wished to see the cost of politics reduced. Although I accept that the costs of your Lordships’ House are rather modest compared with the other place, I wondered whether the noble Lord thinks that the Prime Minister making all these appointments is consistent with wishing to reduce the actual amount that our politics cost us.
My Lords, earlier today this House was debating death, and I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has spoken in both debates. In his choice of debate, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has brought us forward a few years chronologically, perhaps to the transit lounge from the departure lounge.
This has been a good debate and I know that we are grateful to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to raise some extremely important issues. As always, I am reminded of how much noble Lords know, and how well they appear to know every twist and turn of the history of the composition of this House.
I start with a point that I do not believe is contentious—one that my noble friend Lord Maclennan and others made—which is that we perform a vital role and that we do so very well. I start with that point because sometimes, when we discuss our internal matters, we can be in danger of losing that bigger picture. I believe that our scrutiny of primary legislation is as thorough and as expert as ever; I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Cormack on that. Having had the dubious pleasure of taking legislation through your Lordships’ House, I can speak from experience about the rigour of that scrutiny. We may be polite but we are relentless.
The contrast between scrutiny in this House and scrutiny down the other end is remarkable, as a number of noble Lords have said, and I see no sign of any diminution in our performance of that most fundamental role. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on the importance of being able to defeat the Government—a point made also by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. That is what we have in this House. However, we need the addition of new expertise and new vigour from time to time to help us to carry out that role of scrutiny.
Unlike in the other place, all Members in this House can take part in all stages of legislation. All noble Lords can table amendments and, because there is no process of selection, they are guaranteed a debate on each of those amendments, should they wish to have one. Less visible, but, I think, of great importance is the work that we undertake on secondary legislation. Our House gives more time than the other place to scrutinising these rather unglamorous yet often highly significant pieces of legislation—and, again, in this House, all Members can participate fully in all stages of that scrutiny.
Through Oral and Written Questions, Questions for Short Debate and longer debates such as this, the House holds the Government to account, as it does through the work of our Select Committees, involving large numbers of your Lordships in detailed investigations of different areas of government policy. In this context, I thought that the important points made by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, were very pertinent. I know how much we all welcome his appointment as chairman of the House of Lords Appointment Commission.
I am reminding us of the work that we do not to give us a self-congratulatory pat on the back, although sometimes that is not unknown in your Lordships’ House, but to make the important point that not only has the work of the House not been damaged by increased attendance, it has in many respects continued to improve year on year—and long may that continue.
We have talked about numbers this afternoon, and there has been talk, including by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and my noble friend Lord Dykes, about packing the House and overcrowding. I listened to the figures adduced very carefully, but there are other figures. It is the case that the list of new Peers announced in August was the first political list for three years. I am afraid that I have to disagree strongly with the comments made in that context by my noble friend Lord Dykes. There are only 24 more eligible Members in the four main groups than there were in 2007, and I am not aware that in 2007 people were making the point that there were too many Peers in the House. There have certainly been new Peers created since 2010, but around 100 Members have sadly died or taken leave of absence over the same period. I argue that the figures also show that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been even-handed in his appointments. For example, 39 Labour Peers were appointed in his first year compared with 47 Conservatives, as my noble friend Lord True reminded us.
I think there has been general acceptance this afternoon that we need to refresh our ranks from time to time, rather than freezing the membership at a particular point in time, so that the expertise and experience on which the House relies for its good name can be kept up to date. In fact, I think the real issue is not so much the absolute number of those entitled to vote—a point that has already been made—which has been more constant over the past five years than many people recognise, but the higher level of attendance.
I accept that average attendance has been increasing—it was about 480 in the previous Session—but that is the figure we should concentrate on, not the figures we sometimes read about which do not relate to our day-to-day experience. I recognise that higher attendance means that the House will sometimes be crowded on popular occasions, but it is important to remember that we should not overstate the problem. There is plenty of space in the Chamber and in Grand Committee during the great majority of our business, particularly legislation, and the same is true of debate—there are some empty spaces here this afternoon.
Members generally have time to speak. There has been some reference today to Members having only one minute to speak. They had an average of nearly six minutes in time-limited QSDs in the previous Session, and more than nine minutes in balloted debates. Even during Oral Questions, which I know, probably more than anyone, is a particularly busy time, we have a wide range of participants. Work done by the Clerk of the Parliaments earlier this year showed that in the first quarter, 288 noble Lords asked one or more supplementary questions during Oral Questions. Because more Members are attending, one of my priorities has been to increase the scope for Back-Bench Members to take part in the work of the House. Perhaps most noticeably, we have almost doubled the amount of time we make available for Back-Bench QSDs, and the results have been dramatic. The only noble Lords yet to be offered time for their QSDs are those who have already had a QSD this Session.
Indeed, the supply of time is sometimes exceeding demand. For example, this Tuesday evening, the House rose at 6.20 pm because the Whips’ Office was unable to find anyone to ask a QSD or put forward a Select Committee report for debate after the Second Reading. We have also introduced a new slot in prime time for a weekly topical QSD, which Back-Benchers had said that they wanted. We supported the creation of additional Select Committees, especially ad hoc committees and post-legislative scrutiny committees, so that more noble Lords would have the opportunity to participate in that important aspect of our work.
I recognise that participation in proceedings is not the only aspect of the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. Some noble Lords have suggested that the facilities in the House are not able to cope with the current level of attendance. While that is a matter for the Chairman of Committees, we should not overstate the extent of the problem. We know that there is plenty of spare capacity in our restaurants, for example; indeed, the problem we have is too few people eating in them rather than too many. While desk space for Members has always been at a premium, we currently have more accommodation than before, thanks to the acquisition of Millbank House. Figures presented to the House Committee earlier this year showed that there were desks which had not yet been allocated to individual Members. In terms of research capacity, something about which Members are concerned, noble Lords may like to know that the number of Library staff has increased from 31.5 full-time equivalents in 2007 to 38.5 today.
On the cost of the House—and, indeed, the cost of politics, which was raised by a number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath—the cost of the House of Lords has not gone up: it has gone down. The resource budget for the current financial year, including the costs of Members’ allowances and expenses, is £4 million lower than it was in 2010-11. That is equivalent to a real-terms cut of 15%, which is a considerable achievement by the administration, on which we would all want to congratulate them.
There obviously is a cost for new Peers, and I recognise that. My noble friend Lord Norton asked me what it was. It is hard to predict precisely because, of course, it depends on attendance and on how much an individual Member will claim. On future numbers, it is clearly hard for me to predict what any future Government might do on appointments. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath asked me whether I accepted that the mood of the House was that it would not welcome any more new Peers before the next general election. Obviously, I am very aware of the mood of the House in that regard.
A number of suggestions were made by noble Lords as to ways forward. Many of them would require legislation to achieve. I will briefly update the House. We have had a bit of discussion about what we are calling the Byles Bill. As my noble friend Lord Tyler reminded us, there was a government proposal for an elected House that would have dealt completely with my noble friend Lord Norton’s question about size by reducing the House to around 450 Members. However, following the failure of that Bill to emerge from the other place, the Government have made it clear that they do not intend to bring forward any further relevant legislation for the remainder of this Parliament.
There has, however, I am glad to say, been progress on some other issues which have been raised today, particularly in connection with retirement. Here, I share the greater optimism of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, rather than the pessimism of my noble friend Lord Tyler. The House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill, more commonly known as the Byles Bill—but which, down at our end of the building, we still rightly think of as the Steel Bill—has been making some progress. I know that we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood for his work over many years in pursuing that objective.
The Byles Bill would make a number of modest but, I think, sensible changes. It would allow permanent retirement and resignation and the exclusion of non-attenders, and would expel those convicted of a serious criminal offence. I am sure that the House would value having a formal system whereby Members could resign or retire with dignity. I should, however, say for the record that I do not believe—I know that this view is shared by the leaders of the party groups and the Convenor, as it happens—that retirement with dignity is compatible with any system of financial incentives to encourage that retirement. This point was also made by my noble friend Lord True.
I know that in the past some noble Lords have raised with me what possible rationale there could be for opposing some kind of payment on retirement. I have two main reasons for opposing it, which I think are shared by the other group leaders. The first reason is one of principle and the second is practical. The issue of principle is, quite simply, that it is an honour to be here, not a job; noble Lords are given an allowance, not a salary. If noble Lords decide that it is time to retire, they should do so, and if they are no longer coming, they should not require an allowance.
The second reason is a practical one to do with the reputation of the House, about which we have heard a lot this afternoon. I think that the outside world would take great exception to the idea that a Peer who has already had the honour of serving in your Lordships’ House would receive a lump-sum payment from the taxpayer for stopping doing so. I hope very much that the Government’s support for the Byles Bill will help it complete its passage through the other place, and I look forward to its progression through this House and, in due course, on to the statute book.
The House could take other measures short of legislation, some of which have been set out in the recent report by the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and in a paper by the Clerk of the Parliaments. I am not able to pre-empt the Government’s response to the committee’s report. However, some of the issues that were raised in that report are matters for this House alone to determine. For example, the report suggested that retirement from this House could be marked in a more formal way, both in the Chamber and outside. Another proposal was that the leave of absence scheme could be further strengthened to build on the success of the recently introduced practice of the Clerk of the Parliaments inviting infrequent attendees, at the beginning of each Session, to take leave of absence. I am very happy to see whether we can make progress on those points. I welcome any suggestions from noble Lords on what an enhanced retirement ceremony might look like, and on how the leave of absence scheme could be further improved.
On specific points that have been raised with me, my noble friend Lord Cormack suggested the establishment of a Select Committee or some other group to consider possible ways forward. As I am sure he knows, I am always happy to talk to him and other noble Lords. Our challenge is not that there is a shortage of suggestions as to what we might do—we know what they all are and we have discussed them many times. Our challenge is to secure political agreement, not so much in this House but with Members at the other end, and to make progress with them.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, talked about balance in the House—a point I referred to before. It is the case that together, the two coalition parties add up to about 41% of the House. We all know that there are a range of issues where a combination of opinion from the Cross-Benches, Labour and some coalition Peers—on both sides of the coalition—can readily defeat the Government and cause them to think again. A good example of that, which I am sure the noble Lord has been involved with, is the issue that I hope we will try to resolve next week around the lobbying and transparency Bill.
On the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, about a proportion of Peers from the minority parties, I am not convinced that I will be able to give her an answer that she would consider satisfactory, any more than my predecessor did. The best I can say is that that formulation was intended as a general statement of approach rather than a precise mathematical formula. We should not consider it as the latter; that is, in a way, borne out by the practice which the Prime Minister himself has observed since the general election. If the precise formula had been followed, many more Peers from the coalition parties would be joining your Lordships’ House.
My noble friend Lord Caithness asked about the possibility of creating a different kind of peerage—a non-sitting peerage. To do that, we would have to legislate to create a new and different kind of life peerage. Another approach, I suppose, would be to restart the practice of creating hereditary peerages, which would not entitle holders to membership of the House. But I am not sure that I would be able to make much progress with that suggestion.
My noble friend Lord Maclennan raised a point about a constitutional convention. I take the point about the importance of the referendum in Scotland. My view, which I know is that of many noble Lords, is that our focus should be on making sure that that referendum is won by those who want to keep the United Kingdom united and the union together. So I am not keen on crossing bridges which I do not believe we will need to cross. It is also the case, on the narrower aspect of the future of your Lordships’ House, that the three main parties in their last manifestos reached a broad consensus on their preference, which was for an elected House.
A lot of important points have been raised. We are very grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton for giving us the opportunity to consider them again. Some steps we have taken; we all look forward to the Byles Bill coming next year. I know that we will come back to these issues in future, including the one about women Bishops raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. I know that the Government will do what they can to help the church take forward its desire to see women bishops in your Lordships’ House. But pending more fundamental reform that would decisively address the issues that have been raised, we should focus on the important job with which we are all tasked, and which we are performing very well. We are a House that has cut the cost of running itself and has increased opportunities for Back-Benchers to scrutinise the Government—and, above all, we are a House that continues to do its core job of scrutinising legislation rigorously, purposefully and effectively.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken, and to my noble friend the Leader of the House in particular for replying to the debate. I also appreciate greatly the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who is speaking in her third debate today. I thought that she encapsulated the point extremely well—size matters. Many of the speeches demonstrated concerns felt in different parts of the House.
This House clearly performs valuable functions; I do not think that the functions are in doubt. Nor is the fact that the House fulfils them effectively. I think that we do a very good job indeed; that is the great merit of the House. We tend to do the work extremely well, and I think that we should proclaim that fact. But my point is that the growing size of the House does not facilitate us in fulfilling those functions effectively. As I have said, it is only one aspect that we need to address, but it is an important one.
I say to my noble friend Lord Caithness that we will continue to have these debates until action is taken. He himself went on to refer to the problem of numbers, and came up with one or two ideas, one of which I would fully endorse—it is something that I have supported for some time. We need to think through the implications of the fact that we continue to grow. It is that dynamic element that my noble friend Lord True did not really address. Nor, to some extent, did my noble friend Lord Hill. We need to have a clear view as to what we believe is the optimum size of the House—and then, within that, the distribution among the different groupings. As my noble friend Lord Tyler indicated, we have not really had that discussion. That, I think, should be our starting point.
I endorse the comments of a great many noble Lords who have spoken. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hill for what he said, as far as he felt able to go. However, I am sure that he will understand when I say that we will push him to go further. I end with a quote addressed to those who think that things are fine as they are. Burke said:
“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its own conservation”.