Motion to Take Note
My Lords, before I begin, I should say that, although this is a take-note Motion, it is a take-note Motion with a purpose. Most people seem to agree that the House is too large, but nobody seems able to come up with a solution that does not involve the cumbersome process of primary legislation. This afternoon, I want to offer a way forward. That is the purpose of this Motion.
Let us briefly look at the figures. During the past few years, the House has expanded both in “absolute” and in “actual” terms—these expressions and the figures I quote are taken from the recent helpful Library Note and supplements from the Library that I have requested. At 16 December last, the absolute—that is, the total—membership was 847. The actual membership—in other words, excluding those unable for one reason or another to be active Members—was 791. The average daily attendance in the 2013-14 Session was 497. By contrast, in 2009-10, the equivalent first and third values—that is, total membership and average daily attendance—were 735 and 388 respectively. Average daily attendance therefore rose from 388 to 497, which is more than a quarter.
The effect of this increase is not hard to see. The Chamber overflows at Question Time. The House has had to make provision for extra seats below Bar. Many debates are so populated that speaking time is cut down to five minutes or less. Consequently, Peers are put off from putting their names down at all. The rotation arrangements for committee membership to accommodate aspiring candidates is about to become, in my view, too stringent for proper operational efficiency. Division Lobbies are frequently too crowded for comfort. The facilities of the House are strained to breaking point. Accommodation and meeting space for Peers has not kept up with the increase in numbers, leading to business being conducted in the corridors or the Guest Room. In short, the conduct of the House’s business has become disorderly.
The question then arises: what powers does the House have by itself to deal with the problem without recourse to primary legislation? To this purpose, I have taken advice from the Table and my attention has been drawn to the report of the 1955 Select Committee on the powers of the House in relation to the attendance of its Members. In its report, which was approved by the House, the Select Committee stated in paragraph 2 that the House,
“has full power to do anything which may be necessary to ensure the orderly and decent conduct of its business”.
We should note in passing that what it cannot do is override the Writ of Summons.
My proposal on how to exercise this “full power” in the context of the problem that I have described is in mechanism quite simple but in reasoning rather complex. My proposal is that, on the recommendation of the Procedure Committee, the House should be invited to pass a resolution; namely that, “in order to ensure the orderly conduct of business in the House, attendance at the proceedings of the House shall be regulated in accordance with a scheme established by the House; and, to that end, Peers shall consider most carefully applying for leave of absence under the provisions of that scheme”.
If this resolution is passed it will allow an amendment to Standing Order 22 along similar lines but with the important proviso that, “the House will at pleasure grant leave of absence to any Peer making an application under the provisions of the scheme established under the Standing Order”. The Companion would then spell out in detail the proposed scheme in a new appendix. It will state the intention to ensure that no more than 400 Peers attend the House in each Parliament and that these Peers will be known as “active Peers”. These will be nominated by each of the four groupings—Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Cross Bench—and in addition the non-affiliated, on the basis of the proportion of the existing House held by each grouping, provided that 75% of nominations should be of those with the greatest relative attendance record in the current Parliament.
As to the reasoning behind all this, I will address what I perceive to be the four major areas of difficulty—all of which will merit full discussion in the Procedure Committee. First, there has been recently, after yet another influx of new Peers, renewed and more intense discussion about the optimum size of the House. Without regarding it as an optimum, the firm opinion of those I have consulted is that the maximum actual membership should be no more than 400 Peers. I believe this to be the right number to aim for. It would in practice return us, more or less, to the situation in May 2010—in numbers but with a different composition. It also has the advantage—I agree that this is rather dubious but in terms of presentation it is perhaps convenient—of being just over half the current actual membership.
Secondly, there is the balance of membership between the various groupings. As I said, I propose that the current balance of the House represented by the proportions of the actual membership in each grouping should be reproduced in my scheme. There are many possible variants but neither I nor anybody I consulted could suggest an alternative way of arranging the quotas that would not promote an undignified and bad-tempered wrangle. There will no doubt be disagreement but we are, alas, where we are.
Thirdly, I propose that 75% of all the nominations by grouping should be those who have attended with most relative frequency—relative to the number of days available to them—in the current Parliament. This provision would not only seem to be a most practical approach but will ensure a necessary degree of continuity, in particular to ensure that those who have kept the House active on a day-to-day basis in the current Parliament would be able to continue to do so without hindrance in the next. Moreover, it would be undesirable for the scheme in its trial period to produce a wholly different cast of characters, as might happen if this provision were not included. Nevertheless, political parties and the Cross Benches must have some leeway in choosing Peers who have not qualified as “active Peers” but who, for various reasons, they consider suitable to maintain and enhance the reputation of the House. The 25% provision for nominations at the disposal of each grouping is designed to give groupings that extra ability.
To go a little further, the reason for basing the majority of nominations on previous—
I am all for more Peers being more active. We are talking about 75% of those with relatively high attendance records in the current Parliament. This will be debated and decided by the Procedure Committee, but I do not see an argument for resiling on that.
There have been other suggestions. Some have suggested an inbuilt gender balance, some a proper regional balance, some ethnic representation. One suggestion that I heard was that former Members of the House of Commons should not qualify.
Frivolous and impractical suggestions apart, the only other attractive criterion for nominations is the exclusion of Peers beyond a certain age. Yet, attractive as the idea may be as a principle, in my view it has three main drawbacks. First, it is difficult—and, if I may say so, idiosyncratic—to argue that the disorder I described earlier is due not to overcrowding per se but to the presence of Peers above a certain age and that therefore an age exclusion would lie squarely within the aim of,
“ensuring orderly and decent conduct of … business”.
Secondly, in order to avoid being unfairly discriminatory in applying only to a particular group of Peers, it would have to apply to the absolute number, the total membership of the House. That being so, new appointees and Members returning from official duties or leave of absence would, as a matter of fairness, be subject to the same limitation as existing Members. In the former case, it is difficult to see how that would fit easily with the Writ of Summons and the Letters Patent—or, for that matter, human rights legislation.
Lastly, it would not properly address the matter of the balance of groupings in the resulting House. The application of a blanket limitation on age would have differential effects to the disadvantage of the Cross Benches, average age 72, my party, average age 70, and the Conservatives, average age 69. The winners would be the Liberal Democrats, with an average age of 67 —the party of eternal youth. I am not sure that that would be entirely acceptable to the House, but, if it were, it would distort the percentage of the groupings and in my view introduce an unstable House.
The fourth possible point of controversy concerns those who are at present entitled to attend but who are not nominated as active Peers. I suggest that they be encouraged to apply for temporary leave of absence. The Select Committee that I quoted and the consequent Standing Order 22(1) make the position clear. Application for leave of absence is an act of individual choice and there can be nothing which smacks of compulsion, but the fact that only active Peers will be entitled to attend and hence eligible to make claims for travel and attendance should be incentive enough if linked to the suggested text in the Companion.
I have used the expression “trial period” because the scheme may, and probably will, need to be modified in the light of experience of operating a House with a finite and defined membership, as opposed to one which is in practice open ended. It may be necessary to accommodate new groupings. In future years, different groupings may wish to adopt different methods of selection of active Peers. The House of Commons may in the end decide what it wants to do with us—perhaps.
I therefore suggest a review as the next Parliament draws to its close. Of course, it may be that the forthcoming general election will produce a House of Commons which is so fractured in composition that it is unable to last the full term of five years. Although I have suggested text for the Companion, I suspect that there may be some provision to allow that to be rolled over if there is an early Dissolution.
I am under no illusions about the difficulty of translating my proposal into action. There will be a particularly heavy burden on the Procedure Committee to analyse and digest both my proposal—which will be formally on the desk of the Chairman of Committees tomorrow morning if this Motion is agreed—and the proposals and submissions which I very much hope other noble Lords will make to it. Nevertheless, the House will be aware that if anything is to happen, it really has to happen before the end of March and the start of a new Parliament. That is why I urge that the committee reports back to the House with its conclusions before the end of February.
Finally, I am under no illusions about the impact of my proposals—or any similar proposals to reduce average attendance—on some valued Members who do not attend regularly and are not chosen by their groupings under the 25% provision. Nevertheless, I believe that it should be done. A House of finite and defined membership will have many advantages. No future Government will be able to pack the House with their supporters. The controversy over “cash for peerages” will disappear since although political donors may be awarded peerages as an honour, there will be no immediate passport to a voting membership in this House. Divisions will no longer depend on who can bus in more of their inactive Members. In short, the House will look more like what it should be, a well informed, experienced and moderate revising Chamber, and less like the caricature which is frequently painted: that of a cross between an old folks’ home for superannuated politicians and a bloated relic from a bygone age.
It can be done. We are always told that this is a self-regulating House—I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will support me—and if we are to regulate ourselves, we should take the opportunity to do so. The means are there; the question is whether we have the will. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am here entirely out of curiosity. When I saw that this Motion was on the Order Paper, while I understood the fundamental motivation of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to see a reduction in the number of Peers, I, for one, had absolutely no idea how he was going to achieve it nor what he was going to suggest—nor, having suggested those things, by which means the House could come to a collective decision. I entirely agree with him that a self-regulating House should have the means to look at its Standing Orders to see whether it is being brought into disrepute or disorder. He and I have been Members of this House for a long time. Indeed, he and I sparred across the Dispatch Box as far back as the 1980s, which just goes to show that we are all getting a lot older, as we are half way through the second decade of the 21st century.
I have to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on getting this Motion down on the Order Paper—and in prime time. This leads me to believe that the Government have given the go-ahead for such a discussion to take place, not just as a debate in the House of Lords but for a committee to look at this. Why is that? I suppose it is because they, like me, have heard over the course of the last two or three years a rising cacophony of Members of the House who are concerned about the ever increasing number of Peers. The reason is that throughout history very few new Peers have been made up, but since 1998, and the removal of the hereditary peerage, that number has of course increased. The noble Lord and I, and many others in this House, were Members of a House of Lords that had a far larger membership than we have today but a far lower daily attendance, because those Peers did not feel the same burden of obligation that Peers feel today and were at least prepared to come in less often than they do today.
What I have not yet ascertained—it may come out in the course of today’s debate—is what the problem is that we are trying to solve. If we have a problem of too many people, what should we do about it and, indeed, what could we do? Not so long ago, I supported a proposal by this Government to reduce the size of the House to 450 by election. That proposal was welcomed in the House of Commons with a huge majority at Second Reading, but then the parties of government and opposition could not agree on how much debating time it should have in the Commons and the proposal ultimately fell. We have an opportunity now, instead of having solutions imposed on us, to discuss again the kind of changes that we would like to see.
I do not believe that I am alone in saying that it is an enormous privilege to be a Member of this House. In the years that I have been a Member here, people have come in via all sorts of methods: some, like me, thanks to an accident of birth as a former hereditary Peer directly elected by my colleagues. There are the Bishops, who are appointed; the Cross-Benchers, who come through the Appointments Commission; and the party Peers, who come here through their leaders. We come here in different ways and we all have our own role to play in the way that the House operates. It is a voluntary and part-time House, and I like to think that we do the job that we are asked to—revision, scrutiny and general debate—extremely effectively.
I have one regret: the groan that rises in this House when there is talk of a new list. Not least, it is deeply insulting to new Peers who join this House; we need a new life-blood of Peers coming in. We will all take a view on what that quantum should be, but without new Peers we will become the old folks’ home that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has warned us against.
Although there has been higher daily attendance, I understand that there are 34 more Members today than there were in 2007 in the four main groupings in the House of Lords. I do not know if my noble friend the Leader of the House will be able to confirm that when she winds up, but it does not strike me that the numbers have grown completely out of hand.
It strikes me that the whole point of the House of Lords is that it is there to throw up a hand of protest from time to time to the elected Government represented in the House of Commons, and we manage to do that. We should do so by having a broad balance of numbers between the two main parties of government. There should be no majority for the Government in this House, and there is not and has not been. The House of Lords itself works out how best to regulate the balance between the unelected but largely authoritative and influential House of Lords and the directly elected democratic representatives who sit in the House of Commons. So I urge a certain amount of caution in going down this route.
However, if we identify during the course of this debate that there is a problem and the Government and, indeed, the House and its committees wish to take it up, I would hope that the clerks would be prevailed upon to draw up an options paper, on which they could consult throughout the House, on the different ways of regulating it. One option is to have some sort of voluntary cap; I like the idea of not using primary legislation. I am not sure that I favour any of these suggestions, by the way, but at least that is one.
Another option is term limits: every Peer who comes in gets 15 or 20 years, and at the end of that period—perhaps at the end of the Session, or at the end of the Parliament in which their time is up—they leave. However, I can think of many Peers who are just coming into their prime after 15 years. Certainly, if you had been appointed a Conservative Peer in 1997 or 1998, you would have been out by now, just as we were coming into our prime in government. It is a blunt instrument.
The noble Lord made a spirited defence of age in your Lordships’ House, or rather he tried to imply that an age limit would be a bad idea, yet it is the first solution that most people reach for. There is an age limit in so many different walks of life, so why not in the House of Lords? Rather like the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I am nervous of this. In an era when politicians in the House of Commons are getting ever younger and the population is getting ever older, having a repository of age in this House is not necessarily a bad thing.
I did not follow the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, quite as keenly as my noble friend Lord Forsyth, but it struck me, exactly as it struck my noble friend, that a proposal that guaranteed a set amount of what the noble Lord called “active Peers” would simply encourage people to become even more active, and that is not in the best interests of the reputation of this House. I would almost like to hand out a prize—perhaps this is something the Lord Speaker could do at the end of each Session—for the most effective Peer who has not taken up the most time of the House of Lords and encourage effectiveness by that. I used to get a queue of Peers who would ask me, “How much do you think I need to do to be useful?”. The whole point about this House is that many people come with backgrounds outside the House so that what they do outside is almost as useful to this House and to the governance of this country as what they do inside it, and we should not forget that.
I have read other suggestions, such as that at the end of every Parliament there should be an automatic reduction of 10% in the size of the House, by ballot as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested. As one who has gone through a party ballot to reduce its number, I can tell the House that it is a quite a painful operation. While there are many volunteers to step back from the House and many who are bound to get in, there is a group in the middle who are not sure whether they will get in, and the noble Lord would find it more difficult that he perhaps thinks. Under that proposal, new Peers would need to get a bye in their first Parliament so that they would be guaranteed the first election free.
Of course, it is easy to divide this process up within the party groups, but the Cross Benches are a very different group which operate in an incredibly different way. I addressed the Cross Benches only once or twice, and I was struck by their breadth and depth. I think they would find it much more difficult than the political parties to get together in some sort of electoral college. Then we have the “others”. I think the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, is a member of the “others”. How would we deal with them? There are also new parties, such as UKIP, and the nationalists. There are not very many nationalists. There are no Scottish nationalists —I have said before that there should be—there are not very many Welsh nationalists, and there are the parties representing Ireland.
I am in favour of an options paper, if that is what this debate concludes, but it should be consulted on widely. We should tread warily. There is another change that has taken place. We have just introduced for the very first time the ability for Members of this House to retire permanently and statutorily to cut their links to the House of Lords. This is only a few months old. A number of Peers have already taken it. Should we not give Peers the opportunity to come forward and volunteer to retire before we come forward with what I am bound to say are quite difficult and complicated schemes whose effects will be unknown in the long term?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel on his major initiative and on putting it before the House. Perhaps some will think that it should have been put to the individual groups in the House before bringing it here, but I take the view that that would not necessarily have been a way of opening up discussion—perhaps rather the opposite. The debate is certainly timely. It comes at a time when all Members, I am sure, are aware that the present and future size of the House raises questions about the workings of the House that have not been much to the fore in the past. People who turn their back on any kind of proposal for change perhaps fail to face up to the inexorable rise of numbers here, which has made a very significant difference to the effective working of this place.
First, I will make clear in my eccentric way my preferred first option in the reform debate, which I am afraid is still both not available and probably very unpopular here—namely, the move to a unicameral system. That is not because I have anything other than respect for what this House is or does, but because I wish to preserve the primacy of the House of Commons. Of course, an elected second chamber with the links between the two Houses covered as part of the written constitution of this country could still preserve the primacy of the other place, but we are further away from that than from anything else.
However, I am not in favour of reaching a unicameral system or indeed any other reform of this place by accident rather than design. That is what will surely happen if we continue to see an increase in the size of this House in the way that has happened over the past few years. This House will simply collapse under its own weight. If there has to be a major adjustment in the size of the House after each election—a point which I would personally dispute—unless something is done to ensure that that can be achieved by a reduction in the size of the House as well as by its increase, we shall end up in a ludicrous situation, at which point reform will be forced, and I doubt that that will lead to a satisfactory outcome from anyone’s point of view.
I am a unicameralist precisely because I would not wish to see the second Chamber challenge the legitimacy of the first, which would surely happen if both were elected. Of course, the position would be even worse if the second Chamber was elected by a different system, which would mean that there could be challenges of legitimacy depending on which electoral system individuals preferred. It is no answer to say that we need a full written constitution to cover all that on top of what is already there, because at the present rate of progress that will take most of the foreseeable future.
If we accept that the primacy of the first Chamber is part of the constitution, there is no need to have the second Chamber roughly in the same proportions as the other place—which is in danger of implying an undeserved democratic legitimacy in votes cast in this place. After all, if it is to be representative of the votes cast in a general election, this House may end up being regarded—leaving aside the Bishops and Cross Benches —as at least as legitimate as the directly elected House.
However, the ever increasing size of the House means that something has to be done, some initiative taken—now. After all, if the Electoral Reform Society is right, and adjustment continues to be made after each election to the base number of each group’s membership, the Lords will move from being about half of the total number of parliamentarians a few years ago to being three-quarters. Peers who disagree with that scheme need to point to a different solution that has a chance of making progress. I accept that there are many schemes, but few of them, if any, have much chance of making progress. I have become convinced that the only group which can take a reasonable initiative for reform of your Lordships’ House is this House itself—hence the great usefulness of the discussion we are having today, led by my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel, and future deliberations here and in the Procedure Committee.
This proposal has the potential to give us a way to raise and deal with the question of numbers. No doubt there could be flexibility in the final numbers, with perhaps 400 plus the 25% top-up, rather than it being included. Either way, it would lead to a House of a very effective size. It would be ideally placed to be a revising Chamber, but would still not be able ultimately to challenge the other place. It would not collapse under its own weight, and would leave intact the appointment of Peers as part of the honours system.
This scheme concentrates the mind in the way that an endless number of other schemes, ranging from constitutional conventions downwards, do not. It reminds us that in this House we have both the powers and responsibility, perhaps, to take effective action relating to our size, should it be the case, as I believe it will be, that other discussions lead nowhere. There is at the moment nothing actively on the table for discussion. For opening up this debate in a new and pragmatic way, my noble friend is to be congratulated.
My Lords, I greatly welcome the opportunity to debate this important matter this afternoon. I found myself in a large measure of agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Elder, who has just spoken. In fact, it is a pity that this debate does not give the House an opportunity to express its opinion. If there were such an opportunity, I think that a majority of the House would agree with the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, in an earlier debate, that this House is too big, is growing bigger, and needs to be reduced. That is an urgent matter now, for a reason not referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde; it is inevitable that, after the next general election, there will be, and should be, a substantial number of further appointments to the House.
The House does risk coming into disrepute. Fun is poked at us by people pointing out that the House is the largest parliamentary body in the world, apart from China’s National People’s Congress. Of course, it does not act like that, and the whole membership does not attend, but it is an example of how fun can be poked at the House.
I am not a conspiracy theorist, despite what people might suspect from my background, but it is tempting to suspect that there is a conspiracy on the part of those thwarted in the reform of the House in the 2012 Bill to make so many appointments that the size of the House makes it unworkable and absurd, so reform then becomes inevitable. The flaw in that was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Elder—that there is no agreement among the parties about the nature of the necessary reform. If the 2012 Bill did one thing when it came before Parliament, it was to cause the penny to drop with Members of another place that an elected second Chamber would become, in one form or another, a direct challenge to the supremacy of the House of Commons, and that no way could be found of entrenching that supremacy.
I was a member of the royal commission under the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, which was the last body to take an unconstrained look at the nature of the reform of this House. That was 15 years ago. I do not include the Joint Committee under the noble Lord, Lord Richard, which did an excellent job, only because it was constrained by the 2012 Bill that the Government had introduced. That royal commission started, as all approaches to the question should—and as the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde, Lord Elder and Lord Williams, did—by asking what the purpose is of the House of Lords. Why should we have such a House at all? I think that on this matter, too, there would be a large measure of agreement in the House. It is to complement the other House, not to challenge or replace it, by bringing a measure of experience and expertise from people drawn from a wide range of positions in our national life to comment on and advise on legislation introduced by the Executive into Parliament. I do not think that there would be much challenge to the proposition that your Lordships’ House performs a necessary and useful role in doing that.
I will not go into the question of whether that is best achieved by an elected or appointed House, although the royal commission concluded that the range of expertise which is useful for that purpose could not necessarily be expected in an elected Chamber. That is why the royal commission proposed a mainly appointed House but with some elected Members. It also recommended that there should be a limit on the tenure of a position in this House of either 15 years or three electoral cycles. Again, I do not want to debate today whether that is the right thing to do or whether a scheme of the sort proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, would be a better approach. As I looked round the House as he made his speech, I noted some scepticism about whether a scheme could be introduced in the very short time before the general election. However, given that we face the prospect of a number of further appointments, this is an urgent issue and I urge the Government to take it seriously.
For the reasons that I have given, some do not want to see any further reform of this House as they believe that that would cause the reform which did not happen previously to become inevitable. However, that is to argue the merits of a train crash. As the noble Lord, Lord Elder, said, the danger of adopting that approach is that an unwise reform is undertaken. That is what I fear. Therefore, I urge the Government to take this issue seriously.
I support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to ask the clerks of the House to produce options that could be considered by the Procedure Committee. I do not think that there is much prospect of reaching agreement on a very complicated scheme. However, despite the political difficulties, I think that there is merit in a scheme offering a financial inducement limited by the amount of money noble Lords received in attendance allowance in the previous Session. Calculations show that that would be a good deal for the taxpayer which would quickly pay off. That cannot be done through legislation but it does need to be done. I say to those who wish to go on as we are that to allow the House to grow like Topsy until it becomes ineffective and almost a scandal is the height of constitutional irresponsibility.
My Lords, I welcome this debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss some of these issues yet again. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for giving us that opportunity.
We have talked many times about an elected House. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, that issue is in the long grass due to the other place waking up to what it would mean for that House. However, after an elected House, the size of this House is the next big issue in terms of your Lordships’ office. I admire the noble Lord’s objective but strongly doubt the practicality of his proposal and believe that there are better alternatives. As chairman of the Association of Conservative Peers, in the past two or three years I have been involved in a lot of discussions about not only an elected House but the size of the House; whether it is in formal or informal conversations, that issue almost inevitably comes up, after the issue of an elected House. This demonstrates that there is concern in this House about its size and that it may make us look increasingly unattractive, and certainly out of date, if we go on growing at the pace we are. This debate therefore gives us an opportunity to assess the state of opinion on the merits of the various proposals and to see whether there is some way forward. I very much support my noble friend Lord Strathclyde’s remark about conducting an analysis of some of those proposals. Indeed, the Clerk of the Parliaments produced a limited paper indicating some quite technical and more modest proposals for reducing the size of the House. However, my noble friend would intend that to go further, and I support him in that.
I want briefly to use this opportunity to indicate where I stand on the question of size. It cannot be defended that we are the second largest assembly in the world, only behind the Chinese National People’s Congress; and we are, even at that, an assembly with limited powers. There is, of course, the impact on facilities and costs, to which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred, and I have seen the document produced by the Clerk on this, which indicates that introducing a modest proposal by which people can take retirement voluntarily could be done at additional cost; but I will come back to that point later. Certainly, the effect on the facilities and the costs of the House overall are considerable.
There will always be occasions when our numbers will be added to from the dissolution and resignation honours, additional arrivals proposed by the Appointments Commission, and so on. Inevitably, there will be new appointments at the end of a Parliament and sometimes at the beginning of one. On the one hand, we are constantly going to have new people coming in—I will talk about fresh blood in a moment—but there is also the slow pace at which we deal with size at the other end. So where do I personally stand? I want to spend my time going briefly through the alternative ways to reduce the numbers to compensate for the fresh blood. It is, of course, extremely important that we have the fresh blood, and we should recall that experience and expertise can get out of date as the years pass, and the issues that involve experience and expertise are very different. That is why we definitely need the fresh blood.
First, the question of the hereditaries should be allowed to wither on the vine and we should no longer have the process of an election for another hereditary Peer to replace one who dies.
Secondly, establishing an age limit is also a proposal put forward by the Labour Party working party. This, in fact, I strongly support. That paper was correct; in every other occupation and profession there is an age limit, and we should be no different. There will always be the argument, “Old so-and-so still contributes enormously to the House and we want to continue to have that benefit”. That may in part be true, but it could be argued elsewhere in other professions and in every occupation for which there is an age limit. However, as I said a moment ago, it is important in this context to recognise that experience and expertise can become out of date. Human rights have sometimes been put forward as a reason for not introducing the proposal but that has not been an objection to proposing age limits elsewhere. If we are to reduce numbers to compensate for the fresh blood that comes in, we should establish an age limit. As the Labour Party proposed, retirement should take place at the end of the Parliament during which one has reached the age of 80. In other words, there would be automatic retirement not at the age of 80—it could be 84 or 85 for many—but at the end of the Parliament in which one becomes 80. That is the right proposal; that is what I would support. I have seen other proposals suggesting that the parties should attempt to maintain the party balance but have elections among themselves as to who should be retired at the end of the Parliament. That is not only impractical and would lead to all sorts of different attitudes being taken by different people, but divisive. The proposal of an age limit in the Parliament in which a Peer turns 80 has the merit of simplicity and fairness all round. I would certainly be happy for that proposal to be put forward as an alternative in the Clerk’s paper, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde suggests.
Finally, on compensation, I have seen the arguments in the Clerk’s paper that indicated, in the proposal he put forward, that there would be a saving in public expenditure if modest compensation was given to people who wished to retire. That paper had a lot of other ingenious ideas that would be well worth exploring, but the argument about public opinion is very difficult to defend on compensation, when people are here not in an occupation in the normal way, but as a great privilege. If we look for compensation for when people retire, I do not believe that that will help the image of the House.
In conclusion, I have always, both in this House and for 27 years in the other place, been opposed to an elected House of Lords, but we must recognise our defects and valid criticisms made of us. If we go on growing and ageing, there will inevitably be such criticisms, which will grow, not least in the media. We should grapple with this issue. Therefore, I support what my noble friend Lord Strathclyde suggests: a paper should be drawn up, not just with the limited proposals that we had before, but that covers all the different alternatives so that we can deal with this ourselves and be seen to be doing so.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Williams on raising this issue. It is one that we have skirted around many times in this House for a very long time—I still bear the stripes of past debates on this subject; no doubt there will be others to come—without facing up to it.
The chief attraction of what my noble friend Lord Williams had to say is that it can be done without primary legislation. I am in favour of an elected second Chamber and have been for a very long time, as the House probably knows. I do not resile from that position one scrap. Indeed, if some of the noises that are being made by the leadership of my party in favour of an elected second Chamber based on strong regional connections were to come about, I would welcome it with open arms and be delighted to support it.
We are not currently faced with that issue, however, but with a problem that has arisen from the way that the size of the House has grown. One can set out the issues very simply in a number of questions: is there a problem with the size of the House? The answer to that is clearly yes. It is too big for the work that it does. We do not need 800 people to do work that 400 or 450 are perfectly capable of doing. Is the problem going to go on unless it is resolved? The answer to that is clearly yes. Is the problem going to get worse? The answer to that is clearly yes.
I echo and totally agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, in his somewhat apocalyptic view as to what will happen after the next general election. An incoming Government are bound to want to rebalance the House of Lords. It is asking too much of any Prime Minister to say that he would be prepared to leave the House of Lords unbalanced, particularly if the number of Liberal Members of Parliament declines and there are more than 100 Liberal Democrats sitting on the Benches of the House of Lords. That is not something that any Government will view with equanimity or pleasure. He will want to do something about it. After all, this is a legislative Chamber. We are generally here not to advise the Government, but to pass laws, in which case the Government have to get their business through this House as well as through the House of Commons. To do that, any Government will want the House of Lords broadly to represent the political situation in the country at the time, and therefore I think that the problem will get worse rather than better.
What can we do about it? It seems to me that there are basically three alternatives. One is an age limit, which the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, and various other people have proposed. Secondly, people can be persuaded to go, presumably through a scheme of voluntary retirement, the outlines of which at least are on the statute book. That, coupled with some sort of financial inducement, might produce a mad rush out of this Chamber on the part of many of our colleagues, although personally I rather doubt that. Thirdly, the numbers can be reduced based on the service that people have given.
I understand the superficial attraction of an age limit—it is a simple way of dealing with the matter. However, it is brutal and blunt. It might be fair but I am not sure that it would be effective. A system based on an appreciation of what people do in this House, how often they appear and how often they participate in the affairs of the House would be a much more sensible way of approaching any sort of scheme for a reduction in numbers.
Serves you right!
I think that I was getting near to the end of what I was going to say. I wish to add two sentences. Yes, there is a problem. Yes, it needs resolution. However, setting an age limit is perhaps a brutal way of dealing with the issue. I would far prefer it to be done on the basis of experience and on who does what and when. I still hold to a basic, almost trade union, principle, which is that those who work are entitled to remain in their jobs and those who do not work should perhaps be the ones to whom we say goodbye.
My noble friend Lord Williams has produced a scheme which, in its outline, conforms to that principle, and it is well worth looking at. It is useful that we are having this debate and it is right that this matter should go to the appropriate committee of the House. The clerks are going to have to work extremely hard to produce their options paper, but we all know that the clerks in this House are redoubtable and flexible individuals who can no doubt produce large quantities of paper when that is required, although it is probably not required in this case. We do not want large quantities; we want small quantities. We want a proper options paper, proper consideration by the committee and a quick report. One hopes that more time will be given for the House to look at this issue again before the general election.
Finally, I want to say a word which goes back to where I started. I believe that the future of this House is as an elected second Chamber. I know that that is not a popular view in this House and I am well aware from my experiences in 2012 that it is not a view universally shared. However, faced with the alternative of the continuation of a nominated House with the sorts of problems that we are looking at in this debate or an elected second Chamber, I know which side I would come down on.
My Lords, it is a very great pleasure for me to follow the noble Lord who has just spoken. He and I have followed our careers for the past 70 years, since we first met in the school classroom, and I am glad that he clearly is as well now as I feel. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on this timely debate. We need to discuss this issue and to move to a resolution at this time. Not only do we need to reduce the number of Peers attending debates, as the Motion states, but we need drastically to reduce the number of Peers who have a right to attend. We need a permanent reduction in the number of Peers, which can be done only by primary legislation. I was not very happy with the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, of two-tier Peers or very keen on his suggestion of using the criterion of attendance as the key to membership. Attendance does not always reflect usefulness.
My United States friends die with laughter when I tell them that we have an upper House of almost 850 Members. They say, “We in the United States manage very well with 100 in our upper House”. Of course, there are many differences but I believe that there is a lesson there. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I strongly oppose having an elected House. For more than 12 years I have advocated a scheme which I put together but which up to now not many people have taken seriously. I take the opportunity to peddle it once more before your Lordships because I believe that more than ever my suggestion is worthy of close scrutiny.
The problem that we are faced with, of course, is that when the hereditary Peers were disbarred from coming, the Government of the day failed totally to reorganise this House. They were told repeatedly, “If we are going to throw out the hereditaries, we must reorganise the House for the future”. We did not do that and now we are paying the price. First, we need a cap set by legislation. I do not mind what it is—perhaps 400, 500 or something of that sort—but we need to bring the number down in stages after each election towards that capped figure. A Parliament would start with whatever the cap is, but there should be flexibility for new blood to come in, as a number of noble Lords have already suggested. Perhaps a limit of 5% or 10% more could come in during a Parliament but, after the subsequent election, the total membership must be brought back to the statutory cap figure. New Peerages could be created but then the House should return to the cap.
I am strongly in favour of a substantial Cross-Bench presence. A figure of, say, 20%—I am happy to discuss either side of that—should be in statute, which would ensure that the Government of the day never has a majority in this House. I find that a lot of people outside have no conception that the last Labour Government had around only 30% of the total vote of the House. I shall come to how it can be done in a moment, but you must have an arrangement which shows that this House is not and can never be the poodle of Government.
The key to this is that, after each general election, the membership of the House of Lords on party lines should broadly reflect the result of the election which has just taken place. That might be done through the number of votes cast for each party or by the number of seats won. For each Parliament, this House would be made up of 80% party-political Peers who in general would broadly—it does not have to be exact—reflect the membership of the other place or the votes cast in the election.
One of the difficulties, which I acknowledge, is that immediately after an election and before State Opening, which can always be put back by a week or two, the membership of this House would have to be reviewed very quickly. I would prefer it to be done in the same way as the hereditary Peers did when the 92, or whatever number it was, were elected. Colleagues in the House know who contributes. I do not like an age limit, although I have to be careful what I say because only three or four weeks ago I was 84. However, it is colleagues who know best those who contribute the most.
The question is this: what should we do about the composition of the parties in the House? One of the reasons I am suggesting this solution is because, in my view, the membership of this House does not begin to reflect the possible changes in the political scenario of the country as a whole. Let me suggest three scenarios in which the membership of this House could look seriously unsatisfactory, and I hope that I will give no offence to anyone or any party, because I am merely using press comments which we are all aware of.
We have been told that at the next election, there may be a collapse in the Labour vote in Scotland and that a large number of Scottish nationalist Members could be elected to the other place. Let us say that they form a coalition with one of the other parties. They have no representation in this place, and we would look very silly having no Scottish nationalists.
I am well aware of that, but if they found themselves in government with Ministers down at the other end of the corridor, it is inevitable that they would need to have Ministers on the Government Front Bench here to speak for their party in your Lordships’ House. I think that that is obvious.
Let me put forward another scenario. We are told by the public opinion polls that the Liberal vote has seriously sunk. If that was to happen—I think it was my noble friend Lord Strathclyde who referred to this —and there was only a handful of Liberal Members in the House of Commons, this House would look particularly stupid if it still had 103 Liberal Peers sitting here simply because the arrangements for membership of this place were not flexible. We must somehow build a flexibility into the membership. I believe that, after each election, the way you can achieve that flexibility is to pitch the party membership of the House to broadly reflect the views of the public. That is quite different to having an elected House—this is more or less what you would get if you had an elected House, but this is a much better way of going about it.
The third and final scenario—
If the UKIP vote at the next election matches the Liberal vote—as the public opinion polls suggest it might—it would mean that neither of them would have very many Members down the corridor. But let us leave that just to the side for the moment.
A third scenario is that it is not impossible, as I have said to your Lordships before, that a new party could sweep to power. My old friend, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, mentioned UKIP. I do not think that UKIP will do it, but politicians are not popular creatures at the moment, and there is the opportunity for a new party to sweep to power in this country at some time. We have seen it happen in Turkey and in Italy in recent years, with a new party suddenly appearing from nowhere, and this House would look particularly stupid if you had a Government with virtually no support in your Lordships’ House.
These things can be done quickly; it is not impossible to do them. I have discussed this and circulated my plan before. If any of my noble friends wish to see it, I should be very glad to send them a copy of the solution for the construction of the House of Lords which, as I say, I have been peddling for over 12 years.
I once wrote a letter to the Times years ago after we had a debate here on blasphemy. I remember suggesting in that letter that three right reverend Prelates had come for, I think, Report stage: one disappeared before the vote and the other two voted in opposite Lobbies. I am not really sure quite what I would suggest now, but I did suggest then that we were being overgenerous giving them 26 places. But there are none here currently, so I think I had better say no more.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important topic. I also congratulate him on securing a debate that does not have the usual constraints of time limits on the speeches. I will come back to that, as I may come to regret it as I look down the list of speakers, but that is my initial thought.
I have one regret, however, about the subject for the debate, which is that it focuses on what I regard as only one side of the problem: the size of the House. The difficulty we have is that changing it—we have rehearsed this well and I will not go into it again—is very difficult and, I have no doubt, will be very contentious. However, it seems to me that we have not debated sufficiently the way in which we might be able to adjust our procedures to deal with this fact and to begin to allow a better use of the talent that we have in this place, perhaps—I throw this in as a possibility—by extending the use of committees with real powers to carry out some of the work of this House.
If you are a Cross-Bencher, you find that to raise a supplementary in Question Time you have pretty well got to surprise God and the Bishops by coming in for Prayers in order to be seated in the right sort of place. That is not sensible. Equally, if you wish to speak in a debate in which you believe you have some expertise, you might well find that the list of speakers is so long that there is the crass example of the two-minute speech. That is not good enough. Yes, most of what I want to say can be said in a minute and a half—I shall not do that just now but it can be done—but often if there are real points of issue, and that has applied to some of the debates in which many of us have taken part, the constraint on time is a great difficulty.
Is there no way of beginning to deal with that? I can think of several ways, none of which I will put forward now because they will be shot down but they are worth detailed discussion, including the use of a more extensive committee system; for example, education is one of the areas in which my own background gives me some expertise but there is no committee on education allowed in this House. Equally, we can take some of the Bills in Committee next door but there could be a much greater pre-legislative scrutiny process, as applies in some areas of our business. I throw these in simply as suggestions. It is a two-part issue: size and adjusting procedures to the size because undoubtedly we will not reduce the numbers significantly within a short period of time.
Those who are looking to the next election should consider the worries of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, about conspiracies here. If one looks at the figures for the two years following the previous election, the net numbers in this House increased by 90. That tells us what is going to happen after the next election, especially with more parties in play. That inevitably will increase the number of those hoping and reasonably wanting to come into the House.
Many of your Lordships who have come through other routes will perhaps not know much about the scrutiny that some of us Cross-Benchers went through. When the Appointments Commission was set up in the previous big revolution here in the House of Lords, it was a complicated procedure and eventually 16 of us were nominated in 2001 and introduced to the House. As part of my involvement in this, I filled in a nine-page form on request from the committee, I nominated referees and I even went and had what was initially referred to as a conversation—although in fact it was more like an interview—and in that interview there were three things that the committee wanted to establish, as far as I could see.
The first was that I had a background of relevant experience—I could match the claims and the pro formas sent in and what my referees said. The second, and I think the most important for them, was that on no account should I be tainted by the virus of party politics. I was to be an independent Cross-Bencher. The third, which was probably just my own paranoia, was ensuring that I did not make social gaffes too often, so I avoided asking for three lumps of sugar in my cup of tea. I passed the test, apparently, and here a number of us are. I think there are about 50 of us now. But there was a procedure.
The important part of the procedure came next. The interview was a two-part process so I asked what was expected of me. I did not know and I wanted to be sure that the job was doable. Occasionally one is invited to take on posts—I am sure your Lordships all have been—but the job is not doable. I actually got very good advice from the sub-committee I met. The good advice was, first, make sure you identify areas of interest and expertise on which you could make contributions. Secondly, the hint was to stick to those, but that was up to me because freedom of thought was part of the deal. Thirdly, I should make sure that I was here on the right occasions—not chalking up a sufficient number of attendances to be allowed in next time there was a ballot but taking part in the debates on which I was thought to have something to contribute. I thought, “Yes, that is doable. I can do this”. My training in philosophy immediately reminded me that Immanuel Kant, whom I believe to be the greatest European philosopher, formulated the premise that “ought” implies “can”. If I ought to do that, then surely I should be able to do it. That is partly up to me, but it is partly up to the structures of this place.
What I want to say in this debate is very precise. My worry is that, with the way that things are moving in this House, where we have not adjusted procedure sufficiently to take account of its size, it may well be the case that we cannot make the contributions for which we were brought here. If one is to slim us down, there is a special issue for the Cross-Benchers; I was glad to hear that mentioned, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. However, the broader issue is: can we do this, and does the way in which the House operates allow us to do it? My plea is that, in any further discussion, we set our minds to the questions of procedures that relate to the size of this place.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, because he has introduced a different element to this debate by referring to adjusting procedures. That is certainly something to which the House will need to return either on the back of this Motion or independently of it.
Like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for introducing this debate. Any debate that is aimed at improving the workings of this House has to be welcome. There is much that can be done and without primary legislation, although I have to say to the noble Lord that I have severe reservations about the notion that he has found the silver bullet. I am not sure that his system would work quite as he hopes.
I want to mention—it may be a question of declaring an interest—A Programme for Progress, the report that the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, referred to. It was drawn up by a group of Labour Peers and contains some short-term as well as some long-term measures for improving the working of this House and considering its long-term future. I co-chaired that group, along with Lord Grenfell, who took his own advice prematurely and retired from this House and is now rather well in exile. I am sure that we all send him our best wishes.
The starting point for this debate is the numbers in this House. It is a concern that has been mentioned many times today and many times in this House during recent months and years. There is general agreement that the size of the House is too great. It is clear that it has been the Prime Minister’s intention to put more political nominees in here and to seek to get near to a majority that has caused that rise in the numbers. I am in the strange position of being a former Chief Whip who agrees with a former Conservative Chief Whip that it is not a good idea for any political party to seek a majority in this House. This House works best and is most respected when it is clear that no political party dominates in this Chamber. The Government’s attempt to improve their position far beyond what is justified has not only created practical problems in terms of the number of people in the Chamber and the pressure on speaking times, with two-minute speaking limits and things of this kind, but it will undermine the credibility of this House, which would be most unfortunate. It is true that this House will always need refreshing, but I do not think that that has been the motivation behind the numbers that we have seen coming into it.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested that a Chamber of 400 would be about right. The Labour document to which I referred suggested 450, and I think that the Joint Committee that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, chaired also suggested 450, taking into account the committee work that we do at present. However, I think the one thing that we all agree on is that the House of Lords, as the second Chamber, should be smaller than the House of Commons. That is a basic principle that we have to address and accept.
I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that I think his mechanism is flawed. He said that there is no element of compulsion in his suggestion. He hinted that the expenses regime might be used to make sure that people were not rewarded for coming here if they were not on the esteemed list. As someone who lives some way from London, I think that would penalise Members of this House from the regions, as does the existing expenses regime, and would not be healthy for the mix we need to make this House most effective.
Our report recommended that for those who respond to the Writ of Summons at the beginning of a Parliament there should in future be a minimum attendance level, so that people could be “working Peers” and contributing. We must not think of contribution as simply being the equivalent of attendance—that is rather dangerous. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, talked about it being the work that matters. It is participation; it is speaking; it is voting—there we have another measure of how assiduous people are in what they do in this House. It would be wrong to give the impression that it is only turning up here that matters. Therefore, I am worried that a rather simplistic formula might cause problems.
I am also worried about the idea of frozen proportions: that the basis for future composition should be the proportions of Members at present. I have some concern about the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, of a changeover after every election. That kind of churn would not necessarily attract people to come into this House in the first place and to build up the experience to make the contributions that perhaps they could make. There is therefore a difficulty there, as there is with the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, for internal elections. As a woman from the north, a category that is not overrepresented in this House, I would perhaps not be worried if we had allocations that way, but I would not want there to be divisions within parties of people who have to work together long-term to make the most of the opportunities in this House. That might not be helpful. Therefore, I do not like the churn that would be supposed to happen in that instance.
There are things that can be done to improve the workings of this House without the great constitutional reform such as is talked about from time to time. We should get rid of the hereditary by-elections; indeed, I would go further and have some primary legislation to end hereditary Peers’ rights to be in this House. Not all would agree, but I think that many people would.
I listened with care to what the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord MacGregor, said about financial inducements: that the figures show that a modest inducement could be of benefit to the taxpayer and that the Treasury might therefore accept it. I can see the logic of that, but politically it is a non-starter. Other people may disagree and it may be worth looking at in the future, but it would be difficult to sell to the public.
That leads me to the issue of retirement—the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, mentioned what we said in our report. We looked at this very carefully and we had people who were over 80 on that committee. We suggested that the concept of a working Peer is something that we should all take on board. When we respond to the Writ of Summons at the beginning of a Parliament, we should do so with the intention of giving a commitment to work and participate in this House for the full term of that Parliament. Whether we like it or not, we have fixed-term Parliaments at the moment. I do not like them and hope that they will go, but we have them so we should give a commitment to work for that whole Parliament.
We rejected the idea of, “You are 80, therefore you go on your birthday—party or not”. However, we said that it would help Members plan ahead if we introduced a system whereby they step down at the end of the Parliament in which they turn 80. The easing of that situation bears further consideration. I hope it is something we can look at in future. Political parties could also voluntarily agree to more transparent criteria in their nominations. The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, just outlined the procedure that he went through. The fact that there is no procedure in terms of political appointees is something that could be changed, and could be done voluntarily.
However, I hope we do not see a great new influx of political appointees. I suspect that I am wrong and that it will not be possible to achieve this, but I would like to see some restraint. I would like to see a moratorium on political appointments in future, especially as we are now coming up to the manifesto period. We keep hearing that all three parties will say, one way or another, “Get rid of the House of Lords”. If all three parties want to get rid of this House, perhaps they should not nominate new Members to it. I am not sure that, when we have four months of constant campaigning, a manifesto will be read or raised by anyone, but there are issues we have to consider.
The way to get through to what we should be doing long-term is obvious and inevitable: that is, to have a constitutional convention that can make sure that we do not have a whole series of piecemeal constitutional reforms that do not hang together and which, in the end, lead to unintended consequences. That would be very dangerous to good government and certainly to accountability. As for short-term measures, I accept entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, that he could smell a conspiracy here. It is very likely that the Procedure Committee may intend to look at these proposals but if so I urge that it also looks at the debate that took place on 19 June on the Labour Party’s proposals, where there was a great deal of consensus that many of those issues should be looked at in great detail. That is the way forward because we should not have knee-jerk reactions one way or another to some of the issues raised.
Noble Lords might be interested to know that the Labour group met with the party leader on more than one occasion. We talked to him about our proposal for a constitutional convention. We are very pleased indeed that he said that issues of that kind will be referred to a constitutional convention. If we could get other parties to agree that that was the way forward, we could have a time limit on how long that constitutional convention was to sit. We could write a remit that could be very tight and specific. I really believe that that would be the way to ensure that we do not get into the constitutional chaos that would come about unless we look at all these issues together in the round.
My Lords, I am sure that the thought behind this Motion so well moved by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, will have wide support in your Lordships’ House. Most if not all of us regret the consequences of the great increase in the number of active Members of the House. Those consequences of course include: time limits on speeches that curtail debate, making it much more difficult to have a proper debate across the House; the competitive nature of Oral Questions; the pressure on facilities, particularly on days when the House is very full; and, perhaps less obviously but definitely, the weakening through overload of the House’s long-appreciated ability to absorb some of the more rebellious Members of another place into its culture of reasoned debate rather than point-scoring, and of cross-party respect, friendship and so on. I think that we all agree that the House cannot go on growing as it has been doing.
I spoke of the number of active Members having increased. Others have made this point. Of course, there were far more Members when I first came to your Lordships’ House before the 1999 reforms. However, many of them were far less active. There are various reasons for that but it is partly because the nature of a peerage and hence of this House has changed progressively over the past few decades. Being “raised to the peerage” is, we all recognise, both an honour and a job. The job is as a legislator, watching and guiding the Government. The job element has become much more emphasised. These days, most new Peers selected for membership of the House either by the main political parties or by the Appointments Commission, as was suggested just now, are grilled—that is not too sharp a word—as to whether they will be able to play a full part if they are appointed. That is from the point of view of both their expertise and also how much time they will have available and so on. Therefore, most arrive here having assured those who helped to select them that they can and will work hard at the job. They duly do so when they get here, working much harder than many Peers did in years gone by. So we have these difficulties flowing from the larger numbers and greater activity of Members. The problem is how we get to a substantially smaller figure.
Of the various solutions, I am not attracted to term limits or age limits. We have daily examples here of how either would weaken the House by the removal of experienced Members. We can all think of examples from all parties. The first suggestion usually made when this comes up is that fewer Members should be appointed—“Pull up the ladder”, as it were, and, “We have enough”. However, can that potential solution—in the form of a moratorium as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, just now—survive when the coming general election seems likely to produce such a different result in detail and maybe overall from that in the past? After all, this House will have to reflect at least to some degree the new political situation that will result from the general election. In any case, the House needs new Members. Many new Members make a valuable contribution. Each of us would judge slightly differently who makes the best contribution and who is less satisfactory, but we need new blood—as has already been said.
We come to the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. His starting point was the necessity or desirability of finding a solution which could be implemented by this House without the necessity for statute. I must say that I agree with that element. If we can find a solution that this House can implement, that is desirable. Part of the answer may indeed be, as others have suggested, modifications to our ways of doing things, but I do not think that the full answer will lie there, although improvements may be made.
A key element of the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is, after all, that once the proportions have been decided by his method or some variation of it, Members would voluntarily go along with it: that those who were, as it were, required to resign or take leave of absence would indeed do so. I am not sure what would happen to those who resisted the blandishments to retire or to stop coming and insisted on coming. The writ would apply and they would presumably still be able to come. I do not think that this House would be able to stop them from answering the writ if they insisted on doing so, although their colleagues did not wish it as a result of the arrangements made.
Of course, the House prides itself on its self-discipline and self-regulation. After all, we can already volunteer to leave the House. We have had the announcement today of Lord Jenkin of Roding taking retirement under the new arrangements. Lord Grenfell did so a few months ago. I do not think that many of us would have thought that either of them had come to the end of their useful contribution to your Lordships’ House, but they clearly felt so. I hope that each of us will realise when it is time for us to retire. The time will come for each of us. Of course, the grim reaper may arrive before we have come to that conclusion, or before we should have come to that conclusion, but we are getting older. This way to reduce the number by voluntary retirement is beginning to have effect. A dozen Peers have so far resigned under the various arrangements available, and another 50 or so have taken leave of absence. Without them, the situation would be considerably worse. We should not ignore that in considering the way forward.
If legislation is available, the solution put forward by my noble friend Lord Jopling some years ago and repeated by him very clearly today is the best way forward. It would require legislation and it would require a slight delay of the House before State Opening; but, particularly when there is a change of government at a general election, the speed with which the whole machine is supposed to turn around and point in another direction—I speak of government as well as of Parliament—is hasty by comparison with other countries. To take the American example, the election takes place in November but the new President does not take office until well into the new year. That is much more common in other places.
My noble friend’s solution draws on the immediate precedent of the cull of hereditary Peers in 1999 and the longer-term precedent of the removal of the Irish Representative Peers which took place in 1920. From the point of view of the House, the system used in 1999 worked well. We finished up with 90 elected Members, whom I think were the best, broadly speaking. Of course, they were topped up by a number of hereditary Peers who were given life peerages, so the number in the end was more than 90. The system of selection worked well because Members were selected by the different party groups, for the most part, but also because we know those who make the most effective contribution. That was a good thing to do. However, I entirely acknowledge, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said, that it was very unpleasant at the time—particularly so for those involved, the hereditary Peers, as opposed to life Peers such as me.
The advantage of my noble friend Lord Jopling’s solution is that the House would reflect the most recent election result and that the choice of whether existing Members remained in the House would lie with the other Members of the party. It would reflect the voting of the nation while continuing some of the essential and desirable characteristics of your Lordships’ House at present.
All those suggestions need further consideration and further detail to be worked out, so I very much support what my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said about referring the matter to the Procedure Committee with an options paper. Clearly, the options should include the proposals put forward so well by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, this afternoon. Time is of the essence. If it can be done without legislation, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested, the House should do its best to do that and implement it to show that the self-discipline of the House extends even to this major consideration of the future of the House, because it is necessary to reduce the size of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Williams for allowing us to have this debate. I have worked with him for more than 20 years, I share an office with him and I know the deep passion which he holds for this House. Equally, I know the hours that he has put in thinking about this issue and preparing for this debate. We are all indebted to him for that. I also hope that he feels vindicated by the quality of the debate. It is interesting that it has really been a debate of the House: the arguments have gone across the House and around it. We have seen the House at its best in that sense.
We are indebted to my noble friend Lord Williams for the debate. He has highlighted a critical issue facing the House but, as the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, said, this may not be the only way to tackle it. We are facing a problem; of that there is no doubt. I must admit that I think that there are shortcomings in my noble friend’s proposals. I know that this view is not shared by many in the House, but I think that it is dangerous for us to say that we are going to act,
“without recourse to primary legislation”.
That is a dangerous precedent, and we should not be stating it nor doing it. While I am on that issue, the noble Lord, Lord Cope, raised a point which I have heard expressed informally. When my noble friend Lord Williams winds up, perhaps he can inform the House whether I have the wrong end of the stick in this respect. Can we actually without primary legislation stop people who have accepted the writ attending the House, or does the reference to acting without primary legislation refer only to not paying attendance allowance and travel expenses? I have heard that that is one way of interpreting this provision, and if that were the case, it would be a severe disadvantage to anyone who lives without the surrounds of London. Perhaps my noble friend will inform the House on how he understands that issue.
Size is clearly a problem, and we are faced with having to try to deal with it because we are not a directly, democratically elected Chamber. That is stating the obvious. The Grim Reaper, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred, operates with a different logic and momentum from those applying to the electorate. The electorate not only gives the other House legitimacy but determines its composition. Most Chambers in the world—an overwhelming number—do not have to wrestle with this issue because they are democratically elected. We therefore have to come up with a means of trying to deal with this difficult problem.
I start from the basis, to which reference has already been made, that we do not challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. I believe that we have perhaps held the respect of the general public better than the other House has. Part of that is due to the quality of a number of really eminent people who sit on these Benches and participate in our debates. I spent 20-odd years in the House of Commons and the one thing that I find incredible about this Chamber is the contributions made in some of the medical debates—when I can understand them. It is just like a brilliant tutorial. That is due to the brilliance of the individuals on all sides and all Benches who participate in our debates and bring their wealth of experience to this House and share it with the rest of the world.
However, I come back to my noble friend Lord Williams’ main way of determining who will sit in this House. He is looking at attendance. However, the eminent people to whom I have referred are in great demand elsewhere: sometimes they are doing heart operations; sometimes they are in other parts of the world explaining how they understand their own subject. That means that they are not here. This House would therefore lose if we were to determine who can sit here only on the basis of attendance. Other things, such as Questions, committee work and other contributions, ought to be taken into account as well.
One other point that slightly concerns me arises from another strength of this House, and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, referred to it. People travel here from all over the United Kingdom to participate in our debates. If we were to base this judgment on attendance, success would be so much easier for those who live in London. This morning I had a four-and-a-half hour train journey from my home to London. If I lived 15 minutes away down the District line, it would take me that long to get here. There is a much greater onus on those who live outside London to attend this House. I speak as somebody who has had an attendance over the first three years of this Parliament of well in excess of 80%, so this is not special pleading. I am just stating the obvious. I do not believe that judging a person’s contribution to this House by his attendance is the only way of getting the best people to attend and be Members of the House.
I come back to my principal objection—the reference to avoiding primary legislation. I am concerned about the state of democracy in our country, and when I say “state”, I mean the regard in which it is held by the electorate. This should be a matter of concern to everyone involved in public life, of whatever party or of no party. I know that it is a concern. However, although we are a self-regulating House—and perhaps there are other ways of dealing with the problems, as the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, has suggested—that should not stretch to determining our own composition. It could be seen as a very dangerous precedent. I am not saying that it would be, but it is a precedent that we should try to avoid.
That view appears to be shared by all the major political parties. They have all made that clear, and I expect that in the manifestos—certainly in those of the three major parties—there will be a reference to some form of body to be set up to try to achieve an overview and have a look at our democratic institutions as a whole. Whether that will be a royal commission or a constitutional convention, I do not know. The election is just over 120 days away, and we would be ill advised to press ahead now. I understand the logic of what my noble friend Lord Williams is trying to present, but I think that his premise is wrong. There is a danger not only that it would be misunderstood by the general public but that we would alienate many Members of the other House by trying to act—and trying to act alone.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clark, and I am most grateful, as everyone else is, to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for giving us the opportunity for this debate. I do not think that he has produced a silver bullet; it is more of a grenade. I have a horrible feeling that others may pull the pin out of that grenade and that the consequences may not be quite what he had hoped for.
I have been in this House for 15 years, which I think was the term set by the royal commission in which the noble Lord, Lord Butler, served and which the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, chaired. After 15 years in this place, which is half a year longer than I was in the House of Commons, I am just beginning to work out how it works. I am not sure whether 15 years is long enough for me but it may be long enough of me for your Lordships. I really love this place because, as I think I have said before to the House, as I get older I find that I am less and less certain about many of the things that I was certain about. In this House, I find that if you are uncertain about things and they are debated, it is a very good way of setting your mind straight because people speak according to their beliefs and convictions.
One of the things that worries me about the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is that they might give more power to the Whips. As my noble friend the Chief Whip will testify, I am not always entirely in line with what he would like me to do. This is one of the things that has gone wrong in the other place. Some years ago, I was in a taxi and the taxi driver said to me, “Do you miss that place?”. I said, “The place I miss no longer exists”, and he said, “No, I mean the House of Commons”—he obviously thought that I had gone completely gaga. I said, “I know that you mean the House of Commons”, but I meant that the House of Commons that I remember was a completely different place. I now see Members who are directed into what they say. From all parties, they go on programmes and repeat the same fatuous lines. The result is that we now have an electorate who are absolutely tearing their hair out with rage at what they regard as the breakdown of the political process.
Whatever is said about this place, and there are lots of rude things said about it, it is not one where people are in fear of saying what they think. That is because I know that there is nothing that the Chief Whip can do to me—nothing which I would care about. I do not want anything from him and I know that I have been appointed for life. One of the joys of this place is the independence that comes from having that appointment. I think that my noble friend Lord Deben would say that he was in the same camp as me, except perhaps even naughtier than me from time to time.
Having said all that, though, if we do not put our own House in order, I fear that others will do it for us, and a great institution would be lost at the very moment when I believe this is about the only part of our constitution, as far as Parliament is concerned, that is working relatively well. The problems actually lie in the other place. What are you to make of a Deputy Prime Minister—I am sorry that there are no Liberals speaking in this debate who could defend him—who describes this place as a thousand Peers who get £300 every day for doing nothing? That is such a travesty. It absolutely plays to the gallery and reinforces a view that is damaging. I would not mind that kind of ill informed criticism from the other place if the other place were doing its job, but it is not. We on this side of the House had a manifesto commitment that we would end the automatic timetabling of Bills. Presumably, that has been a casualty of the coalition. Because of that automatic timetabling, this House is overwhelmed by the volume of legislation that needs to be dealt with, so we need Peers in numbers to deal with it.
There have been various proposals to reduce the size of the House. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested that it should be reduced to around 400. The Library Note on attendance says that there has been a bit of an increase: in 2013-14 the average daily attendance was 497, while in 2009 it was under 400. We already have an active House of 400 or 500. That is attendance, by the way, which is not the same thing as an active House. That is people turning up and claiming their allowances, or turning up and voting and perhaps going away. The actual active involvement in the House is considerably less than that.
I do not think that the problem is that we have too many people participating, although I entirely accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, that perhaps we need to look at our procedures. You do not actually need to limit speeches to two minutes in a debate if you make more time for the debate, or if you alter your procedures so that people cannot put their name down right until the last minute. I wonder if we might take a leaf out of some of the good things that have happened in the other place since I left it, such as the control of the business being more in the hands of the House than in the hands of the Whips, or indeed whether we should look at whether the question of how many committees we have should be more in the hands of the House. Perhaps we might even elect the Chairman of Committees, as they have done in the other place—I can see that the Chief Whip is beginning to think of something that he can do to me. Still, we need to look at our procedures.
The coalition agreement, which contains the extraordinary and ridiculous commitment that we should alter the size of the House to reflect the proportions elected at a general election, is mathematically illiterate. It would mean an exponential increase in the size of the House—I do not know, perhaps some of our friends on the Liberal Benches can help me with this—or does it mean that, if at the next election there is a great reduction in the number of Liberal MPs and the Liberal vote, colleagues here will be applying for a leave of absence? I think not. It is an unworkable proposal, and I think that it comes from the Deputy Prime Minister who is absolutely determined to destroy this place. He is doing so, too: he refused to allow us, as a self-regulating House, to bring forward the reforms that were contained in the Steel Bill, which was more and more watered down, and talked about not having “reform-lite”. To me it smacks of Caligula appointing his horse as consul in order to destroy the institution; they are deliberately allowing this House to be more and more ridiculous, and it behoves us to take more action to change that.
I therefore welcome the proposal that the Procedure Committee should look at possible changes that we can make ourselves. However, the most important change that we can make is how we ourselves behave in this House. We have to take a decision: are we too old? Are we not able to put in the time? Are we not making a proper contribution? Should we really have claimed allowances on that occasion? These are the things that are down to the personal responsibility of Members. The other thing that needs to be done, while we are talking about reform, is that the other place and the Government should show more respect for this House. For example, Ministers in this House should be paid, not expected to find their remuneration either from the allowances or from their own pockets.
On the issue of retirement, I would like to mention one story. As many noble Lords will know, in her latter days when Baroness Thatcher used to come to this House, she was increasingly frail. One day I said to her, “Margaret, you know, you don’t have to come to this House so often. You’ve done your duty by your country; you’ve been Prime Minister. People love to see you but you mustn’t feel you’ve got to come in”, whereupon she set upon me and said, “Michael, when we were appointed to this House, it became our duty to come here. It’s our duty to do so until the day we die. Now, how often do you come here?”. I think that that sense of obligation is being released by the introduction of the procedure that, although I regret to see him retire, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has taken advantage of today. Let us see how far that innovation will bring about change.
There are ideas that are worth looking at, such as ending the hereditary by-elections. I agree with my noble friend Lord Jopling that there should be a cap on the size of the House. I do not know how we would do this, but I think there ought to be a stronger Appointments Commission that made sure that appointments to this place were seen to be sensible; that would be important for the protection of the political parties as well as of the reputation of this House. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Butler, I think there has been a conspiracy to make this House look ridiculous by people who wish to destroy it.
Lastly, while we are on the subject of reforms to this House, I know I should not mention this because no doubt I will be mocked for doing so, but the size of the House adds to pressures on facilities. Whoever is running the catering facilities, though, really ought to get real and recognise that the catering exists to service this House, rather than the House being a franchise that is given in order to run the catering. For example, being told that you cannot book in the tea room, as the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheimer-Barnes, told me the other day, unless you are there at 3.30 pm when actually you want to be in the Chamber for Questions, indicates how that has gone wrong. There is also the issue of facilities being closed down so that there is enormous pressure on the remaining facilities. It is down to us ourselves to get a grip and reorganise our affairs to take account of the reality of where we are now.
My Lords, I promise not to speak about the catering department. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, particularly as at last I may have found someone in the House who can tell me how it works, which he claimed to know.
I am in agreement with the direction of travel put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, but I want to concentrate on his proposal regarding the 75% mechanism being chosen in relation to past attendance, first on a point of principle and then on two matters of detail. My principal, and principled, point is that attendance is not enough to justify a weighting of 75% in whatever selection takes place. It is also important that the mechanism for that selection must have a clear connection with both the overall representativeness of the Chamber and, as the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, put it, the recency of the experience from which individual Members inform the debates in your Lordships’ House.
One thing that matters is how this place appears to the electorate, and that, as others have said, brings us to the vexed question of age. As a callow youth of 61, I do not dissemble when I say that I have been deeply impressed by the contributions of many Members of the House much older than me. However, can attendance alone justify the retention of the situation at present, in which the average age of the Members of this House yesterday was 70—these statistics are from the House of Lords Library, and I am grateful for them—146 Members were aged between 75 and 80, 101 Members between 80 and 85, and 73 Members 85 and over? Can attendance alone be justified, were age to be completely ignored, as an indicator of the relevancy of experience of ordinary lives? I am not suggesting a blanket ban on a certain age, but I cannot believe that any future arrangement would not specify appropriate measures to ensure that a reformed House reflected the citizenry of the United Kingdom in terms of gender and ethnicity, so why should it not in some terms reflect the age of the population?
Before I get into terrible trouble for this temerity, let me call in aid the speech made last month to mark his retirement by Lord Jenkin of Roding, a speech which was well received on all sides of the House. He said that he had responded to questions about why he was retiring as follows:
“In recent weeks, I have been approached by a number of noble Lords from all parts of the House asking, sometimes with some asperity, why I am retiring. After all, I am getting on a bit and I realise that, but I have two answers; one is very short and the other is slightly longer. The short one is that after 50 years in Parliament—a number of noble Lords have already made reference to that—and at the age of 88, I feel that I have done enough. I have done what I can offer, and it is best to bow out and let others carry on.
The slightly longer answer is that, if this House is to continue to perform its hugely important functions in the running of this country, I totally believe that there has to be a constant infusion of new blood introduced into the House, with people who have current experience and whose experience of business or whatever field they have operated in is completely up to date”.—[Official Report, 16/12/14; col. 141.]
I really agree.
Surely it is not inconsistent to have both people of some considerable age and an infusion of new blood. If we look at the United States, the new president of the Federal Reserve took office at the age of 68. Many people commented on the fact that she was the first woman, but there was very little comment in the United States about her age. If Hillary Clinton should become President of the United States, she will enter the White House at the age of 69. People age at different paces. I have a personal friend who is chairman and chief executive of one of the largest banks in the United States and is 80. I am not suggesting that that is ideal, but an infusion of new talent and age are not incompatible.
I agree with the noble Lord. I was suggesting not that we should lay down specific ages, but that age should have the same relevance in the selection of the make-up of the House as the importance that we put on ethnicity and gender. There will always be exceptions. I am not suggesting a compulsory age limit, but as the House reforms itself it would want to be in a position to demonstrate that it reflected the general make-up of the population. At the moment, it is heavily weighted towards the older end of the population and, if we use attendance only, we may well end up with a reformed House that is even more reflective of an older group of people than it is at the moment.
I now turn to two detailed concerns. I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is being fair in his proposal that all four major groupings should be equally reduced to just below 53% of their current number. According to the House of Lords Library, between May 2010 and December 2014, the number of Members taking party whips increased by 85, or about 15%, whereas the number of Cross-Benchers fell by four. It does not seem to me that we should start from a position that each grouping is reduced to 53% of its current position if the Cross Benches are not the problem in terms of the increase that has been so much commented upon.
Lastly, I suggest that the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that attendance, if it is to be judged, should be judged across the lifetime of the previous Parliament needs careful thought for new arrivals, taking account not only of their date of Introduction but of how quickly they have been able to make the necessary adjustment to their working life to become a working Peer, particularly those who have not previously been politicians. For instance, I came into this House in 2010. I was already contracted to work overseas in the United States and India for a considerable period in the next two years, and it was with great difficulty that I was able to attend the House as much as I wanted. If we are going to go with the idea of attendance, a “best two years” rule might be an improvement. That would also deal with periods of significant illness and bereavement for all Members.
This is complicated, but it is necessary. However, something has to be done, and I look forward to the further debates and discussions ahead, provided that the outcome at each Parliament is to produce a revising Chamber with a proper balance of long experience in your Lordships’ House and recent experience in the world outside Westminster.
My Lords, like other Peers, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Williams on securing this debate. I suppose it is also relevant to congratulate the Government on making time available for it. If I could recall exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, I know I would be much better off simply repeating it because it was a lot more elegant than giving vent to the slight vein of paranoia I have that there might be a conspiracy among the three major parties to create a stitch-up here to try to rush something through before the election. I agree with my noble friend Lord Clark. In this matter, any attempt to do something before the election would be doomed to failure.
Having congratulated my noble friend Lord Williams, I will say that I disagree with him on both his target of 400 and his methodology in reaching it. Why 400? It is quite interesting that he referred to the last time we had 400, which was in 2008-09. We had an average daily attendance of 400, but at that point we had an actual membership of 704. If we are going to achieve it with a membership of 400 this time, it implies having a different sort of Peer. It implies having full-time Peers who do not have the current experience that the noble Lord, Lord Blair, referred to but are full time, as politicians in the House of Commons have become, and the House of Lords would become a much poorer place. With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and the committee chaired by Lord Grenfell, I also disagree with the Labour suggestion of 450. I see no logic whatever in the House of Lords being smaller than the House of Commons. There is nothing magic about it.
If the House of Lords is part-time, as in my view it should be, arguably it could be demonstrated mathematically that it should be a larger House than the House of Commons. There is a case for having active people rotating depending on their interest in the subject. My noble friend Lord Clark referred to medical debates. We do not see interested Members here every day. They would not have any medical experience if they were here every day, because in medicine as in everything else, the shelf life of knowledge is very short. I am fully aware that I am of less use to the House now than I was 10 years ago—not because I am 10 years older but because I am 10 years further on from having an active job where I had direct experience of some of the subjects I talk about. At that point, I came in here feeling that I had the answer to most of the world’s problems; now I am not even sure what the world’s problems are, let alone the answers.
The other point about a full-time requirement in any sense is that it will further restrict membership to those within the M25. Last time we debated this, I was inelegant enough to refer to the expenses system. I challenge anyone to defend a system where you pay somebody from Chelsea the same allowance that you pay somebody from Orkney. It is manifestly ludicrous and unfair, and I bitterly regret withdrawing an amendment I had at the time which would have made it £250 and £350, depending on residence, which I would now alter to £225 and £375 because of the cost of living in London. The fact, to which my noble friend Lord Clark alluded, is that people who come from outside London bear a huge personal expense, which is much less for people who live in London.
It is also important that all noble Lords have referred to a degree of urgency. The reason for that urgency is an increase in the intake, yet nobody has suggested that we do something about the intake. I am not suggesting that we freeze it; that would be unrealistic. However, surely even to reduce our numbers we need to know the maximum number of Peers which a Prime Minister of the day can appoint—otherwise, frankly, it is a recipe for the entire House to be wiped out and replaced in its entirety by new Peers. What Prime Minister would resist the temptation? Let us be quite clear: we have to do something about the intake. You cannot curb a Prime Minister’s power totally, but you could put some limit on it. I do not care how high the figure is, but we need to know what we are dealing with.
There is also another way around it—and again, one must acknowledge that some people accept a peerage for the title and regard coming to this House as an unfortunate concomitant duty, while others genuinely come for the job and wear the title rather lightly. We could easily distinguish between these two and create a class of Peers who are not entitled to sit in Parliament. They would not miss it because they do not want to do it. That would still leave the Prime Minister free to award peerages that did not carry implications for the size of this House.
Recognising, however, that you cannot do it all by controlling the intake, we have to achieve some kind of cull. I am tempted to say that perhaps those who do not believe in an appointed House should perhaps leave it. That would not produce a great stampede and reduce our numbers greatly, and it would also mean losing people such as my noble friend Lord Richard, which I do not want to happen. However, one could get rid of non-attendees. I accept the caution that it is not a simple question of attendance, and that that could be refined, but if we have to achieve some reduction in numbers—and most noble Lords seem to feel that we need that—let us at least try it. Let us get rid of noble Lords who do not come and do not want to come. I accept that it would not affect daily attendance, because they do not come here, but it would affect the numbers and would get rid of the jibes that we have a bigger membership than the Chinese National People’s Congress.
One of the reasons for my paranoia about the leadership of the three parties, whom I do not trust as far as I could throw them on this issue, is that quite a lot of press articles over the Christmas Recess were distinctly unhelpful to this House and came from absolutely nowhere. I begin to think that somebody is softening up the electorate before they say, “Let’s finally deal with the problem of the House of Lords—after all, we all had it in our manifestos”. The fact is that the electorate rejected the manifestos—but we do not pay any attention to that. If we put it in the manifestos, it must happen.
The attendance figure of 60%, which the Labour group under my noble friend Lady Taylor recommended, is a very high bar, particularly for people who come from outside London, which would reduce the number of people with practical, daily, hands-on experience and weaken the composition of the House. However, it is a reasonable figure. Fifty per cent would be more justifiable—but, if necessary, I would go along with 60%.
My final point—and I speak against my own interest in this, because I will reach this figure all too quickly—is that age is the least-bad cull mechanism we have. To go for retirement at the end of the Parliament at which you attain the age of 80 is not defensible logically—I accept all the criticisms of ageism—but it is better than the other schemes that have been suggested, and for that reason I commend it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on launching this debate and coming up with a proposal that it lies with the power of the House of Lords to implement, if it so wishes. However, as this debate has shown, this is a complicated subject and the proposals that he has put forward are useful not just in themselves but also to the extent that they stimulate debate among others.
The most important point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, just a few moments ago, when he questioned making the issue of numbers the most important determinant of the reform. We all agree that the principal purpose of this House is to revise, amend and improve legislative proposals, subject to the overriding wish of the Commons. The effectiveness and ability of the House to do that depend on the expertise—the range of experience, backgrounds, knowledge and so forth—that the House can call on in discussing the range of issues that come before it. Up to a point all of us are generalists, which is as it should be. However, above all, our justification is a certain quality of judgment and a certain level of expertise. My experience of this House is that we all operate largely on the basis of panels of experts, which is to say that noble Lords do not for the most part try to speak across the board. We choose the subjects to which we devote our efforts, so that those who speak regularly on, say, the National Health Service and social issues do not normally venture into foreign affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, is of course an exception, but it is generally true. Noble Lords who play a major role in debates on legal and civil liberties questions are rarely to be found taking part in debates on economic affairs. Therefore we operate on a basis of expertise. That means that we need quite a significant number of people if the different areas of expertise are to have a sufficient pool to draw upon.
In addition, the question of where we come from—the point about regional balance—is also important. I am one of those who live within about 20 minutes of the House, although on the Jubilee line rather than the District line, which another noble Lord mentioned. I recognise that the present system places considerable burdens on those who come from far away which are not placed on me. It is important to try to ensure that we have a system whereby we are able to call on a sufficient number of people from different parts of the country, regardless of the difficulties that they face which people like me do not. Therefore to make numbers the principal criterion is perhaps not the right way to do it. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, needed to do that to get the ball rolling, as it were. I feel that 400 is probably too few if we are to cover the full range of activities.
We should not be driven by discussions about whether we can all fit in here at Question Time and matters of that kind; after all, in the House of Commons not everybody can fit in at Prime Minister’s Question Time or when the Budget is being debated, and so on, so the question about overflowing on big occasions is neither here nor there. The important question is whether we have the right numbers and the right kind of regional balance to enable us to fulfil our functions, and within that, of course, account should be taken of ethnicity, gender, disabilities and so forth; in that respect the House of Lords is in fact rather better than the House of Commons as it is. Therefore we should adopt the criterion that is concerned with whether we have the expertise to do the job, not whether we have the right numbers. None the less, we have to think, broadly speaking, in terms of numbers. I think that 400 is too low, and am inclined to say that to go above 500 would be too high. Somewhere between 450 and 500 is probably more or less of the right order if one is talking about people who are active and who will devote a considerable slug of their time to the business of the House of Lords. A considerable slug of their time does not mean full-time. We are certainly not supposed to be a full-time House and I hope we never become one. I regret the extent to which the House of Commons has become a full-time House.
When I was elected in the early 1970s, there were a number of distinguished people who had no desire to become Cabinet Ministers—or if they had had, they did not any longer—and who pursued distinguished careers at the Bar, business, journalism and the trade unions, as well as in all kinds of other activities. The House was a great deal enriched by their presence, and its debates were a great deal more authoritative than they are now. It is very important that this House should continue to call on people who have interests and activities outside. None the less, if you are appointed to the House of Lords and take on the benefits, title and prestige, what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said a few moments ago about Lady Thatcher is absolutely germane. If you take on the title, you should do the job. That ought also to be one of the criteria for awarding the title. So the distinction that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, makes between those who are eligible and those who are active is very important. I congratulate him on launching us down this road, which has given rise to a very stimulating debate; no doubt, more stimulating speeches will take place. I hope very much that, as the noble Lord says, we will have the means and the will.
My Lords, it may be thought odd that I should, in my 93rd year, after 25 years of service in this House, be speaking in this debate—because, clearly, according to what the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said in his excellent opening speech, I am a part of the problem, as I am one of those very aged Peers.
I should like to say something on three relevant topics in relation to this debate. The first is a note of personal gratitude. It would never have occurred to me in my childhood in a mining village in Durham County, as the son of two primary school teachers, with one grandfather a miner and the other a worker in the shipyards of the Tyne, that I would ever end up in the House of Lords. I went to my father’s school in a mining village but then later got a scholarship to an excellent grammar school in a place called Spennymoor. I was on the science side, and there was a young man —among a series of others who had striking careers—on the arts side, who became a close friend. He came from a village called Byers Green near Spennymoor; some of you may have heard of his subsequent career—he was Sir Percy Cradock, who later became the ambassador in Beijing and, eventually, Margaret Thatcher’s adviser on foreign affairs.
I had an excellent education and then went to medical school. I graduated after a shortened wartime course 70 years ago. My subsequent career in medicine was exciting, but I did not enter this House until 1989 —25 years ago—when I was 67 years of age. Fortunately, I came in having just completed my presidency of the General Medical Council and having also completed my wardenship of Green College, Oxford, so I had the time to devote to debates in this House on issues relating to medicine, science and education.
I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Sutherland referred particularly to the work of Select Committees in this House, because it is something that is often overlooked by Members of the other place and by the general public at large. So many reports of Select Committees of this House are on issues that mould, develop and promote changes in government policy. I was fortunate enough to chair a very powerful committee on medical ethics in 1993 to 1994, which produced a report that was accepted by the then Government, who recognised that they should not legalise voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. I appreciate that this matter is now, 20 years later, very much under review, with the Bill of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, under consideration in this House. Nevertheless, 20 years of policy was moulded by that Select Committee.
I was for 15 years in total on the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and I chaired a sub-committee on research in the NHS, which in turn led to a series of developments and meetings that created the National Institute for Health Research. We are now looking forward to the opening of the Crick centre near King’s Cross station, which will be a major centre of scientific expertise that will be of enormous value to this nation. Another Crick centre is planned for Manchester. That arose out of an inquiry by the Select Committee.
Of course, many other issues are relevant. However, the second point to which I will refer is the recent development and the fact that it is now possible for life Peers to retire. I was greatly moved by the valedictory speech of Lord Jenkin of Roding. There is no doubt that I shall take advantage of that in the fullness of time and the not too distant future, with my failing hearing and living as I do in north Northumberland, so the burden of travel is becoming increasingly difficult. I hope very much that one way in which the number of people in this House may be reduced is by others following that pattern. However, there are several issues to which I still wish to contribute in debate, which are coming up in the not-too-distant future. That is something that I think is important.
Some two years ago, I followed the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who suggested a possible financial incentive to persuade Peers to accept retirement. A paper by Andrew Makower of the finance department said that that would clearly be, in the end, financially neutral. However, I understand fully that the attitude of government and the usual channels is implacably opposed to any such development, and I think that we can no longer have reason to pursue that topic. I know that the usual channels were very much against it—although I recall a Member of Parliament saying many years ago that the usual channels were the most polluted waterways in western Europe.
I go on to my last point, which has been referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Clark and Lord Sutherland, and by many others in this debate. When I came into this House, the thing that struck me most was that there was no topic on which you could speak in the House of Lords where there was no other expert present. There was a massive range of expertise among people who had a background of training in the arts, humanities and education, as well as in business and finance. We know the remarkable contributions that have been made and are still being made by Law Lords and former Law Lords in this House, which we enormously appreciate. Of course, the expertise in this House is one of its most powerful strengths, which not only contributes to difficult debates on matters in medicine that raise ethical as well as scientific problems, but nurtures the work of the Select Committees. This is crucially important.
Years ago, I often wondered as I looked around this House how a lad from a mining village in Durham County got here, because I was so much taken by the sense of wonderment that had such an effect on me when I first entered this House. That attitude of wonderment has been just a little eroded by some of the developments of the last year or two. The House is too large, and there have been occasions when its behaviour has been less than I would have considered appropriate in early days. It is crucially important that we find a way to reduce that membership, because the actual scientific expertise in this House, to quote one example, has been slowly but progressively eroded at the same time as the House has become increasingly politicised, with a massive influx of politically motivated Peers.
We used to have several distinguished chemists in this House, such as Lord Porter, who was president of the Royal Society and, until recently, Lord Lewis of Newnham. We no longer have an academic chemist in this House to give us support in such activities and, in several other aspects of science, there has been a progressive decline in numbers. It is therefore crucial that any decisions that are made in future maintain the expertise of the Cross Benches and make certain that all the necessary academic disciplines, including science and medicine, are properly represented in this House to maintain its background of being able to scrutinise legislation and promote important developments in each of these fields in Select Committee inquiries.
I could say so much more, but from the lofty heights of my advancing antiquity I wish simply to say that it is an enormous pleasure to be a Member of this House. However, the future is uncertain, because inevitably after the next election, whoever wins, there will be another major influx of political Peers. It is crucial that Members of this House and government should ensure that an adequate number of new Peers with expertise in scientific and other disciplines become Members of this House. If one compares the membership of this House at the moment and over the last few years with that of the House of Commons, where the number of people with scientific qualifications is minimal, one can see that it is crucial to maintain the expertise that is one of the great strengths of this House. For that reason, it is right that we should have not only a further meeting of the Procedure Committee but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, said, an expansion of the Procedure Committee into something like a constitutional conference. The future must be clarified before it is too late.
My Lords, the pleasure and privilege have been ours in listening to the noble Lord this afternoon. He always brings a very special contribution to any debate in which he takes part. Following him is both a stimulating and a humbling experience. If ever there was a living refutation of the argument that there should be a retirement age, the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, is it. Having said that, I agree with him entirely that the speech of my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, who officially retires today, and that of Lord Grenfell in July last year, were both extremely moving. They went out not when they were past their best but when in many ways they were at the height of their powers. If the noble Lord, Lord Walton, disappoints us in the coming year, he will be in that same category.
When I first realised that we were due to have this long debate today, I was slightly concerned not because I did not want to discuss your Lordships’ House, to which I am passionately devoted, but because I wondered how that would read outside on our first day back, and whether it would not be better to have a debate deploying some of the expertise to which the noble Lord has just referred, or one on foreign affairs. However, as I have listened to the debate, I have become progressively convinced that that was a misplaced fear. I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, on introducing the debate and on the manner in which he did it. I am afraid that I could not agree with many things that he said, the most important of which concerned size. This has already been referred to very eloquently by my noble friend Lord Tugendhat. However, if we were to have a House of 400 full-time politicians, given that there is an underlying current that we need at least 400 Peers to do our job, this House would lose its character.
Like my noble friend Lord Tugendhat, I entered the House of Commons for the first time in 1970. I had 40 consecutive years there and saw that institution change markedly, and in many ways not for the better. One of the reasons that it was a much more impressive Assembly in the 1970s was because many Members on both sides of the House had wartime experience, ran businesses, or were considerable trade union leaders, and there were eminent lawyers on both sides of the House, such as Sir Arthur Irvine on the Labour Benches and Sir David Renton on the Conservative Benches. The other place has changed beyond recognition. Its change of hours has destroyed—I use that word deliberately—its collegiate atmosphere.
For all that the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, lamented some of the changes that have taken place here—I understand why he did so, and I am sorry that I am not a chemist—this place still has that collegiate atmosphere, which is perhaps best symbolised at the Long Table, where we sit side by side and talk as friends and colleagues and are not always conscious of political acerbity or conflict. Indeed, I am very rarely conscious of that. The Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which I have the honour to chair, includes Members from all parties and the Cross Benches of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, is a distinguished member of the group. We work together and trust each other because we believe that this place makes a unique contribution to our constitution.
I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, whom I often sit next to at the Long Table, as I think that 400 Peers is far too few. We have a daily attendance of around 400. We ought to bear three things in mind in this debate. One is that the absolute number is very much higher than the average daily attendance. Another is that when we are debating in this place and drawing on the expertise which it has in such rich abundance, we need to have a wider pool than the 400 Peers proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, would provide. We should bear in mind that the working size and the actual size are different. Another thing we must bear in mind, which has already been touched on by my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean in a very good speech, and by others, is that there is a difference between activity and attendance. My noble friend referred to the fact that some colleagues in this House attend and vote but do not do a great deal else. That has to be borne in mind when future appointments are made to this House, as has been touched on. It is important that this should be a participatory Chamber and that Peers should take part in the proceedings and seek to give of their best in our debates, deliberations and committees.
Like my noble friend Lord Tugendhat, I am not worried about how full the Chamber is at Question Time. That is not just because—I say this in the presence of two right reverend Prelates—I quite enjoy Prayers, based as they are on the Book of Common Prayer, and I am president of the Prayer Book Society. I attend because I like to be here and there is a crowd. But, of course, when Churchill and Attlee—my noble friend referred obliquely to this—were determining the size and style of the new Chamber to be rebuilt after the last war, they both deliberately said that they wanted to reflect the adversarial nature of the politics in the shape of the Chamber. They also wanted to keep it the same size so that when a debate was not too well attended, it did not look ridiculous and, when it was well attended, there was a sense of high drama and passion that was part of the political process. So I do not worry about the physical size of this Chamber. Whatever conclusion we reach, we have to be careful that the numbers here are able to do the jobs to which the noble Lord, Lord Walton, and others have referred.
I agree, however, that there are problems and that we have to face up to them. As far as the retirement age is concerned, I have to say that I am a bit schizophrenic on the subject—and even more so, having just had the honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Walton. However, probably the solution put forward in the Labour Party document, which had much to commend it, was one to which we should give serious and careful thought. I am also taken by my noble friend Lord Jopling’s scheme of having a cap—and he knows that. There are precedents implicit in his proposal. When we had the Act of Union in 1707 and the Act of Union with Ireland in 1801 the Scottish and Irish peerages respectively elected a certain number among them to come to Westminster. There are more recent precedents, such as that relating to Ireland in the 1920s and again much more recently. We should have a target to which we work over a period.
My view accords closely with that of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, in that I think that having this House about the same size as the House of Commons is probably about right. Thereby you would have the expertise, people would not have to be here every day and when they have particular issues on which they want to come to speak, they could do that. Also you would have people who felt that they must participate fairly regularly, and you cannot feel the place unless you are here fairly regularly. It is no good someone who is an eminent lawyer or physician swanning in once a year and making a speech if he does not understand the ambience. What, more than anything else, shone through the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, was that he does understand this place; he loves it, has mastered it and has many friends within it.
Taking up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, we cannot eschew primary legislation, but there are things that we can do to address our procedures. For that reason, I would support setting up a committee to consider a prepared paper looking at all the options, including those of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and meeting over the next two or three months. The committee should not have an artificial deadline—artificial deadlines are bedevilling the solving of the problems of devolution, whereby, “This has to be done by St Andrews Day, by Burns Night or St David’s Day”. That is absolute hogwash. What we need is a committee that can begin work and continue it in the next Parliament. If some of the predictions are borne out, there will be a greater need after the election than there is now for the balance and stability that this House can provide. Yesterday was a nightmare—an absolute nightmare because it was party politics at its very worst. Here we have it at something approaching its very best. After the election, I would like to see a move towards a convention or royal commission—I have a slight preference for the latter but do not really mind—but we have to do this in a proper constitutional manner. Our constitution is the product of centuries of evolution and we must continue in that mould.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for setting us off on this road. I am sorry that I cannot agree with all that he said, but he has stimulated an extremely good and powerful debate, to which the noble Lord, Lord Walton, made a magnificent contribution.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow—if the noble Lord, Lord Cope, will forgive me for saying this—my noble friend Lord Cormack, who I have followed on a number of occasions in the other place as well as here. It is a great pleasure. Like him and, indeed, everyone else, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. I stress his territorial designation because a Freudian gremlin has appeared either in the Chief Whip’s Office, or maybe in the Clerk of the Parliaments’ Office, that describes him in the speakers list as “Lord Williams of Evel”—not the opposite of “good”, but E-v-e-l: “English votes for English laws”. So I suspect that the Clerk of the Parliaments has probably done that.
Like my noble friend Lord Cormack, I think that this has been an excellent debate. The contributions have been excellent. I have scored things out of my notes when I thought that what I was going to say would be irrelevant or had already been said, and I have added things because I wanted to respond to some of the comments. It has been a really good debate.
However, there has been one strange thing about this debate—the dog that did not bark. As I said to my noble friend Lord Richard in my intervention, this is the first time that I have been in a debate where the Liberal Democrat Peers have failed to materialise in verbal form. They have said not a word. If my noble friend Lord Williams had circulated a note saying that the criterion for deciding the number of people to continue in the next Parliament in the House of Lords will be based on participation in this debate, they would have been crowding in, speaking at length and dominating, as they often do at Question Time and in constitutional debates of other kinds, in foreign affairs debates and so on. This needs some kind of inquiry and I shall have to look into it.
My noble friend Lord Williams described some of the disorder that occasionally takes place at Question Time. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, was not referring to me when he raised that issue. It is probably a terrible slur on his noble friend Lord Forsyth for bringing all this party politics into it. However, I have a more sensible suggestion. As I have said on other occasions, although I know that not everyone agrees, every other legislative body—or every one in which I have participated—that has questions from the floor and so on has someone in the chair with the power to call people and to moderate, as the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and many others do. The issue is the unseemliness when lots of people get up to speak. I saw it again today when two Tories stared each other out so that they could get in. It is therefore important, as others have said, not to attribute all the problems that we face in terms of disorder to the size of the House.
I sympathise with the concern about size. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and others have said, we are the second-largest legislative assembly after the Chinese National People’s Congress, but we are also probably the cheapest national legislative assembly. This assembly costs very little indeed because, of course, we do not get salaries or have huge offices or numbers of staff. That occasionally makes it difficult to operate as a proper assembly. Consider the US Senate. As someone mentioned, it has only 100 people, but each one of those has about 100 others helping them in their offices to make sure that they can operate.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his helpful and wise contribution. It reinforces the point raised earlier by my noble friend Lord Clark: it is particularly difficult for those of us who come from afar, because the costs to get here are that much more. You do not get paid. In fact, you really do need a pension or a private income if you are to serve in this Chamber from anywhere outside of London. That is true. I am lucky to have a pension from the other place, so I am able to do so.
The main point I want to make is that we cannot consider size in isolation. We must also take account of the other constitutional changes that are either under way or planned, including further devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Incidentally, it is not just to Scotland. People say, “Scottish Members of Parliament shouldn’t vote and Scottish people shouldn’t participate”, but there is devolution to Wales and there has been for Northern Ireland for a long time. I never heard the Tories say, “These Ulster Unionists shouldn’t participate in matters that affect only England”. We have to deal with that as well. We also have to try to resolve the democratic deficit in England. That could include an English Parliament, a regional government, a combination of both, or more power to the cities, but it could also include some changes in this place, which I will come to.
The Library Note has been mentioned. That Library Note was helpful, particularly on the statistics. I was particularly sorry that it did not cover the Labour Lords’ report, to which my noble friend Lady Taylor referred. Perhaps they are being rather pure and non-partisan and do not want to mention it because it comes from one party, but I think it is one of the best contributions to this debate—I am a little bit biased as I was on the committee that helped to draw it up.
Among other things, it recommends that the size of this House should be smaller than the House of Commons. I say this to my noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane—my really good friend—and to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack: there is something symbolic about making it smaller than the House of Commons, to reinforce the primacy of the other place. It has to be reinforced in different ways and that helps to do it. In our report, the aim was 450 Peers, but I must say—I hope I am not giving any secrets away—that we were swithering upwards and downwards when we discussed that. There is not an obvious number. As others have said, we need the number to do the job. The Select Committee I serve on, the European Union Select Committee, with its six sub-committees, needs personnel to keep it going—I must not say to man it. We need enough for that as well.
We also recommend the abolition of hereditary Peers—at least of their participation in this place, not anything worse than that. I have not heard any arguments in favour of keeping them; if there are any I look forward to hearing them. The ones who have been useful have been made life Peers anyway. We also recommend a minimum attendance and participation level. That has been discussed; I will not go into it further.
We also recommended retirement at the end of the Parliament in which Peers reach 80. I have just been appointed to do something new. Many years ago, when I was young, I was director of Age Concern Scotland. I then got elected to Parliament and I had to retire from that.
My noble friend Lord Sewel has said it is a pity that that happened. I have just been appointed a trustee of Age Scotland, the new body that replaced Age Concern Scotland and Help the Aged in Scotland. The director, Brian Sloan, said to me when I was appointed, “Of course, George, you’ve got more of a direct interest in our work now”. He was absolutely right. This is the kind of thing that we should be doing. We are not in favour of arbitrary retirement ages; I should not advocate that. However, I do not think this is arbitrary. We have looked at it carefully and made a serious recommendation.
We then come to the longer term, which is the more important debate—no disrespect to what my noble friend Lord Williams and others have raised about the current matter. In the longer term, we need to start with the purpose of this House: not how many we are, but what we are here for. First of all, do we need a second Chamber? An argument has to be made against unicameralism in favour of a second Chamber. I used to be a unicameralist, but if you go to Scotland and see what has happened with the Scottish Parliament, where there are no checks and balances on a Parliament controlled by one party, with a First Minister, the Presiding Officer, and the majority of the Select Committees of the same party, you begin to see the advantages of a second Chamber.
If noble Lords agree with that, how should the second Chamber differ from and relate to the House of Commons? I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who said that it should be complementary to it. I think the noble Lord, Lord Walton, raised the question of the council of experts that we have here. This is a really important dilemma about what we are here for. If we want to be a council of experts that is one thing, but it does not have the legitimacy of a body that has some form of election, whether direct or indirect. That is difficult. It is difficult to argue that a nominated body, however expert and brilliant it is, should be part of the legislature. That conflict needs reconciling.
That is an argument. I am posing a problem rather than coming down on one side or the other. It is difficult. If one looks around the world, there is nowhere else where the second Chamber does not have some form of legitimacy. We need to look at that where we are participating in the legislative process.
I do not know whether this is going to cause controversy in relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said. He spoke about the culture of this place and some of us—I am sure he was not referring to me, but maybe to some others—not accepting it. With respect to the noble Lord, some people outside this place do not accept all aspects of its culture, particularly the privilege that is represented by the very nature of this building, this legislature and this part of the legislature. People have to recognise that. We do not all think that the comfort and the comradeship represented here is automatically the right thing. There are some good aspects, but there are also some legitimate differences between the parties. These ought to be represented and expressed in a legislature. There is nothing wrong with doing that in a forceful and eloquent way; that was done no better than by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. I agreed with everything he said in his speech today. That will not do him or me any good; we will be attacked by the cybernats—the nationalists who go online and attack us regularly—for being in cahoots again. I think it is good that on an issue such as this, which is not a party-political issue but one about the functioning of the second Chamber, we come to some kind of agreement.
I have gone on much longer than I intended. I apologise. In conclusion, the Labour Lords’ group recommended a UK constitutional commission, as my noble friend Lady Taylor said. That has been supported by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which Graham Allen MP chairs, by the Electoral Reform Society, by the Constitution Society, by Unlock Democracy and many others. Along with my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed from the Liberal Democrats, I have been involved in setting up an all-party group to look at ways that this can be pushed forward.
The leader of my party, Mr Miliband, has already said that a Labour Government would legislate for a senate of the nations and regions. With no disrespect, I say to him and to the leaders of the other parties, why can we not set up that constitutional convention now? Why can there not be some agreement between the parties? Why can they not show that they can work together and say, “This is how we want to go forward”? We need that sensible, holistic approach, with respect, to protect us from further constitutional Cleggery: poorly thought out, short-term changes in that outrageous attack from Mr Clegg on the House of Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said. By the way, that did not stop him stuffing lots more Liberal Democrat Peers into this place. There is a slight dichotomy there. Ah, a Liberal Democrat voice.
My Lords, I take great offence at the suggestion of being stuffed anywhere by Mr Clegg. I was appointed to this place from Greater Manchester on my merits. I went for my tea and came back at four o’clock. I get the feeling that no one is speaking from these Benches because to do so would be a complete waste of time. There are 800 turkeys here refusing to vote for Christmas. Until that is understood, there will never be the change that is needed to make this a democratic senate that reflects the people.
I have given way to one noble Lord. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, that I respect the qualities that he brings to this House. I heard his maiden speech. I thought that it was terrific and I look forward to hearing much more from him. I now give way to the noble Lord.
I am not down to speak but I want to say that I disagree with my colleague about turkeys. I have great respect for the experience of Members of this Chamber. I am sorry that I have not put my name down to speak so that I might say more but perhaps I will be able to do so on another occasion. I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I certainly think that we have great strength in this Chamber and I repeat that I disagree with my colleague on his point about turkeys.
If I have achieved nothing else with my speech, I have had two Liberal Democrat interventions and that is a little step forward. What I said about Mr Clegg applies not just to House of Lords reform. We are now seeing the problems of fixed-term Parliaments. Thankfully, his misguided attempt to reform this place—and it was misguided—was thrown out. I think that a lot of the Liberal Democrats, including the one who has just intervened on my speech—I spoke to him about it—thought that it was misguided. Mr Clegg’s proposal on voting reform for the House of Commons was thrown out. That is one reason why we should view talking about the size of this House as a small step towards getting holistic, sensible and reasonable reform not just of the House of Lords or of Westminster but of our whole constitutional set-up.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for tabling this very timely debate. I wish to declare an interest as the youngest Member of, and a relative newcomer to, your Lordships’ House.
In my brief four or so years as a toddler here, it has occurred to me that any discussion of how this place should be reformed ought always to start on the basis of what it is for rather than primarily the process by which its Members are chosen or how long they stay. As a member of the general public, before I came into the House I had little idea of what it was for, grouping it simply under the vague heading of representatives chosen to help govern this country.
In my time in your Lordships’ House it has become evident to me that our primary function is that of a revising Chamber—a place in which to amend and suggest improvements to laws produced by elected representatives in the House of Commons, whose primacy over this House is enshrined in conventions around the treatment of finance Bills, in the ability to force certain Bills through under certain conditions and through party manifestos, and in deciding what laws the Government of the day want to have debated in each parliamentary Session.
In a real sense, and bearing in mind our wider modern audience, we function as a kind of human Wikipedia for the laws of this country, suggesting changes and improvements to legislation that may, for whatever reason, have been created less than perfectly in a hurry to respond to some crisis, scandal or tragedy, or without real historic knowledge when similar laws were drafted many decades ago, or even without relevant life experience. In the main, we perform this Wikipedia function well, and for relatively little cost compared with other countries, drawing on the long expertise of our Members and their interests and activities in and beyond the House, both current and in the past.
That is not to say that there are not issues. We are perceived to be too big, at least for the start of each day’s Questions and major events. That brings a cost, although it should be noted that full-time senators and their staff would cost more per head. And some might argue that, given that our peerages are for life, we are not as accountable as Members in the other place, although that very much depends, I suppose, on how safe your seat is as an MP. All that provides ammunition for those who would like to abolish this House and replace it with an elected senate with fixed terms, even though the constitutional challenge of which House would ultimately then become the more powerful of the two over time as a result would have to be definitively addressed.
However, the question before us today is not whether this modern-day human legislative Wikipedia should have its contributors—or, rather, moderators—elected on the basis of popularity but how we address the size issue, which in turn has an impact on our costs, and potentially on how accountable we are, if not to an electorate then at least in terms of how much of a contribution we make while we are here. This in turn ultimately, for now, in my view comes down to how long Members remain in this House, whether legally or voluntarily, given that your Lordships’ House operates—in many ways like Wikipedia—largely on a voluntary and self-regulating basis.
So how should we reduce the number of those attending the Chamber? As the youngest Peer, one might feel tempted to argue for a cut-off based on age. However, I am fairly firmly opposed to this route. As a revising Chamber we need expertise in, and experience of, every activity in life, whether drawn from current or past endeavours in business, government and civil society, from people who would have been or were elected in the past, as well as from those experts who would never dare stand and would much prefer to devote their energy to their own field of science, art or the humanities or to other activities rather than be in the glaring limelight that is the staple of the modern-day elected representative. To force Members to leave simply because they are too old would cut us off from such expertise and would also, in my view, be unfair on those who enter this House later in life, having therefore only a few years in which to serve.
Another route is to go for fixed terms—say, of 15 years. Again, for similar reasons to those I have just given, I think that we would miss out arbitrarily on experience that can take a lifetime to build, not least of drafting legislation, since economies and policy often move in decades-long cycles. Nor am I convinced that fixed terms—nor, for that matter, an arbitrary age limit, which, given life expectancy, would have to be increased periodically—would help us to address the immediate question of reducing the number of Peers attending at peak times unless destabilising and drastic action were taken to implement such terms straight away or the age limit were set impractically low.
My proposal would be quite simply, and with possible small amendments, to invite Members of the House who had served the longest to voluntarily semi-retire by convention as active attendees of the Chamber and to become in effect honorary life Peers, retaining the ability at certain times of the year, such as post the Sovereign’s speech, to contribute if they wished—namely, to reduce the size of the House using tenure as the primary criteria. This proposal would be simple, objective —there can be no dispute about when someone entered—quick to implement and fair, since everyone would get a shot at sharing their experience. It would also, I believe, address to a large degree the concerns in general that exist around our size, our cost and even our accountability. In my view, knowing that your time will be up at some point makes you want to contribute fully while you have the opportunity. It is also a continuous solution. Unlike choosing based on attendance, it does not require periodic revisiting and the imposition every now and then of an arbitrary time window in which to assess attendance levels. Finally, it retains the idea that we remain Peers for life, with all the independence of thought that that brings, even if those who have been here longest voluntarily participate only at certain times of the year.
With the kind assistance of the Lords Library, I have run an analysis of average tenure. Through a voluntary reduction of the kind I have described, shrinking the House to 650 core Members—bearing in mind that not all of these would attend every day, so this would translate to a lower number of active Peers —would still give an average tenure of around 19 years. The raw data are available in the Library for those who want to run their own analysis. The average tenure would of course increase if the cap were higher than 650. With a lower cap, I fear that we would, sadly, lose a lot of experience, which is why I suggest that by convention certain debates, such as those post the Sovereign’s speech, be reserved for honorary life Peers to continue to contribute to. Such Peers, or retirees, would remain influential by continuing to be on the Estate, contributing informally as part of the wider activities that take place in Parliament.
I would very much welcome thoughts and feedback on this suggestion, and indeed I should like to ask the Leader of the House and fellow Peers what views they all might have of such a scheme. There remain issues that would need to be worked out, such as how this might apply to the hereditary Peers and what would happen if, theoretically, hundreds of Peers were brought in quickly over a five-year period, which would radically shorten the average tenure of the place. Then there is consideration of how such a move might affect the composition of Peers among the various political parties.
In my view, Bishops should be appointed on the same basis as operates today. For life Peers, leaving would be triggered whenever new life Peers were appointed. My initial thinking around hereditary Peers is for a similar tenure system to operate as with life Peers, but that when the longest-serving Peer due to leave upon the appointment of a new Peer is a hereditary Peer, the hereditary Peer is replaced using the same electoral system already in place but with the next longest-serving life Peer being invited to retire and to become honorary to allow the incoming life Peer to take their place. In effect, hereditary peerage elections would be triggered upon a particular hereditary becoming the longest serving Peer in the House overall and when a new Peer is appointed.
To address the issue of the House being flooded, which many argue rightly is the prime cause of our current size issue, it may be that we need to recommend a reasonable cap on how many can come in each year, although I suspect that this would need primary legislation and support from the Government of the day, which might not be politically feasible.
Much as it is difficult, we need to change as a House in order to safeguard what is special and effective about it. Change is difficult and I think that in addition to what I have suggested, and regardless of whatever method we ultimately choose to pursue, we need to support Peers in the big transitions both into and out of this Chamber, so that lives can be reconfigured and prepared for the changes that are involved. I have spoken about this on previous occasions and supporting transitions is an area in which we could do better generally so that it is less stressful not just for those of us in this House but for the increasing numbers in this country entering the period that we now call later life.
Reducing the size of this House through tenure remains the least worst of the options being explored currently. It may be that ultimately we need a combination of a very high age limit—if we must, although I would prefer to not have one—plus a tenure system with a high cap, and modifications to procedures of the House to arrive at a practical solution. As such, the suggestion of an options paper by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is most welcome. It could well be that such a process leads to a suggested age limit of, say, 85 or 90, with an average tenure of 25 to 30 years, with processes in place to ration suggested attendance at Questions and, on top of that, inviting fully non-attending Peers to become honorary life Peers straightaway. We might arrive at a steady-state number of 650 to 700 Members, of which 400 would attend almost every day. The key for me is that tenure is a key part of the mix and that the losses incurred in terms of experience to the House from other methods are minimised.
I ask the forgiveness of Peers who might object to my or other Peers’ suggestions in this area but, as others have mentioned already in this debate, if we do not act voluntarily now to address this in some effective way, legislation to force it feels sadly inevitable. Let us, come what may, act now so that change is not brutal and sudden for any of us, but that it is appropriate, in line with what we are here for, and effective. Let us, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, change now, so that we do not have to,
“go gentle into that good night”.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel for introducing this debate. During the Recess, I read that his stepson, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, had contracted pneumonia. I hope that he is now well on the road to recovery. I shall make two points, one of which is in relation to the transport problems of my noble friends Lady Taylor and Lord Foulkes. I attend this debate having taken today five forms of transport to get here. I took a car to a hotel on the Isle of Arran, a bus across the island, a boat from the island to the mainland, a train to Glasgow and a train from Glasgow to London, and then the Underground. If that does not deserve a pat on the back, perhaps it should.
My noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane and I are the same age and will be 80 next year, which means that, under the proposals being put forward, we might have to retire. However, recently I did an online test which showed that my real physical age, if you take the fact that I take exercise, go to the gym and do this and that, is 60. That therefore means I have another 20 years to go until I have to retire.
In this debate, it would be very easy to fall into the trap of defending the House of Commons against those who are attacking it. I spent quite a long time there and have to say that some of the changes, although not all of them, have been beneficial. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said that rebuilding the Chamber still has to be adversarial, but it always has been such. I am sure that, like me, when he shows people around the two Houses, he points out the sword lines in the Commons and says, “You can’t step over that line because the length of the sword is between the two”. It always has been adversarial. I had an uncle who was thrown out of the House of Commons for making an overtly political, let us say, insult to a Member of the Tory party.
The question that has not been asked is not whether we should change the size of the Lords but whether we should change at all at this point in time. My answer would be no. I agree with my noble friend Lord Clark that we have to have legislation but, before we have legislation, surely we have to look at the whole way in which we are governed, including whether we still should be in this building, how and whether we should vote, whether we should vote online and the type of card we should use to vote, right through to the sort of devolution we should have to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. After all, we have just had the referendum in Scotland and have seen more powers given to the Scottish Parliament. We may have to say, “You will not be able to serve on the education committee in this House because you are a Scot. Education in Scotland is devolved and is not part of the English system, so you will not be able to serve on a committee that is about the education system”.
I was born in Oxford of an academic. Therefore, like the noble Lord, I probably would have the same qualification, although I spent all my career in education in Scotland. The fact is that we are living in a political world that is changing very rapidly. We are also living in a high-tech world that is changing very rapidly, not just in terms of this country but in terms of the world more generally. The idea of the nation state may be at an end. Let alone whether we devolve power to different parts of this country, this country may have to be part of a larger organisation in order to govern itself and to control the companies and organisations that are now much bigger than a country. Companies such as Amazon and Apple—I hold one of its products in my hand—are as big as some of the countries in which they operate and have a turnover larger than those countries.
Surely we must look at the whole issue, which is why I am in favour of something for which my noble friend Lord Foulkes has been pushing for some time; namely, a convention on the constitution to look in the broadest possible way at how we govern ourselves, the people of this country, and how we fit in with the rest of the world. Until we have done that, we should hold off any changes in this place. That will require legislation but surely we should sit back and say, “Let us have the general election, see what happens and then consider what we are going to do”. I hope that the Labour Party will win an overall majority, will set up the constitutional convention and will look at the way in which we govern.
Finally, I say to my noble friend Lord Williams, having expressed a hope that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop is on the mend, that he is not talking about 400 Peers in this Chamber. He is talking about 426 Peers because 26 are here automatically; namely, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the three Bishops, plus the others who make up their number. Should they be here? Are they part of this deal? I am told that there is separate legislation for them and therefore the plan put forward by my noble friend cannot cover them. Are the Bishops prepared to be part of the plan? Are they prepared to say, “We will not attend if this plan goes ahead”? I hope so. A noble friend says, “Of course”, and I hope they will. That ought to happen. The Bishops’ Bench is the biggest single anomaly in this place at the moment. That is because this is now a multicultural society and they do not represent even the majority of the people of this country, so why should they, and they alone, be sitting in the House of Lords, which is part of the legislature, the body which makes the laws of this country? That cannot be right. It is time that we separated the church and the state completely and the Bishops should be told to go. We should resolve that this House becomes completely secular. People will still talk about religion and different religions are represented here, but the Church of England should not be an established church within our organisation.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for getting us to think about this terribly important subject. Many noble Lords have expressed the opinion that perception is very important; that is, the way the country sees us. What I think the noble Lord is saying, if I understand him correctly, is that we should do our own housekeeping. We should not necessarily need primary legislation for that, and if we did do our own housekeeping we would be much more likely to ensure our future.
I have been a Member of this House for just under two years and therefore my experience is limited, but there are some points that have made themselves very forcefully to me. The first cannot be said too often: what this House brings to the legislation of this country is scrutiny and improvement. I have seen that in countless debates. We have improved the law as it has gone through Parliament. The second thing that I have been struck by is the huge respect for the mandated Chamber. It is for those two reasons—we scrutinise and improve thanks to the expertise that is here and we do not pose a threat to the mandated House—that I am against any idea of an elected House. We would not have the expertise and we would have a Chamber that could stand up on its back legs and say, “We now have just as much right to confront you as you have to make laws”. I do not think that that would be a healthy development.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, that one can learn in this House because of the assembled expertise—particularly, as he said, that of the medical profession. I feel that I am here largely to represent the world of the arts and music education, but I have been so passionately moved by some subjects that I have taken them up with gusto. FGM is one of them. I find it absolutely extraordinary that 60,000 women in this country have been mutilated. One evening I came to a dinner break debate and learnt all about the Central African Republic, about which I knew nothing. What an incredible privilege that is.
That brings me to the point about whether we should pay people off and ask them to leave. That would be very difficult for the public to swallow, essentially because it is an honour and a privilege to be here. We have to cover people’s costs, and we should remember that we are doing this for the honour. That is because, quite frankly, for a lawyer or a consultant physician, and even for a humble broadcaster, £300 is not really the going rate. One does this because one believes in it; one is here and one wants to make a difference. I slightly disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, about his fear of trespassing on the primacy of legislation for the reasons I have just set out. If we can get our housekeeping done before needing to go that far, I think we will be answering a lot of the criticism.
On the subject of perception, nothing, in my experience, riles the public more than the political appointments that are given to donors. Of course there are some donors who bring a great deal to this House, but for the life of me I cannot see why, given that we have an Appointments Commission, we do not strengthen it and give it statutory powers. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, touched on this in his remarks. At the moment the commission can look at political appointments only from the point of view of financial and criminal probity. If it was to vet people from the point of view of what people would bring to the House, they would feel better and the public would feel that they were getting a better deal because it would not just be cash for peerages. That is something which infuriates the general public, and I understand why.
At the time when I was appointed along with my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox, the Prime Minister asked the then chairman of the Appointments Commission to restrict the number of appointments he made to two—at a time when he and the other political leaders upped theirs to 30. I simply cannot understand this. Why can they not be asked to limit what they are doing if we are worried about the House? I have not heard a single person say that there are no concerns. Really, that would be such a simple way forward.
I have mentioned my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox and we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wei, who mentioned his age. I hope he does not mind my picking up on that. It is a very good reason not to have a 15-year cut-off. If I am correct, the noble Lord and my noble friend would be only in their mid-fifties by the time they were asked to leave. That is the point at which they will have acquired a huge amount of knowledge and expertise. For that reason, a 15-year cut-off probably would not work. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that we have to do something. We need to seize the bull by the horns before it is taken from us. I believe very strongly in what we achieve in this House. When I was appointed, the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who was the chairman of the Appointments Commission, said to me at the interview, “I have one final question to ask you, and it is a pivotal one: will you be here?”. After all, the commission is arguably the most democratic way into this House. That echoes what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said about Baroness Thatcher and about himself. We have to show some dedication to this House, in which we have the honour to serve.
My Lords, it is particularly useful to hear from a noble Lord who joined us just under two years ago and to listen to him reflect on his life as a working Peer, which is clearly what he is. I concur with his views on the Appointments Commission. The balance has gone wrong and he is quite right to say that the public outside do not understand why the balance between the Cross-Benchers and the political appointees should be so skewed one way. I should like to concur with those who have thanked my good friend the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for making the debate today possible.
It has been my privilege to be in politics for 50 years this year. I first got involved with the London Borough of Islington, but not surprisingly I was not successful there in 1966. I spent 23 years in the other place, always in a marginal seat, which is an experience that not too many noble Lords have had, and subsequently I have been in your Lordships’ House. I have listened to both the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and my colleague and noble friend Lord Strathclyde saying that in their judgment this House is too large. As an aside, I was surprised that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde did not mention anything about the hereditary Peers or, indeed, the agreement that I understand was reached when I first came here that at some stage, when the reform took place, the hereditary Peers were to end. There needs to be a degree of clarification of what that now means in the context of 2015.
However, leaving that aside, the problem is not just the size of the House. The problem is the perception of the public—whom we serve and who pay all our allowances—that this House is, in particular, too old and, secondly, too large, which it probably is. In my judgment, as someone who has spent 25 years in the communications industry, in the world of advertising, the perception as you go around—which most noble Lords who are still active do—is that the age profile is too old. That issue needs to be addressed.
I have listened to a number of proposals throughout the day. My noble friend Lord Wei certainly came up with a novel proposal this evening, and I hope that whoever looks at how we move forward will look at it in some depth, perhaps contrasting it with the proposal of my noble friend Lord Jopling—who is not in his place at the moment—which, until hearing my noble friend Lord Wei, I was basically in favour of.
I have no problems with the proposal from the Labour Party that some time in the Parliament in which I am 80—which will be the next Parliament—I should retire, if necessary at the end of it. I am perfectly fit now and I am sure that I will, hopefully, be perfectly fit then, but I have no problem with that if it is to be the agreed strategy forward.
I will make two other short comments. The new retirement scheme is greatly to be welcomed, although those who have commented on it are right when they say that we have no real understanding yet, based on just a few months, of what the effect of the new retirement scheme will be on our senior colleagues in terms of age. My suspicion is that it will help, because it provides for those who are in the upper quartile—as I am now, I think, at 78—a proper way to end one’s political career, in the knowledge that one can come back a little bit afterwards and keep up friendships and contacts, and thus stay mentally alive. I welcome that.
I would very much vote against any form of financial compensation for anyone leaving. That is entirely wrong. After all, it is a privilege to have served society, whether in the other place or in this place, and I do not expect to be compensated for doing something that I have greatly enjoyed and to which I hope I have made a contribution. I certainly do not want any financial compensation. However, I have the privilege of being a trustee on the parliamentary pension scheme. Within the structure of that scheme, an active provision for a hardship fund exists. It is done scrupulously honestly and in confidence. I believe, as someone who observes your Lordships’ House fairly closely, and having perhaps observed this as Chairman of Ways and Means, that there are a number of our colleagues who might be eligible for such help. Understandably, they are too proud to mention it, but those of us who watch these things—I am sure that would be true of both Whips’ Offices—perhaps know who they are. I see no reason why we as a House should not produce something comparable to the scheme in the other place. If it would help the committee that would be responsible for looking at this, I would be more than happy to volunteer, with the officers from the parliamentary pension scheme, to put together a draft structure for consideration by the committee, if that met your Lordships’ requirements.
I do not really want to say any more this evening because we have had a very full debate. However, I genuinely say that the timing for this is right. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, has left but he is one noble Lord with whom I would disagree totally. The idea that the whole world’s political structure has to be analysed before we decide to do anything is, in my judgment, totally wrong. We should get on and do something. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, was right when he said we should get on and do it, before the election. Let us get started on it and take this thing forward. It is too important to our nation to be left to some time in the future.
My Lords, I am very happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. A little unusually, I can happily say that there was nothing in his speech with which I disagreed. Every point he made was absolutely fair. I echo the views of every other noble Lord who has spoken in this debate and express my appreciation to my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel for initiating it. It might have seemed a bit self-indulgent for a debate like this to happen on our first day back, but it has been such an excellent debate, with so many very interesting and positive points made in it, that it was well worth while. I simply say thank you very much to my noble friend.
I will try to avoid going over the ground that other noble Lords have covered in this debate—which is either one of the advantages or one of the disadvantages of speaking very late. There is no need to go into the basic statistics about the total number of Members of this House, the proportion who attend regularly and the consequences, both practical and reputational, of continuing to add to our membership. On that last point, we should perhaps be a little grateful to the Prime Minister for not following the line laid down in the 2010 coalition agreement which stated that:
“Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election”.
As Professor Meg Russell pointed out in the House Full report, published by the Constitution Unit in April 2011,
“putting this promise into effect would require a minimum of 269 additional peers to be appointed, taking the size of the chamber to 1062”.
As we have heard, the actual number of new Peers has been 160, which exceeds by a substantial amount the total who have left, whether by death, retirement or resignation. This is the reason why the membership of the House now stands at nearly 800.
However, the really important statistic is the number who are attending regularly, which has crept up to around 500. That compares with, for example, 350 to 450 before the passage of the House of Lords Act in 1999, when the membership of the House was well in excess of 1,000. One reason why more Peers are attending is because the average age of new Members is a lot lower than that of those who have left us. Your Lordships tend to live longer than most members of the population, and the average age of departure—until recently, that has been a euphemism for death—has been 85, whereas the average age for new Members has been 59 in the current Session. Intriguingly, the overall average age of Members, at 70, is almost exactly the same today as it was when I joined the House in 1999. The one difference, I am afraid, is that I am now much closer to the average than I was 15 years ago.
Many Members referred to the innovation of the system of retirement, which I think has been welcomed by all noble Lords. This is, or will be, a means of achieving a reduction in the membership of the House. However, I was a little surprised to discover that it does not apply when one of our 92 hereditary Members retires, because that retirement is then followed by a by-election, something which the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, spoke against earlier on. It seems rather strange that we have a by-election for somebody who has taken voluntary retirement under these arrangements.
I am afraid that the issue of the size of the House is bound to grow in significance as the general election approaches, and we must be robust in defending ourselves. It would clearly be absurd if anything approaching the old coalition policy of matching the number of new Members to the share of the vote received at the election were to be put into effect, given the fact that the election may well produce a rather strange set of results, not just in seats but in terms of the percentage share of the vote won by political parties. Are we really saying that if an extremist party were to attract 15% of the vote, that would justify it getting 100 or so Members in your Lordships’ House? Of course, if one follows that line, what would we do about a party that did well in 2010 and was rewarded with 34 new Peers during the life of this Parliament but then found that its vote had fallen to less than 10%? Will its Peers automatically volunteer to leave the House in order to bring that proportion down? I rather suspect not.
One sensible answer is to agree on a moratorium on new creations or at least agree on a one-in, one-out policy so that the total membership gets no larger, the party balances are maintained and the Government continue not to have a majority. But first, of course, there has to be agreement on what the total membership should be. I have not heard any consensual view on that, other than the fact that 400 is thought to be too few and 800 is thought to be too many.
We could adopt a rule that is followed in local government; that is, members who fail to attend a meeting in a six-month period without a good reason are deemed to have resigned their membership. We could look at more draconian measures, such as limiting membership to those who attend more than a minimum number of sittings. Your Lordships may be interested to know that if we set the figure at 25% of our sittings in the current Session, we would be saying goodbye to around 137 Members who have not attended at least 19 of the 78 sittings that have taken place.
A further change that I do not think anybody else has suggested but I would be interested to have my noble friend’s view on is that we could in future consider what we might call “ministerial peerages” which come to an end when the individual concerned ceases to be a Minister. There is nothing wrong with Prime Ministers choosing individuals as Ministers and putting them in the House of Lords. Indeed, that can enhance our effectiveness and enable us to hold the Government better to account if we can question them here. But if some of those Ministers decide that they want little to do with this place after they leave office, as was the case with a number of Ministers in the previous Government, they should be encouraged to resign from the House at the same time as they step down as Ministers.
I am not going to follow my noble friend Lord Maxton in having a go at the Bishops’ Bench, particularly as it is currently empty. But I cannot resist the temptation to ask the Leader of the House, whose speech I am looking forward to in a moment, whether the Government have plans to introduce legislation imminently to ensure that the first woman Bishop is appointed here before the end of this Parliament. I do not think anybody has mentioned that.
Your Lordships all understand that getting the number of Members of the House down without reducing the number of active Members will not do anything about reducing the cost of this House. Undoubtedly, we have to explain this better to the public and the media, who assume that just by getting rid of the old Members somehow the cost of the House of Lords will come down—it will not. What is important is that we do not compromise the quality of our debates or compromise on what we are able to do in scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account. That has been the theme of many speeches in this debate. The fact that that message is coming through so clearly is a very good reason for having this debate.
My noble friend Lord Williams has set the ball rolling. I hope now that the Procedure Committee will take it up and run with it and look at these issues properly in the weeks ahead.
My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, about the quality of this debate on the whole question of the size of the House of Lords. It has been outstanding, with very distinguished contributions, and we owe that to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for giving the lead in this.
I am also very glad that the House in general has made a distinction between the longer-term issues of what one might call radical reform of this House—the proposals for an elected House, for example, which will no doubt return in due course, or the implications of devolution in Scotland or of a European Union referendum, if we have one, which are longer-term issues—from what we have principally been debating today, which is the continuing current role of the House of Lords as a revising and scrutinising Chamber, which obviously involves more modest, incremental changes, perhaps against the background of Burke’s maxim:
“A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve”.
I would also like to reinforce the view that has been expressed today by some noble Lords that there should be a constitutional convention, I assume of a permanent nature, which will pick up all the strands of constitutional evolution as they develop—the big issues meshing in with the more daily issues and the pragmatic, incremental aspects of reform—so that we have a more cohesive picture as time goes on of how our constitution is evolving.
We have our role as a revising Chamber and I believe it works pretty well. That probably explains why the Prime Minister and the Government of the day on the whole do not awfully like the House of Lords, because we are doing our job pretty well. I believe that our effectiveness would be strengthened, however, by tackling this whole question of the size of the Chamber. Like many noble Lords, my preference is for a reformed appointed Chamber. The longer we fail to tackle this issue of size, the more the pressure will increase to introduce more radical reforms, which for my part I would not support or approve of.
The present size is, I think, an impediment to being an effective revising Chamber. I do not want to exaggerate it but the trend to increase the size of the Chamber is simply not tenable. Of course there are problems of space. There is less scope to contribute. There are cost problems. There is no great merit in being the largest second Chamber in the world. We know the figures—we have heard them time and again in the debate: we have nearly 800 Members who are eligible to sit; average attendance is the highest at just under 500; and the trend since 2000 has been an overall increase of 25%.
I agree with all those who said that this House needs new blood regularly. It is important for the House to have fresh expertise, fresh experience and, I might say, younger people as well. But if we continue with the current trend, it will not be long before we have more than 1,000 Members in this Chamber. That to my mind is totally unacceptable. We can all debate what would be an optimum size. I personally believe that somewhere in the region of 450 to 500 is about right for the job we are trying to do and that we would get the best value with that number. I very much commend the views that have been expressed by the group of Labour Party Peers led by Lord Grenfell and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, which has produced some very constructive ideas that have contributed very much to this debate.
The difficult issues, as we have already heard, are how to get the size of the House reduced. There is a very difficult balance to be struck. First, there is the whole question of the balance of the parties and the fact that the Cross-Benchers must make up at least 20% of the membership. That factor has all the time to be borne in mind when we are considering a reduction in the size of the House.
When we consider retirement, we look first at the voluntary aspect as well as, later on, at the mandatory aspect. I believe quite firmly that voluntary retirement on its own will not solve this problem. We have had a superb example set by Lord Jenkin of Roding, who has officially retired today, and I join other noble Peers who have already said that they plan to retire in due course. My decision is to retire in the next Parliament, during which time I shall reach the age of 80. I have a principle in life that you ought to go before you are asked to go, which probably explains why many of the jobs that I have held have been for a very short time. It is a matter of individual judgment, and I do not wish to be judgmental on anyone else’s decision as for when is the right time for them to go. It fits, however, with one of the Labour Party’s proposals in its very good paper.
I feel strongly that if we are to see a balanced reduction in the size of the House, it can be done only with some kind of a mandatory system. Today we have heard a wide range of ideas, such as retiring during the Parliament in which you become 80; ending your time after 15 years; having an electoral system for each group in the House as to who should retire; a cap on the size of the House; or retirement based on seniority. There is no shadow of doubt that whatever proposal comes forward, there will be large body of opinion against it—we have already heard that. There will objections to every single one of these proposals.
At the end of the day, my view is this: if there is a will in the House to reduce its size, then we will find a way. But there has to be a will to do that job; without that, we cannot succeed. I hope that the idea proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, of setting up a committee to examine this matter carefully will be taken forward. It will take time, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has implied—you cannot do this kind of thing overnight. It should not cut across longer-term considerations which will emerge in due course. However, it would be a serious mistake to let this matter drift. We would provide an even better service to the country as a revising Chamber if we were bold enough to tackle this issue of size.
My Lords, I will with your Lordships’ permission make a very brief intervention at this late point. I am here because I am one of the hereditary Peers elected back in 1999 following the passage of the Act of that year. Ninety of us were elected altogether, two of us being appointed ex officio, as my noble friend Lord Luce will recall.
The 1999 Act and the provisions relating to the retention of a small number of hereditary Peers were, in the words of the Lord Chancellor of the time, binding in honour on those who gave their undertaking to it, and they said that they would continue until House of Lords reform was complete. Perhaps House of Lords reform was expected to be rather quicker than has proved to be the case, but no timescale was mentioned at the time and I strongly believe that the undertakings given then are still in force. They would have been overtaken had the government Bill of two years ago seen the statute book, but it did not and therefore they remain in place.
I therefore urge that the hereditary Peers are not seen as a short cut in the start of the process to which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, pointed the way. We are not to be sent to the slaughter as the first and easy step in this particular process.
My noble friend Lord MacGregor also made some disparaging remarks about the by-elections, but 50 members of his Association of Conservative Peers are hereditary Peers elected as I have described, and I hope that he would wish to continue to enjoy their support as he does so strongly at present.
Back in 1999, I gave an undertaking to the departing hereditary Peers who were good enough to elect me that I would stand by their interests for as long as there was breath in my body. I reaffirm that undertaking tonight.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, would have made a very good shop steward.
It is a great pleasure for me to wind up for the Opposition and to congratulate my noble friend Lord Williams. He has stimulated a very high-quality debate. Turkeys we may be, but pretty erudite turkeys at that.
I support my noble friend in asking the Leader of the House to encourage discussions within the appropriate committees of your Lordships’ House on the issue of size and, by definition, retirements, but I should say from the Opposition’s point of view that any discussion about size and retirements cannot be divorced from equally important considerations about the balance of parties and Cross-Benchers in your Lordships’ House and any implications that might have for an incoming Government after May 2015. Nor can such a discussion be divorced from more substantive discussions about the future of your Lordships’ House.
I congratulate my noble friend on his ingenuity in suggesting essentially the use of Standing Orders to introduce a limit on the number of active Members of your Lordships’ House. However, I have reservations about that, as does my noble friend Lord Clark. I do not believe that it could be in the gift of this House, through Standing Orders and in the absence of legislation, simply to state that a certain number should be the limit. I also agree with my noble friend Lady Taylor in being concerned that my noble friend Lord Williams’s proposal, as enunciated, would lock in the current balance of this House into the next Parliament. That said, he has surely performed an invaluable function in stimulating an excellent debate.
Of course, many noble Lords—in both this debate and the corridors of the House of Lords—express concern about the growing size of the House. Yet a very full Question Time actually adds to the interest and intensity—as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, certainly by implication, when he talked about the decision of Attlee and Churchill in relation to the size of the Commons. It is certainly true that in some debates speakers are given impossibly short periods of time, but those are a rarity. Overall, the House has responded quite well to the increase in numbers. I suggest that this is not so much a question of the size having an impact on the effectiveness of the House but rather more on our reputation.
Given the patronage power held by the Prime Minister of the day to determine the size and balance of the House, it is always likely to increase in size. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who was very much welcomed to our debate, welcomed new blood—particularly Tory new blood, because we have had rather a lot of it in recent years. I do not want to go back and repeat what noble Lords said about the coalition agreement stating that the size of the House should reflect the votes cast at the last election. We know from Meg Russell’s excellent work that, if fully implemented, that agreement would have meant that by the end of this Parliament we would have had more than 1,000 Members.
We know that, going forward, if you then take account of changes in the votes cast at the next election, the issues of minority parties and parties that have a reduction in the number of votes cast, that almost becomes the baseline by which you then judge how many seats have to be appointed for the other parties that have increased their votes. That is clearly a nonsense. I hope that the noble Baroness, the Leader of the House, will respond to that point. The particular reason that it is a nonsense is because there is no route for significant numbers of Members to leave the House. Until that is grasped and some kind of understanding is reached about what should be the appropriate balance between the parties and the Cross Benches, it will be very difficult to implement the kind of scheme that noble Lords want.
My party, as noble Lords said, is committed after the election to a constitutional convention that will look at the place of the second Chamber in the context of political reform throughout the United Kingdom. That is a much more considered approach than that of the party opposite and its recent headlong rush to foist an ill-thought-out policy on English MPs without a thought for the wider consequences for the integrity of the union. We have to consider these matters in the round.
Of course, on the assumption that the constitutional convention leads to a successful conclusion in relation to your Lordships’ House, followed by legislation and then implementation, it would clearly be a little time before the substantive change were actually to take place. There are lots of ifs in that journey, so I disagree with my noble friend Lord Maxton. There is a case for the House trying to deal with some of our immediate challenges in advance of that substantial change, if it were to come about.
I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to give some consideration to the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Sutherland and Lord Forsyth, about procedures and the point raised by my noble friend Lord Foulkes about the role of the Speaker. Governance is another issue. We have just had a report from the Select Committee established to look at governance in the Commons. It suggested more joint working between the Commons and the Lords. At the very least, we should look at that to see how we might respond in a positive way.
Size is clearly another matter that we could discuss now in an interim period, assuming that substantive change will take some years to come. I already said that any agreement on a scheme to set a limit on the size of your Lordships’ House has to take account of an appropriate balance between the political parties and the Cross Benches. That is very important. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, said earlier that the House of Lords is an effective body. However, crucially, for it to be effective, Governments have to face defeat—or fear it —because in the end that is the only way that changes to legislation are made. There is no question that there is a difference between what happened from 1997 to 2010 and what has happened subsequently. The last Labour Government was defeated 528 times in 1,701 Divisions —some 31% of the total. We are now in a new position. With coalition government, it is effectively much harder for an Opposition to win votes. Therefore, the number of votes the Opposition win is less than 31%.
My point is that this is important, because unless Governments really fear defeat, the House of Lords cannot be effective as a proper revising Chamber. When I was a Minister, I knew that if the Opposition combined with Cross-Benchers on key points of concern about legislation, one way or another, we had to respond. Sometimes it would be toughed out through ping-pong, but more often we had to respond. That precious balance between the two Houses ensures the effectiveness of the second Chamber.
I say in conclusion simply that it is right to think about ways in which we can deal with the size of the House, but we must be very careful that in so doing we do not upset the precious balance between the two Houses and the role of the Government and the Opposition in your Lordships’ House. I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. It has been an excellent debate and we all look forward to the noble Baroness’s response.
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to respond to today’s debate and that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, has given us this opportunity. We have had some very wise contributions from all sides of the House today, and I have listened carefully to all noble Lords who have spoken.
I shall briefly refer to two absent noble Lords. The first one I refer to in the interests of the coalition. Noble Lords have referred to the absence on the speakers list of any Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was due to speak, but at the last minute a personal matter required him to have to scratch from today’s debate. It is important that that is noted.
I do not want to get into any more debate on the Liberal Democrat Benches’ representation; I just wanted to make that point.
My noble friend Lord Wakeham was also very keen to contribute to the debate today, but he is unwell. I know that he would have made a very important contribution had he been here.
At the heart of all the contributions that have been made to this debate is a shared goal: to make this House the best, most effective Chamber possible. Of course I understand the position put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and some others: that our size affects our ability to be effective and may risk our reputation. However, whether or how to reduce the number of Peers attending the House each day is not where I want to start my contribution to the debate.
I want us not just to be effective but to be seen to be the most relevant British institution operating in our world today. In my eyes, regardless of debates about the composition of this House and its future, we exist today as an unelected House with an important job to do. It has been evident from today’s contributions that we all want this House to do that job as best we can. To achieve our goal, I believe that we should be driven by our purpose as a House. That was a point that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and my noble friend Lord Wei made. My definition of purpose is not just what we exist to do—I think that we all agree that we are a revising Chamber seeking to help to make good laws and inform public policy. My definition of purpose also includes the answer to the question: why is that important? For me, the answer to that is this: it is to give people confidence in the laws that we are all required to live by. Giving the people we serve confidence in the laws that Parliament makes is what informs my views and my contribution to the debate today.
In the context of today’s debate, the main thing I would highlight that I think that we should not change, because it is a valuable part of our fulfilling our purpose, is the part-time nature of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, and my noble friend Lord Cope mentioned that. For me, “part time” means that we have a duty to come to this House when we have something to contribute because of our expertise and outside experience, especially on legislation. However, the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, was right to emphasise the important work of the Select Committees, too. I would put legislation at the top of the list of our important work, but Select Committees are a valuable part of what we do here as well.
Because Members are not expected to attend every sitting, it is open to us—that is, noble Lords other than those of us who are a member of the Government or on the Front Bench—to pursue other interests, activities and professions alongside our work in the House. That allows us to draw upon some of the most accomplished individuals in this country and bring a wide range of expertise, experiences and perspectives to our debates. Those insights, and those strong and independent voices, come from all around this House. My noble friend Lord Forsyth said this and is himself evidence of it: those of us who sit on the political Benches, as well as the Cross Benches and the Bishops’ Benches, bring an independent mind, experience and expertise to the work of this House.
The noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, paid tribute to experts such as those from the medical profession who are Members of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Walton, made a similar point but it is important for us to remember that the Cross Benches are not the only places where we find expertise in this House. I add that the kinds of expertise and experience which we often point to as the best examples of the membership of this House are not the only kinds which are valuable. During the Recess I had the great pleasure of listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, speak on the “Jeremy Vine” programme on Radio 2. She was explaining to the listeners how she, as a former deputy secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, made sure that she remained up-to-date in her knowledge of the manufacturing sector by going out to visit lots of factories for her own contribution to the work of this House. My point is that we have in this House experts and people with valuable experience who are working hard to maintain the relevance of that experience. Whatever changes we consider when we look at the way in which we operate, it is important to be careful that these features of our membership are protected and encouraged because they are what makes us different and a valued part of the parliamentary process.
To be clear, as my noble friends Lord Strathclyde and Lord MacGregor said, I, too, think that we need to keep refreshing our experience and expertise with new Members. The noble Lord, Lord Walton, referred to the moment of wonder when he was first appointed to this House and seemed to suggest that, in recent years, it was being lost a little from your Lordships’ House. I reassure him and all noble Lords that the people who are joining our House now are just as filled with excitement about their own opportunity to make a contribution to our work as the noble Lord would have been at the time when he joined. I have the great pleasure of meeting a lot of the new Members just before they arrive—certainly, the ones who sit on my Benches—and I continue to talk to them.
For me, the real issue is not about the absolute numbers of Members eligible to participate in our work but, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggests in his Motion, about attendance. However, like my noble friends Lord Tugendhat and Lord Cormack, and other noble Lords, even on that matter I do not believe that it is strictly about numbers either. It is about how we make sure that Members play their part at the right time. Although each party and group rightly has its own requirements for attendance, which is proper and goes to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, what is really important is whether each of us can say that we have done our bit—that we have used our valid experience and expertise at the right time, in the public interest, to help us as a House to fulfil our purpose.
The Minister has stressed the concept—I find this completely new; it was not given to me when I was appointed—that this is a part-time job. It may be possible to be a part-timer if the rest of your work is in London, but if you come from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen or Carlisle how can you do something up there and come down here day in and day out? It is an entirely London-centred concept. I hope that she will rethink this, and go back to whoever advised her on it and say that it is just a lot of nonsense.
When I say “right time”, I mean that it does not have to be all the time. Some of the rarest contributors can be the most valuable Members of this House if they exercise self-restraint, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland.
I am not going to comment on each proposal put forward today and I am certainly not going to rule anything out before there is an opportunity for proper consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, urged me to take this matter seriously and I do, but I also say to noble Lords that we must guard against sounding too defeatist in the way that we speak about this House and the number of Peers who attend. Some noble Lords have used what I thought was rather colourful language, which I would not deploy myself, to describe this House. Right now we are doing a good job. We remain a strong and considered revising Chamber, one where a noble Lord, whether a Minister or a member of the Back Benches, will always have to make a compelling case to win an argument and the support of the House. The Opposition waste no opportunity to highlight that the Government have been defeated over 100 times during this Parliament, so I was a little surprised at the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, represented what has happened over the past few years. The other point that is worth making is that in terms of the effectiveness of the contributions made by noble Lords in our debates—
Would the Minister not agree that coalition government changes the dynamic of the second Chamber? We can trade statistics but there is no doubt about it: the Government are winning more votes than the previous one did, and that is clearly because the two government parties together have a large majority over the Opposition. That was not the case under the previous Government. It makes a difference.
We do not have a majority because there are Cross-Benchers in this House, as the noble Lord knows well. The point that I was going to add was that we should not measure the effect of the contributions made in this House just by government defeats. A huge number of government amendments are made to legislation as a result of dialogue with noble Lords during the passage of legislation.
Clearly we cannot keep growing indefinitely, and that is one of the reasons why we have introduced a massive change in this Parliament: Peers are now able to retire permanently. That change reinforces our ability to give the public confidence in the laws that Parliament makes. Just as we should expect Members to contribute on occasions when they are especially well placed to do so, so we are now able to support noble Lords who wish to retire when they feel that that is no longer the case for them. Some noble Lords have argued against an age limit; some, like my noble friend Lord Naseby, have spoken in support of one. Consideration about retirement is not just a matter of age; it is also a matter of contribution, a point made by those speaking today.
I am not here to prescribe how or whether a contribution can be specified, because retirement is a deeply personal decision. We were all moved by Lord Jenkin’s valedictory speech, and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Blair of Boughton, quoted from it today. However, if we focus on the purpose of the House of Lords and are committed to increasing our effectiveness as an unelected Chamber, we should be able to support each other in deciding when it is time to retire.
I turn to some of the points that noble Lords made about the need for restraint in new appointments. As has been acknowledged, the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, focuses on attendance, not appointments. That said, the Prime Minister has indeed exercised his prerogative power to recommend appointments in a restrained way. I dispute what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, said, not least because my noble friend Lord Strathclyde asked me to confirm whether there are only 34 more Members on the four main Benches than there were in 2007. That is incorrect. In the light of the retirement of Lord Jenkin, today the number is 33. It has gone down.
The idea of a moratorium on appointments was put forward by some noble Lords. As I have already said, and this has been supported by noble Lords today, it is right that there continue to be new appointments to this House so that we may bring fresh views and perspectives to our work. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, referred to vote share and the coalition agreement. That was in the coalition agreement. It is and has always been a general aim, not a mathematical equation, but it is worth pointing out that during this Parliament the Prime Minister has appointed 47 Labour Peers as well as Conservative and Liberal Democrat Peers.
Some noble Lords raised questions about the pressures on our practices, procedures and resources. Of course we should try to mitigate them. On specific matters of procedure and practice, I set out my views in some detail during the short debate last month led by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, so I shall not repeat them, except to say that I disagree with him about the role of the Lord Speaker. I believe that it is important that we properly respect and uphold our self-regulating nature because it is again about being different from the Commons, and the fact that we are different adds value to what happens in the parliamentary process.
I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has spoken to the chairman of the Procedure Committee, who has indicated that he is willing to provide the undertaking that the noble Lord is seeking, namely that that committee should consider the issue he has raised with a view to reporting back to the House. I think that that is an appropriate next step as part of an ongoing discussion. My noble friends Lord Strathclyde and Lord MacGregor, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and others suggested an options paper by the Clerk to inform the discussion of the Procedure Committee. A range of ideas has been put forward today by my noble friends Lord Jopling, Lord MacGregor and Lord Wei, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and others, so there is quite a lot to feed in to any discussion that may take place in the Procedure Committee. I would like that discussion to be informed by our purpose of ensuring that there is public confidence in the laws of the land and in what Parliament decides and to consider how we can be clear about what we expect from each other in contributing to that purpose.
I want to be specific in response to any suggestion that taxpayers’ money might be made available to encourage Members to retire. That remains very much a red line for me. That is not something that I want to support at all, for the reasons that other noble Lords have given today. The noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, asked about mechanisms, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, was clear when he said that any mechanisms that we consider will be voluntary.
My noble friend Lord Cope is right that our powers to self-regulate go far, but they do not override Her Majesty the Queen’s power in the Life Peerages Act to create peerages for life with rights to sit and vote or the Prime Minister’s right to put forward to Her Majesty recommendations for appointments. However, while I am on the matter of regulation, I can respond to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, who asked about legislation to accelerate the appointment of women Bishops. A government Bill on that had its First Reading in the Commons just before Christmas, so that is proceeding.
We have, but we would have to agree on that—it would have to be put to the House to decide, not the Procedure Committee on its own.
I will rapidly conclude. As for the idea of a constitutional convention—which was put forward by several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes, Lord Maxton and Lord Luce, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and my noble friend Lord Cormack—I refer all noble Lords back to the answers I gave when I repeated the Statement on devolution just before Christmas. We have not ruled out a constitutional convention, but certainly the Conservative part of the coalition thinks that other, more immediate issues should be addressed first.
Overall, this has been a very interesting debate which continues an important conversation. However we move forward, this is our core purpose, which we must keep at the forefront of our minds. If we do that, we can retain what is best about this place and make the right changes so that we increase our effectiveness and are the most relevant British institution, serving the public and national interest today.
I am sorry; I was just looking at a note that has been passed to me. I think the noble Lord asked whether there would be a report from the Procedure Committee before the end of this Parliament. That is a matter for that committee. I will correct one thing that I said a moment ago in response to the noble Lord who asked me about allowances. That is a matter for the House Committee, not the Procedure Committee. Apart from that, my point was correct: that would ultimately have to come to the Floor of the House in any case.
Can the noble Baroness please clarify the question of when she thinks the Procedure Committee should report? Either it should report before the end of this Parliament, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said, or it goes into the Greek kalends. Which is the preferred alternative?
I do not have a preferred alternative. We have demonstrated today, as I said before, that we all care about this House and our ability to do our job very well. A huge number of proposals are coming forward from noble Lords about how we can do our job even better than we do it now. We should make decisions about that in a considered and proper way. To rush any decisions about changes would not be the best way for us to fulfil our ultimate and shared goal.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. We can agree on only two things. First, it is a good thing to have untimed debates, so noble Lords are able to express themselves without any time pressure, and there can be interventions; that is good. Secondly, we share the fact that we all have pride in membership of this House and we all wish it well in our own way. Beyond that, a variety of things were spoken about. I do not intend to wind up in the way that is customary in these debates, because I want to make clear that I am not in favour of giving more power to the Whips, or in favour of full-time politicians; I am not in favour of all sorts of things I have been accused of. However, I am in favour of the Procedure Committee getting on with something, as the noble Lords, Lord Naseby and Lord Luce, pointed out. Let us do something. There is of course the contrary view—that we should wait and do nothing. That is for the House to decide. I thank all noble Lords and thank the Leader of the House for her response. I beg to move.
House adjourned at 8.49 pm.