House of Lords
Tuesday 19 December 2017
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leeds.
House of Lords: Lord Speaker’s Committee Report
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and all those who have made today’s debate possible so soon after the publication of our report. I also recognise the contribution of my fellow committee members. It has been a great pleasure to work with them. We produced a unanimous report and the contributions of all members were very important. We were fortunate in having the support of the talented Tom Wilson as clerk, together with his team, and some experienced external advisers, who are listed in the report.
The committee has been greatly encouraged by the response of noble Lords to our proposals, and indeed from those outside the House. For their part, the Government have made it clear that they are interested in finding out whether the committee’s conclusions command widespread support in the House. I hope that today’s debate, involving almost 100 noble Lords, will serve that purpose and demonstrate that the proposals have strong backing.
Today, I will not repeat the details of the report. Many noble Lords have already heard me go through them—some more than once, I am afraid to say. Rather, first I will make a few general comments about key aspects of the committee’s approach and proposals. Then I will tackle some of the questions and issues raised with us since publication. Later today—if it is today—I will try to answer queries and concerns raised in the debate.
From the outset, the committee recognised that most people were understandably focusing on how to reduce the current number of Members of this House. By contrast, little thought had been given to how to stop the historic tendency of the House to increase in size. Whatever your views on the current or future size of the House, such a trend is simply not sustainable. Accordingly, while looking at how to get numbers down, we also focused on designing a system which would cap the membership of the House for as long as it remains an appointed Chamber—we called this the “steady state”.
Throughout our discussions, the committee’s overriding priority was pragmatism. We all know how difficult it is to achieve any legislative reform of this House. We set out to design a system which could be implemented without legislation, but which could be formalised in statute in due course if the political will was there. I stress that the purpose is not to exempt our proposals from the spotlight of legislative scrutiny in both Houses. Rather, it is to make progress in the areas where widespread agreement can be reached, as quickly as possible.
The first step was to analyse the options for ensuring a turnover of Members sufficient to allow the membership to be rebalanced and refreshed within a cap. It is clear to us—the reasons are set out in the report—that fixed terms are the only solution which will provide a steady stream of vacancies in a way which is fair to all groups. Therefore a key pillar of our recommendations is that all new Members should serve a single, non-renewable fixed term of 15 years. They would be offered the peerage on that basis and would make an undertaking to retire after 15 years when joining the House. We do not envisage any Members going back on their word, but we have robust legal advice that the House has the powers to enforce the undertaking to retire.
A second pillar is that appointments which became available would be allocated between the parties on the basis of the most recent general election results. This would be calculated as a combination of each party’s share of Commons seats and of the national vote. Along with 15-year terms, this would mean that the composition of the House at any point once we reach a steady state would give a 15-year picture of the political views of the country, as expressed in elections. Our calculations in the report show how the relative strength of the parties would have developed historically under our proposals. For recent years, they generally mirror what happened in real life in broad terms—with the single crucial difference that it would have been within a cap of 600 Members. Election results would of course not affect the Cross-Benchers. They would, as proposed by the great majority of your Lordships and others, make up a constant proportion of at least 20% of the House.
I now turn to the more immediate question of reducing the current membership to a reasonable level in a way that is fair to all, which is what the committee called the transition. The weight of opinion supported a membership of about 600, although our proposals would work just as well with a higher or lower number, within reason. In reducing the current membership of 824 to 600, there are two important but conflicting priorities. The first is to make the reduction within a reasonable period. The second is to enable a continuing flow of new appointments, so that the membership can be refreshed and rebalanced rather than stagnating.
The committee came to the view that, until we were down to a membership of 600, the best compromise would be a system with half of the departures contributing towards a reduction in the overall membership and the other half being allocated to new appointees. Once the target had been reached, each departure would lead to one appointment. I emphasise that these figures apply in aggregate across the House, not within each party group. I will touch on this later because there has been some confusion.
Appointments would be made in line with election results as I described earlier, so replacement rates would vary between parties. The speed by which the target of 600 is reached depends on how rapidly existing Members leave the House. We understand that no current Members can be forced to leave without legislation, so it will be for the House as a whole to decide how quickly to proceed and for individual Members to retire when the time comes.
The committee’s report sets out a proposed profile of departures, which would enable the House to come down to 600 over about 11 years. The departure rate starts off gently but increases over time; the committee came to this view because it reflected the increasing age and length of service of current Members, and the fact that they will have longer to make retirement plans. Each party group would contribute the same number of retirements as a proportion of its pre-2018 membership each year, but of course the number of new appointments would vary according to how well that party had performed in the most recent election. As for which individuals should leave and when, the committee felt it was right to leave this decision in the hands of the party groups, but we have made some suggestions. For example, age or a combination of age and service might be useful yardsticks.
These are the key elements of the scheme. If we are to make progress, we will need agreement from the Prime Minister that she will make new appointments in line with the suggested formula for total numbers and for the allocation of appointments by party. She has the power to give this scheme the momentum it needs. If subsequently we can show progress it is difficult to imagine that her successors would revert to the current unsustainable position. But to get to this position we require the support of the party groups, which will be responsible for meeting the retirement targets agreed by the House—and a willingness from all of us to take a constructive approach to our own retirement plans.
I now turn to some of the main comments and queries we have received since the report was published. First, many people have asked why the reduction to 600 cannot take place more quickly. It certainly could, but increasing the ratio of departures to new appointments would slow down the flow of appointments, with a knock-on effect on refreshment and rebalancing. The only desirable way of speeding up the reduction is for people to retire at a faster rate. This is in the hands of your Lordships. The committee put forward what it thought was a reasonable pace.
Secondly, others have suggested that the “equal contribution” process is unfair—why should each party be required to achieve the same rate of departures regardless of whether they are currently overrepresented or underrepresented in the House? But departures are only half the story. It is necessary to take into account both departures and appointments. Because new appointments will be allocated on the basis of the most recent election the party breakdown will adjust accordingly from day one. If a party’s electoral performance is better than its initial share of seats, its overall share of the House will gradually increase—and if its electoral performance is worse than its initial share of seats its overall share of the House will fall.
The third common query has been about what happens to groups that miss or exceed their departure targets. The answer is straightforward: for each departure below or above target the party gets one less or one more appointment. We are satisfied that there is no realistic way of gaming this arrangement. A party that overdelivers on retirements will have more appointments but this will not affect its total strength in the House. Similarly, a party that underdelivers on retirements will have fewer appointments but will not gain in its overall party strength.
Fourthly, some Members have expressed their dissatisfaction that the hereditary by-election system is left intact under our proposals and that the number of Bishops will remain at 26. We have stressed that this does not reflect our personal preferences, but the reality is that legislation would be needed to make any changes in these areas. We suggest that this is not an issue for today.
Fifthly, a number of people have stressed that a Prime Minister needs to be able to appoint Ministers directly to the House. The committee agrees. Our proposals make specific provision for Prime Ministers to bring forward one of their appointments when they are due, enabling them to appoint Ministers at short notice.
Sixthly, there was some concern about effective Ministers being forced to leave office when their Lords terms expire. We propose that serving Ministers within the statutory cap, as well as certain Lords officeholders, should be allowed to remain in the House until the end of their period of office, even if this takes them beyond the 15 years.
Seventhly, some Members have asked what would happen in certain unusual circumstances, such as the swift emergence of a new party or a party refusing to use its allocation of appointments. I refer noble Lords to appendix 5, which deals with these issues.
Finally, we are aware that our proposals in respect of non-affiliated Members need further work. We hope that they will sign up to the principles of the scheme and take a responsible decision about when to retire, but we accept that the House may need to exert pressure in some instances. It is particularly important to get this right so that there are no incentives for Members of the main groups to join the list of non-affiliated Members to avoid the tap on the shoulder from their group.
We have also received representations on a number of issues which, while we have sympathy with the points raised, were not within our remit. These include the regional, gender, age and ethnic balance of the House, which lies in the hands of the party leaders and HOLAC, who are responsible for selecting new Members. We have also had questions about the system of financial support for Members, which is a matter for the House of Lords Commission and the party leaders.
These are important issues for the future. The only question now is whether implementing our proposals would make it more or less likely that we would be in a position to make progress with these issues. For myself, I cannot see why the position would be worse and in the longer term I hope we would see an improvement.
In concluding, I say to your Lordships that this may well be the last opportunity for the House to tackle its size on its own terms. Our proposals would end the anomaly of it being the only Chamber in a western democracy which has no cap on its size and no limits on length of service. Resolution of this issue would comprise the third and final key step in the development of a sustainable appointed House, without prejudice to any future introduction of elections.
The first step was the introduction of life peerages in 1958, which enabled Prime Ministers to rebalance the composition of the House without creating permanent titles to be handed down the generations. The second step was the House of Lords Act 1999, which largely dealt with the outmoded phenomenon of membership by birthright. The problem is that neither reform dealt with the inflationary pressures which stem from combining political rebalancing with lifelong membership. I regard the committee’s proposals as this third step.
If we can create a system which enables rebalancing and refreshing of the membership within a fixed cap we will have cracked a problem inherent in granting peerages that entitle the recipient to a lifelong seat in this House. I greatly look forward to hearing the views of noble Lords throughout the day. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thought that it would be helpful to the House to say at the outset that I will keep my remarks brief, as my main purpose today is to listen to what the House has to say about the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the other members of the committee. This report is a serious piece of work that provides much food for thought about how we might address the size of this House. I am grateful to all noble Lords contributing today. This is a debate in which views from across the House are important, as this is a report by the House for the House.
During today’s debate, I hope that noble Lords will give their views on the report and ask any questions they have about the analysis and recommendations. It will be for the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and not for me, to respond to those questions. It may be that, arising from this debate, the committee wishes to reconvene to consider additional points, which I understand it has offered to do if necessary.
What has been clear to me through discussions with noble Lords over the past few months is that there is a desire, across all Benches, to ensure that, whatever reforms might be implemented in the future, this House continues to draw on the invaluable breadth of expertise and experience of Peers as we do today so that we can continue to perform our important role of scrutinising and revising.
The Government have been clear that comprehensive reform of this House which requires legislation is not a priority for the current Parliament. The House we have today is not the product of any deliberate design but draws legitimacy from the value it adds to the legislative process, complementing the work of the elected House.
Noble Lords who have been in this House much longer than I have will have lived through both significant reforms and stalled attempts. Those attempts which failed did so because they were unable to achieve the necessary consensus, and in many cases this also meant consensus in the other place. House of Lords reform is a complex, difficult and constitutionally significant area into which anyone must be advised to tread with caution and having learned the lessons of history and unintended consequences. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have understood this and reflected it in the way they have approached their deliberations. As such, they have focused on developing proposals that they believe will not require legislation.
For the Prime Minister and the other party leaders, the committee has recommended a cap on the number of appointments made each year and a set formula when allocating those numbers to political groupings. This recommendation requires detailed consideration of the constitutional and political issues it raises. I know that the Prime Minister will consider carefully her response, as I am sure will the other party leaders.
The context of the Burns report is a widespread concern among noble Lords at the size of the House and what has been perceived as a never-ending increase in numbers, with attendant fears over the reputation and effectiveness of this House as a second Chamber. I am sure that today’s debate will reiterate this concern. In light of this, it is worth highlighting the fact that the Prime Minister has taken a restrained approach to appointments. Total membership has decreased since July 2016 when she took office.
A key first challenge that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have set the House is to take advantage of the means which already exist to help achieve this end: that is, to encourage sufficient retirements. Seventy-eight Peers have chosen to retire since 2014, when this option became available. The Conservative group in this House takes our responsibility in this regard seriously, which is reflected in the number of those retirements which have come from the Conservative Benches.
As in all things, this House works at its best when it exercises self-regulation. If we are to meet the targets that the committee has set out, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it is incumbent on all groupings in this House to consider what they can do to further promote the culture of retirement among their members at the appropriate point.
Noble Lords will note that achieving sufficient retirements forms the basis and to a significant degree dictates the success of the report’s proposed approach to reaching the goal of a smaller House. We must show our commitment as a House to reducing our size if we are to expect party leaders now or in future to agree to the restrictions that the report seeks to place on them. There are indeed two sides to achieving the outcome that the report seeks to achieve.
As I made clear, I believe that if we are to make progress, we have to do this together as a House. Indeed, the recommendations set out by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee depend on this. The way forward will not be for the Government to lead on and deliver alone.
I end simply by reiterating my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the other members of the Lord Speaker’s committee for their hard work. They have produced a valuable report which I am sure will lead to a thought-provoking debate.
My Lords, as Ella Fitzgerald once sang:
“We can’t go on this way”.
A year ago this month, this House arrived at the same conclusion and agreed that reduction in our numbers into a sustained future was the way forward for our credibility and that methods be explored by which this could be achieved. The significant move did not come out of the blue. It came from the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, and thanks must go to its officers and members for their perseverance over many years. Thanks must also go to our Lord Speaker, who was determined there and then that a committee be set up urgently to explore the means by which we move forward. I was privileged to be a member of that committee, and I thank our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for his leadership and his astonishing ability to resolve multiple complex issues before our very eyes. His membership of the Magic Circle must surely be imminent. Of course I thank my fellow committee members for their wisdom, patience and good humour. After lengthy and robust debate, the final report was approved unanimously.
Not everyone in this Chamber will agree with every paragraph—some may not agree with any—but I sincerely hope that a majority of your Lordships will agree that we have a fair and sensible plan of action in front of us, within our limited terms of reference. Our challenge was to ensure respect for existing Members while laying sound foundations for a sustainable future for new Members. I believe that this is our best shot at reform for a generation, and we need to grasp this opportunity, despite it not being everyone’s perfect vision. Until we do that, as the noble Lord, Lord Burns, said, the Prime Minister, No. 10, the Government and the leadership of the political parties in the country will not hear their prompt to step on to the stage with us and be part of our reformed future. We should be proud of the detailed scrutiny we do in this House, yet that is often not as the public and the media see us. To put it mildly, we are not loved, and our willingness to embrace this report today may go some way to healing that disconnect.
In a nutshell, after listening to evidence from noble Lords and others, we recommend a future House of 600 Peers, its numbers capped, with 15-year terms for new Members, with the possibility of a five-year pause. New Members would be subject to a code of conduct undertaking to leave the House after that period. No party would have an absolute majority and a minimum of 20% of seats would be reserved for the Cross-Benchers. Parties would share political appointments in line with the results of the previous general election, based on an average of the parties’ share of the national vote and of the seats won in the House of Commons. The combination of this formula and the 15-year term limit would ensure that the future make-up of this House reflected the political views of the country over the medium term. This would be an historic first for us. To reach this point it is suggested that there be an accelerated “two out, one in” programme of departures. On page 3 of our report there is a chart showing how this would look until 2042, with a very gentle start in the first five years for existing Members.
That is what our report proposes. It does not propose new legislation. Our terms of reference were to identify practical and politically viable options that might lead to progress on this issue. Waiting for successful legislation to come along, as we know, is neither practical nor politically viable. The report does not propose a specific retirement age as society is moving away from that and, anyway, so many of our older active Members make a significant contribution to the work of Parliament. It does not propose an allocation of Peers via the nations and regions, as some noble Lords wish. We believe that it is the responsibility of the political parties to ensure that membership is not London-centric. The report does not alter the situation regarding hereditary Peers’ by-elections, despite the negative effect that has in terms of gender and background in a capped House, because that would require legislation; similarly, with the Bishops’ Bench. However, many of us believe that government support for a Private Member’s Bill, such as that of my noble friend Lord Grocott, may follow hard on the heels of this reform package being accepted. We can live in hope.
Christmas is coming and our best Christmas present to ourselves this year would be—no, not BB-8 from “The Last Jedi”—overwhelming support for the document in front of us.
My Lords, when it was announced that the Lord Speaker was to establish a committee to look at ways of reducing the size of your Lordships’ House, I do not think many of your Lordships thought that it would achieve anything. Indeed, there were some cynics who suggested that that was its very purpose. However the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have proved the doubters wrong. They have produced an elegant set of proposals that fulfil their remit and have done so by proposing a very British way forward—constitutional reform by informal agreement. They deserve our thanks.
From these Benches we have no objection to the principal features of the proposals. They would, if enacted, lead to a considerable diminution of Liberal Democrat ranks—for the foreseeable future at least—but we cannot complain about that. If we had had our way during the coalition and if the 2012 House of Lords Reform Bill had been enacted our numbers would already be smaller, as we would have had our first set of elections under the new system. Noble Lords know that we were prevented from getting the Bill through by a coalition of Labour and Conservative MPs, who by rejecting reform gave a vote of confidence to the current arrangements. It is rather amusing therefore to see members of those parties now grumbling that there are too many Liberal Democrats in your Lordships’ House. They had the chance to do something about it and they flunked it.
The proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, offer an alternative way forward. From these Benches, as I say, we support their principal features: a significantly reduced size of your Lordships’ House, party membership based on electoral performance, and a gradual phasing in of the new arrangements. We do not of course resile from our policy of having elections for the political Members of your Lordships’ House, but we are realistic enough to know that this is not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime, it is highly desirable that something is done to reduce our size.
A problem about any proposal for reforming your Lordships’ House is that there are many possible models and, if past experience is anything to go by, absolutely no agreement on what a perfect arrangement would be. If we are serious about reform, I suspect that every single Member of this House will have to accept at least some features of the new system with which they disagree. If we are to have reform, therefore, we must not, individually and collectively, let the best become the enemy of the good.
There are certainly some features of the proposals before us today which we believe are not ideal. The argument for having membership based on the mean of votes cast and seats won has in our view no rationale. It is a fix. It benefits the two largest parties at the expense of everyone else and yet again reflects the steadfast determination of Labour and Conservatives alike to prevent Parliament, even your Lordships’ House, reflecting the will of the people, to their own permanent advantage.
The inability to do anything about the remaining hereditary places is also a problem. This is one element of the proposals about which we on these Benches can afford to take a relatively relaxed position, as we are barely affected, but, at this point, to have a reform which increases the proportion of hereditary Peers, however personally distinguished, is perverse. If the main thrust of the reforms are accepted by the Government, we hope that they might also relent in standing out against the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, or a Bill of their own which would deal with this problem. The same consideration applies to the number of Bishops but, again, a short, free-standing Bill could deal with the issue.
Our main concern with the proposals, however, is not their content but the attitude of the Government towards them. If we and the other parties and groups are to agree voluntarily to reduce our numbers, we need a cast-iron assurance from the Government that they will also accept them. There is no point increasing the flow of Members out of your Lordships’ House if the Government at the same time are not reducing the flow of people in. In this respect, it is concerning to read reports that, any day now, the Government plan to create another tranche of Peers. If, as seems likely, they follow the plea of St Augustine—namely, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet”—and follow this up over Christmas with another list of Peers, the proposals before us today are on the life-support system. The Government are already by far the largest bloc in the House. If this advantage is significantly increased, and if the other parties were to accept and stick to these proposals, the Conservatives would entrench their advantage for many years, even if they were to do less well in future general elections. I am sure that even noble Lords opposite who support these proposals would see this as unacceptable.
So we are prepared to give these proposals a cautious welcome today. We would greatly prefer the politicians in the House to be elected. We do not think constitutional reform by informal agreement is the ideal way of entrenching things, but the key thing now is the attitude of the Government. If in today’s debate there is a large majority of support for the proposals before us, as I expect there to be, will the Prime Minister constrain her current unfettered powers to create Peers in order to make the proposals viable, and will she act in good faith by not putting more Conservatives in your Lordships’ House before the new system kicks in? To coin two phrases, the ball is in the Government’s court and the clock is ticking.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for the very helpful way in which he introduced this debate, and all members of his committee for the work they have done in the preparation of the report. How very fortunate we are that the Lord Speaker was able to capture the noble Lord, if capture is the right word, during his brief period of rest between two very demanding appointments, to perform this task for us.
As so often happens in life, the problem is easy to identify. Finding a solution to it is much more time consuming and difficult. The problem, of course, is that the House is too large and, if nothing is done about it, the House will without doubt grow still larger. The comparisons so often made with the Chinese People’s National Congress in Beijing are rather unfair. We have all seen the pictures—the serried ranks, everyone there, every seat filled, everyone anchored to their seats, no sign of any dissent from the party line. Of course we are not like that. For one thing, so much of what we do is done outside the Chamber, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, pointed out yesterday. For another, in our case, attendance is not compulsory. The daily average at present is only about 490. In the case of the Cross-Bench group, for example, on any given day, no more than about half of our number are present. To a not insignificant extent, therefore, we are a part-time House. We draw strength from that. Many of our Members have outside interests, their engagement with which adds to the quality of our debates and the work of our committees. Nevertheless, our increasing size is an embarrassment to say the least, and if nothing is done, it risks being even more than that. We are running out of space. We cannot give everyone the desks and office space that they need. That, in short, is the problem.
What, then, of the solution that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues have come up with? In answering that question I must make it clear that, although I am their Convenor, it is not open to me to express a view on the issue on behalf of the Cross-Bench group. It was suggested that I should seek to gather signatures from our membership in support of the report. But that is not the way that the group works. It is not for me to tell them what to do or to canvass support for either side. What I can say, however, is that it is my impression—1 can put it no higher than that— that the group is in favour of the report’s conclusions. I base that impression on the complete absence of complaints or representations given to me against it, and on the many indications that I have received of support for it.
I am sure that if any of the 31 Cross-Benchers who will speak after me disagree, they will make their position clear. My own position, for what it may be worth, is that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has taken our search for a solution a very long way. This is an excellent report, which deserves to be supported. But I must leave it to those who will speak after me from the Cross Benches to express their own views.
Time is short, and this is not an occasion to go into detail, but, speaking for myself, I am content with the recommendation that we should seek to limit our numbers to 600. A system of fixed-term appointments is far preferable to a system based on age or length of service, and I am of course happy with the recommendation that the Cross-Bench group should be fixed at 20% of the House’s membership. But I must face the fact that reducing the number of Peers on the Cross Benches in the way recommended by the report will not be an easy task. The Convenor can advise or try to persuade, but cannot direct or give orders to anybody. Of course, everything will depend on whether the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, will support the scheme. I very much echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, in searching for a cast-iron guarantee in that respect. I hope that they will be able to give that. The scheme cannot operate without their agreement.
I should like, however, to mention one matter that, although not within the remit of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, will require careful attention if the scheme goes ahead—here I echo some words of the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. We must try to ensure that all regions are properly represented so that the House does not become even more centred on London and the south-east than it already is. Members who attend less frequently, and would thus be among those more likely to be asked to leave as we reduce our numbers, tend to be those who live further afield. We must not be too ready to ask them to go. We must also bear in mind that the daily allowances have not been increased to keep pace with inflation since they were introduced seven years ago. Left as they are, they risk leaving Members who have to find accommodation in London out of pocket day after day after their hotel bills or other costs have been paid. Those who live in London do not face those costs and they do not have to travel long distances to get here.
This is a serious issue for people like myself who do. If, as seems likely, a smaller House will require more frequent attendance, steps will have to be taken to ensure that those who live further away are not so penalised by lack of support that they will stop coming, as some perhaps already do. I am sure that other factors will require attention as we reduce our numbers, but the need for proper representation by Members from all parts of the country and ensuring that they are not out of pocket when they come here—that at least they are entitled to expect—should be high in the order of priority.
My Lords, as convener of the Lords spiritual, I welcome warmly the report of the Speaker’s Committee and pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his fellow committee members for their thoughtful and thorough attention to the question of the size of the House, which we all agree is in need of urgent resolution. I notice that the word “magic” has already been used in the debate, but the desire for love has also been added at Christmas time. To hear the leader of the Lib Dems imploring the work of the Lord in becoming pure is a most encouraging start to this debate.
The main recommendations of the committee are ones that I hope most of us in this House can rally behind. They offer a set of suggestions which, with good will and a spirit of co-operation, not least from the party leaderships, will provide us with a route map for reducing the membership of this House to a more acceptable level. That is something that my predecessors as convener and many others on these Benches have supported consistently. Rather than comment on the detail of the proposals, I thought that it would be helpful to focus my remarks on what the report did or did not say about the Lords spiritual.
A central feature of the recommendations of the report, as we have heard, is their non-statutory approach. In my own submission to the committee I suggested that a statutory solution was one that was most likely to stick. But these are finely balanced judgments and I can certainly see the case for moving quickly if there is a broad consensus behind achieving these changes without legislation. As the committee noted, a side-effect of the non-statutory approach is that there can be no change under this method to the number of Lords spiritual. As many noble Lords will know, as well as a retirement age of 70, these Benches operate under a cap fixed by legislation dating back 170 years, which would require further legislation to amend.
At the time that cap was placed on these Benches, Bishops made up around 5.7% of a much smaller House. To put that into some context, had the Victorians decided to fix Bishop numbers by proportion instead of a number, there would currently be 45 of us squeezing on to these Benches. As it is, while the number on these Benches has remained fixed and static at 26 for the best part of two centuries, our proportion in relation to the rest of the House has fluctuated as the number of Peers has risen, fallen, and risen again. It currently stands, as noble Lords have already calculated, being mathematically accurate like the chairman of the committee, at 3.3%.
In my submission to the committee, I made it clear that there is a variety of views on these Benches about reform of this House, numbers and proportions. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who said in a recent newspaper article that the most important thing was to get the major structure in place and not to be distracted from that by more complicated details such as legislation for Bishop numbers. We have no wish to be a distraction to the House on this urgent work. Having canvassed opinion on these Benches, I will briefly say something about the general consensus that I believe there is.
The proposals of the committee would see this House reduced to three-quarters of its current size. One has to go back over 30 years to when this House debated a government proposal on Sunday trading to find an occasion when more than three-quarters of the Lords spiritual took part in a single Division. That is partly a natural result of the Bishops’ Benches not operating in a bloc or as a party. The Bishops are 26 independent Members and, though I am a convenor, I am neither their leader nor their Whip, as we have heard with a similar group in the House this morning. Perhaps, like the Convenor of the Cross Benches, I may have some influence; that is no reference to our origin in Scotland, but to a possibility for making things work under the arrangements that we have.
Unlike other Benches in this House, 100% of the membership of these Benches have significant—some would say full-time—external responsibilities covering the regions of the country. It is fair to say that any problems of overcrowding experienced in the House are not generally caused by too many Bishops filling the Lobbies, blocking the gangways or occupying any other part of the House where people may gather. I cannot envisage another situation, certainly while the process of achieving a reduction is ongoing, where a similarly high proportion on these Benches would attend for a debate or vote. When legislation for reform looks set to come before the House that has the backing of the Government and commands the support of a wide constituency we will of course engage closely on the issue of Bishops’ numbers and proportions. Until then, we will continue to be as committed and active servants of the House and the country as we can, all the while operating fully within the spirit of the committee’s proposals.
My Lords, I cannot pretend that I come to this subject entirely with a fresh mind. I have been at it for years. When I chaired the royal commission some 17 years ago—a number of very good friends were on the commission with me at that time—the House then had around 600 Members. It now has around 800 and some people have forecast that if we go on as we are, it will not be long before we are at 1,000. I remember talking to the Bishops at that time and, if I may say so, the right reverend Prelate’s contribution to our debate today reminded me of those discussions. The Bishops have a view and put it very eloquently, but they are also extremely co-operative on finding a practical and sensible way forward. His speech fitted exactly into that role.
The House decided that we ought to do something about our size. However, the essential point, which has been made several times already, is that getting the numbers down is pretty useless unless we have a plan to keep them down. The Lord Speaker took the initiative and set up a committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I have served on a good many Select Committees over the years and chaired a fair number of them; I do not think I have ever had a chairman as good as the noble Lord, Lord Burns, was of our committee. He was absolutely first-class and we are extremely grateful to him for what he did.
We decided early on that there was absolutely no chance of legislation and that we had to explore the self-regulatory methods. I say at the outset that self-regulation puts a great responsibility on each of us and unless we are prepared to go along with it, nothing will be achieved. We looked first at the question of the numbers and our first task was to see how we could get them down, but we had to have a system for keeping them down in a way that was fair for all and broadly reflected public opinion over the medium term. There was no attempt at all in our committee to alter the conventions of the House or the way we operate. Establishing that in our minds enabled us to consider ways of reducing the total membership, bearing in mind that we are appointed for life and cannot be forced to retire, but that a voluntary system of retirement is essential if we do not have legislation.
That is the nutshell of our proposals. We looked in our proposals at the different components that make up the House and we hope we will all consider these proposals very seriously. Those who serve currently in the House of Lords—existing Members—cannot be forced out without legislation. There is some flexibility in our conclusions—how quick and so on—but I explained it to people like this: “If you have been in the House for 20 years and are over 80, maybe in the next five years you ought to think about retiring”. That did not seem a terribly harsh view; a great many of your Lordships will think that a reasonable and responsible way to go.
The opposition parties get a guarantee of replacements, but cannot be expected to agree to our proposals unless they can be sure that the House does and—as has already been said—that the Government do. For the Government the decision is more finely balanced, but I come down on the side of giving the proposals a fair go. The number of peerages that the Prime Minister can recommend will not be very different under our proposals from the average number that Prime Ministers have recommended since the passing of the Life Peerages Act. Indeed, I see some advantages for the Government. They will be able to get a firmer commitment from potential Peers that they will attend and work, particularly as it is possible to grant a peerage without a seat in the House of Lords, as we pointed out in our report.
The Government are entitled to be assured that the House will accept self-regulation in the way we propose, however. There will need to be another debate to confirm that and the way the House wishes to go. The Government must have confidence that the House will not seek to use its majority in a way more assertive than it has historically done. If the Government could be satisfied on those matters I would say to the House, “Let’s give it a go”. That would not in all circumstances be a long-term commitment, but if the House agreed to the scheme of self-regulation so should the Government. However, if there is no such commitment, the Government clearly cannot go along with it. If self-regulation were agreed and then broke down, the Government would be able to revert to the existing system without any legislation, but I hope very much that that is never the way things go.
I would not think it wise for a Government who were assured that their business would be sustained to seek to prevent a House reforming itself by a self-regulatory agreement, to reduce excess numbers and make itself more efficient and more acceptable in the eyes of public opinion.
My Lords, I wish to make just two broad arguments: about the imperative for reform now, and the legitimacy of the committee whose recommendations we are invited to endorse by taking note of its report today.
I will deal first with the legitimacy of the committee and its report. With the commendably active support of the Lord Speaker, your Lordships’ House established a fully representative Committee to look at reforms to deal with our increasingly embarrassing, ballooning size. Collectively, each major party and Cross-Benchers determined who should sit on it and who chaired it; it is our committee. Some colleagues have questioned details or specifics in the report and, yes, there are arguments for special pleading on this or that detail. Of course Members will find reason—I trust not excuse—in each bit to criticise the whole, but surely we all have to accept that the whole package hangs together or falls together. It is most ingeniously interconnected. Surely the point is that reducing the size has always been fiendishly complex, and that the committee has done an amazing job in solving the hitherto seemingly insoluble.
Secondly, I will talk about the imperative to act now. Weight watchers have shown that the best way to tackle a problem of excess is to combine personal responsibility with collective resolve and mutual support. The alternative—drastic surgery—involves unnecessary risk, no guarantee of success and an unpredictable outcome. A Commons Select Committee, having already begun considering the matter, stands ready to report but awaits the conclusion of your Lordships’ House. The media are also waiting to pounce. Newspapers, MPs and Ministers have already made threats over Brexit, which will doubtless increase to a crescendo when the withdrawal Bill reaches us early next year.
Yet we all know that things cannot continue as they are. We number over 800 and rising. Commercial properties are commandeered in the vicinity at great expense to provide us with additional offices. Through no fault of our own, we have become not so much an embarrassment but, many say, a scandal. At a time of austerity, when everything else is cut, our numbers rise inexorably through no fault of our own—until now.
Until we set up this committee to recommend reform some among your Lordships could argue we were more sinned against than sinners. We did not fill this House to bursting; Prime Ministers did. We did not put ourselves here, others did—although we all agreed with their immense wisdom in choosing each one of us. But all that changed when we, absolutely correctly, decided to establish the committee to solve the problem. That decision—our decision—means the buck stops right here with us in this Chamber today. Find excuses and we will be rightly pilloried. I therefore urge that the recommendations of this report are endorsed and implemented as soon as practicable early in the new year. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Burns, in replying will confirm this and I hope the Lord Speaker, with the party leaders, will also make sure that this happens.
When the committee was first established, I asked one venerable sage on our Benches for a view on the likely outcome. “It will be shelved as reform always has been shelved,” he said with a weary, knowing smile. I trust your Lordships’ House will prove him wrong. Things have reached a point where change is unavoidable. The question is therefore not whether there is change, but who makes it. Either this House takes responsibility or it will pass to the Commons and the Government. Either we reform ourselves or others will reform us.
My Lords, it was a privilege and a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and to work with such a wise group of Members as composed the committee. Among us there were differing views about the future of the House and many more differing views have been expressed today and will be before the day is over. These are on a range of issues: what to do about hereditary by-elections, how many bishops there should be, the methods of selection, the allowance system and the way—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, pointed out—it works against those distant from London. There are also the other respects in which the system tends to make it difficult for people to undertake work here if they are not London-based.
But we need to act and we do so at a time when major legislation is frankly out of the question, particularly when we see what other legislation is heading down the track as a result of Brexit. We need to control the size of the House in order to protect its reputation and, indeed, to avoid raising question marks over all new appointments to the House, however meritorious, that will result from people saying, “It is too big already. Why is this or that person being appointed?”. We need to enable the refreshment of the membership of the House. We cannot simply lock the doors and put up a “House full” sign and preserve the present House. Attractive though that might be to noble Lords, we have to enable the groups to bring in new people and we need to reflect shifting public opinion over time.
It is time to bury the now fanciful notion of Prime Ministers packing the Lords with hundreds of Peers as a response to government defeats in this House. We say in paragraph 3 of our report that Governments over the years have learned how to get their legislation through, with concessions, arguments and the eventual deference of the House to the primacy of the Commons. Prime Ministers will remain under pressure from many directions to appoint Peers, as any former Prime Minister or former Chief Whip will in all honesty admit. In the absence of an orderly process it is more difficult to resist that pressure. If we can put in place the kind of process that the committee has recommended, so that Governments and other parties are all working within a clear and understood system, strong pressures can be resisted.
I hope to see not merely firm government commitment to go ahead with these proposals but that kind of commitment as part of the advice given to future Governments, featuring in the Cabinet Office manual and becoming a settled part of how we organise things for so long as this is an appointed House. As my noble friend has pointed out, we on these Benches wanted to see a predominantly elected House, but that is for another day and for the kind of legislative opportunities which clearly are not coming our way at the moment.
We have set out a scheme which is fair to parties and groups, fair to existing Peers, imposes no fixed term or formula on them, fair to new Peers—who will come in on an understanding that they will serve for 15 years—and does not challenge the role of this House or the primacy of the Commons. But for it to happen, we need a clear expression of wide support in the House—which can be achieved today—and a clear indication that the Government are willing to accept and operate the system. Once it is in place, any Government failing to observe the cap would bring retirements on all sides to a sudden halt. Just as opposition parties can pull out of the scheme so, as has been explained, can the Government. It is a voluntary scheme based on mutual respect and understanding.
On House of Lords reform, support for our proposals may not be unanimous, but I believe that it is very widespread indeed, quite widespread enough for the Government to accept that it should go forward. This is the only show in town, so let us go for it.
My Lords, this report opens up yet another phase in the long struggle to defend the integrity of this House and maintain the authority of our bicameral Parliament. It is a cause to which I have devoted the past 25 years of my life and, decrepit as I may be, I am not giving it up yet. Parliament is and must remain the chief forum of the nation, never more so than at a time when the country’s future in Europe and the world is at a critical stage.
I support the thrust of the report very much, although I have reservations about some of its proposals, as many of us have. For example, I would prefer the age of retirement to be clear cut, as outlined in the Labour Peers’ report of 2014, rather than the 15-year sentence of Burns—but those reservations will have to wait for another day.
What matters now is that we seize the opportunity that the Government’s election manifesto gave us to put our own House in order without legislation. Of course, that does not give us carte blanche. Our principal aim should be to encourage a faster rate of retirement and promote the recruitment of new Members whose abilities, experience and suitability are examined and endorsed by a more authoritative Lords Appointments Commission. The independent guarantee of a candidate’s suitability will be even more important in a much smaller House—here, I confess that I would like a cap on this House’s membership of about 400.
I shall be content to go when the time comes, but I shall not go alone; I intend to take others with me. Neither shall I go to make way for another tranche of prime ministerial appointments for services rendered to No. 10 or payments to party funds—that is out.
If I may pose a question, I would like to do so as they do in the other place. It goes something like this: will the Prime Minister, in the course of her busy day, accept the need to curtail her powers of patronage and, by so doing, reduce the size of the House of Lords and make possible the reforms we urgently need? Let us not hold our breath on that one.
The Burns report is complex in many respects. Some of its proposals are far reaching and, of course, much depends on the Prime Minister’s co-operation. Much also depends on strengthening the authority of the Lords Appointments Commission—I am very keen that it should have greater authority in statute— to examine appointees not only for acceptability but, more importantly, for suitability.
Alas, I do not share the optimism of the distinguished academic adviser to the Burns Committee that the report is,
“focused on what can be implemented straightaway”.
Aligning future appointments to reflect the votes cast in general elections is a daunting long-term proposition. So is the suggestion of draconian financial pressure to unseat stubborn Peers. I must also question the opinion of the committee’s legal adviser that, on balance, we are the sole judges of the lawfulness of our own proceedings. To my mind, there should be no doubt about the balance: we need to keep the courts out of our business.
This may be our last chance for many years to reform this House. Our inflated size fosters our laughing-stock image. Its burial, I say, is long overdue.
My Lords, it is a real privilege to be able to follow one of the great Speakers of the other place. She has certainly not lost her vim or vigour, nor her questioning powers. I begin by declaring an interest as the chairman of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, of which the noble Baroness is a regular attender and participant. I also have to apologise on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who, with me, began this group in 2001. Sadly, he has to be at the funeral in Hull of a very close friend and mentor today. Another founder member of the group, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, is also at a funeral today of his oldest and closest friend.
In extending sympathy to them and giving an apology to the House, I am also warning noble Lords that we will not have the benefit of their wisdom and experience. Another person has asked me to mention his absence, about which he is very sorry—my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. He asked me to stress, particularly to colleagues on this side of the House, that he stands 100% in support of the Burns report. That does not mean that he agrees with every jot and tittle; nobody possibly could. But we owe the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues a real debt of gratitude for the rigour and vigour with which they conducted their investigations, the elegance—a word used by the noble Lord, Lord Newby—of their conclusions, and for producing something that is entirely practical.
As I am in the business of giving thanks, I would like to say how much we owe to our Lord Speaker. I had the honour of introducing a debate on 5 December last year that addressed this problem, in which more than 60 Members of your Lordships’ House took part. Within two weeks of that debate—a year ago tomorrow—the Lord Speaker announced from the Woolsack that he was setting up a committee under the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and gave the names of the committee’s members. That committee got down to work immediately and would have produced its report much earlier, had it not been for the somewhat unexpected general election with which we were confronted earlier this year.
We owe the noble Lord, Lord Burns, a real thank you for what he has done. At recent, well-attended meetings of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, we have had unanimous support for the general principle of the Burns report. I hope that, after today’s long day, we will be able to convince my noble friend the Leader of the House, whose suggestion it was when she wound up the debate last year that the Lord Speaker might convene a committee, that there is—not unanimous; that is impossible—widespread support for the Burns proposals. I hope that she will then respond by doing all she can to facilitate progress towards implementation of these very sensible proposals. As a number of colleagues in all parts of the House have said, if we get the Government to respond, they will have to recognise that successful Burns implementation depends on the Government accepting constraints and limitations on their power, particularly the prime ministerial power of appointment.
We have no written constitution in our country; we operate through evolution. If we are to accept this report and all its implications we have to recognise that there will be new conventions within our system. Of course, this is nothing new. As it has evolved our constitution has required recognition of the acceptable, rather than assertion of the theoretically possible. That is why no monarch has declined to give assent to an Act of Parliament since the reign of good Queen Anne. If we are to build a new Chamber capped at 600 Members, those constraints must be accepted.
I conclude by echoing what has already been said by a number of colleagues. There will be no change unless your Lordships’ House wills it. We will not have this chance again this Parliament and who knows what will happen after that? One of the fundamental principles of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I founded in 2001, is that the supremacy ultimately lies with the elected Chamber. We believe in an appointed House because we do not wish to confound the position of the elected Chamber by having an ambiguous mandate at this end of the Corridor.
I urgently request that everyone here considers very carefully indeed that this is a chance that may not come again and certainly will not come again in the near future. Let us show the Leader of the House that we are very much behind these proposals and, having done that, let us hope that we can proceed to seeing them implemented during the rest of this Parliament.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who, as he said, chairs the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, a group of which I am very proud to be a member. I was also a member of the Labour Party’s working group to which the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, alluded earlier, which looked at these issues a couple of years ago. Therefore, I am in a reasonably good position to say that the task that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his team undertook was fiendishly difficult and that they have have done an extraordinarily good job in resolving what some people have already referred to as apparently irresolvable issues.
They have presented us with a report which, of course, it is easy to pick holes in if one is minded so to do. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, did it very effectively himself. However, in my view it is not helpful at this point not to take a broader overall view of what the report offers, precisely for the reason the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, identified, which is that this opportunity to help ourselves will not come again, probably in this Parliament or, possibly, ever. So we had better take the opportunity before us.
Many of your Lordships will be familiar with William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, “Othello” and will therefore recall the painful cry of despair from young Cassio when he finds himself fallen from grace through, to quote my noble friend Lord Hain, “no fault of his own”. He says:
“Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation, I have lost the immortal part of myself—and what remains is bestial”.
Those are strong words, but that is, and has been for some time, the danger in which we now stand.
It was not Cassio’s fault that he lost his reputation. He, like the House of Lords, was misunderstood, misrepresented and traduced, as we frequently are. But that does not alter the fact that reputation once lost is extremely hard to regain. We have an opportunity now to stop our reputation from becoming irrecoverable. The virtue of this report is that it is constructed to deliver benefits over a reasonably long period, but which, if we take them, will last. And they would do so without impeding or preventing wholesale reform of a different kind should any Government suddenly find themselves with the time and energy to undertake it—although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, suggested, it would be unwise to hold our breath on that either.
Our job in this matter and in others is to take the long view, thinking not just of ourselves and what will immediately impact on us, but on those who come after. Let us give these proposals fair wind. Let us send the Leader of the House, who gracefully contributed to the debate earlier, a strong message that she can take back to the Prime Minister that there is consensus in this House for this kind of reform, and let us get on with it.
First, my Lords, I send many congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on their report, which is at once wise and ingenious. Some have argued in the past that reform of the Lords, although it may be desirable, is not a matter of great urgency. I respectfully disagree. I believe that our present size of 824 absolute membership and 798 actual membership, second in size only to the legislature of the Chinese People’s Republic and significantly larger than the House of Commons, brings us into disrepute. I feel embarrassed when someone enquires about our size, even when I stress that the average daily attendance is only about 484.
The other reason is expense. We live at a time of austerity for a great many and, if the House of Commons is coming down in size, we have a duty to consider our own position from that point of view. Apart from our present size, as so many noble Lords have emphasised, if we do not accept the proposals in this report, the House would continue to grow larger, as it has done in recent years—82 new life Peers having been created since 1 January 2015 alone.
I had the good fortune to be a member of the royal commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and I find it encouraging, therefore, that some of our key proposals have emerged in the Burns report. Fundamental of course is the proposal that no one party should have an overall majority and that the proportion of seats in the Lords should in some way reflect the voting figures at the previous election. No less crucial is the proposal for terms of 15 years rather than life. That seems to be the right length. The average age of the 82 new Peers appointed since January 2015 on the announcement of their appointment was 57—15 years would take them up to the age of 72.
One difference from Wakeham is that it recommended a size of 450 as opposed to the 600 of the Burns report, but I fully accept that in order to reduce on a voluntary basis over a period of years, 600 is a realistic target. When that has been reached it will be possible to see whether that is the right number of active Peers for the work that has to be done or whether it could be done with fewer. That would also be the point at which those who believe in a fully elected House could press their case again. I very much hope that those who believe in a fully elected House will at least accept the proposals as an urgently needed interim step to give this House more credibility. It was particularly good in that respect to hear the noble Lord, Lord Newby, state his support for these proposals, at least as an interim measure.
The question of hereditary Peers may of course solve itself, if the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, goes through. But if it does not, more work will be needed on this issue, because at the moment Cross-Benchers and the Conservatives have by far the largest number of hereditaries.
The Bishops are not part of the present proposal because any change to them would require legislation. The Wakeham commission recommended that there should be a reduction from 26 Bishops to 16 in a House of 450. I cannot speak for the Church of England—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham has helpfully given us the historical picture—but I would be surprised if it did not consider its position and at least look at the idea of reducing the number of Bishops by a quarter, commensurate with the House as a whole.
I wholeheartedly support the report. I had the good fortune to be here for many years as a Bishop of Oxford; if its recommendations are accepted and implemented I will feel an obligation to retire when I have served 15 years as a life Peer—that is, if the good Lord does not take me before or I am otherwise hindered or let from contributing to the work of the House.
My Lords, I am the 14th speaker, so I have great sympathy for those who will be 84th or even further back. We are greatly indebted, as others have said, not only to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues but to the Lord Speaker for taking the initiative. Credit must be given to my noble friend Lord Cormack and our absent colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who have ploughed a consistent and persistent furrow in this House over many years to achieve reform consistent with our constitution.
Obviously one can take a report of this size and nitpick here or there, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said. I represent one of the small parties, and there is of course a non-affiliated group and individuals outwith the party apparatus generally who speak in the House. The report is perfectly clear in referring to the fact that more work needs to be done on how that particular segment of the House is dealt with. But that is fine; I have no issues with that.
As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, when the newspapers comment on the House and its size they ignore participation on a daily rate and the fact that not that long ago it was 50% bigger than it is now. The reality is that it is not the House that is determining the flow but the occupant of No. 10 Downing Street, whoever that happens to be at any point. The truth of the matter is that the general public out there have an idea in their heads. It will not be shifted unless we shift it. The only thing we can do is to go for a cap. We can argue about the figure, but let us not get into that. If you have a cap that has at least sufficient flexibility to allow the Government to conduct their business properly, that is the only way ahead.
We will look at the details. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, pointed out the Londoncentric nature of the House. We know that 70% of the House is based in London or the south-east generally. For those of us who come from the regions and further afield it is more complicated. It takes longer to get here. We have many obstacles in our path, whether it is the weather, strikes or whatever. Knowing this country, the only thing that I do not have problems with is leaves on the line, because we do not have a bridge over the Irish Sea. There are costs to being in London. I have been here for six years and they have risen by about a third since I came here. Okay, it is a privilege to be here and people want to be here, but they are certainly not going to grow wealthy on their allowance after they have had to pay their London costs.
It is a privilege to be here and we have to recognise that, but in their appointments—I think it is a good idea for there to be an increased role for the House of Lords Appointments Commission here—the Government have to bear in mind that to be representative of a nation means that people will have to come from different locations. Because there is a flow of people from particular backgrounds, if they have statutory positions in the courts or something, they tend to be based in the London area. That needs to be borne in mind. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, we can argue about all these details. The message has to go out today that, both regionally and from different groups and parties in this House, we have to get on with it. I would like to see it move quicker, and I look forward to discussing with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues how we handle the unaffiliated segment, or “the others” as they are sometimes called. We will sit down and work on those details.
The fundamental message has to go out today that this House is going to do this; it is going to get behind the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues; we will work on the details, but we appeal to the Prime Minister to join in this, because, without her support, nothing will happen. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to go away today saying that there is consistent and persistent support for this report. Let us get on with it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and all members of his committee on the work that they have done in grappling with this difficult issue. They have produced a good report which makes a series of compelling recommendations in addressing the symptoms of the size of your Lordships’ House, which I broadly support.
However, I want us to be tough not just on the size of the House but on the causes of it. Defining the problem we need to fix only as the size of the House means that we miss the bigger point. It risks us shifting responsibility away from ourselves to successive Prime Ministers, whether those of the past or those in future. In the volatile world that we are in right now, where institutions must respond correctly to society’s need for change if they are to survive, we do not have the luxury of misdiagnosing the causes of some of the problems we are grappling with.
I do not have a principled objection to a membership of your Lordships’ House capped at 600, but if we want it to happen and future Prime Ministers to respect that objective, we need to be clearer about what kind of House of Lords we want to be in the 21st century. I think that there is a real need for this House. In an era when people want and need more honest, frank debate that is not motivated by party politics, your Lordships’ House has an opportunity to be a shining beacon.
But for us to be effective, we have to define our purpose; we have all to sign up to it and address our behaviours and conduct where they get in the way of meeting that purpose. I was struck particularly by paragraph 82 of the report, which states:
“We suggest that the Prime Minister may wish to task HOLAC with ensuring that all nominees are aware, before they accept a peerage, of what being an active member of the House of Lords entails”.
I endorse that. I do not endorse the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, about HoLAC having a role in suitability, but I endorse the idea of it being clear about what is expected of new Members of this House. But what about those of us who are already Members? Are we all able to say to each other, quite honestly and right now, that we know what we should expect from each other as Members of this House? I am not entirely sure that we do.
I want increasing our accountability and serving the public better to be the driving force behind change in this House. So if we are to introduce term limits or a retirement age, which I would also support, surely we have to apply that to ourselves as well. I do not think we can wait until new Members come into the House in future. We made significant progress before 2015 by introducing permanent retirement, automatic expulsion for Peers sentenced to more than a year in prison and the power for this House to expel on the grounds of gross misconduct. Yet we sweep under the carpet the fact that some Peers remain Members of this House, even though they received prison sentences of more than a year, and we have yet to introduce a disrepute clause, even though the Privileges and Conduct Committee agreed on a recommendation for one in the spring of 2016. These are some of the things that have to change.
I believe in this House. I think that its Members are some of the most talented and accomplished people in our country. We do some great work, but if we are to remain relevant and serve the people of this country well, we have to address all the things that matter—and that is not just our size. More than anything, I want us to define our purpose for the 21st century and for us all to be united in meeting that purpose.
My Lords, I add my immense thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for their impressive energy in producing this report. If I strike a discordant note in my analysis, it is not to belittle their commitment. I fear that this is yet another piecemeal effort to tackle the fundamental issue of Lords reform, as by following strictly their remit they have reported on the size of the House while ignoring its functions as a legislative assembly for the whole of the United Kingdom and the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope.
The House is of course much too large with 798 Peers. How did this come about? It is substantially through the political incontinence of Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron in their exercise of patronage. Mr Blair recommended 374 Peers and Mr Cameron 245—a total of 619, which puts the reasons for our present membership in the right perspective. We read that more are on the way. If that is true this debate should not ignore that grim reality. I remember my struggle in primary school to calculate the end result of filling a tank with water while emptying it at the same time.
The report acknowledges that its success depends on undertakings by Prime Ministers, whoever they might be—even future ones, I suppose—agreeing to appoint no more new Members than there are vacancies. As no legislation is proposed this undertaking would be no more, at its very best, than some sort of emerging convention. But a convention is hallowed only by many years of acceptance. In the most unlikely event that I might be asked, as a law officer, to advise an incoming Labour Prime Minister I would advise him that this commitment is not worth the candle. His aim, in a House dominated by non-Labour Members, would be to get his legislation through and ease the task of his Chief Whip. While the House does not oppose legislation on manifesto commitments at Second Reading, I remind your Lordships that the implementation of devolution was delayed for 20 years through the passing of mere amendments in both the Commons and the Lords.
The basic difficulty for the committee was that there was neither the will nor the time to introduce legislation at present, hence the existence of hereditary Peers would be untouched. I hope I will be forgiven for saying that there is no place for hereditary membership in today’s legislative process. Paragraph 21 of the report concedes that,
“the hereditary peers will make up a larger proportion of a smaller House”.
We would be going backwards. I note that there are 81 hereditary Conservative and Cross-Bench Peers, but only four Labour ones. The report also concedes that in its proposals only the party share of new appointments will vary. The reduction proposals are expected to result in Labour losing 38 Peers by 2022; the Liberal Democrats will lose only 18. That is the proposed immediate future of this House, following Mr Cameron’s appointment of 51 Liberal Democrat Peers under the coalition agreement to reflect,
“the share of the vote … in the last general election”.
Surely, in 2017, that is crying out to be revisited for our present membership.
As only new Members would be affected by the proposals, it cannot be said that the proposals will,
“affect all parties and Members equally”,
for the present. The reports avers that the only way to reduce our membership is on an equal contribution basis. The guiding principles are treating Members fairly and no compulsory retirement of existing Members. I expect that the House would welcome this. How this will be done is not spelled out in the main proposals; the only guidance is the rejection of some of the ideas of the past—based on age, tenure or attendance—as they have the disadvantage of changing the balance of parties arbitrarily. It is helpful to know how the reduction will not be achieved, but it would be even more helpful to affirm proposals on how it will. Although reducing the size of this House is absolutely necessary, I regret that I cannot support the proposals, for all these reasons. They need further and long consideration by this House.
My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for the thoughtful way in which he introduced his important report. In doing so, I declare my interests as chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission and of the Judicial Appointments Commission.
The task taken on by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues—looking at the size of this House—was inevitably going to be a very difficult, complicated and fraught matter. Yet it was vital for them to come to a practical solution that would deliver what was required: achieving a size for your Lordships’ House that would meet the important challenge of public perception—an issue touched on by many of those who have already contributed. Having initiated this process in a debate last year and having supported the establishment of the Lord Speaker’s committee to look at these matters, the reality is that there would be tremendous harm to the standing of your Lordships’ House if your Lordships were not able to reach a conclusion in supporting an essentially irrefutable argument: this House is too large and does not enjoy the respect of the public more generally. Whether or not that is fair, it is the held perception.
I will deal with issues in the report that touch on the work of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. I remind noble Lords that the commission was established in 2000 as an advisory body to the Prime Minister. As a non-departmental advisory body, it has continued its work since then with two principal remits: to make nominations to your Lordships’ House for independent Cross-Bench Peers—undertaking both an assessment of candidates’ suitability for service in your Lordships’ House and vetting checks—and to undertake vetting responsibility for all other nominations. In that regard, some 10% of party-political nominations made to the commission since 2015 failed to meet the vetting test and have not proceeded.
The Burns report suggests that we enhance the responsibilities of the House of Lords Appointments Commission in a number of respects. The first is that, beyond continuing our current nomination function for independent Cross-Bench Peers, the commission should facilitate the extended leave of absence that will be available to Peers nominated under the new scheme. The second is that it should, for want of a better description, keep the spreadsheet generated after every election, looking at the size of the House of Commons and the proportion of votes, and therefore the size of the political Benches for the forthcoming Parliament.
The third, as we have heard, is to provide a clear understanding for all those nominated to serve in the House of Lords of the commitment that would be required and the obligations that attend membership of your Lordships’ House. This is something that the commission pays special attention to with regard to Cross-Bench nominations. An analysis undertaken between October 2016 and January 2017 identified that of the 67 nominations by HOLAC since 2000, 90% participated in some way in that period, either through voting, contributions in the Chamber or work in committees.
Clearly, the commission would be happy to assist as requested in providing the narrative of the expectation of contribution and service once appointed to the House of Lords, but it would be vital that the political parties heard the response of each candidate to that description because, ultimately, so as not to fetter the Prime Minister or party-political leaders’ opportunity to make political nominations, they would have to be clear that the response received was suitable to those political parties.
Ultimately, under the scheme, beyond hereditary elections, there will be three routes to the Cross Benches: the independent nomination rate through the House Of Lords Appointments Commission, the appointment of Prime Minister’s exceptions—10 in any given five-year period—and a new judicial appointments route for Supreme Court justices on appointment to the Supreme Court. It would be essential to understand how the balance between those three routes will be achieved over any given Parliament.
One of the important duties of the House of Lords Appointments Commission has been to try to achieve greater diversity in this House. Of the 67 nominations made since 2000, 37% have been of female candidates and 19% of members of ethnic minorities. It is essential that that ability to look more broadly at the membership of the House is not lost as we look at the different routes to contribute to Cross-Bench membership in future.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the acumen of the Lord Speaker, who has focused on the vexed question of reducing the size of the membership of the Chamber and set the wheels in motion to create the all-party committee whose most relevant report we are considering today. The Lord Speaker is surely right when he says that the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues give this House an important opportunity for reform. With a membership of more than 800, compared to the 650 MPs in the other place, we are perceived to be far too large and unwieldy. It cannot sit altogether comfortably that when legislatures around the world are listed by size, we come second only to the National People’s Congress of China.
Achieving the proposed reduction to 600 and keeping the total capped at that level will take time, but to reach these goals, I support the idea of limiting new Peers to a total of 15 years in the House and the adoption of an accelerated “two out, one in” programme.
It is also correct to propose that appointments should be shared between the different parties on the basis of the results of the most recent general election. With attempts at wider reform not currently on the political agenda, these are sensible suggestions and crucially can be undertaken by ourselves, without the need for legislation. However, the public might like to see the extent of the participation of each Member having a direct effect on their continuing membership of this House.
I should at this stage mention a former interest when I was an MP. I had been warned that I was in line to inherit a hereditary peerage if I outlived my uncle, the Earl of Selkirk. When he died, I was told that I was now barred from the House of Commons Chamber. I went to see the clerks in both Houses. Their advice was totally different. The clerk in the Commons said that if there was any possibility of me being a hereditary Peer, I could disclaim straightaway in order to vote on the looming Motion of no confidence in the then Prime Minister. But the clerk in the House of Lords, quite differently, said, “I have only one question to ask. Is this something you really want to do?” It was, and I remained an Earl for merely four days.
It was an honour and a great surprise of course to be asked to return as a life Peer in 1997. I recall that I was introduced by Lord Renton, the former MP for Huntingdonshire, who at that point was nearly 90. A few years later, when I became a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I asked a senior parliamentarian from this Chamber how my friend Lord Renton was getting on, as by this time he was heading for a century. The senior Member was full of compliments about Lord Renton and added what was clearly meant as a final accolade. He said, “Old age is just beginning to creep up on him”. The report before us does not advocate a compulsory retirement age. Happily, however, many noble Lords appear to be living very much longer, so if we do contemplate such an ageist move, we could possibly settle for a cut-off date of 100. However, having listened to the debate, I believe that the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, capture a great deal more merit and would be much easier to implement.
This Chamber is a great national asset whose Members have a fund of expertise and acquired wisdom. That should not be lost or even squandered. However, we cannot be complacent. To borrow a quote from Benjamin Disraeli:
“I am a conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad”.
I sincerely hope that this report will receive the backing of the Prime Minister and the party leaders. As the Lord Speaker said so appropriately, these proposals not only present us with a challenge but with an opportunity. While there is yet time, let us take that opportunity.
My Lords, the more astute among you will recognise that I am not the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe. With the agreement of the Clerk and the Whips, he and I have swapped places. I hope that not too many noble Lords will be disappointed. However, it allows me to follow my very old friend the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk—I must get his recently updated title right—and his witty and erudite speech.
I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble Lord in his wholehearted support for this report. That is in no way a criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. They were asked to ask the wrong question. Like my noble and learned friend, Lord Morris, the right question is, what is the function and purpose of this Chamber? In a bicameral legislature, the second Chamber has a particular role—to scrutinise legislation, challenge the House of Commons from time to time, to debate issues and question and challenge the Executive.
My ideal second Chamber—unlike the noble Lord, Lord Newby, of the Liberal Democrats’ ideal of a directly elected House, which I think would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons and create tremendous problems—is a senate of the nations and regions, an indirectly elected Chamber that represents all parts of the United Kingdom properly in this House. We will not get that until we have a Labour Government—and that may be sooner rather than later—but until then we have to carry out our function as best we can.
I do not think we can do that with such an imbalance in representation from the parts of the United Kingdom—as has already been mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey. Scotland and Northern Ireland are not too badly represented but the regions of England are grossly underrepresented in this Chamber. I do not think that we are a properly representative Chamber, part of a legislature, when we have such poor representation from so many parts of the United Kingdom.
Of course, we have had a few recent appointments to this Chamber. That has made it worse because they have all been from London or the south-east of England, which already has well over half the representation. The problem is that many people do not consider a peerage as an appointment to the legislature but as an honour, as one up from a knighthood in the whole pecking order of honours. A lot of people are keen to get a peerage because it is an honour or a passport to some other appointments, not because they want to work as part of a legislature. The solution is to split it up and have two types of peerages—one that you might call an honorary peerage and the other a legislative peerage, with honours for those who want the title and deserve the title and the legislative peerage for those who want to work and carry out a legislative function. A very helpful Library briefing says that this can be done. It states that,
“the Monarch is empowered to appoint life Peers outside of the Life Peerages Act 1958, and that Peers appointed in this way would not be entitled to a seat in the House of Lords. Accordingly, the committee encouraged the Government to pursue this option in tandem with their main proposals”.
I do not see why it cannot be the main proposal because it seems to me to be right. The problem is that some people consider the peerage an honour rather than an appointment.
Sadly, I think the report does not measure up to what I would like to see it do, which is to produce a representative—not just a smaller—Chamber that can carry out the appropriate function of the second Chamber of a legislature. I hope that when the Lord Speaker, the Government and others consider the outcome of this debate they will look at this as an alternative to the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee.
My Lords, most of us here are delighted that so far there is significant consensus on the Burns report. It clearly has not been an easy task and I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the committee for their elegant compromise.
Reform of the House of Lords has been an ongoing process for the last 800 years or more. Restricting our view to the last 100 years or so, the Parliament Act 1911 was a significant milestone, as was the creation of life peerages in 1958. More recently, there was the House of Lords Act 1999, followed by the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. Nor should we dismiss the many other changes since, notably the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 that enabled retirement and, under certain conditions, expulsion. As we know, that was preceded by a succession of Private Member’s Bills, including those from the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and my noble friend Lady Hayman. We have learnt that incremental change is more likely to succeed than attempts to introduce change by means of primary legislation. The coalition’s 2012 Bill for a largely elected House fell due to technicalities, but had there been the political will in the other place, those could surely have been overcome.
How does such consensus come about? Reviewing the last 10 years, and more, there has been a slow but inexorable build-up towards a critical mass of opinion. Of course, some of that has been driven by critical media, but efforts in this House—especially by the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber and the many public statements, articles and views expressed by Members—have all contributed greatly to the majority consensus expressed in the debate almost exactly a year ago.
There is still some way to go. We trust that the scheme proposed by the committee will be agreed— and indeed maintained—by the current Government and future ones. By accepting the Burns report’s recommendations, it is hoped to establish a new convention that will become as embedded and respected as the other conventions that guide this House. Perhaps the widespread consensus will encourage some of us to do the decent thing and step down with dignity, after cumulative long years of public service. That may speed up the rate at which we reach the magic number of 600. As we all acknowledge, the House needs refreshing from time to time; an intake of Peers with differing sets of experience and expertise is always welcome. However, unless some of us are prepared to stand down as we approach our 80s, I fear that we will remain an oversubscribed House for some time to come.
Reform is by no means complete. As the House becomes more manageable and professional, it is to be hoped that other reforms—on the hereditary principle, the retirement age and limiting the appointment of new Peers to those who fulfil a clear gap in relevant expertise—will come about. That is what makes this House so valuable.
My Lords, the Leader of the House was commendably frank in her speech in saying that the Government have no stomach for fundamental reform of this place. That is a pity. Like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I hope that one day we will have a Government who will grapple with the need to cement our devolution settlements in this country and create a new upper Chamber, which could be a federal Chamber for the devolved Administrations. Bearing in mind the commission report of Mr Asquith’s Government and the committee report of Mr Attlee’s Government, the House of Commons does not wish to see another directly elected Chamber in the land. Nevertheless, a Chamber that is indirectly elected by the House of Commons and the other devolved institutions is surely long overdue. I would welcome that.
In the meantime, I warmly welcome the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. It is of course predicated entirely on the 2014 Act, whose provisions I introduced three times in this House over three Sessions on behalf of the Cormack-Norton committee, as noble Lords will remember. Thanks to Dan Byles MP in the House of Commons, that Act eventually became law and enabled Peers to leave this House, either voluntarily or through the House removing them. The minute the law was changed, I took the view that changes could be made thereafter by resolution of the House, which is why I welcome the general thrust of the Burns report. I congratulate the noble Lord and his committee on its excellence.
I hope that my noble friend Lord Newby is wrong when he postulates the possibility of the Prime Minister introducing a swathe of new Members in the new year; if that happened, I am afraid that it would drive a coach and horses through the committee’s recommendations. I very much hope that it will not happen. I have only one criticism to make of the report, which is that it will take too long to get the numbers down to 600. Need it take 11 years? I do not believe so. I echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, about older Members retiring. I see no reason why we could not have an automatic clear-out of Members aged over 80 at the end of every Parliament. I see no difficulty in that. The House of Commons has a clear-out at a general election—why should this House not do the same? The age of 80 seems reasonable to me.
There are two objections to that proposal. One is that it is ageist. Is it ageist? In other public services, people retire at 60 or 70; the oldest age I could find was 75 for lord-lieutenants and deputy lord-lieutenants. An age of 80 and above, which is what my proposal suggests, seems generous and reasonable. The other objection to what I propose is the ad hominem objection. There is nothing to stop retired Members from going on the airwaves, giving lectures or writing to the newspapers. All they would do is stop being legislators, which seems utterly reasonable. The argument might be, “Oh, you can’t do that because you would lose Nigel Lawson”, to which I say, “Well, so what?”. You would also, as of next time round, lose David Steel—and that might be a very good thing.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. The first sentence of the summary of the report lays out the challenge that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee faced:
“exploring methods for reducing the size of the House”.
I do not know who the genius on the committee was who came up with the proposal, but he must have been creative with the use of figures, because the document is quite clear about how it can be done. The proposals themselves are clear, incremental and achievable. This further movement does without the need for legislation and, importantly, without any perceived threat to existing Members—although that might change when it comes to implementation. In so far as the proposals will reduce the size of the House, they will work; but how they may affect the functionality of the House will depend on the working practices of the new Peers.
I found the back-testing of the Burns proposals in a bar-chart construct most interesting. Going back to 1959 and working forward to 2017, it shows what the party composition would look like reflecting public opinion at general elections and that the proposal would work in a fair way, as stated in the report. The challenge of the report is mainly at the point of implementation, as many noble Lords have mentioned, but it is doable and a House of 600 can be achieved.
I turn to say a few words about the Cross-Bench component. The report says that the new Cross-Bench Members would number 134. This is not 20% of 600, which would be 120, but 23.3%, as it is now. Who are the Cross-Benchers? They may be appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission or from the judiciary; there are also 30 hereditaries. They may also be appointed by the Prime Minister at various times. But not insignificant are the numbers of those who leave their political party for whatever reasons—mostly because they do not agree with its principles—and join the Cross Benches. Initially, they sit on the Cross Benches; subsequently, they become Cross-Benchers. As this number is not insignificant, particularly in the recent past, whose numbers would they be counted among? If it is to be the number allocated to the Cross Benches, the Appointments Commission will have that many fewer to appoint. If they are to be non-affiliates, then the problem of how to deal with non-affiliates and those who move from their political party needs to be addressed. In my view, if you leave your political party and were appointed by that party then you must leave the House. That would be the obvious solution but it may hold problems.
I support the solution proposed and the House’s membership becoming 600. I note that by 2022 the Cross Benches will have to lose about 35 Peers, either through retirement or death. Looking at the past figure, that number is achievable and I shall do my bit to contribute.
My Lords, in thinking about our future, it might be wise to remind ourselves of the words of another Burns:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion”
I have said many times before that I love this place. I find that if you are not sure what you think about something, listening to a debate in this place will straighten you out. The debate the other day in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on universal credit was extremely moving as well as being informative, as was the debate moved by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on education. What do they have in common? They were almost entirely ignored by people outside this House, which is portrayed as a load of people in pyjamas or strange outfits every time we appear in the newspapers. If we are to change the perception—because perception is everything in politics—we have to change ourselves. Along with everyone else, I pay tribute to the fantastic work that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have done.
As some noble Lords may recall, in her latter years, Baroness Thatcher used to come to this House. Because she was a little frail, she needed someone to look after her. Her office would ring me up and she would say, “I am coming to the House this afternoon, would you like to look after me?” And I would drop everything and come. One day I said to her, “Margaret, you’ve done your bit for the country. People love to see you, but you don’t need to come here so often”. Whereupon she prodded me in the chest and said, “Michael, when we accepted appointment to this place it became our duty to attend. Now how often are you here when I am not here?”. I have never forgotten that. The size of the House is a problem, but so, also, are people who accept appointment to this place and do not take it seriously. To take it seriously, I am afraid that you have to come quite a lot. It is quite a complicated place to understand, which is why, down at the other end of the corridor, they have not a clue what we are about.
On the Burns report itself, I thought that it was almost impossible for that committee to produce a report that would carry support throughout the Benches, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and to the Liberal Party—this may be a first. I thought that his speech was statesmanlike and the behaviour of his party entirely constructive, even though it is not to its advantage, and we should take a lead from that. By the way, if noble Lords ever want to solve a polynomial simultaneous equation, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is clearly the man. He can take a whole load of complex variables and put them together in what is a brilliant report. Believe me, this is as good as it gets. As my noble friend Lord Cormack indicated, it is probably our last and only chance to reform ourselves.
Of course, as many noble Lords have already said, none of this will fly unless the Prime Minister actually gives an undertaking. Some have said that we cannot rely on convention, but this whole place has existed on that for 500 years—even where we sit is determined by convention. We are not a rules-based House. Yes, we can depend on convention, but it does require the Prime Minister to give a clear undertaking.
I notice that the Leader of the House spoke at the beginning of this debate and is not speaking at the end, and the Leader of the Opposition is speaking at the end of the debate and will no doubt respond to it. I say to my noble friend the Leader of the House, if I may borrow a phrase from a former Prime Minister, that the hand of history is upon her shoulder. She spoke at the beginning of this debate for the Government. I hope at the end of this debate, she will speak in her role as Leader of the House for the whole House and go to the Prime Minister and explain to her how important it is that she embraces the clear consensus that we are seeing across every corner of the House. Her moment has come, just as happened with a previous Leader, now the Marquess of Salisbury, then Lord Cranborne. The leader of our party in opposition wanted to have an elected House. He informed all of us of this notion by writing an article in the Daily Telegraph. Lord Cranborne, as he then was, defied him and ensured that we ended up with a compromise of the 92 hereditary Peers and the reform that was brought in by a Labour Government. So there is a precedent for leaders—even in opposition—of this House.
I look forward to the speech by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who, I understand, made it a condition of his continuing in succession to Lord Cranbourne, who was sacked for his pains—in earlier times his head would have been cut off—that those proposals were taken forward. That is why we are sitting here today with the opportunity to produce a reformed House that will be respected and held in high regard by the public who have sent us here.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is always a hard act to follow. I come to this debate somewhat from the outside but I have had a little to do—to a greater or lesser extent—with the structure of bodies in the public sector. I have set some up and dismantled some. Your Lordships’ House has always seemed to be effective, very often in spite of, rather than because of, its structure.
In contemplating an ideal second Chamber I would rather not have started from here, but we are not in the realms of Utopia and are strictly confined by the art of the possible. Within the art of the possible it is so desirable to limit our numbers that a very pragmatic solution must be worked out. We have agreed this. Even the reform of numbers is not at all an easy task and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on his elegant proposals. Not only do they fit the bill, they achieve the objective without transgressing other boundaries by leaving much to the discretion of party and other groups.
As we are in the realm of the practical, reasonable and feasible, on all these tests it seems to me that the noble Lord’s proposals pass muster. They are practical: they inexorably reduce numbers over time and maintain that reduction. They are reasonable: they leave to the parties who must go, but also reflect electoral decisions without destroying balance. This is particularly ingenious. They are feasible: all we need do is agree; no legislation is needed. They would serve our country better for the time being, which is what we must do. We have the privilege, among other privileges, of serving the public. It is to serve our country better that matters. I commend the proposals.
My Lords, this report has my wholehearted support. It is a most thoughtful and imaginative piece of work. I am not one of those who appear able to contemplate with equanimity the ever-growing expansion of this House. Doubtless many of us would have preferred, to a greater or lesser degree, some difference in one or other of the several particular measures that together go to make the intricate overall solution proposed. Some might have preferred to end up with a House smaller than 600, some to have achieved a cap in a shorter time, some to have provided for longer than 15-year fixed-term appointments and so on.
I will make two comments on this. First, any such detailed considerations are surely for a future debate. Today is for determining the House’s support for or rejection of the report in principle. In any event, we need to bear in mind that any change to the proposed scheme has knock-on effects and that this has been unanimously hammered out by a most expert and experienced group—I have the highest regard for each one of them—after months of hard work. The plain fact is that unless a very substantial consensus in favour of this scheme is arrived at today by the House as a whole, none of this will happen and we will instead continue—probably indeed worsen—our present unsustainable position.
A substantial consensus is required, but, above all, this proposal will then require the support of 10 Downing Street. If we can get that now, it will not be easy for any of the Prime Minister’s successors to collapse the scheme later—certainly everybody would then know where the blame lay. To my mind, this is the best possible scheme for winning the Prime Minister’s support. It provides for much the same number, rate and nature of future appointments as in years past—certainly, if one puts aside the perhaps over-fecund years of Mr Blair and Mr Cameron. It allows both for refreshment of the House, including new Front-Bench appointments, and for its rebalancing by reference to the latest general election results. If there are to be significant changes to any of the pieces which go to make up this intricate jigsaw solution, I respectfully suggest that they be only changes suggested by No. 10 itself. If that is the price for winning the necessary consent to the constraints on the Prime Minister’s future prerogative powers of appointment that we now propose, so be it.
I know that one or two Members of your Lordships’ House are concerned at the 15-year fixed-term proposal on the basis that it may discourage youthful appointments of people who would then be left high and dry in their 50s or 60s. This is an overstated objection. Essentially, this is a House of elders, of people whose real value is their acquired expertise and lifetime experience. Generally, they should only rarely be appointed before they are around 50 or so. In that case, given that the scheme expressly provides for them to take a five-year sabbatical during their fixed term without it counting towards the 15 years, they would be upwards of 70 when their term ended. Surely if what they seek is essentially a political career, it is election to the Commons that they should be after and not appointment here.
Really, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reduce and cap the size of this House. I respectfully urge your Lordships to seize it.
My Lords, I played a small part when we last reduced the size of this House, then far more ambitiously than is proposed in this report and with surgical precision. As with all attempts to do anything surgically, it was pretty painful, but we got there in the end and remarkably quickly. I am sorry that the report has not taken up that precedent and suggested that all groups reduce their number by 20%. We could probably do it by the Summer Recess and then continue on our own way.
I have three reasons why I am concerned that the report will trigger a series of unintended consequences. The first is on the 15 years; the second is on the cap on the numbers; and the third is on the reduction of prime ministerial patronage. However, I want first to join all those who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his team on creating a short and very readable report that genuinely tries to be imaginative.
I disagree that the problem is overcrowding in this House. At some key moments, particularly at Question Time, it feels overcrowded, but that has been true for most of the past 40 years. Our daily attendance is about 480. There have been only three Divisions in the entire history of the Lords where more than 600 Members have voted. The average vote is less than 400, all within this new limit of 600. If noble Lords cannot find a seat at Question Time, why not change it to 5.30 pm? That might reduce attendance. So, I do not believe that the case for overcrowding has been made.
Having been Conservative Chief Whip and Leader of the House, or the Opposition, for a total of 19 years, I know that many former Members of another place came here as Peers. I encourage them not to believe that the Lords is just like the House of Commons, only 20 years older. It is a very different House; it operates very differently and, apart from anything else, we are here for life. Yet the proposal for 15-year terms runs the danger of us becoming exactly that—an older version of the House of Commons. It will discourage Members aged under 50, perhaps even under 60, thus making us even older. Why would someone in their 40s join the House, only to leave 15 years later? Fewer Members would volunteer to join the Front Bench; both the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition are considerably younger than the modal age of 75. Would they have joined if they could be here for only 15 years? If by chance a younger Member joined your Lordships’ House, might they then not use this House as a stepping stone to election to the House of Commons? We have always set our face against that in the past.
Take a Labour Peer, appointed in 1985, slogging away on the Opposition Front Bench. Just as the new dawn arose in 1997, they would start to pack their bags to leave two and a half years later. The 15-year terms of both my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, would have run out while they were Lord Chancellor. Although the noble Lord, Lord Burns, says that this can be extended, it would have meant that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern would have gone in 1997. Just think of the wisdom and good sense that we would have missed.
On the cap and the limiting of prime ministerial patronage, this report is not just a simple method of reduction; it strikes at the very heart of constitutional powers. It may happen only rarely, but to remove the ability of the Prime Minister to threaten to increase the number of Peers could lead to an even more assertive House than we have today. We sit in a large and inexpensive House. A new, time-limited House would demand staff and salaries, and we have already heard that cry starting today. Most people know the Lords as a repository of good sense and wisdom—“elders”, the previous speaker called us. With our limited time here, we could concede that reputation to the House of Commons.
Of course, we need restraint and responsibility. Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron showed too little but Prime Ministers Brown and May have, so far, presided over a declining House. In the last year for which figures are available, eight Peers were created and 31 left. If I extrapolate that over five years, we would drop by 115 and get to 650 in seven years. It is that responsibility and restraint that we should encourage, and we should do that starting today.
Energy: Domestic Tariffs
My Lords, it is the Government’s intention to legislate, and a draft Bill is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee. The Government will consider the committee’s report before making the final decision on introducing the Bill. The Competition and Markets Authority found a very significant detriment to consumers, and it will take meaningful and long-lasting reform to be assured that there is effective competition across the whole of the market.
My Lords, I find that a very interesting Answer. When will Her Majesty’s Government look at what Ofwat has done for water consumers, to their benefit, and decide that Ofgem can do an equally good job? Surely Her Majesty’s Government can see that there may not be perfect competition, but there is certainly a lot of competition, with new entrants coming in all the time, and there is an extensive number of schemes to help the disadvantaged. How can a totally uncosted subsidy help when all it will do is disrupt the market even further, above and beyond what is already happening through the Government’s green taxes?
My Lords, Ofgem does a very good job, just as my noble friend has made it clear that Ofwat does a very good job. We agree with Ofgem that the energy market is not working for all consumers, and we are determined to address the detriment suffered by those overpaying for their energy. Because the market is not working, we feel that it is necessary to consider introducing a Bill, which is why we have introduced the draft Bill and sent it to the appropriate Select Committee. When the committee has produced its report, we will consider the appropriate way forward and introduce legislation if necessary. That legislation will be temporary, and we hope that afterwards the market can work slightly better.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right to say that bad insulation is not good for heating bills, so we would like to do better on that front. I would prefer to write to the noble Baroness in greater detail on the point she raised, but we are doing what we can to help all more vulnerable consumers with their heating bills. She will be aware of the warm home discount and the cold weather payments; and there is the winter fuel payment, which quite a number of noble Lords probably benefit from and which is worth up to £300 for a couple and £200 for an individual.
My Lords, the noble Lord says that Ofgem is doing a good job, but over the last few years we have seen evidence that the industry raises prices as quickly as possible and reduces them—when the international market shows a reduction in prices—as slowly as they can. Has Ofgem not used all the powers it has to intervene in the market?
My Lords, what I made clear in response to my noble friend’s supplementary was that I believe Ofwat has done a very good job. Ofgem can do a very good job, but we agree with it that the energy market is not working as it should, possibly for the reasons the noble Lord has pointed out. That is why we have brought forward a draft Bill and are looking at what it might do. We will respond after the BEIS Select Committee has produced its report on that Bill.
My Lords, the Church of England has partnered with several organisations in an initiative called the Big Church Switch, which seeks to provide consumers with better prices from the UK’s cleanest energy suppliers, to make switching simpler and to protect the environment. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government and Ofgem taking to learn from such initiatives as this to enable consumers to make informed choices, both financially and environmentally?
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for bringing to the attention of the House the Big Church Switch. Other people offer advice on how to switch, and there is a great deal that individual consumers can do about switching their energy and getting reductions. The simple fact is that most people do not know about this, which is why we are working through the government-funded Big Energy Saving Network to try to get more information across. We are very grateful for the work the Church is doing as well.
My Lords, would not one obvious way of achieving cheaper energy prices be to produce in this country rather cheaper electricity and to make less costly the reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere? Would that not require cheaper nuclear power and cleaner methods of coal-burning, which can be very cheap if it is clean? Is our present energy policy not going in exactly the opposite direction?
My Lords, we are seeing reductions in the price of renewable energy and we are working to bring the price of nuclear energy down. My noble friend is quite right: the crucial issue is the price of energy that consumers have to pay, which is why we are helping them to shop around to get the best deal.
My Lords, I know a little about switching energy supplier. I do not know much about switching churches but perhaps the noble Lord can offer some advice to the right reverend Prelates—not that I think they will want to be switching churches at this stage. More seriously, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the fact that not enough people know how to set about switching energy. Sophisticated people like him know that they can go online and do it, but that is much harder for older people—people even older than the noble Lord himself—who are possibly less technically sophisticated than he is. This is why we are offering help and funding the Big Energy Saving Network, which we hope will provide assistance to vulnerable consumers.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of Public Health England’s decision to include vaping within its stop smoking campaign for 2017, they will review vaping regulations in line with the commitment in the Tobacco Control Plan for England; and if so, when.
My Lords, the Government are committed to a review of the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 by May 2021. There is limited scope for amending the regulations in advance of the UK exiting the EU, so the Government envisage a review taking place after 29 March 2019. Protecting the public’s health will be the priority in any review.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer but I am a little disappointed. Given the strong evidence that vaping is much safer than smoking, that it is very effective at getting people off smoking and that the strength of the vaping industry in this country is one of the main reasons why we are now the second-lowest smoking country in Europe, and given that the Government promised some sensible deregulation in the tobacco control plan, does the Minister share my regret that the EU’s tobacco products directive restricts advertising in particular, making it very hard for vaping companies in this country to bring to smokers the news of the health benefits that can come from it? Will he consider a public information campaign to bring the country’s attention to what vaping can do? Will he perhaps also consider giving clear advice to businesses and councils that they should not be treating vapers as smokers?
The noble Viscount is right to highlight the benefits of vaping: it is considerably safer than smoking and is a very effective quitting aid. There is no particular evidence that it encourages people to take up smoking or to transition into smoking. Government policy has, obviously, been made under the EU regulatory framework—and we think that it is pragmatic and evidence based. Direct advertising is, as he will know, banned, but the department, Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority are looking at the current guidelines in this area. I should point out that Public Health England includes in its public health campaigns positive messages about the relative benefits of vaping, so that message is getting out. In the end we must beware of renormalising the act of smoking, even if with a different device, particularly for children, so there is a balance to be struck.
My Lords, lest Brexiteer noble Lords get too excited, will the Minister confirm that it was the British Government who pressed the EU for draconian regulations, and the EU modified what Britain wanted? We should beware repatriation of those regulations.
I will only talk about what I know, and what I know to be coming up, which is that we want to take a pragmatic and evidence-based approach. Other countries are looking at the balance we strike in this country with allowing smoking and vaping to take place—and indeed, positively encouraging vaping. I think our approach is sensible.
My Lords, the noble Viscount made a good point, because the same European legislation also brought in a ban on all small tobacco packs, which had a devastating impact, particularly on small local shops. Will the Minister therefore commit to reversing the ban on small packs once we have left the European Union? I declare my interest as set out in the register.
I am afraid I shall have to disappoint the noble Lord there. Our broad approach on restricting the advertising and sale of tobacco has been incredibly successful: we have very low smoking rates in this country, and they are falling all the time. We have ambitious goals to reduce smoking prevalence, including a long-term goal of reducing it to less than 5% of adults, and I am not convinced that what he describes would help.
Can my noble friend explain the advertising point to me, as one who has given up smoking through vaping? I have not had a cigarette for three and a half years. I tried patches, I tried chewing gum, and I even went to a hypnotist. None of those worked. Can my noble friend tell me why those three things are allowed to be advertised, although they do not work, whereas vaping, which does work, is not?
The noble Lord is right; we are looking at the guidelines at the moment, with Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority. There are limits on what we can do on vaping under the current regulations, but we will have the opportunity to look again at this issue as we leave the European Union, and reconsider our domestic legislation.
My Lords, vaping has proved an effective way for many people to give up smoking tobacco—but there are, of course, no inherent health benefits in taking up vaping if one is not already addicted to nicotine. Does the Minister agree that we should seek regulations that allow the promotion of vaping solely as an alternative to smoking tobacco, and not something that people not already addicted to nicotine should be encouraged to take up? Can he tell us when Public Health England will publish its report on e-cigarettes, which was due in 2017?
I think that the noble Lord is making the point that we need a balanced approach. We want to emphasise the relative health benefits, but we must also recognise that harmful effects can come from nicotine in itself. Obviously, we want to get to a position in which people are not smoking and not taking nicotine at all, and the relative benefits of the different ways people can go about that are taken into account. I think that the UK has a sensible approach. I am afraid that I do not have the date when the Public Health England report will be published, but I will write to the noble Lord with that information.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Ridley said, vaping has been hugely successful in getting 2.8 million Brits—myself included—off smoking tobacco. Snus, however, has been even more successful in reducing tobacco use in Sweden: 5% of Swedes still smoke tobacco, compared with 16% of Britons and 24% across the EU states. Given the success and safety of snus, why can we not use it in this country?
My noble friend is quite right to point out that vaping is a British success story as an anti-smoking aid, and it has made a huge contribution not just to noble Lords but to around 2.5 million e-cigarette users, half of whom used to smoke. There is, of course, as he will no doubt be aware, a court challenge going on at the moment. It is under consideration by the CJEU, and we expect a judgment in the summer of 2018, so I am unfortunately not in a position to comment until we have that judgment.
Could the Minister possibly encourage his colleagues to consider publishing a list of EU regulations which are there primarily because British lobbies with the support of British Ministers have pushed them on to the EU? I am thinking in particular of animal welfare, as well as a lot of health and smoking regulations. It would help to educate opinion in this country as to what sort of regulations might be likely to diverge after we leave, and which will not.
Anyone who really wants to find out how many regulations there are provided by the EU can find that online, and I am sure that it would be a wonderful way to spend a weekend. I am just going to bother myself with the ones that have been dedicated to the health area. We are, of course, looking at everything within that realm to make sure that, when we leave the European Union, we end up with the best possible health regime.
My Lords, the Government are clear that unwanted conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace that violates a person’s dignity or creates a hostile or degrading atmosphere is unlawful. Any employee placed in that situation can seek impartial advice or conciliation from ACAS or contact the Government’s Equality Advisory and Support Service or contact a citizens advice bureau before deciding whether to pursue a claim in an employment tribunal.
I thank the Minister, but I am really concerned. In the campaign that took place after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, many women went online under the heading of the “#MeToo” signature to say that they had experienced serious sexual abuse in the workplace. I am concerned about women in low-paid jobs, who do not have human resource departments, who are on the shop floor doing zero-hours contracts, for whom getting work—overtime, for example—depends on the will of or whim of supervisors who make sexual demands on them. Those are women whose lives are made really difficult. Have cuts to legal aid made a huge difference to whether women can have the reality of legal recourse? Does the overworking of the CAB also limit the opportunities of women to find out what their rights really are?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. Obviously, I am well aware of the “#MeToo” campaign, which was very effective. The high-profile cases that led to the campaign have resulted in a much greater understanding of the scope and scale of the problem, and we must use all available means to tackle it. If there is one positive thing that came out of that campaign, it is that people are far more aware of sexual harassment, whether it be low-paid workers on the shop floor right up to the Prime Minister. On the issue of legal aid, legal aid subject to the statutory merits test continues to be available for legal advice and representation for cases alleging unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation under the Equality Act.
Does the Minister agree that it is axiomatic that women or men subject to sexual harassment in the workplace should be able to obtain a proportionate and, if appropriate, serious remedy for what has occurred? Does she agree that it is equally axiomatic that those accused of such conduct should be able to enjoy due process before they are condemned?
Of course, my Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. The routes to resolution are many, and they do not necessarily have to end up at an employment tribunal. Many of the grievances that victims may bring forward to those accused of this can go through an employer’s formal guidance procedure, and there is obviously the early conciliation service from ACAS. There are many different routes, and one hopes that they can be resolved early on and not result in an employment tribunal.
My Lords, sexual harassment is often an abuse of power, an imbalance of power. Can my noble friend say what the Prime Minister is doing? What leadership is she showing to ensure that this issue is tackled, particularly in Parliament? What remedies are available to people who make such complaints?
My noble friend is quite right that it is often where there is a disproportionality of power that abuse occurs. The Prime Minister took immediate action when these allegations surfaced. She set up a cross-party working group, chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons, which aims to set up, as quickly as possible, an independent complaints and guidance system for everyone working in Parliament. The group is making good progress and will report back to Parliament before the Christmas Recess.
My Lords, sexual harassment in the workplace is covered under the Equality Act, but outside the workplace it is not a criminal offence in its own right. Prosecutors have to use different pieces of legislation, depending on the nature of the offence. Two-thirds of UK women report having been sexually harassed. In light of this, does the Minister think it is time for the Government to look at this and conduct a review of whether sexual harassment should be a specific criminal offence in its own right? Everyone would then be clear on what it is and where the boundaries should be.
The noble Baroness is quite right that sexual harassment and other more serious sexual offences are addressed in a number of pieces of legislation, for example the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003. In these cases, the first port of call for a victim is obviously the police. The police have received a significant increase in training about sexual offences. We are not currently planning to review the legislation, as we feel that it is working.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that sexual harassment and sexual violence is a culture not limited to any one industry, workplace or institution? It is an issue rooted in unequal power relationships that treat women in a subordinate manner to men. Is she aware of reports which show that more than two-thirds of girls reported being sexually harassed at school last year? What are the Government doing to tackle this worrying problem so that girls at school can be as protected as possible?
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. She is quite right; we must do whatever we can in education to ensure that everyone, young and old, understands that sexual harassment—or, indeed, any harassment—is not acceptable. Schools and parents must take responsibility for educating young people. I am sure the noble Baroness is aware that the Department for Education is currently consulting on the new relationship and sex education curriculum, which will be brought into schools as soon as it is ready.
Homelessness: Temporary Accommodation
My Lords, we are embarking on an ambitious programme in relation to homelessness which places prevention right at its heart. We are implementing the most ambitious legislative reform in decades—the Homelessness Reduction Act—and we have allocated over £1 billion to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, through to 2020. This includes a flexible homelessness support grant, which local authorities can use strategically to tackle homelessness in their areas, including for the provision of temporary accommodation.
I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. Night shelters and homelessness charities in my diocese are speaking about the huge pressure they are currently under. National Audit Office statistics suggest that the problem has increased nationally from 1,800 rough sleepers in 2010 to 4,000 this year. Given that rise, do Her Majesty’s Government consider that local authorities will have sufficient funding to meet their legal obligations under the Homelessness Reduction Act, which the Minister just spoke of, when it comes into force next year?
My Lords, first, I thank the right reverend Prelate for all that he does in his diocese. I know that the St Albans Sleepout on Friday 1 December—which was not actually at the cathedral this year because of building work—does much to publicise and tackle this problem in St Albans. He is absolutely right that this has become a more serious problem. It is now affecting rural as well as urban areas of England. That is why we have put this very much at the centre of the Government’s and department’s thinking, with the aim of reducing homelessness by 50% by 2022 and eliminating it totally by 2027. We have put resources into this: £50 million was announced very recently.
Can Her Majesty’s Government look at the human rights abuse that allows people to sleep on the streets? Maybe we need to revisit the old legislation whereby we do not allow people to sleep on the streets but provide places for them off the streets, rather than putting them in prison as we used to. We have an emergency on our hands; we need to remove people from the streets and put them in a place of safety. That should be at the top of the Minister’s list.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much indeed for his contribution in this area—not just in the House but very much outside it. I take his comments seriously. As he rightly says, prevention is at the heart of this complex issue. It is clearly not a simple issue: this country has faced this problem over a period of time. As I say, it is very much at the centre of the Government’s thinking and all agencies contribute to it. We have trailblazer areas looking at this, and Crisis and Shelter, for example, are on our advisory committee. Rough sleeping is something that the Government are very much committed to ending.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister will recognise that some of us are deeply underwhelmed by the ambition to reduce homelessness by only half by 2022. We were able to reduce rough sleeping by two-thirds between 1998 and 2000, and we know what needs to be done. There needs to be proper accommodation for rough sleepers, and he should know every night what is available and how many more rough sleepers there are than beds available. There also needs to be mental health and detox support. This is not unknown territory or a secret. We know how to sort it. Why do the Government not just get on and do it so that people are safer?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness went on, she began to exhibit just how complex an issue this is. It is not simple. It is an issue partly to do with addiction and with mental health, and partly about people coming out of secure environments such as the forces and prisons. We are working with the Ministries of Defence and Justice, which are central to this. It is not a small ambition to halve homelessness by 2022 and eliminate it totally by 2027. I look forward to seeing support and ideas from around the House on how we can tackle a very complex issue.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with the UK Statistics Authority that a complete picture on homelessness must include prevention and relief in addition to statutory homelessness? Will he commit to include in any future change in data people who are in work but sleeping rough or in temporary accommodation—as astonishing as those the figures are, as shown on Channel 4 last night?
My Lords, I very much regret that I did not have the privilege of seeing that programme last night but I will try to catch up on it. It is a complex issue, as the noble Baroness rightly says. It is not just about looking at the statistics, as she will know, but at what is happening in communities up and down the country. Last Friday, I was in Chesterfield seeing what is happening there, a town that is not a metropolitan area, and finding that agencies are engaged in tackling it, as is the faith community. Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will be pleased to know that the vicar of Chesterfield was formerly a Catholic and has become a Protestant. The noble Lord might like to engage with him to find out some of what he has been doing. It is important to engage all the institutions. I will certainly go back and have a look at the point that the noble Baroness made about the statistics.
My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant local government interests in the register. On entering this Palace from Westminster tube station, you will see homeless people. When walking from Victoria and Waterloo stations, you will see homeless people sitting in doorways. Every evening, opposite Charing Cross station, you will see hundreds of homeless people being fed soup and bread. Homelessness has risen by 50% in the last two years. Does the noble Lord not accept some responsibility for this tragedy which is occurring in one of the richest countries in the world? It rests with this Government and the policies they have pursued.
My Lords, first, the noble Lord is absolutely right: this has been a problem in the centre of the capital for some time, as he will appreciate. I am not minimising that but it is not new; what is new is the spread of this problem throughout the country, as I have indicated. It now affects many rural communities and smaller towns up and down the country. I certainly acknowledge that this problem needs to be tackled, as I have indicated. It needs to be tackled at local authority and governmental level and demands all of our attention, including the noble Lord’s. Certainly I take my share of the blame but I think this is something to which we can all contribute. Faith communities and the voluntary sector are helping, the Government have a role, and so do local authorities. It is something with which we all need to engage rather than finger-point.
Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision creating a new offence of shining or directing a laser beam towards a vehicle.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Sugg, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision about the granting of old style secure tenancies in cases of domestic abuse.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, before we resume our debate, I thank all noble Lords who spoke before lunch for showing how well self-regulation works. If, from now on, we show similar restraint in sticking to the advisory time of five minutes, we will finish today’s business by 10 o’clock. I remind noble Lords that when the indicator shows five—it is not showing anything at the moment—their time is up.
House of Lords: Lord Speaker’s Committee Report
Motion to Take Note (Continued)
My Lords, it was a great privilege and pleasure to serve on the Burns committee. Like others, I pay tribute not just to my fellow committee members but particularly to our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who must take a lot of credit for the report before your Lordships today.
I was asked to comment on our report in Red Benches, but my comments suffered a little from editorial adjustment so I take this opportunity to say what I actually wrote. I think that would be the honest thing to do. Obviously, reducing the size of the House was never going to be easy, and was always going to be contingent on a formula to maintain the numbers rather than a quick fix. That formula, to which many speakers have paid tribute during the course of today’s debate, must fall to the noble Lord, Lord Burns. Not only did he put in the time and expertise to make sure that even in the annexes people could understand exactly what the committee’s intentions were on a very complex issue, taking into account such issues as the size of the House, the refreshment of the House and the way in which the individual parties and the Prime Minister would play a role, but it was very clear that he seemed to enjoy this exercise. We sat in admiration of the work that he did; it was a very important part of the committee’s report.
I said in Red Benches:
“As a self-regulating House”—
that has been mentioned many times today—“it seems right” and proper,
“that the House should take this initiative”.
This is where the editing came in because I said, “rather than be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune whenever a Government chooses to turn its attention to the Upper House”. However, the words, “the slings and arrows of outrageous” were taken out. I am not quite sure why. However, I think many noble Lords will understand as so often one hears, “The Government are too busy with Brexit or something else; nobody’s going to get round to doing it. They talk about it so often but nobody does anything”. Actually, I do not agree with that. There are times when quite a momentum for change in the upper House builds up at the other end of this building. Who are we to try to second-guess what the motivation of that momentum—I do not mean anything at all by that word, or perhaps I do—is? Who can second-guess when that would happen? Almost certainly, the general public have a perception— rightly or wrongly—not just about the numbers, but about the work that we do. That work is undervalued, not just by the public but often by the other end of this building. It was this House, of course, that got off the starting block very quickly on Brexit, with some very sensible and well-researched studies and papers, so we have a big contribution to make, not just in this Chamber.
I want to pick up on something mentioned by my noble friend Lady Stowell in her contribution this morning. That is, what are we actually about in this House? What are we here for? We all know why we are here, but there needs to be some consolidation if we are to reduce the numbers to 600. What exactly will the work be? This is not a paid job. It does not carry a pension or any of the usual restraints of paid employment. It is public service. While there are some concerns about the age of people coming in—whether they are younger or older— people understand that, in accepting appointment to this House, they are not being offered a paid job in the normal sense of the word. They are being offered a privilege and an opportunity to carry out public service. Therefore, the decision of individuals as to whether the 15-year period recommended in the report is not long enough for them will be considered in the same way as any other option that one takes in life. One looks at one’s own circumstances and decides whether one has the time or ability to give that amount of time and dedication to public service. If this House is about anything, it is about public service.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly support the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and commend both the committee and those who have campaigned for a more effective second Chamber for many years. The irony of some of us who have been in this House for only a relatively short time—I am thinking this morning of my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, as well as myself—advocating that the House should be reduced now that we are in here will not have passed notice. My defence is that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is making a positive contribution to what is, after all, built into the DNA of this House: gradualism. Even the most tentative step forward in the right direction has to be applauded.
My other defence is that, back in 2014 in the other place, I was the only Labour Back-Bencher who bothered to turn up on a Friday morning for the Bill that achieved what has been paraded this morning as 78 fewer Members: those who have taken the dignified route—not the Dignitas route—of standing down from this House. Those who pressed that case and did the work on it did everyone great credit, because we would be debating this in a much less favourable atmosphere if we had not had that facility available.
I want to pick up two or three points from this morning’s debate. My noble and learned friend Lord Morris seemed to be advocating a kind of Lloyd George view of the world: that incoming Prime Ministers will want to cram this House and we should not get in the way. David Cameron had a go at that, and look where it got him: nowhere at all. Cramming this House, by any Prime Minister, will not work and we all know it.
I ought to be gentle about the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, because I have been in the position where I had to try and carry through Parliament something that I was only just persuaded of. As Leader of this House, he had the daunting task of trying to carry the Clegg proposals through, which included a 15-year time-bound period for a senator, non-renewable and non-accountable. It is just worth reflecting that, if that is the main argument—15 years is too short because there would be some excellent people who would have to leave before they had fulfilled their full potential—then we have to apply it to those who want an elected second Chamber. I do not; I would like it to be reformed still further and to be less London-centric. However, if you are faced with the tortoise and the hare and you know that someone in the undergrowth is going to shoot the hare, you are best off backing the tortoise. In any case, tortoises have a shell, which we all build up over many years in politics. This time, we might just achieve that modest change.
I hope that this prolonged debate—I am finishing now because other noble Lords have already been patient today—is a chance, to demonstrate not to ourselves or even to our colleagues down the Corridor, but to demonstrate to the public that we mean business, we understand how people see politics and politicians, and we will do something about it.
My Lords, it is an enormous pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and to agree with absolutely everything he said.
The British constitution has a genius for taking things in bite-sized chunks and making them come together to an extraordinary extent to change things over a period of time. When I was a schoolgirl taking my 11-plus in Wolverhampton, there was not a single female Member of your Lordships’ House. Over time, what was seen as a small reform—the Life Peerages Act—has absolutely transformed this House. With each small measure we can make progress.
I will not use my time today to echo what so many others have said about the ingenuity and the elegance of the solution that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has found. We all owe him and his fellow committee members a debt of gratitude. Now the responsibility lies with us in not trying to gild the lily or to change any detail of what has been said but to put our wholehearted support behind those proposals. I was encouraged by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and I hope that the other party leaders will do exactly the same.
There is an extraordinarily heavy burden on the shoulders of the Leader of the House in this respect, because, as we all know, the Prime Minister needs to be persuaded and needs to take action. I, like others, believe that that is possible and that we could create a convention that was powerful in this respect and which achieved what we wanted to achieve. However, it will be difficult; it will need us to back her and her to speak on our behalf. I hope that she will take note of paragraph 25 of the report, which deals with the issue of creating a non-parliamentary peerage. Again, this is an elegant solution to some of the patronage issues that a Prime Minister is faced with.
I will not go on talking about things with which I agree but will try to deal with one or two of the criticisms we have heard this morning. Some of them were marginally unfair in that they criticised the committee for not finding solutions to a question that was not posed to it—that is, what should be the long-term and radical change to the form and purpose of this House. However, it is a great shame that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is not in his place at the moment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, I was expecting a reprise of that speech we all loved so much, which argued passionately for an elected House, regardless of the stony faces on the Benches behind him, during all those hours of debate on the coalition Government’s proposals in the Clegg Bill for an elected House. Sadly, however, he was not able to give us that performance again today.
What the noble Lord did do was give a skilful elision on the issue of the size of the House to the fact that it was only that everyone was complaining about overcrowding, which was not an issue. In fact, I could not find any mention of overcrowding in the report—nor have I heard it mentioned by those who advocate reducing the size of the House. Overcrowding is not the issue—although I would not advocate a public body supporting and paying for more personnel than are necessary for carrying out the tasks with which it is charged.
Putting that to one side, the issue of size is one of reputation. For five years, I had the responsibility and honour of acting as an advocate and ambassador for this House. Through speaking in many public fora during those five years, I became absolutely convinced that there was a barrier to explaining and advocating the virtues and quality of the work done in this House because of the criticism that rightly came over its ever-expanding size.
We live in very difficult parliamentary times. Representative democracy is challenged in a way that it has not been before by our foray into plebiscitary democracy. Parliament’s reputation is important and there will be difficult times ahead. We need to do something to improve our trustworthiness with the public—and this is one of the things we can do.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the former Lord Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, whose contributions to our debates always command attention. It is also a pleasure to congratulate the present Lord Speaker on initiating the inquiry into the size of our House. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee also deserve great praise for bringing forward such a carefully considered and well-thought-through report.
It is surely right to consider our numbers in isolation, because the solution can be achieved without legislation and because it does not compromise any wider reform proposals that may one day emerge.
I will address, first, the question of numbers. This is a problem created by successive Governments—or Prime Ministers—for which we in this House receive the blame. We have a right to expect their co-operation now as it is in their interests, as well as ours, that it should be solved. I believe that a reduction to 600 is sensible and realistic. It should meet the criticism we have received while, at the same time, still enabling us to fulfil all our varied obligations as the second pillar of our parliamentary democracy, continuing to complement and assist the work of the other place.
A cap of fewer than 600—at any rate initially—might reduce our capacity to fulfil all our responsibilities. We should also bear in mind that the fewer the Members of this House, the greater, proportionately, would become the government payroll. I feel sure that the House would not wish to see our capacity to hold the Government to account undermined.
I particularly welcome the evolutionary process and its sustainability, embraced by the committee, to carry us from our ever-expanding present state to one of gradual reduction while avoiding the painful issues of specific terms or age limits for present Members of the House. Getting the reduction pattern right is as much an art as a science. Just as 600 Members seems right as a target cap—at any rate at this stage—so too does the two-out, one-in formula have a rigorous fairness about it, spreading the pain, if such it be, across each of the major groupings.
A 15-year implementation cycle is probably the maximum time that the urgency of this matter would allow. It could also be the minimum length of time needed to achieve the gradualism that constitutional change should always seek and to sustain an important sense of continuity. Similarly, the 15-year term proposed for new Peers, referred to by my noble friend Lady Browning and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, feels right. It affords fairness and balance both to the operation of the business of the House and to the new Peers. As my noble friend said, it offers career fulfilment in public service to them and the benefits of a regular injection of new talent to the House.
Since the last reduction in our numbers 20 years ago, the average daily attendance rate of Members has risen by 50%, and it is possible that a further rise could result in due course from the changes now proposed. If so, the cap of 600 Peers might eventually be further reduced.
One matter that concerned me before I had had a chance to read the report was the mention in early media coverage that the changes proposed would reflect the post-election political balance in the other place. However, having now read the way in which this would happen, and to what extent, I am reassured—indeed, supportive. The strength of this House lies in its differences from the other place. We should never be an echo Chamber. Clearly, from what is proposed, that will not happen. From a starting-point of the political diversity of the present House, the averaging effect of the 15-year term on the five-year electoral cycle should keep any threat of dominance under manageable control, and the important principle of no party having an overall majority will be preserved.
This report seems to avoid the pitfalls that have beset other proposals in recent times for the reform of your Lordships’ House. It seems to me to provide a long-term, sustainable way forward, while protecting our continuing ability to fulfil all our duties and functions and play a full role within our parliamentary democracy. I hope that it will be widely welcomed by all who have a part to play and that it will be implemented rapidly, while it can still be done.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Luce wanted to speak in this debate but has been prevented from doing so by a family commitment. However, he asked me to associate him with my remarks, so your Lordships are getting two expressions of support for the Burns proposals for the price of one.
In her speech in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a year ago, the Leader of the House reminded us of the Government’s position that, while comprehensive reform is not a priority for this Parliament—it was the last Parliament then—the size of the House is an issue to be addressed. Indeed, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2017 election repeated that position. It said:
“We … will continue to ensure the … House of Lords remains relevant and effective by addressing issues such as its size”.
Despite the notorious ambiguity of election manifestos, I do not think that the Government intended to increase the effectiveness of the House by increasing its size.
The committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Burns, containing very senior members of the main parties in this House, has agreed on a way of addressing the size of the House. Indeed, if legislation is not available—today the Leader confirmed that that is the case for the duration of this Parliament—it is, in my view, the only practicable way forward, and it is now for the Government to fulfil the words in their policy and manifesto.
As has been pointed out, that requires restraint on the part of the Prime Minister in making appointments. It is blindingly obvious that, in the absence of legislation to reduce large swathes of the present House, restraint in appointments is necessary if the size of the House is not to grow inexorably.
We are told that a further list of appointments is about to be published but I do not share the apocalyptic view expressed earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I believe that this can be regarded as a legacy issue arising from the May general election that does not inhibit the adoption of the approach in the Burns report.
In the debate a year ago, the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition agreed that, for any proposals for reform to have a chance of success, they will have to command a broad consensus around the House. I believe that, had there been a vote today, there would have been overwhelming support for the Burns proposals.
It is the Government’s policy to address the size of the House, and the Burns report gives them a practical means of doing so with the ardent support of a majority of this House. As the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, very fairly said, the Prime Minister has shown restraint in exercising patronage since she took up office. So there are grounds for optimism. Let us hope that we are pushing at an open door. It would be a relief if the Government were to say so.
My Lords, following the most informative, positive and engaging course of the debate so far, I start with two simple questions. First, is there a problem? Secondly, if there is, does the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee provide a solution to that problem? My answer to both is yes.
There is clearly a problem with the size of the House. The number of Members is such that it creates a problem of resources, both in terms of space and cost. We have problems fitting everybody in, not just physically in the Chamber but it is also difficult when there are too many who wish to speak. It is difficult to have a debate if speakers are confined to two or three minutes each. There is no real engagement between those taking part and no opportunity to develop a sustained line of argument.
Today’s special debate has been a joy to follow and I thank the Lord Speaker for making all this possible. However, there is an ever-bigger problem: public perception. Those who argue that there is not a problem ignore the fact that size is not an abstract concern but something that will be used by critics whenever they take issue with what we have done. We will always be open to attack by those who wish to get rid of the existing House, but also when we take controversial decisions. It will not just be a case of saying, “The Lords got it wrong on the merits”, but rather, “Look at that bloated House—a drain on public resources”. If we are to be criticised, let us at least be criticised for what we do rather than for matters unrelated to the quality of debate and decisions. As long as there is a perception that we are too big, and as long as it appears that we are unalert to the issue and not doing something about it, we will be criticised by the media and others.
It is true that the size of the House is not something that keeps most citizens awake at night—we should remember that—but to say that is to miss the point about our vulnerability to media criticism. We remain vulnerable so long as we are so big and, equally important, as long as we are seen not to be tackling the issue. We have to address it. Tackling size is necessary, but it is not sufficient to address how we are seen. We need to do other things, not least on standards. However, doing something about size is a good and necessary start.
Does the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee provide a solution? Yes. It may not be the ideal, but I doubt if we will achieve that. As has been said already, it is important that the best is not the enemy of the good. The report before us provides a sensible and ingenious way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues are to be truly congratulated on devising a scheme that is within our gift. It is not dependent on legislation and therefore not dependent on Government support and time, or indeed the support of the other place. We can make progress; we should make progress; and it is important that we are seen to make progress.
I appreciate that it will take time to reach the goal set in the report, but it is important to begin the steps necessary to get there. If we say no, there is nothing realistic to be achieved. In this Parliament, it is this report or it is nothing. I remind your Lordships that in the Parliament of 2010-15, the Government came up with a major scheme of reform. It never made it out of the other place. More incremental reform was pushed by Members of this House, especially the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber—I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Cormack and, in his absence, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. This was achieved in the form of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015. We cannot expect to get legislation during this Parliament to tackle the size of the House, but we can again achieve incremental reform, this time by our own efforts. We should grasp the opportunity; we must grasp the opportunity. We cannot wait for another Parliament or the one after that.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on producing an excellent report which I welcome with great enthusiasm. When I was a teenager, a long time ago, I used to think that all the problems of the world could be dealt with at one fell swoop—the big bang theory, let us just get on with it. I have learned wisdom since then and I much prefer a piecemeal approach. This report is a good reflection of what I think is a piecemeal approach. Many of us, in the fullness of time, would like reforms to go further, but for the moment it is as good as we can get: for heaven’s sake, let us get on with it. If I give voice to one or two reservations, it is only to say that I have those reservations but I am prepared to drop them in the interests of getting this report accepted. For example, we might, one day, think that 600 is too large and 450 might be a more effective number, but getting there would be too difficult and I think the committee was right to say 600.
I appreciate that an elected Chamber, which is what I believe in although I think I am in a minority, was not in the committee’s terms of reference. I simply mention it in passing so that those outside groups that are lobbying hard will not think I have sold the pass, except for many years. There are, of course, other ways of getting the numbers down which have not, perhaps, been fully mentioned. I was not here for all of the debate this morning but when we eventually get on with making the decision of what to do about this building and we move out, maybe that will be a good excuse, or pretext; a lot of people, I believe, will want to retire then. In a way, some of the work of this committee will be done for it if we can only get on and make a decision about the future of this building. I have talked to lots of colleagues from all parties and they all say, “Yes, when our day comes we will probably want to retire from the House”. It will happen that way.
In 1999, when we reduced the number of hereditaries, I was in Northern Ireland for much of that time so I did not follow it all, but I think the decision was for the hereditaries in each party group to vote for the retention of some of their members. That is how we got it done and I suppose one way of naming that would be “a circular firing squad”, which has its merits—it is rather quick, but it can also be rather painful, so I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, did not suggest that.
I think my noble friend Lord Foulkes said this morning that there was a confusion between the titles we get as working Peers and the titles that are given as honours. The report actually takes note of that and suggests a way forward. I have found it very difficult, over the years I have been here, to explain to people that I did not get an honour to be here, I am simply a Labour Party hack who became a working Peer. People say, “Oh, it must be an honour”. I say, “No, it is not”. It is a silly argument to have but it is a confusion we ought to get rid of and I think we can do it without detracting from support. At one point I made a suggestion that colleagues thought was a joke, but I made it quite seriously. At that time, in one of the many debates we had on the subject, I suggested that if people wished to retain their title they should leave the House, and if they wanted to stay in the House they should drop their titles. I think it would work. I am not suggesting we weaken the report by going down that path; I just threw it in because we want a debate about all these issues.
I have just one or two quick comments. I notice that the report, very sensibly, says that Cross-Benchers will retain a certain, fixed percentage of the total membership of what will then be a smaller House. I was told this morning by the right reverend Prelate that the Bishops are here under obligation because of statute. I wonder, however, whether they would not be able to voluntarily reduce their numbers in the same way that the Cross-Benchers do. I seek in support of that Appendix 5, which talks about “Unusual circumstances”:
“Second, parties may for whatever reason refuse to take up their allocation of appointments”.
I am not saying the Bishops’ Bench is a party, but maybe it could do it voluntarily to keep in line with what is happening.
Finally, as regards the remaining hereditaries, we have a wonderful Bill put forward by my noble friend Lord Grocott. We should accept that Bill—it would not detract from this report. There are lots of things that we can do ever so quickly—please let us get on with it.
My Lords, I will not rise to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on the hereditary Peers, but like so many others here this afternoon, I would like to welcome this debate on the report that the excellent committee of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has produced. I congratulate it on finding a way around many of the apparent problems.
In our debate just over a year ago, there was much agreement that the size of the House should be reduced. This was accompanied by many suggestions, some good and some less helpful, as to the means. Anyway, now the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has told us how. One of the main clever aspects of his work is that no primary legislation is needed to effect meaningful change. No one here today will lose the rights to attend, participate or vote.
The other great beauty, as I see it, is that under these proposals the reduction in numbers will be kept at a target of, say, 600 Members and not allowed to regrow. Other speakers have and will, I am sure, go into the details of the report’s proposals and comment on some aspects. I do not wish to dwell on these today. Surely our main aim now is to show our agreement to the thrust of the plan and to welcome it.
We who work here know what our role is and we know what this Chamber does. So it is important that this is kept firmly in mind as any changes evolve as a result of this report. Equally to my mind, the general public must appreciate and acknowledge, through media commentators and observation, the work that we do—the scrutinising, the revising and the reports that we make to government. To achieve this positive shift in attitude, we must demonstrate our willingness to change, even if change brings small, less welcome individual disbenefits. That we are willing to suggest positive change of our own volition surely demonstrates this ethos: an outlook of spirit which we can be proud to broadcast outside this Palace.
I expect some may criticise the timeframe envisaged—some have already—but to achieve a lasting result, this is surely of little importance, even in the fast-moving world we live in. The demonstrable resulting size will be a practical solution to our current embarrassment.
Many speakers have gone out of their way to recognise the supremacy of the other place. It is vital to state this, and not to challenge that by having an elected second Chamber which is bound to flex its democratic muscles. So, along with others, I do hope the Government’s willingness to enter into the spirit of this report will not be tested by any short-term difficulties that may arise with imminent controversial Bills, nor indeed that the Prime Minister will be tempted to pre-empt the position by a new list of Peers. Indeed, I look forward to further exploration of a Prime Minister’s power to appoint non-working Peers to lifetime titles that do not involve a seat in this Chamber. This was a point that was touched on only briefly in the report.
In my short time here I have often noticed the splendid co-operation between the usual channels, the parties, and the groups. It is this spirit that will be needed to drive this on, together with government thinking in the long term, not just party advantage.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who remarked that there is no Minister to wind up. I am uncertain as to how the Government’s opinion will be demonstrated. But I hope that we will learn this quickly to enable a swift adoption of these proposals. This is an unusual chance to make important and worthwhile changes to an ancient system, and I hope the Government and the House will grasp the opportunity.
My Lords, it was very tempting, as one of the newest Members of your Lordships’ House, to let those more experienced in the ways of this place get on with it. However, the pace of change suggested in the report is so seductively slow that there will not be many of us left to bear witness to the effect of those changes.
Many believe both that the House has become too large and that it does not reflect the voting preferences of the electorate over the past decade or two. In the debate last December, the overwhelming majority of your Lordships agreed that something needed to be done—but what? I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that ditching the title and the building would reduce the numbers substantially and quickly. However, I acknowledge the hard work and the depth of thought that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee have given to the production of the report, and I pay tribute to the Lord Speaker for initiating their work.
I admit I find it hard to accept the suggestion of a 15-year tenure as appropriate, when in that time many of us will not have reached even the average age of the committee. I observe that with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and one MEP, all the members of the committee have come here from the other place and may therefore be looking at this issue from a particular perspective. The average age of our Lords Ministers is now 58; five are under 50. Some may go on to commercial life and then return, bringing back valuable expertise—as, indeed, may others. We should not be prepared to cast aside the knowledge acquired from whatever field—public service, academia, commerce or defence—so lightly.
I agree that we need to achieve a steady state, reducing the rise in numbers while allowing the membership to be refreshed, but why not introduce a notional upper age limit of, say, 80, beyond which you could be voted back on to your relevant party’s Bench in five-year terms, should you and your Bench wish to retain your contribution? Can we also not agree to adjust the proportional representation of each party in line with, say, the averages of the last four general elections, again keeping the Cross-Benchers and Bishops but simultaneously reducing the numbers on the other Benches within a much shorter timeframe? Your Lordships found a modus operandi that worked, although not without considerable pain, in 1999. Can we not employ a similar method now? Unless we do something soon, the reputation of the House as one of the finest second Chambers in the world in terms of its membership, output, committees and ability to persuade Governments to think again will be overshadowed by the truly false impression of a bloated and self-interested inflexibility.
My Lords, I start with a confession: I was not altogether enthusiastic about coming to this House. I had much enjoyed my time in the House of Commons and I thought the Lords might be a bit of a comedown. I know that is a terrible thing to say to a number of Peers here but that was what I thought. My wife, like many spouses of Members of Parliament, had borne much of the strain of her husband’s career and thought that enough was really enough. It was only the persuasive powers of the then Prime Minister, who said that there ought to be more pro-Europeans in the upper House, which convinced me that I ought to accept a peerage.
However, 16 years in this House have made me understand the importance of the House of Lords in the parliamentary system—above all, its role as a revising Chamber. There are often extremely good debates in this House. Of course, we are having one today. The Select Committees, as I know from experience, do excellent work. But it is the contribution that the Lords makes to the legislative process which is of most value to our parliamentary democracy. All too often Bills come to the Lords in a very rough and ready state and our efforts ensure that they go back to the Commons usually much improved.
As the elected Chamber, the Commons has the last word—I agree with the previous speaker—but it always needs the revising eye of the Lords, and long may that exist. However, going from that to arguing that for the Lords to carry out its job it also needs nearly 800 Members is clearly absurd. As noble Lords have pointed out, it exposes us to constant ridicule, so much so that when people talk about the House of Lords they immediately show a picture of a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, and I think I have had enough of that.
The question, which I think we have answered today, is about how we reduce the Lords to a more sensible size. I share the view of most noble Lords who have spoken that the Burns committee—I congratulate the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee—has come up with an ingenious and elegant set of interlocking proposals which give us a real chance of effective reform. Of course, there are formidable hurdles in the way and we should not underestimate them. They include the prime ministerial power of patronage, and Prime Ministers do not like giving up that sort of thing, the temptation to pursue party advantage when speaking as a member of a party, and I know that that will continue to exist, and the self-interest of individual Peers. All these are factors that will come into play. However, I agree with the conclusion of the report. The Burns proposals have the great merit of reducing the size of the Lords while maintaining a cap of 600 Members in future and providing a sufficient turnover of Members to refresh the House and rebalance it in line with general elections. They will also guarantee a fixed proportion of independent Cross-Bench Peers. These proposals should have our support. They will certainly make the Lords more effective and considerably enhance our reputation. The House should now unite behind the principles contained in the Burns report.
My Lords, in the absence of a vote on a Motion, speaking in a debate is the only way we can express a view, even though it makes for a degree of repetition. Nevertheless, I register my strong support for all three main propositions in this report: a reduction in the size of House to around 600 Members by two out, one in; once that is reached, terms limited to 15 years; and allocation of places to fill vacancies to reflect the general election results.
The beauty of this approach is that it is consistent with a House that complements the Commons rather than duplicates it and scrutinises legislation while accepting the primacy of the Commons. For this role, I believe an appointed House is more appropriate than an elected one, better still if, as this scheme proposes, a mechanism is built in to incorporate over time the changing balance of power at the ballot box. However, for those who still hanker after an elected House, no options are closed off, so that argument for delay fails.
There are several loose ends, particularly around those groups whose numbers are set by legislation. First there are the Lords Spiritual. In the new arrangement, they would become even more overrepresented, but they bring one vital element: they have the best geographical coverage, in England at least—a domain in which this House is weak. Eventually, as they recognise, a permanent solution is needed which reduces the number of Bishops while providing for other faiths. In the meantime a solution which retains their ability to speak for their region and to operate their duty rota would be an understanding that they would exercise restraint in voting in their full numbers.
Next, there is the position of the hereditary Peers, which will become even more anomalous. Some may argue that we should not do anything until we can legislate for this. I take the opposite view. We should make progress where we can. In the meantime the position of the hereditaries will become so indefensible that the wise among them—and there are many—will come to accept legislation to end by-elections. Some may argue that this would violate the 1999 agreement, but that agreement was recognised as an interim agreement pending major reform. This is major reform and 20 years is a decent time for an interim solution to run.
Next, there is a loophole. Someone who has been urged to retire by their party group should not be allowed to dodge the bullet by becoming non-affiliated or, worse, eating into the Cross-Bench quota.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I believe we also need to make a much clearer distinction between the honours system, which recognises people’s past service, and membership of the Lords, which should be a commitment to future service. Former Ministers and MPs bring vital experience to this House, but long-serving MPs should not be rewarded with an honour unless they commit to serving in this House in the same way as other people. In my view, the suggestion of honorary peerages perpetuates the confusion. What is the logic, in the 21st century, of giving someone a life title in return for a fixed-term appointment? I personally look forward to a world in which honours and offices are recognised only by letters after one’s name rather than by name changes
Finally, we need to recognise that just as we would be acting voluntarily, so too would the Prime Minister. Some may advise her not to surrender any degree of patronage, on the grounds that she might need it if the Government were having difficulties securing their business. However, although swamping the House is never going to solve that problem, it would do damage to the reputation of the House. There will be a great deal of detail to sort out, but I believe this debate has demonstrated a clear message to the Government and a clear mandate to take things forward.
My Lords, I am delighted to join many noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on their report. It is very difficult to disagree with any of the facts in the noble Lord’s report, and the conclusions would appear to anybody to be both reasonable and balanced—which is an unusual thing in a modern parliamentary report. It is in fact an extremely clever answer to the question posed by the Lord Speaker following your Lordships’ debate last year. I take on board the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Radice, about the ridiculous comparison between your Lordships’ House and the second Chamber in China, but I remain to be convinced that the size of this House is the key question we need to be addressing.
I made my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House—entirely coincidentally, standing almost in the same spot I am standing in today—about 30 years ago on the Second Reading of the poll tax Bill. As your Lordships can imagine, the House was quite full on that day. In fact, looking around it this evening—it was probably about the same time of day—I think that the House on that occasion was rather fuller. The speakers list, however, was not quite so long. The issue was, in case your Lordships have forgotten, slightly controversial at the time—but, extraordinarily, nobody speaking in that debate or commenting afterwards mentioned anything about the House being too big. I ask myself: too big for what? Too big for its vital role as a revising Chamber, perhaps?
In the last two or three debates that your Lordships have had on reform, which your Lordships enjoy debating from time to time, I have not heard one speaker say anything except what a good job this House does in revising. My noble friend Lady O’Cathain referred only a few moments ago to the high quality of the debates. So if the debates are good, we revise very well and our Select Committees are so respected, presumably we are not too big for the job we are doing. Or is it perhaps that we are too big for the convenience of Members?
My noble friend Lord Forsyth said that perception is important—and he is right, it is important. So maybe it is the perception rather than the reality. The perception undoubtedly is that from time to time we are too full. Occasionally when you come into your Lordships’ House at Question Time, it does seem to resemble rather more closely a bar-room brawl than a serious debating Chamber. That, I suspect, has less to do with the quantity of Members and more to do with the quality of conduct. This problem could easily be solved if new Members coming down the Corridor did not bring the more excitable excesses of that House with them—amusing though they may be—but rather chose to leave them behind. That is, after all, what most people dislike most about politics and what causes the reputation of the other place to fall—which, therefore, obviously affects the reputation of this House.
To my way of thinking—your Lordships will correct me if I am wrong—in the frequent debates that we have on Lords reform there is only one area of consensus: only one thing on which everyone agrees. It is that is that it would be ridiculous to have a second Chamber that emulated the first. It would be absurd to repeat in one Chamber the others. However, that is not my primary concern. My primary concern is that, over time, with 15-year terms, this House would slowly turn into a House that crept closer in its manner and its composition to the other place—which, I believe, and I think the House will agree, would be pointless and universally opposed.
I share the view of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde that a 15-year term would be extremely unattractive to those who are early or in the middle of successful and varied careers. Rather, it would be attractive to those in the autumn of their careers looking for something to do in the last 15 years of their working life. If we were to go down that route, we would be in danger of turning into reality what this House has frequently been accused of being: a retirement home—and in this case a retirement home mainly for Members of another place.
I do not expect that everybody will agree with my views. In fact, I have no doubt that most people will disagree with them, and that they are out of step with the views of many in this House. However, it is my understanding that my role in this House is not to say what is easy or comfortable, and that this House’s role is not to be easy and comfortable with itself. What we are here to do is to face the difficult choice of saying the things that we believe ought to be said, even if we believe them to be unpopular.
My Lords, as other noble Lords have rightly done, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the members of his committee on the imaginative and thoughtful way in which they undertook their sensitive task. Their report proposes an evolutionary development of your Lordships’ House that addresses some key concerns, and in my view it does so in a way that strikes a good balance between a number of conflicting tensions. It will not satisfy everyone, but no proposal ever could. It clearly leaves some people feeling dissatisfied on certain points, but that is the nature of a successful compromise—and I suspect that a compromise is what most people seek.
However, we should start by reminding ourselves that we are addressing changes to an institution that by and large has worked very well over the past few years. The most important measure of success in an organisation is to be found not in its internal structure and processes but in its output, and the output of your Lordships’ House—most obviously its scrutiny of draft legislation and the detailed investigations of its committees—has been workmanlike and valuable. Some would argue for a second Chamber with other tasks and wider powers, some for a more biddable House, but these are deeper constitutional issues than we are meant to consider today. Within its present remit, your Lordships’ House has, I believe, performed its tasks well. Some might ask why, if it works so well, we should seek to change things. The question, and it is a very important question, is whether the House could continue to be successful under arrangements that were more efficient and more acceptable to the citizens whom it serves and who, rightly, sit in judgment on it.
When one examines any successful constitutional arrangement, one can never be quite sure why it works. It is an accumulation of intellectual theory, historical accident, social development and, above all, a nation’s sense of itself—of its internal mythology, if you will. That is why experiments that have sought to transplant the precise constitutional system of one nation to another have so seldom been successful. Uprooted from the soil in which it has grown, any given system seldom flourishes elsewhere. We should therefore be cautious in changing our own arrangements, odd though they might seem to an outsider. Our constitutional system has grown and evolved in our national soil, and evolution is not about what is best but about what works.
However, evolution, while gradual, is also a continual process. Just as with organisms, organisations that do not adapt and evolve usually die out. I believe that what is proposed in the report before us today is a sensible evolutionary step. In my view, the key problem that it addresses is not the present size of the House as such. Under the committee’s proposals, the numbers active in this place at any one time may even become greater than they are now. The problem is, rather, the potential of an unbounded system eventually to reach proportions that are deemed absurd by anybody’s measure. The report therefore introduces boundaries, and sets out ways in which these could be achieved and maintained.
In doing so, the report draws a number of lines—for example, the idea of a 15-year term. Whenever lines are drawn, one can always find unfortunate cases that fall just the wrong side of the line. Moving the line does not alter this; it simply changes the identity of the unfortunate cases. If we are to move to a bounded system—and I believe that we should—we will introduce some consequences that are unwelcome. This is inevitable.
I believe that the report before us strikes a sensible balance in this regard. Of course one could argue with the quanta that it sets—but similar arguments would be made even if a different set of numbers were chosen. It is not comprehensive, and it leaves unanswered several difficult questions, many of which have been touched on today. We shall need to return to these in time. But as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, learned at an early age, if we seek to solve all problems at once, we end by solving none. We should remember that evolution is a continuing process, not an end state in itself. The proposals in the report represent in their own right a significant step forward, and I support them.
My Lords, I recognise the pressure, passion and intent of the report, but I am afraid that I must start from a different premise from most. I do not agree that there is much logic—I emphasise that word—in seeking to reduce the size of your Lordships’ House. I would rather have seen time and effort spent explaining, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has said she does, to the public and the relatively small number of people interested in this issue, that there are huge distinctions between this House and the House of Commons—and, indeed, every other legislative chamber around the world.
Members of the House of Commons are paid to represent their constituents, some to undertake ministerial business, but all to focus their efforts on their primary role in life, which is in their respective Chamber. Unlike what happens anywhere else in the world, your Lordships’ Chamber comprises individuals many, if not most, of whom are active in other areas of life. They bring to this House extraordinary levels of expertise and knowledge, which can only be current if the custom is maintained whereby they are not expected to be full-time here but are allowed to fulfil their other responsibilities.
According to a recent YouGov poll, people are “overwhelmingly against” MPs having second jobs. Only 26% suggested that they should have second jobs, and in February Labour tabled a motion banning second jobs in the Commons, but not in your Lordships’ House—with good reason. I for one would not like to see an upper House full of professional parliamentarians, and to achieve that objective we need a large pool of talent, from which we can draw, of people with current awareness of many issues. Our attendance rates will therefore always be lower than the Commons, as we carry out our other roles, so we should be much more positive and persuasive about why there is every logical justification for having a sufficient number. I do not know whether that would be 650. I would be interested to know what would happen if, as I suspect will happen, the Commons vote for their numbers to stay at 650.
I am also uncomfortable with the slightly “I’m all right, Jack” approach of this report for incumbents, and I believe it is up to us to create a system whereby those in your Lordships’ House who do not attend sufficiently, do not participate sufficiently in this Chamber, or abuse their position in any way, are no longer offered this privilege of public service. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, hinted, HOLAC might be expanded, or a new commission created, to review this much more carefully. It has to be clear to the public that this is not a sinecure for those who have left active work or service. For those who say that a larger House is too expensive, the answer is not difficult. We have an arbitrary fixed sum of £300 per day, plus out-of-town expenses. Let us consider reviewing this, possibly imaginatively, for those beyond working age.
Finally the report does not address the mix in this House, other than the political mix.
I stand corrected, if that is the case.
It would be good if an analysis of this House’s composition—ex-MPs, ex-civil servants, lawyers, academics and, in particular, business and union executives—were used for the selection of future Peers to gauge its real representative make-up, so that we can do our main work of improving legislation, holding government to account and debating important issues.
My Lords, I am proud to be a Member of the House of Lords, but we needed this important debate about the House and the UK system of government, following the excellent report from the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. It was interesting that the committee had outside experts, including my colleague Professor Meg Russell of University College. I hope that the debates about this report will be widely publicised and may well even affect intelligently the views of the public about the House of Lords.
The report does not include any surveys of the views of the public and outside bodies that have considered the future of the House of Lords. I am sure that other noble Lords have had critical views expressed to them, as I often have, about how Members of the Lords have been selected, and other critical remarks. Surveys in fact show that a majority of people think that the UK’s second Chamber should be elected in one way or another so as to reflect the views of the whole British electorate. But even if Members of the Chamber continue to be appointed, as in the new scheme proposed in the Burns report, there are still significant criticisms that the public want to make.
First, I do not think that the continuation of hereditary Peers has popular support; nor is there much support for how Members are selected. The report suggests, in a very reasonable way, how to reduce the numbers, but we cannot exclude the possibility that a single party might dominate the Commons and the Lords. As others have said, too many Members in this Chamber will continue to come from the south-east of the UK. Dare I say it, following the previous speaker—there may be too many financiers, especially when the Conservatives dominate? There are too few women and too few on the political Benches with important specialised knowledge and experience. The Cross Benches are full of experienced and knowledgeable people; we need more of the same on the political Benches. For example, scientists are well represented on the Cross Benches, but less than a handful of scientists and medical doctors have been appointed to the political Benches since I came here in 2000. Isaac Newton and Lord Kelvin were great scientists but they were also in Parliament and members of a political party. They showed that scientists can be all three at the same time—this is regarded generally by the public as an extraordinary idea—as is quite common among political and scientific people who are councillors in local government. The point has also been made about the shortage of appointments of engineers, industrial managers, practical entrepreneurs and others. I look forward, when I resign, to my position being taken up by a Labour scientist and engineer.
My Lords, it is my habit when looking at questions of this kind to look across what is done in other countries. I am afraid that in this particular case it was rather chastening. In Italy, for example, the second Chamber numbers 325 members, while in France it is 321 and in Germany it is 69. In Canada, the second Chamber numbers 104; in the USA it is, of course, 100—and in Australia, rather a large country, it is 76. Admittedly, some of those people are elected under their systems, but some are also appointed and have the same kind of arrangements for remuneration that we do. Even worse, we are of course larger than the primary Chamber. We are one of only three countries in the world where the second Chamber is larger than the primary Chamber, the other two being Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso—not countries that we should be comfortable to be compared with.
As the Leader of the House pointed out, the question of size does affect our reputation. It is damaging and will continue to be so. The noble Lord, Lord Radice, summed it up rather well when he said that he was fed up with the picture of the Chinese Communist Party at play—or at work—which we see every time. I am afraid that that is there and will continue while we are at our present size and nothing is done about it. That is the outstanding issue. All the other points that have been made are secondary to this major one, which we have to address.
It is important that we are seen to address it ourselves, and this is the right report to do that. As has been said, it has the magic touch of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I was beginning to think he should take charge of our European Union trade negotiations after he completed his stint on this. I am not sure he would welcome that, but his ability to get a consensus in an agreeable and skilful way is widely admired. We would certainly get a better tone than Mr Barnier has injected.
This is a serious, balanced and practical report. The Prime Minister is a serious, balanced and practical woman, and I hope she will respond positively.
My Lords, in general I lend my full support to the Burns report, having been a member of the Norton group since its inception. However, it is not going so far as some of us would like, through primary legislation. Many noble Lords signed up to the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which, in its original form, wanted to make the IAC statutory. This report is a not-too-subtle reminder of the excessive power of patronage in this House and presents a straight challenge to Downing Street not to appoint too many more Peers in the new year, just as we are contemplating genuine reform. Burns presents a firm step forward, and I am sure we can find ways of taking that step quickly.
But it is hardly a revolutionary report: we are only going back, at 600, to the number that we were at before. It is an irony that so many of us should have to attend today, when we could be discussing homelessness at Christmas, or Cyril Ramaphosa’s future, or anything else. Why can we not all sign a letter and just proceed with it? We had the debate a year ago.
My main concern about this report is that it may strengthen the case for more regular attendance. As a Cross-Bencher this worries me, because we do not want to lose able people of considerable experience simply by requiring them to attend regularly. My noble and learned friend Lord Hope made this point more fluently. The report admits it, but somewhat reluctantly. It needs to be repeated that the strength of this House, and its distinction from another place, is rooted in the expertise and special knowledge of many Members who only attend when they have to. I refer predominantly, but of course not exclusively, to non-political Members.
By the way, I warm to the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, about the regions, but I know this cannot be done except through an elected House. His point about splitting the peerage has been made before, many times, but it does not lose its validity for all that.
Beyond this, I would like to see more attention paid to the age of retirement. Here I share doubts about the 15 years: I cannot see that we should go in the opposite direction to existing legislation. I cannot see a two-tier House being acceptable or workable. I would not recommend a fixed age, but agree with the broad principle of retiring, say, after 80. I would be the last to ask any elderly, articulate Peer to step down—the magical names Avebury and Walton come to mind—but those of us now passing their mid-70s should be aware that most of us do not perform as well at 80 as at 70. Here I find myself only a little more radical than the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, but not half as revolutionary as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who calls for a clear-out at 80.
That would be a splendid result. Peers in that age group should at least be talking to someone in the House—possibly a human resource desk or, better still, someone in every group and party who will already have that expertise. The Whips will of course have ulterior motives for removing some of their more independent colleagues, so it would be better to choose someone else, respected and preferably in the same generation—with, one hopes, the support of their party leader.
As a further incentive, I should like to revive discussion of the paper written by the former Clerk of the Parliaments, which shows that the House could afford, say, an average year’s expenses to tide over Members who are genuinely in difficulty—those without pensions or other resources. This would be a net saving.
On hereditary Peers, I will say only, along with most of the Norton group, that the time may be approaching when we review by-elections, but this report is not a platform for that conversation.
Finally, I am genuinely sorry to hear that the Bishops are seriously contemplating a cut in their own numbers. They rarely appear in large numbers and, in that sense, they are well balanced by those of other faiths whom we warmly welcome. I hope that the Bishops will reconsider their position.
My Lords, this proposal is based on the assumption that the number of Peers in this House should be reduced to 600. The report comments that,
“there is widespread agreement on the urgency of addressing its size”.
If the word “widespread” refers to a narrow Westminster village, it is correct. But outside of that tiny constituency, and possibly one or two academics, there is zero interest in the country in the size of this House. People are not that interested in us. With the greatest respect, there is no general desire or need to reduce the number of Peers.
If I did not know better, I would think that the proposal was made by Peers who so rarely go into the Chamber that they have not seen that for more than 90% of the time, the Chamber is 90% empty. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, whose original suggestion it was, should certainly know that, given that there are many occasions on which he has given his views on a wide variety of subjects to the great benefit of what is so often a virtually empty House.
The report centres strongly on the number of Peers, but minimal attention is given to the work that Peers carry out, which is surely an essential ingredient when reviewing the size of the House. As the report recognises, Bills in the other place are time limited in Committee, which makes the House of Lords’ role as a revising Chamber of huge importance. That requires a decent-sized pool of Peers in order to have a sufficient number with knowledge of the subject matter of the Bill who are prepared to spend the time in Committee going through the legislation. As your Lordships know, more often than not, this requires spending six or seven hours a day for a number of days, and not always with the respite of a dinner hour.
In practice, this House already operates with 600 Peers rather than the total of 800-plus. This makes a reduction to 600 either pointless or possibly an impediment to the future working of the House. There have been, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde pointed out, only three Divisions in the history of the House in which more than 600 Members have voted. The average daily attendance last Session was 484. The average vote in Divisions is 396.
In terms of costs, 98 Peers—12% of the House—do not claim any allowance at all, and in all, 20% of your Lordships claim less than £5,000 per annum. Reducing the number of Peers is unlikely to have any impact on the cost.
Comments have been made that there is insufficient room in the House for the present number of Peers, but I would remind your Lordships that there are 650 Members of the other place, and the generally accepted maximum number of MPs who can sit in that Chamber at any one time is 427.
Your Lordships should carefully consider whether, under the proposal, there is a risk, albeit in the future, that those putting in the time and effort are the ones pushed out after 15 years, leaving only those Peers who do not frequently attend the House to carry on the valuable work. This House works well as it is and any reduction might prejudice this with no discernible benefit.
My Lords, I put down my name to speak in this debate for one reason only: to put on record my enthusiastic support for this report. It is, if I may say so, a masterpiece of skill, wisdom and tact.
The desirability of a reduction in our numbers is, I would suggest, obvious; indeed, it is more than desirable—it is imperative if this is to be a sensible institution. I hope that the response of the vast majority of those taking part in this debate will carry the weight that it deserves with the Prime Minister.
I would like to add one footnote. I believe that those who were involved in the discussions that led to the Constitutional Reform Act shared what lawyers describe as a legitimate expectation. This was that, on retirement, any member of the Supreme Court who so wished would be made a Member of this House. That legitimate expectation has not been met. It is in these circumstances that I am prepared to support, despite some reservations, the proposal made in paragraph 77 of the report, that members of the Supreme Court should receive life peerages on appointment.
My Lords, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great novel, Il Gattopardo—the leopard—was published posthumously in 1958. It became the biggest seller in the history of Italian publishing. Visconti even made a film of the novel. It is a chronicle of an aristocratic prince in Sicily at a time of civil war and revolution. There is one line in the novel which to this day captures the imagination of scholars, academics, students, writers and readers alike. They struggle with one sentence in the book, a sentence which I believe has some relevance for your Lordships’ debate today. Tancredi, a young nobleman, remarks to his uncle, the prince:
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.
This central contradiction continues to baffle the literati, but clearly they have not had the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee, who seem to me in their report to achieve a perfect resolution of the Tancredi contradiction. The Burns report recommendations undoubtedly ensure continuity for this House’s assets and values and its subservient role in our democratic governance, while introducing some practical and much needed, and much talked about, reforms.
Those gripped by the Netflix series “The Crown” can see how carefully the monarchy has adapted and changed in order to preserve its essential value to the UK. Even the BBC, for goodness’ sake, has adapted and changed without losing sight of its mission and importance. It is time that your Lordships’ House evolved. The Burns report offers the best chance for it to reform itself. We should embrace it because we may not get another chance for years to come.
I have one small criticism, of course—being from the media, I have to find some criticism. While I am in total support of the Burns recommendations, I have only one small regret. The noble Lord might have taken the opportunity to propose the introduction of Radio 4’s “Just a Minute” rules into the Chamber, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Leigh. You get gonged out for hesitation, deviation or repetition.
My Lords, that is a daunting finale to follow, but I am delighted to follow the noble Lord. This morning when I left my Select Committee meeting to come to the Chamber, the special adviser said, “Are you off, then, to save the House of Lords?”. To be honest, I had not thought about it in that way, but that might actually be where we are.
In the public’s eye, as far as the House of Lords goes, size matters. There is clear evidence both from polling and from the media that when Prime Ministers of the past—I shall not name any names—stuffed the House with Members and it grew, public confidence in the House immediately dropped markedly. Today we have a real chance to do something productive to help ensure that that vital public support for the House continues. As the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said, it might be one of our last chances. Not only do I wholly support the excellent and cunning report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns—he is, and has been for many years, very cunning—but I believe that failing to implement it would be a further nail in our reputational coffin.
I confess that I would have liked the target size of the House to be smaller: 400 seems to me to be plenty, especially if all Peers are involved, committed and here. I would like to see the end of the charade that is the hereditary Peers’ elections, so I will put forward a proposition. I know that it is enshrined in legislation, but if we are in the spirit of committing to voluntary reduction and change, why cannot the hereditary Peers—or the wider electorate, if that is the case—simply take the law into their own hands? If the electorate for the hereditary Peers’ elections simply refused to vote, we could get a system of two out before one in very rapidly in that field as well.
In common with many Members of the House, I believe that we have to get started. The Burns report is an excellent start, and we should simply get on with it. Much depends on the honour of the Prime Minister and successive Prime Ministers, which is a rather uncertain ask. We need to have some sort of orchestrated precision system, a bit like—for noble Lords who have seen it—the system for exchanging spies in the movie “Bridge of Spies”. We will march out our outgoing Peers only when we see that the Government, and other parties, are marching out theirs and that the PM is not flooding the House with new appointments. I can see Westminster Bridge as the site for re-enacting that process. Noble Lords who have not seen this movie really ought to; it is an extremely good one, almost as good as the movie of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which is one of my favourite movies of all time. Let us get on with this: there is no time to lose.
Before I finish, I will talk about age. I am really old: I am 69. A woman should never lie about her age and that is the real one. That is the average age of noble Lords. The biggest age band in this House is 71 to 80 year-olds; 108 of us are over 80 and only four are under 40. There are 39 between 41 and 50. The average age of leaving is 83. When I first came to this House, I used to think that the bishops looked a bit old—but now, with their admirable retirement age of 70, the bishops are the youngest group in this House. More than half of this House is over 70, so I am now going to fall into the trap that I fell into in the first year when I came here. My noble friend Lady Jay, were she here, would remember that at that stage she was Leader of the House. We had a small soirée in her apartments here, and I raised the question of whether we should have a retirement age of 70.
It has taken me 16 years to get over that. Again, when the hustings were afoot before we elected the last Lord Speaker, I tentatively expressed the view that it was a shame that all three candidates were over 70 and that two of them, although wise and noble, were considerably over 70. So I know that I will not win many friends by what I say, but if we are risking the reputation of the House by being “large and bloated”, we can also be represented as being “very old”.
I know about wisdom. We all hugely value—and I feel privileged to be in the presence of—the wisdom that is demonstrated by many of the older Members of our House. But wisdom and age do not universally go hand in hand. We need to be able to reflect and understand the needs of the population right across the age groups and not be out of touch—so we need more younger Members. To say that younger Members will not have the requisite experience, gravity and understanding is belied by the current Leader of the House, who was a mere babe in arms when she arrived. Indeed, she still is, but none of us would not recognise the wisdom and the contribution that she makes to the House.
So I hope that those who will finagle the retirements in this House will make sure that we start to address this issue of age, and I hope also that those who finagle the appointment of new Members to the House will bear in mind that we need younger Members.
My Lords, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are too many of us. It is good that your Lordships should be, and should be seen to be, addressing this problem for yourselves, without waiting for a Government to introduce legislation. Given the pressures on the legislative programme, that might be a very long wait.
The Lord Speaker’s committee, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Burns, has produced an admirable set of proposals for a system that will over time, and without legislation, reduce the size of the House from over 800 to a steady state of 600 Members. The proposals are skilfully designed, well balanced and well articulated. The debate today shows that they have the positive and, as nearly as possible, unanimous support of the House. My noble friend Lord Burns deserves signal recognition for his services—not punishment, such as being in charge of the EU negotiations, but some real honour, like a portrait in the dining room or perhaps the renaming of a Committee Room.
This House is rather like a water tank. If you want to control the level of water in the tank, you have to balance the inflow and the outflow. The Lord Speaker’s committee makes proposals which would enable the House to control the outflow, but the inflow is altogether outside our control. It is entirely dependent upon the exercise of the Prime Minister’s prerogative to recommend the creation of peerages. Not all Prime Ministers, especially one or two recent Prime Ministers, have had sufficient regard to the effects of their recommendations upon the size of the House. The efficacy of the committee’s recommendations will depend on the willingness of the Prime Minister and her eventual successors to comply with the committee’s suggestions for limiting the numbers of new peerages created. I dare say that in this regard the present Prime Minister will be readier to set an example to her successors than to try to create a binding precedent. But I have no doubt that her response will depend at least partly on the strength of your Lordships’ commitment, as demonstrated in this debate and in the subsequent passage of changes to standing orders and other changes which will be required to put them into effect.
In this connection, I have one small suggestion to offer. As the committee recognises, one of the purposes for which the Prime Minister may need or wish to create peerages is to ensure that the Government have representatives on the Front Bench in this House in sufficient quantity and, if I may respectfully say so, of sufficient quality to speak effectively for the Government over the whole range of government business. This is of importance and value not only to the Government but also to the proper discharge of the House’s responsibilities for the scrutiny of legislation.
It might help the Prime Minister to accept the proposed limits on the numbers of new peerages she is able to recommend if she were free to appoint new Peers outside these limits when they were needed to serve as Ministers or Front-Bench spokesmen. This would be on the understanding that, when they came to stand down as Ministers or Front-Bench spokesmen, they would be required to take voluntary retirement from membership of the House—while retaining their titles—unless the Prime Minister confirmed their continuing membership within the limits of the numbers of new peerages to be recommended.
I hope that by this debate, your Lordships are demonstrating your strong support for the Burns committee’s proposals. For my part, when the time comes, this turkey will vote for Christmas, if with a twinge of regret. None the less, it will be senza rancor—without rancour—and with gratitude for having been given the opportunity of enjoying the privileges of membership and sharing the pleasures of sodality in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, the interest in your Lordships’ House in this debate and in this subject is enormous—we have a list of 95 speakers. The interest outside is zero. When the noble Lord, Lord Burns, got up to introduce his committee’s report, there were two members of the public in the Press Gallery and none in the Public Gallery. It swelled to 13 by the time he had finished, but we are now down to three in the Public Gallery.
Size is not the only problem facing this House at the moment and, to my mind, it is by no means the most important. It has been said many times—and there are plenty of examples—that the House of Commons has no idea about, and very little interest in, how this House works. This was confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Radice, a moment or two ago. He admitted that he had had no idea how this House worked but, now that he is here, he sees the benefits of it.
The Burns report recommends a membership of 600. I am firmly in the Boothroyd camp and have been saying consistently for many years that this number is far too big. There is no justification for 600. In 2014, the Labour Peers’ Working Group produced a report recommending 450. I wonder why so many Labour Peers are now happy to increase that by 33% to 600. We need to consider what the right number should be.
The Labour Party report of 2014 based its figure of 450 on the concept of a working Peer. This is exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, does and says in his report. If we are going to base our figures on working Peers, the nature and character of this House has to change. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, said that the 600 figure would possibly increase the average attendance. I totally agree; I think it would increase. The average attendance at the moment is 484. If the Prime Minister accepts the proposal and ups her allocation to 600, this House will have an average daily attendance of well over 500. Members will be here for a 15-year term; they will be encouraged to come and there will be many more Peers in the Chamber on a more regular basis, taking part more often.
The report also highlights a problem identified by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that those who are further away would be penalised. However, the current system penalises those who are further away. When I lived in Caithness, I had a major difficulty in getting down here. If the Chief Whip wanted me to be here on a Monday afternoon, I had to leave home on the Sunday night to guarantee being here in time for the vote. That problem will be exacerbated in the future.
Rightly, there has been mention of the credibility and expertise of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, was the first to mention scientists, but there will be fewer and fewer spaces for such people coming from outside Parliament. It is worth noting that, much as I like some of the former MPs, there are far too many here. Since the 2015 election, 35% of appointments to this House have been of former MPs. That means that we will not have the scientists and professional people who should be here to broaden the base. This House depends on a broad base and the terms of the report will limit that.
I very much welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee said in the report about receiving a peerage but not having the right to sit in the House of Lords. I mentioned that in the debate on the report of the Labour Peers’ Working Group in 2014 and I thoroughly endorse it.
I shall move on quickly to the timetable. Eleven years is far too long. In 1999, most of the hereditary Peers were removed at a stroke. It was painful but it worked. In effect, it removed 90 working hereditary Peers, leaving 90 working hereditary Peers behind. I believe that if the House wants to limit the number to 600, we should do it straightaway. It is the best way to tie in the Prime Minister. We could do it virtually before we return on 8 January next year. I end with a quotation. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, quoted “Othello”; perhaps I may quote “Macbeth”:
“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly”.
My Lords, I thoroughly agree with and welcome this report. It is an excellent piece of work. It has been called “ingenious” in this House and it thoroughly deserves that term. However, I have two reservations or concerns about it which I want to mention to your Lordships—and, as I always try to do on such occasions, I will try to suggest some possible remedies if the House were to agree that they were potential problems.
The first relates to the election of hereditary Peers. The report is uncharacteristically abdicatory when it comes to that subject. It mentions that, as a result of its proposed model, the one group of Peers that will increase in size in this House is the hereditary Peers. I think that that would be seen by the outside world as absurd, ridiculous and crazy. It would be a gift to anybody who wanted to rubbish either the reform of this House or the existence of the House at all—so I do not think that we can leave that aside.
It is much easier to deal with the problem of the potential election of people who have not yet been selected or identified and the problem of too many people sitting in this House at any one time. It ought to be possible for us to take action on the election of hereditary Peers without causing any distress or sense of injustice to any individual. So I hope that we can be very robust. Personally, I think it should be possible for us simply to refuse to introduce any more hereditary Peers who are elected in that fashion, and certainly to deny them allowances or offices if it comes to that. However, the most effective way would be simply to say, “I’m afraid we’re not prepared to arrange any introduction ceremony”. Surely that is within our scope and does not require legislation. Of course, on this and every other matter, it would be far better if we could have legislation; I am just assuming, as the report does, that we will not have legislation.
The second problem that I foresee is the manner of selection of those who in the future will be asked or encouraged to leave the House. The suggestion in the report is that it is a matter for the convenor of the individual parties, or at least for the parties themselves. Two possible ways of doing this have been mooted. One is that the Chief Whip in each party draws up a list of his own Members and speaks to the ones whom he wants to get rid of, using some kind of moral pressure to get them to resign. This is not a criticism of any Whip, because inevitably all Whips have behaved like this since the beginning of time. The agenda of any Whip would be to try to get rid of people who are more difficult and unpredictable—I may possibly be speaking in my own interests here—and to keep people who are malleable, amenable and do what is asked of them without creating too many problems. I do not think it is right to try to make the character of the House evolve in that way.
The alternative proposal is that there should be elections in each party group, in which we would all decide ourselves who to throw out of the balloon. That might also have some very damaging unintended consequences. It would change the spirit of the House. For months on end there would be a sense of everybody fighting an election for survival. An awful lot of conversations—
Well, when one is looking at a new model or proposal, inevitably some of the dangers that one envisages are theoretical—one does not know whether they would eventuate or not—but I want to share with the House my concern on that. As somebody was saying, there are too many MPs here, and certainly anybody from a political background knows immediately how people respond when there is some suggestion of an election. So I think it is asking too much to expect Members of the House not to be concerned with their own survival and not to allow that to influence conversations with colleagues, or even their political and public acts, comments and so forth. It would be extremely undesirable, so that is not the right way forward.
I said that I would try to make a suggestion as to how that might be dealt with. It would be much better if we adopted more objective criteria. There is one easy trick: in recent times there have been quite a lot of people who have not appeared in the House for at least half the number of days on which the House was sitting. I have the figures from the Library. In 2015, 391 Peers participated or came to the House for less than half the time when the House was sitting. In 2016, it was 356. People who do not come to the House on even half the days on which it sits are not displaying the commitment that it is reasonable to expect of anybody who is a member of a legislature anywhere in the world. He or she would not be up to speed with what is going on and what people are thinking in the House.
There would be much merit in adopting a rule in future—we cannot do it retrospectively—that people who do not appear on at least half the occasions when the House is sitting should be asked to resign. People will say that that may have a disproportionate effect on one political group or another, but the report suggests a way of coping with that problem: the number of new Peers allocated could be modulated so as to restore any imbalance that had occurred following the application of the rule.
My Lords, I am happy to support the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of this House because it is a practical way of making progress on the numbers in your Lordships’ House. It is not perfect and does have some holes, but it is a pragmatic response to a problem that I hope can be solved.
I came into this Chamber for the first time 10 years ago this year. On being invited in, I was unsure what I was getting myself into. Was the House of Lords now out of date, an anachronism no longer suited to serving the modern world? Did those arguing for a representative Chamber have a point? Ten years on, while the House is not perfect—nothing is—I am now more sure than ever that this appointed House has an important contribution still to make in a haphazard world that is in danger of losing its roots. Of course, I am now no longer of independent mind, as a member of the club. But it is my view, based on observation and practice, that this is a pearl of great price worth protecting.
It is a privilege sometimes to sit here and listen to impressive speeches of experienced and wise people. Where else in our society would you be able to listen to the amazing speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, as we did recently during the most reverend Primate the Archbishop’s debate on education? Where else would you hear, in the same debate, the contribution of a former Bishop of London,
“the noble, reincarnated and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres”,—[Official Report, 8/12/17; col. 1284.]
as the Archbishop referred to him, now on the Cross Benches, worrying away about a society in danger, in this technological age, of losing its moral compass and shared narrative—about the real danger, as technology invades our lives, of society becoming a crowd of atomised individuals?
These two speeches did not happen by chance; they reach back into several thousand years of human history and experience. Where else would you hear, in the same debate, the sense of urgency of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, chastising us all and himself about our lack of focus on schools in the north of England? I am working with schools in the north of England at the moment, and the noble Lord is right to worry away and disturb us all with his questions. Where else would you hear the emotional debate last Wednesday, on day 2 of Report on the Data Protection Bill, between those arguing for the freedom of the press, post Leveson, and those worrying about how little has actually changed since that inquiry, and the effects still of the behaviour of some of the press on the lives of ordinary people who are not in positions of power and who sometimes have to live with a made-up story about their lives broadcast across our national media for the rest of their life, when of course the press and lawyers have moved inexorably on to the next story and the next case? On the amendment I listened to, it came down to an excellent and emotional debate about one word: “necessary”.
The report before us today seeks a practical way to protect this Chamber and our important work from ridicule and misunderstanding. It is right to do so. Size does matter, but size and structure are one thing; what we must all focus on and protect is the calibre and experience of those people who are called to sit in this Chamber going forward. Six hundred is a sensible number, but at the end of the day your Lordships’ House is not centrally about numbers but about people. The modern world is all about people and relationships: this Chamber is all about ensuring that the right people with great practical experience and wisdom can contribute to our detailed debates and this country’s democratic process. How do we ensure that our systems and processes—and, indeed, Prime Ministers—understand and respect the functions of this House, and ensure that only the best and most experienced in their particular field sit here? I would have liked to have seen more in this report about the people question, because it is this question, I suggest, that will both define our future and our relevance going forward. It is all about people, and the future of this House is all about ensuring that we have the right people with the right balance of wisdom and practical experience over time.
I turn to a couple of practical matters. I am not sure how this report will help protect the independence and numbers on the Cross Benches, when party political Peers seem to be joining our Benches in increasing numbers. Possibly the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has an answer. If this is a trend, how does it impact on our numbers? Those of us who are genuine independents cherish the clarity of our position and our appointments process. Our independence really matters. How will this work in practice and be perceived on television by the outside world? Have I missed something? Quite possibly.
Secondly, post Brexit this country will have to stand on its own feet and make its way in the world. This is a time when we will need to embrace those of an entrepreneurial spirit, with sound business acumen. I sometimes worry, if I am honest, that the Cross Benches at present have a large contingent of excellent people whose experience has been in the public and charitable sectors rather than the business and entrepreneurial world. Business experience and practice will now become crucial as our country moves forward. I may be wrong, but this should be tested. The Victorians understood the significance of these entrepreneurial people and their place in the institutions of this country. A younger generation understands it, too.
It seems that we are going to give the Prime Minister an opportunity this afternoon; the future of this House and of our constitution will then sit with her. I wish her well as she deliberates and I hope that she takes it: it may never come again.
My Lords, it is gratifying to see how many Members of the House of Lords are participating in this debate—approximately one in eight, I suggest. I suspect that it is not just because of the important nature of the debate, but possibly because some of us feel an element of self-interest. Perhaps I should confess to that. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, referred to survival.
I would broadly welcome the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. He has done very well. I congratulate him and his committee. I have two small caveats. First, 15 is an unfortunate number, because one wants to get away from a multiple of five, given the Fixed-term Parliament Act. It is a small matter—noble Lords may think it is one of perception—but I think it is of concern. Secondly, 600 is still pretty large. I would be aiming lower, for a target of 400 or 450.
While I welcome this report, it begs a very important question. If most people believe that there should be a time-limited term for future Peers, what about current Peers? What about all of us? It sounds a bit like the drawbridge being pulled up behind. The debate last September was about reducing the size of the House, and most people agreed that it was far too big. I expected to hear all those speeches ending in, “And therefore I volunteer to be the first to leave”. I was disappointed.
I would draw attention to the so-called Nolan principles of public life. Many Members here will remember when they were drawn up some 20 years ago. The first is selflessness. The last is leadership. Should we not all be prepared to show both on this issue and lead the way selflessly, if of course we accept the principle of a time limit?
My own view is that a time limit is probably right. I will indeed volunteer if everybody else does to leave, just for the benefit of doubt. I would put a time limit of say 13, 17, even 22 years, if it engendered more support. But it should be retrospective on us all, not just people in future. There could be a totally independent mechanism for those that are concerned. An arm’s-length committee that is not political might allow an extension, of five or perhaps 10 years, for people who really add value to this place—not necessarily superannuated MPs like myself and one or two others sitting around here, but people who have exceptional value in their contributions to this place.
To build on the report, I would say that we should also be looking at a self-denying ordinance amongst hereditaries and among the Bishops to reduce their numbers as well, perhaps to 14 Bishops and perhaps to 50 hereditaries. I am sure that this is possible. It is not beyond the wit of man for everyone to sit down without legislation and reduce these numbers.
I return to my main point. If we accept the logic and the principle of a time limit, it should surely apply to us all. I was very struck by the argument of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who speaks with great experience and knowledge. His call for prime ministerial restraint is very sensible. Nevertheless, I still cling to the idea that we should have a time limit. I shall tell you for why. Of course, we are all exceptional here. That is why we are here, is it not? We are outstanding public servants; we have great experience; and we make magnificent contributions to public debate et cetera. But perhaps there are others who are just as capable. Perhaps if we went, other capable people could contribute just as well. We should give them a chance.
I have little expectation of overwhelming support for retrospection for those of us sitting here—I know, by the way, how to make friends in this place by suggesting it—but it is the logical and principled way forward in which we would show both leadership and selflessness.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Burns and his colleagues wholeheartedly on their report. They have shown consummate skill in navigating the perilous course between the fatal Scylla of proposals which would require legislation and the equally disastrous Charybdis of an approach which could not command support in the House itself. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has outdone even Odysseus in achieving this feat without losing a single member of his crew.
I also pay tribute to the Lord Speaker for initiating the work of the committee and to the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Norton, for the work of their campaign, of which I am delighted to be a member. In my view, the report is as balanced, reasonable and fair as it would be possible to expect. Other adjectives we have heard today, all of which I agree with, include “wise”, “ingenious”, “elegant”, “imaginative”, “pragmatic” and “cunning”.
I strongly believe in establishing a fixed term for membership of this House. I myself have no intention to stay for more than 15 years, and look forward to being followed to the exit by the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. I do not propose to address other specifics of the report. Any quibbles I may have about details—and they are very few—are outweighed by my belief that the package as a whole represents the most practical approach to tackling our excessive numbers and by my hope that it will lead to action. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, this is the only show in town and we should sign up for it.
There seem to be two critical challenges in implementing the report. The first is persuading the Prime Minister to give the required undertaking to appoint no more new Members than there are vacancies under the proposed two-out, one-in system. I recognise that this calls for a laudable and brave self-denying ordinance on her part. If that commitment is made, I for one would be more than content to see an end to hereditary elections as a subsequent step. I am encouraged by the relatively few new peerages created since Mrs May took office but somewhat concerned by reports that more are planned in the near future.
The second challenge is whether enough of us in this House are prepared to back the report’s proposals, despite any qualms we may have, and whether the parties and other groups can deliver on the need to reduce their numbers in line with the proposed targets. I hope this debate will demonstrate a willingness on our part to accept the challenge and will create the impetus and momentum to drive the process forward at some speed.
One thing I would urge is that the implementation process should be supported by a strong communications plan designed to ensure that Peers, MPs, civil society, the press and the public understand our determination to tackle the issue, how we are seeking to do so, and the constraints within which we are working. We need to make it quite clear that we recognise the problem and are doing all that is in our power to fix it. Those of us, like me, who believe in the constitutional importance and value of the role performed by this House must surely be concerned that its effectiveness is undermined in the eyes of the public by some of its features, one of which is its sheer size.
Unlike others, this is one issue which we ourselves can do something about, and the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has shown us clearly how. If we fail to grasp this opportunity now, I fear that we may eventually find a solution imposed upon us that could be much less satisfactory, less balanced, less reasonable and less fair than the approach of the Burns report, and one that could leave this House much less effective in providing scrutiny, advice and insight to government and a valuable service to the nation.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the members of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the report, and support its recommendations. In the absence of a written constitution, this House and the other place are reliant for our effectiveness on broadly shared values, trust and conventions. Hitherto, this reliance has nearly always served us well and, for the proposals in this excellent report to be effectual, respect for convention in the future will be essential. I have every hope and confidence that that respect will be forthcoming.
I have no quibble over points of detail in the report. I think 600 is an appropriate number of Peers for us to discharge our duties. The formula for reflecting the political views of the country over a period of time is by far the best suggested hitherto, based as it is on the work of my noble friend Lord Jopling, who is in his place. A fixed term of 15 years for new Peers is about right; it may be a little short. The proposals for the Cross Benches and retired Supreme Court justices are, in my view, unimpeachable. Consideration of the composition and statutory basis or otherwise of the House of Lords Appointments Commission is important but is a matter for another day because unreviewable discretion is an extremely controversial subject.
This House discharges its functions, I think by universal acknowledgement, effectively. The committee’s proposals, if implemented, will maintain that effectiveness and perhaps enhance what I have noted from a number of perspectives over several decades to be broad public support for our constitutional role, despite the occasional passing cloud in opinion polls. The objective of this debate is to establish whether there is widespread support for the committee’s proposals. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the committee well in the forthcoming process of reaching agreement on the way forward with the main parties and others involved, and I look forward to our implementing the proposals which emanate from that process.
My Lords, I have known the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for some 30 years as a friend and I have always admired his ability to win people over by the power of persuasion. That quality he and his fellow committee members have shown in abundance with this brilliant report, and I, like other speakers in this debate, congratulate them.
My most earnest hope is that this report will not go the same way as an earlier Burns report on another British institution, which in that case was oversized, outdated, unrepresentative and predominantly white, male and middle-class. I am referring, of course, to the English Football Association. Despite early indications in 2006 that the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, were to be accepted in full, so little progress was made that the noble Lord appeared in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee five years on, and the report in the Guardian of that session carried the headline:
“Lord Burns accuses FA of losing plot over regulation.”
As numerous speakers in this debate have already said, this may be the last opportunity we have to address the challenges facing this place, and I urge us not to lose the plot.
We have to work hard to win appreciation outside this place of the value of what we do and of our ability to hold the Government to account and to give the elected House the opportunity to think again on aspects of legislation that it may not have had the time to consider in depth by drawing on the expertise of individuals with a lifetime’s knowledge and achievement in examining complex subjects and policy areas. These are the attributes of this place which give the House legitimacy. I frequently make the point, particularly when I am talking to school groups in the outreach programme, that while democratic elections are one means of conferring legitimacy on an assembly, they are not the only one.
However, as the Burns report and today’s debate demonstrate, there is one aspect of our existence which has to change. There are simply too many of us. With almost 100 speakers in today’s debate, there are inevitably many points of view, but very little disagreement on that essential principle. In view of that, I was depressed to read in Friday’s Times, and to see repeated in the Daily Express yesterday, a story with the headline, “New peers to be appointed ‘in weeks’”, which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to this morning. The report said:
“Theresa May is expected to appoint new peers ‘within weeks’ as she seeks to shore up support in a House of Lords emboldened by her Brexit defeat”.
There followed a list of former MPs who retired or lost their seats at the election, and the comment:
“The move will improve Mrs May’s position in the Lords before the EU withdrawal bill moves across”.
It is hard to think of anything that would do more to undermine the credibility of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, than such a move on the Government’s part. I hope that in due course we will get a categorical denial from the noble Baroness the Leader of the House that anything of the sort is being planned. She and particularly her Chief Whip know that in a balanced House, as we are, with no party majority, you do not win votes by packing in more of your own Members, but by making a real effort to win the argument. I am sure she appreciates, as everyone else here does, that if we are to reduce the size of this House, the party leaders have to exercise self-restraint in the appointment of new Peers. Otherwise, not only would we never get near a total membership of 600, we could see our numbers ballooning northwards beyond 1,000, as the Lord Speaker has wisely reminded us.
Like many noble Lords, I have my own ideas for reducing the size of this House. I will not delay the House by talking about them now, but I am particularly attracted by the idea of ministerial Peers: colleagues who come in to do a ministerial job, but then disappear when they cease to have that job. This point was made very forcefully by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminister. If some of these Ministers decide they want little to do with this place after they leave office, they should be encouraged to resign at the same time as they step down as Ministers.
What is abundantly clear is that there is overwhelming support for reducing the size of this House and that the very best of the many solutions put forward to how to achieve that are in the Burns report. I support it unreservedly.
My Lords, when I saw so many noble Lords had put their names down to speak in this debate—almost an embarrassingly large number—I wondered whether I should add mine. Having listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Scone, give the statistics on the age of the House, I learned that I am also a giddy youth in this place, which was described as a gathering of elders by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, earlier in the debate.
I thought I would speak because last time we debated this issue, I expressed the view that the number of Peers was a distraction from the real issue, which is that very few people outside this House know what we do, how we do it or why we do it—a point the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, made quite powerfully earlier, as did other noble Lords. At that time, I sought out the loudest advocates of reducing our number and asked them for the practical or principled reasons why it should be reduced, but even they told me that the problem was essentially cosmetic. But that was before we had this excellent report. I have now studied, considered and discussed it at length with fellow Members of this House, and my view is that we should wholeheartedly support it. Discussions across the House, and with very few exceptions the speeches in this debate today, make it evident that many others also support that point of view. I will just make three points in the time available to me.
The first in a way harks back to my earlier position. The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, wants us to be loved; the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, seeks to protect our reputation, as did a number of other speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I very much doubt that culling 200 Members from this place will make us loved, nor do I think it would probably cool the blood lust of those who would go far further than that. I use the next phrase metaphorically, with no reference to the right reverend Prelates, but throwing a bunch of Christians to the lions did not typically, in the Romans’ experience, cause the crowd to call for less of the same. My real point there is the lack of understanding, and whether we are 200, 600, 400 or 800 makes very little difference. It is simply that nobody knows, and fewer care, what we do. That is something we should be addressing.
My second point is something that many have already spoken about. The wide support for this report among pretty much everyone I have spoken to and among most who have spoken today is predicated on what happens at the other end. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, made this point, and many others echoed it. I think his phrase was that we need a “cast-iron” guarantee that the Prime Minister will resist the temptation, as we pull the plug at this end and 200 of our Members are flushed away, to simply turn on the taps at the other end. I sincerely hope this is something the Leader will take back to the Prime Minister as a very firm message from this House. I believe that without that message being taken back, the support in this House would be a good deal more muted than it has been today.
I have been tempted into dangerous waters here: I want to say a word on the hereditaries, being one myself and a beneficiary of the hereditary by-elections. Yes, the hereditaries took a huge cull in the past and no other group has had to do that, but I think it would be wrong for the hereditaries and the bishops to stand aside at this time and not bring our experience more into line with what other groups in this House are experiencing. Whether that is to do with the by-elections or a more general haircut and the continuation of the elections is not for today, but it would not be right for the hereditaries or the bishops to just stand aside because we are, if you like, protected by the need for legislative change.
I agree with those who have said that having a top honour that is not a public service job—which being in this Chamber is—is a good idea. I would only appeal for us not to call it a peerage. That would lead to confusion or even abuse. Let us have a top honour—a reward—and public service in this House, but let us not give them the same name. The point may seem petty, but I fear that it would be very open to abuse.
My Lords, it is difficult when you rise at this stage in the debate to know how to cover things that are new, and I do not want to repeat many of the comments that have been made by many other people in the Chamber today during the debate. I would merely say at this stage that I agree very much with what has just been said by the noble Lords, Lord Cromwell and Lord Mawson.
I look back 34 years ago plus one month when, as a new Member of Parliament for Bristol, I stood up at Business Questions for the first time in the other Chamber and asked if we could have a debate on reducing the number of Members in the House of Commons. Thirty-four years on, there has been no reduction. As I say, I was MP for Bristol. Rather than going back a mere 50 years to Visconti, as my noble friend Lord Grade referred to earlier, if one goes back 230 years there was another much greater MP for Bristol, one Edmund Burke, who advocated that in terms of the British constitution we should adapt to change while affirming traditional values. That is what I think the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, achieves so admirably. I could therefore describe the report as positively Burkean.
The only comment that I want to make goes back to what I said just now about the number of MPs. By any measure—the noble Lord, Lord Horam, referred to this in part earlier—this country is overgoverned. We have too many Members of this and the other House, and too many Ministers. I hope that by the rapid implementation of the Burns report this House can lead the way.
My Lords, I am conscious that we are far into this debate. I intend to try to make two brief preliminary points and one more substantive point. The preliminary points arise from things that have already been said. The first is about the idea of a 15-year membership. One of the consequences of that is that effectively people are not going to come in until they are pretty well retired and have reached the point where they have sufficient pension put away to look after themselves, so I think that would inevitably make it an older grouping; indeed, that fits in well with some of the things that have been said about retired MPs. The second preliminary point is about the London allowance. We are going to get a system whereby people are really going to have to have retired and are going to have to stay in London. Whatever else is said about the composition of the Lords, that does not seem to make for a satisfactory House covering the whole country.
My more substantive point arises from the submission that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and I put in. We said that, “to change the composition of the House more in line with the elected House would, after all, give the House a degree of electoral authority, albeit indirectly, and would perhaps increase the willingness of the second Chamber to challenge the first. That would be a fundamental constitutional change and hardly something that should be done by a change in Standing Orders of the upper House”. When you look at the electoral arithmetic of past elections—I am grateful for Appendix 3 of the report, on historical modelling, because it produces some very revealing insights—it turns out that on historic modelling the highest number of seats that Labour would ever have had in this House would have been after the electoral triumph of October 1959. The second highest would be after another electoral triumph—May 2010. When Labour actually won, in May 1997, we would have been more than 150 seats behind the combined total of the Conservatives and Liberals.
My contention is that if we are to be able to describe what happens as giving a degree of elective authority to the House, albeit over three elections, this House will be representative in a countercyclical way. On a number of occasions there will be a big majority for the people who have just lost the election. I do not see how we can safely do that and stick to the current constitutional understanding that this House does not directly challenge the directly elected House—so my nervousness about this is very considerable. It is compounded by the fact that—mea culpa—our submission said that we should do that by changing the Standing Orders of this House. But if we are to change the effective balance between this Chamber and the other place, I do not believe we should be entitled to do that by changing our own Standing Orders. I think it has to be done with the agreement of the other place. I have changed my view on that—but our proposal was not such a fundamental change. If we are going to change the balance of power between this House and the other place, as I believe these proposals would, that is a matter for both Houses to consider.
My Lords, I support the Burns report. With respect to those who take a different view, the case for reducing the size of the House of Lords is overwhelming and unanswerable. Many different reasons have been advanced this morning and this afternoon, and I share them—but there is this to be added. We are virtually facing a constitutional absurdity. This House has its responsibilities—its constitutional responsibilities—but the other place has the ultimate power. The House with no ultimate power—this one—has significantly more Members than the House down there, with powers, has.
You can argue as long as you like about all the justification for that situation, but in the end, I respectfully regret, you cannot avoid concluding: how can this be? What kind of situation has allowed this to develop? It does not matter how it has developed—I shall come to that in a moment—but we have to do something about it, or to put it the other way, something has to be done, to address what I would say is very close to an absurd constitutional situation.
How has that come about? My favourite quotation has been pinched by the noble Lord, Lord Grade, and my second favourite has been pinched by—forgive me, I cannot remember which Conservative Peer quoted it, but it comes from Macbeth. Now I have dredged up another one. John Dunning, in 1780—a bit of history lightens the mood, does it not?—when we were making a complete Horlicks of the American war of independence, led a resolution in the House of Commons, to the effect that,
“the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished”.
That is precisely why I support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Burns.
The influence of the Crown has increased in so many ways relating to our constitution as a whole. If I had time I would set off for a long journey, but I do not. Let me relate it to this issue. Mr Blair and Mr Cameron as Prime Ministers exercised the royal prerogative. I respectfully suggest that their exercise of it was so wide, so deep and so numerous as to come very close to an abuse of our constitution. If the monarch had exercised her prerogative—in medieval times it would have been his prerogative—in that way, he would have suffered the fate of Edward II or Richard II. They did not do with it. We now face a situation in which we have come close to a constitutional absurdity, and there is no measure except prime ministerial self-denial that can interfere with this exercise—an abusive exercise, in two cases—of prime ministerial power. We do not have the power; the Commons could, on an Act of Parliament—but who is going to introduce that? So we have to persuade, encourage, cajole and ask the Prime Minister to address this constitutional absurdity.
In 1719, a proposal was put forward from this House by the Duke of Somerset that there should be a cap on the number of Members of the House of Lords. The suggestion was 235; in those days, there were 345 constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland. Everybody agreed except the Commons. Here we are again, 300 years on; in our ancient constitution, 300 years is but the blink of an eye. And what we are really proposing—or what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is proposing—is that there should be a cap on the number of Members of the House of Lords. There are 54 weeks to 2019. Why do not we celebrate the 300th anniversary of the issue first being proposed by implementing it?
My Lords, I cheer the wise words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, that we are close to a constitutional absurdity. I am also fairly certain that I sent the longest submission to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. It was 30 pages long and more than 11,000 words. It had dozens of detailed Excel spreadsheets attached and took me many weeks—indeed, months—to write. I produced what I thought were impeccable arguments for a retirement age of 80 and removal of Peers who had failed to attend fewer of 20% of the sittings of the last Parliament. That would have removed 220 Peers at a stroke. I considered the 15-year term option and creating Peers based on a combination of MPs’ seats won and share of the vote, and I rejected it. I was rather pleased with my magnum opus.
Now we are faced with the committee’s report, and I have no hesitation in saying that I completely endorse it—it is a masterful piece of work. The report highlights the biggest flaws in my fixed retirement age recommendation, namely that political parties would send us younger people, under 50, so they would serve at least 30 years. I have to admit that after 15 years the expertise that we formerly had begins to get a bit rusty, so that term limit may be about right. I also completely endorse the committee’s views on hereditary and new Minister Peers. I think that it cleverly takes the issue out of the question. If a political party replaces an hereditary, it simply comes out of the overall quota, and there is one less life peerage available. In my opinion, the system of electing replacement hereditaries in this House has given us some of the most hardworking and able Peers in this House, on all sides. I would also say that the hereditary problem is one for the Conservative Party to address internally, and come up with possible solutions.
I turn to a part of the report that I consider very important, and the key to ensuring that numbers do not inexorably rise once again. In my submission, I made a very strong point about creating what I called non-legislative Peers. I said:
“We should accept that Prime Ministers need to grant peerages not just because they want bodies in the Lords but because they need to reward achievement in the same way as others receive other honours. Being granted the title ‘Lord’ or ‘Baroness’ is a great reward in itself and I can see merit in Prime Ministers being able to grant a peerage and the title Lord or Baroness to some who would not be entitled to sit in the Lords.
I cannot define a category of these people but it may be those in business, or retired from the civil service or over a certain age who deserve the glory of the title but do not want to participate for 70% of more of Lords’ sittings. I believe we can all look round this House and see colleagues on all sides who have wanted the great honour of being a Peer of The Realm but do not want to participate much or at all in the legislative process. I am certain that this suggestion would give Prime Ministers the flexibility they need to create peerages without flooding the House of Lords with new peers”
That is what I said in my submission, and I am therefore delighted to see that the committee endorses that point and states in paragraphs 24 and 25 that the Life Peerages Act can already permit it. That is excellent news, but it has not received nearly enough attention in the debate so far, nor enough prominence in the report. I urge the Lord Speaker, the political parties, and the leaders of all groups to really make sure that Prime Ministers understand this point. They can dish out the gongs in future but they do not have to flood this House.
I am glad that there is no greatly increased role for the House of Lords Appointments Commission, except doing the statistical calculations after an election, assisted, I assume, by our excellent clerks. The report suggests a sensible timetable to bring about change but we need the flexibility to move more quickly if circumstances permit. I have in mind the possibility of decanting out of Parliament to the QEII in 2023 or 2024. As one or two other noble Lords have mentioned, I suspect that there may be a big rush of Peers wishing to retire then. HOLAC therefore needs the flexibility to adjust the process to reduce numbers to 550 or even 500 if there is a rush of Peers retiring under any circumstances.
Finally, this report is not what I argued for but it is better than the case I put up. I am willing to give the committee’s solution a go since I cannot see any better one on the horizon, now or in the future, although at one point I thought my noble friend Lord Robathan was going to argue for some celebrity TV show—“I’m a Peer, Get Me Out of Here!”. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues on the committee. This is the blueprint for a far better Chamber, which will earn respect from most sensible critics, and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, like every noble Lord who has spoken, I too warmly congratulate the Lord Speaker’s committee on its report. Under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, this committee has at last produced a practical way for your Lordships’ House to begin the process of reducing its numbers to the suggested target of 600, and above all, so long as this is fully backed by this House and ultimately by Parliament itself, without the need for any form of legislation. Given the sanity of the proposals, and the fact that most of those who have already spoken are supportive, I would be very surprised indeed if the Government are not already onside, meaning that your Lordships could indeed begin their short Christmas Recess in cheerful spirits, knowing that those entering via the Burns method will have already agreed to serve no more than 15 years before retiring from your Lordship’s House.
As others have suggested, with that example, it will be open to all noble Lords, right across the House, who have already reached that 15-year milestone to look for a moment, which is convenient both for themselves and for the group to which they belong, to retire and in so doing contribute actively to the House achieving its 600 refreshment target at the earliest possible moment.
Finally I again congratulate the Lord Speaker’s committee, and especially its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for its invaluable report, which so admirably points your Lordships’ House in a sane and sensible direction for self-reform. The Lord Speaker is on the Woolsack: with him in that role we will not in future be in a position where the rest of the world has no idea what goes on in this House. We could not have a better advocate than him.
My Lords, almost exactly a year ago, your Lordships expressed the very clear view that the House of Lords was too big and ought to be reduced in size. At that point, there was clearly a danger of the whole thing being kicked into the long grass. We are therefore deeply grateful to the Lord Speaker for having taken the initiative and set up the Burns committee. Its report has almost universally been said to be extremely fine.
The report builds on the basic idea of a 15-year term, which had not been enormously advocated previously. It is very positive, although almost all the bases it is founded on are negative. There is to be no government majority, no length-of-service limits, no compulsory retirement and so on. There has been very wide support in the House this afternoon. We will need to check Hansard to see exactly how wide, but my impression is that support is at a level to which the Government should pay due attention in deciding where we should go next. I very much hope we can make rapid progress on implementing the report.
I was worried that there might be some opposition to the report from those who are still much preoccupied with having a wholly elected House. I was therefore heartened by the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who expressed a clear view that that should not take precedence over what is obviously a very important reform. The fact that it will make your Lordships more acceptable to the wider community does not mean that one cannot go ahead with the reforms simply because one would rather have a more radical reform. I am glad that that is so.
The Lords is concerned at its size. We need to ask why it should be cut. There are arguments about resources; the difficulty of getting in at Question Time; the fact that a larger House means stricter time limits on speeches; and so on. The Whips are able to cope with those problems but, at the same time, we need to recognise that the Lords can make progress only if it has the co-operation of the Government. It emerges clearly from the Burns report that there has to be a balance between the number of people who volunteer to retire, on the one hand, and the creation of Peers by the Prime Minister, on the other. It is important to stress that, if one is fit and still able to take part in your Lordships’ proceedings, making the decision to retire is very difficult. You seek to make a marginal reduction in the number of Peers by retiring, but even on the basis of two-out, one-in it is not a very significant change. It is difficult to give up the great privileges that one has as a Member of your Lordships’ House if one’s action is not effective because it is countervailed by action taken by the Prime Minister.
It is therefore very important indeed that we should have, without too much delay, a clear statement by the Prime Minister—it is, in a sense, her area of responsibility primarily—and the Government that they will clearly curtail new appointments, and impose a cap of the kind proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I hope the Government can make progress on that without too much delay.
The timescale envisaged by the report is that we will get some way to a steady state within 11 years. I think that is a reasonable objective and shows that we are determined to have a more effective chamber, as the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber has consistently said, and that we can bring about a reform which will establish this House on a far firmer basis than it has at present.
My Lords, I join the many people who have placed on record their appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his fellow committee members—and indeed to our Lord Speaker for his initiative. The result is practical and sensible in the predicament in which we find ourselves.
However, I must confess that there are parts of me that are very traditional, and I look back to earlier stages in my political life when I had the highest regard for the concept of royal commissions. I am quite concerned that this is another pragmatic, specific change to our constitutional way of operating, but we have no road map. We have no overview of where we are going with our constitution, what its challenges are and how far as a whole it meets the challenges of the 21st century. That is quite a serious issue.
I have believed for much of my life that structures are inanimate. In some archaic structures, excellent things happen because first-rate people operate within them. In other perfected structures, nothing much of significance happens because there is an absence of values, drive and imagination on the part of the people within those structures. We should not believe that we will find a solution on the future role of the Lords simply in the structural dimension. It is by our commitment, vision, drive and indeed challenge to the other place and society as a whole that we bring our contribution to the future. It is by that I am convinced that we will be judged—not just by how we tidy up the way in which we operate.
Four specific points arise from the debate to which I want to refer. I am a committed and active member of the Church of England, but I do not see how in 21st century Britain one can have one denomination of one faith represented by right in this Chamber, whereas others are not. Indeed, what about the humanists, the non-believers who are an increasingly significant part of our society? If we are talking about our credibility and acceptance in society, this matter cannot be dodged. We have to face up to the issues.
The second point is on the hereditary principle. I have the highest regard for some of the hereditaries. They do a first-class job in this place, but there is no way in the 21st century we can go on saying that people are here by hereditary right. That does not wash or help our credibility at all.
Then there is the point about how representative we are of society as a whole in the United Kingdom. We are south and south-east dominated in this Chamber. I am glad that my wife and I decided, for all sorts of reasons, to move from the south to the extreme north-west for this last chapter of our lives. I am seeing this increasingly powerfully. This place does not represent or carry weight with much of society away from the sophisticated south-east. If we are to talk about that and then talk about age credibility in this place, we must look at our terms of service. There is a question over how any able, committed person from whatever part of society can come here. We talk about expertise and experience but let us remember the expertise that lies in our trade union movement and working-class sections of our community. That is expertise and has tremendous validity for this place. How will we be able to make that change here in the House of Lords or change our terms of reference?
Lastly, I stress the point that my noble friend Lord Faulkner strongly made. Ringing around in the back of my mind are the words, “turkeys” and “Christmas”. We have been a bit loose in our language about the guarantees that will be required from the Government to make this proposed arrangement work. If they do not play their part, we will have damaged ourselves badly and shot ourselves in the foot. Therefore, we cannot concentrate enough on the specific questions: have we got guarantees or have we not? What do those guarantees really amount to?
I join those who have spoken in expressing my personal gratitude for the outstanding report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee, and for the initiative and farsightedness of the Lord Speaker in establishing it. I wholeheartedly—indeed, to use my noble friend Lord Butler’s expression, ardently—support it. I felt that that was all I should say but, having been brought up to give reasons for a view, perhaps I may, even at this late stage in the debate, give three.
First, this House cannot any longer afford to lay itself open to criticism because of its size. The British constitution needs this House, and its power and effectiveness should not be open to question. It is needed to revise legislation, as I have often found. In particular, the House is needed as a protector of the constitution and of the other weaker branches of the state, including the judiciary, when needed.
Secondly, it would be desirable to consider more far-reaching reform, but that requires legislation. It is unfortunate that for one reason or another, whether it be lack of time or of priority, legislation is not, on occasions, an option. Therefore, one has to cast around for an ingenious way in which to reform without legislation. In my experience, that has not impeded reform but furthered it, because it has shown the willingness of those concerned to adopt reform
My third reason is the ingenuity of the idea of a 15-year term. Modern careers are based not on a lifelong devotion to a particular subject but a much more varied career, often with a fixed term. The ingenuity of the report is its adoption of that aspect of modernity. I very much hope that this report can be taken forward as soon as possible.
My Lords, like all who have spoken, I warmly congratulate and thank the Lord Speaker for taking the initiative, and the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for taking that initiative forward. I agree with virtually everything that the committee has come up with, not least on the size at 600; the two out, one-in principle; the 15-year term for new but not existing Members; and the Cross-Benchers staying at the same percentage as at present in the House. I also agree that there should be no age limit. Here I cross swords with the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. As I said in the debate at this time last year, it would be a tragedy to throw brains and experience out with the bathwater.
I have two proposals for future consideration regarding the hereditaries and the Bishops. If the House were to get down to 600, that would mean the hereditaries going effectively from 90 to 80, and the Bishops from 26 to 23. Just how that is done—because it will require primary legislation—I know not; it is beyond my pay grade, but I have a feeling that it could be done.
The third proposal, where I warmly endorse what my noble friend Lord Forsyth and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, said, concerns non-attendance. I cannot see the justification for noble Lords who are presently in the House remaining in it if they cannot be bothered to turn up. The problems are obviously the primary legislation, to which I have already spoken, but also the Prime Minister’s consent. Many noble Lords have spoken about this. My feeling is that the present Prime Minister might well go along with it, but how could she ever bind her successors? That concerns me. I just do not see how any Prime Minister can bind their successor to something that is not in statute.
I finish as I did a year ago. One of the joys of this House is being able to agree wholeheartedly with noble Lords opposite—in this context, I look at the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra. All the soundings that I have taken, of which there have been many, convince me that when the time comes for our exodus from this building for the R&R—it may be in five years’ time; none of us knows exactly when—there will be a very significant exodus. It will be the tipping point. I can say now that I believe it will be my tipping point. It is not that I do not want to move to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre; it is just that it will be time to go. Those looking at this problem overall might care to conduct a non-binding survey of all Members of the House—could one have such a thing? I know not—just to see how many Peers think that they might leave when we move in, let us say, five years’ time.
My Lords, I think that most of us are embarrassed and often inconvenienced by the absurd size of our House, and so the Burns report is to be greatly welcomed. In nearly all respects it proposes a sensible, fair and practical way of reducing our numbers without having to resort to primary legislation. It recommends a cap of no more than 600 Peers and a method for how this could be achieved.
I have only one serious objection to this otherwise admirable report: it wishes to link the basis on which a number of new Members are appointed to the results of the previous election. It is not because I am a Liberal Democrat that I object to this in principle. I do not believe that the House of Lords should shadow the party politics of the Commons. In fact, I believe that the House of Lords is at its strongest and most influential when it seems to be at least one remove from party politics. Party politics, with their committed manifestos and bullying Whips, should remain the sole preserve of the Commons, remembering, of course, that, quite rightly, the Commons must continue to have precedence over the Lords.
The strength of our Chamber should reside in its make-up of wise men and women who collectively have knowledge and experience in all walks of life, and, between them, represent all parts of Britain, all sexes—there are more than two nowadays, noble Lords may have noticed—all races, all religions and most specialist interests in a place where party politics should be only incidental. Of course, party politics must be a consideration when attempting to balance the House, but should remain of secondary importance compared with the value and worth of the individual Members. That is why I am so against the insistence that new Members should be balanced in line with election results. Only a minority of us should be chosen for our political allegiance or our loyalty to a past Government.
At present, approximately 80% of all Peers are appointed by the Prime Minister, or with his or her approval, and only 20% by other means. I would like to see these percentages reversed. In fact, I would be happy to see over 50% of us sit as Cross-Benchers. The ability to appoint 20% of new Peers would still give the Prime Minister considerable influence over the Lords. I propose that, some time in the future, the majority of new Peers should be appointed by an independent Lords appointment committee—one that is much more powerful than the present one, whose only major role is to recommend a small number of Cross-Benchers. The new one would be responsible not only for vetting and appointing new Peers but at the same time would monitor the balance of the House. By “balance” in this case, I mean the different parts of Britain and the widest possible variety of skills and interests, with party allegiance being of secondary consideration. In time, it would build a body of distinguished people who would represent a real cross-section of British society. Maybe it could also have the power to regulate the behaviour of those few individuals who bring our House into disrepute. Clearly, it would be in a position to control the size of the House, ensuring that it kept below the presently recommended cap of 600.
However, I appreciate that nothing like this could be achieved without primary legislation and approval of the Government of the day. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, does not yet have the remit even to recommend future reforms of the Lords. Within its limitations, though, and in spite of my personal reservations, this report is a greatly needed step in the right direction and I hope very much that the House will support it.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Burns and his committee on their excellent report on the size of the House. Before I go further, I should say that I fully support the clear, pragmatic and sensible recommendations they have delivered to the House.
Since it is nearly Christmas, I would also like to thank our excellent Library staff for their background notes in support of this issue, which have been interesting and helpful. I had not realised that the House is, at the moment, only back to roughly the size it was a very long time ago—that is, when I was born in the mid-1950s. I had assumed that the controversy over the perceived ballooning size of the House was a recent issue. I found this recent historical context particularly helpful in reassuring me that it was justified to support this comparatively gentle pace of reduction to 600 over a period of 11 years. If I may tease the Library staff, I speak as a member of a group I feel they have neglected in their analysis. I have read long, and hugely impressive, lists of the oldest and youngest Members of your Lordships’ House, and even more impressive lists of the longest serving Members, but why was there no symmetry here? Where was the list of my group and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield—the shortest serving Members? As someone who was introduced almost exactly two years ago—actually, on 17 December two years ago—I agree that a period of appointment of 15 years seems sensible, and, indeed, would be happy it if applied to me as well. It is time to learn all those rules you do not find out about until you break them, time to develop competence, and time also to make a difference.
Therefore, there is just one further point that I would like to make. In doing so, I apologise to my noble friend Lord Burns and his committee, because, in a debate with 96 speakers, they are having to listen to the 96 things that they should have included in their excellent report. This must be a frustrating experience. I note that my noble friend Lord Burns pointed out at the beginning of this debate that diversity was not within the remit of his committee. However, my point is about the diversity of the House. I suspect the approach the report recommends will, at least initially, improve the diversity of the House. I have looked only at gender: but, for example, among Peers with the longest service—over 33 years—nine out of 50 are women—18%—compared with some 26% of women Peers today. However, I suggest that the parties appointing life Peers in the future should be asked to commit to diversity targets much broader than gender, in the way that my noble friend Lord Kakkar has told us that his House of Lords Appointments Commission does, to ensure that this House develops over time to look more like the country that we serve.
I repeat my strong support for the recommendations of this report and urge the House and, in particular, the Leader, not just to “take note” but to move rapidly to agree the next stage of “take action”.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for so expertly producing this analysis and for giving us the options for the road ahead and the basis for the decisions that I hope we will take. I am also grateful to the Lord Speaker for his initiative in setting up the committee.
As I go around the country and talk to people about the House of Lords, I increasingly find that they raise the question of the size of the Lords, partly due to media coverage. The public have cottoned on to the size question and are consoled when they raise it by my assuring them that we are tackling it. It is clear that we intend to do so by this very strong report and the very strong support that it is getting in the House. Moreover, many raised the point that they have been compelled to retire at a certain age—often imposed by their profession or company, or by Parliament itself—so why not us? Therefore, I thoroughly support all of the warm endorsements today of the committee’s work and most of the recommendations. There is clearly a strong consensus of support for the report in the House, a feeling that it provides an excellent basis for tackling the issue. I particularly agree on the importance of the point that Prime Ministers should not, in the future, undermine the whole system by appointing rafts of new Members, pushing the numbers back up again. It would be invidious and counterproductive if future Prime Ministers were to undermine the whole process by appointing more new Members than there were vacancies.
Having been wholly supportive so far, I have one reservation. There is, and increasingly will be, public concern that we are moving too slowly. As I understand it, the House, under these proposals, would only reach its target size of 600 in about 11 years. Only by 2042 would all serving Peers be on a 15-year fixed term. For many people outside the House, this would seem like a lifetime. It looks like, “Lord, make us virtuous, but not yet”. How can we speed it up? The problem here is that the committee imposed a condition of not seeking primary legislation to assist. I am not quite sure why, so perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Burns, will explain this further when he winds up.
There are two recommendations in particular that would shorten the timescale, but they would require legislation. That is controversial for some, but they certainly would quicken the pace to reduce the number to 600. First, about two years ago, the executive committee of the Association of Conservative Peers—I was chairman then—recommended that Members should compulsorily retire at the end of the Parliament in which they had reached the age of 80. That is entirely reasonable: retirement is in practice required earlier than that for most people in employment in the United Kingdom. It was generally supported by most ACP members who considered it and has also been proposed by the equivalent Labour Party committee. Of course, it was objected to by drawing attention to the valuable contributions made by some over-80s. I will very soon be in that category: not the valuable contribution makers, but the over-80s. I do not think that that is a major obstacle; the proposal is entirely reasonable. It requires legislation, but I think it would be accepted by most in the House. I certainly intend to abide by it voluntarily, which means that I will leave the House at the next election. To make it effective, however, legislation is required.
Secondly, the time has come—this is a personal view, and distinctly not an ACP recommendation—to tackle the question of hereditary Peers. It needs to be addressed. If the by-election system for hereditary Peers continues unamended, in a smaller House of 600, the number of hereditary Peers would make up a larger proportion of the membership than it does now. It cannot be justified in this day and age to give an especially favourable position to hereditary Peers. Of course I acknowledge that many hereditary Peers make an excellent contribution, but with a smaller House, the time has come for our by-election system to cease. That, together with the proposal for compulsory retirement at 80, will make it possible to have a smaller House more quickly. I hope that these points can be considered in addition to the proposals in the report, and I warmly recommend the report itself.
Local Government Finance Settlement
My Lords, with the permission of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other place earlier today. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on funding for local authorities in England next year. From 2015 to 2020, councils in England have access to over £200 billion to deliver the high-quality services their local communities need. They deserve no less. Local government is the front line of this country’s democracy, with councillors and officers working at the heart of the communities they serve. But to make the most of that local knowledge, councils need greater control of the money they raise, they need greater freedom to tackle challenges in their areas, and they need the certainty and stability that will allow them to plan ahead. This Government are committed to delivering that, and today I am publishing a draft local government finance settlement that marks an important milestone in the journey to doing so. It comes in the third year of a four-year deal that was accepted by 97% of councils in return for publishing efficiency plans. We will continue to work with the sector to help it increase transparency and share best practice, supporting greater progress in delivering increased efficiency over the coming year. I expect this to have a tangible impact on the steps councils take to promote efficiency from 2019-20.
Local government operates in a society that is constantly changing and the system of financing local government needs to reflect that. The current formula of budget allocations has served councils and communities well over the years, but to meet the challenges of the future, we need an updated and more responsive distribution methodology—one that gives councils the confidence to face the challenges and opportunities of the future. So I am today publishing a formal consultation on a review of relative needs and resources. I aim to implement a new system based on its findings in 2020-21.
Alongside the new methodology, in 2020-21 we will also be implementing the latest phase of our business rates retention programme, a scheme that gives local councils the levers and incentives they need to grow their local economies. The aim is for local authorities to retain 75% of business rates from 2020-21. This will be through incorporating existing grants into business rate retention, including revenue support grant and the public health grant. Local authorities will be able to keep that same share of growth on their baseline levels from 2020-21, when the system is reset. From 2020-21 business rates will be redistributed according to the outcome of the new needs assessment, subject to suitable transitional measures.
A number of 100% retention pilots have already been announced, and these will continue. A further pilot will begin in London in 2018-19 and we had intended that a further five pilots would begin that same year. However, interest in the scheme was such that we will now be taking forward twice as many as planned. I am pleased to announce today that the new pilots will take place in Berkshire, Derbyshire, Devon, Gloucestershire, Kent and Medway, Leeds, Lincolnshire, Solent, Suffolk and Surrey. The first batch of pilots are taking place largely in urban authorities; the second wave will mainly cover counties. This ensures that councils right across the country will benefit, that the scheme can be tested in a wide range of environments, and that the benefits of growth are broadly comparable between London, existing pilots and new pilots. We received so many applications to take part that we will continue to pilot business rate retention in 2019-20. Full details will be published in due course.
Over the past year my Ministers and officials have been listening to councils of all shapes and sizes, understanding their concerns and working together to develop ways of tackling them. The result of those conversations is reflected in this draft settlement. For example, rural councils have expressed concern about the fairness of the current system, with the rural services delivery grant due to be reduced next year. So today I can confirm that I will increase the rural services delivery grant by £15 million in 2018-19, meaning that the total figure will remain at £65 million for the remainder of the current four-year settlement.
We have also heard concerns about proposed changes to the new homes bonus. To date we have made almost £7 billion in NHB payments to reward the building of 1.4 million homes. Over £946 million in new homes bonus payments will be allocated in 2018-19, rewarding local authorities for their work in fixing our broken housing market. I consulted on proposals to link new homes bonus payments to the number of successful planning appeals and considered raising the new homes bonus payment baseline. Following conversations with the sectors, I have been persuaded of the importance of continuity and certainty in this area. So today I can confirm that in the year ahead no changes will be made to the way new homes bonus payments work and that the new homes bonus payment baseline will be maintained at 0.4%.
As I set out in the housing White Paper, local authorities will be able to increase planning fees by 20% where they commit to investing the additional income in their planning services. This is a significant step towards addressing the widespread concerns of underresourced local planning authorities. Following discussions with the sector I am also announcing a continuation of capital receipts flexibility for a further three years. This scheme gives local authorities the continued freedom to use capital receipts from the sale of their own assets. This will help fund the costs of transformation and release savings.
One particular issue causing concern for some councils is so-called negative RSG. This is where changes in revenue support grant have led to a downward adjustment of some local authorities’ business rates top-up or tariff for 2019-20. I recognise the strength of feeling in local government around this issue, so I can confirm that my department will be looking at fair and affordable options for dealing with negative RSG and will formally consult on proposals in the spring, so that the findings are in ahead of next year’s settlement.
Of course, anyone who has spoken to anyone in local government will be aware of concerns about funding for adult and children’s social care. That is why, over the past 12 months, we have put billions of pounds of extra funding into the sector, and why the Department for Education is spending more than £200 million on innovation and improvement in children’s social care. At spring Budget, an additional £2 billion was announced for adult social care over the next three years. With the freedom to raise more money more quickly through the use of the social care precept that I announced this time last year, we have given councils access to £9.25 billion more dedicated funding for adult social care over three years. But we also need to find a long-term solution to challenges that are not going to go away. That is why we have already announced that a Green Paper on future challenges within adult social care will be published in the summer of 2018.
Finally, I am conscious of calls for further flexibility in the setting of council tax. While we all want to ease growing pressure on local government services, I am sure that none of us wants to see hard-working taxpayers saddled with ever-higher bills. This settlement strikes a balance between those two aims, giving councils the ability to increase their core council tax requirement by an additional 1% without a local referendum, bringing the core principle in line with inflation. We have abolished Whitehall capping. Under the Localism Act, local government can increase council tax as it wishes, but excessive rises need to be approved by local residents in a referendum. This provides an important check and balance against the excessive increases seen under the last Labour Government, when council tax bills doubled.
This change, combined with the additional flexibility on the adult social care precept that I confirmed last year, gives local authorities the independence they need to help relieve pressure on local services such as adults’ and children’s services, while also recognising that many households face their own pressures. In addition, directly elected mayors will decide the required level of precept by agreement with their combined authorities. I am sure that voters will be watching closely to ensure that this freedom is not abused—as will I.
I can also confirm that the Government intend to defer the setting of referendum principles for town and parish councils for three years. This is subject to the sector taking all available steps to mitigate the need for council tax increases and the Government seeing clear evidence of restraint in the increases set by the sector as a whole. I have also agreed measures with the Home Secretary to make it easier for police and crime commissioners to meet local demand pressures by allowing a £12 council tax flexibility for police services, raising an additional £139 million to support our police.
This settlement recognises the need to keep spending under control while also tackling many of the issues that have been raised by local government over the past year. With two years of real-terms increases in resources available to local government, it will give local authorities the funding and freedom they need to make decisions in the best interests of the communities they serve. It is a settlement that offers councils the resources they need, the stability they have requested and the fairness they deserve, and I commend it to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I first draw the attention of the House to my interests as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Secondly, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the other place earlier today.
On reading the Statement or listening to the noble Lord delivering it, you could be forgiven for thinking there was not a problem, but of course, the opposite is true: the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that between 2010 and 2020 local authorities will have had their direct funding cut by 79%. Anyone involved in local government will be fully aware of the serious pressure on budgets, resources, staff morale and the communities local authorities seek to serve. While local government will welcome some of the piecemeal measures being offered here, what has been announced today is not enough and is extremely disappointing. Missing also is any evidence of a coherent plan, and the lack of vision is troubling. Announcing a few million pounds here and there for specific initiatives while overall depleting local government funds is a recipe for disaster.
Local government delivers a vast range of the core services that people rely on day in, day out, and the Government need a new approach. I pay tribute to the staff employed by local authorities up and down the country for the job they do in difficult circumstances. They deserve a decent pay rise; perhaps the noble Lord can refer to that when he responds.
The noble Lord said that the Government are publishing a formal consultation on a review of relative needs and resources. Can he explain what he means by relative needs, and what is the direction of travel he is embarking upon? I disagree with him that the budget allocations have served councils and communities well in recent years.
The Government have announced that they are moving ahead with another phase of their business rates retention programme. Can the noble Lord tell the House where they are with the fair funding review and whether that is in effect being incorporated into the consultation he referred to in his Statement? I see that there are to be five new business rate retention pilots, and it was no surprise to see that Surrey made it on to the list. I am sure that Councillor Hodge and his colleagues on Surrey County Council will be pleased.
Rural areas have specific problems, so it is pleasing that the rural areas delivery grant will not be reduced next year. I am also pleased that none of the changes that were rumoured to be happening to the new homes bonus have come about; that will be a relief to many.
The noble Lord referred to the 20% increase in planning fees. Certainly, everything helps, but it is disappointing that the department to date has not allowed even one council to trial full cost recovery of planning fees. I do not see the objection to having one council trial this. The fact that council tax payers are subsidising the planning process is a matter of regret; we should seek to eliminate that unfairness and thereby release funds to be spent on local priorities.
One of the most serious issues facing local government is the crisis in adult social care, and the measures in the Statement make no progress towards finding the solution to the problem of providing quality care services for our ageing population. This will be a disappointment to local authorities, as will the failure to deal with the crisis in children’s services: we have seen a reduction in early years interventions and a record number of 72,000 children taken into care. Last year 170,000 children were subject to child protection plans, which is double the number seven years ago. Reductions in the amount of money available for important early years intervention just leads to unbearable pressure and risk, which is both shocking and completely avoidable.
Analysis by the Local Government Association revealed that in 2015-16, 75% of councils exceeded their children’s social care budgets by, in total, £605 million. Can the noble Lord tell the House how he justifies measures which further expand the crises in children’s services and adult social care and do not give local government the stability it needs? Why does he think it acceptable to place a further burden on council tax payers in the next financial year, instead of providing the additional funds that would equate to the rise that can be applied to the council tax for adult social care without having to hold a local referendum?
As Christmas approaches, the homelessness situation is shocking. The Government are not providing the necessary funds to help local authorities deal with it. Imposing legislative requirements without adequate funding will not address the problem. The Government will not face up to the crisis, and the measures here provide little comfort to those in desperate need and those who seek to provide these valuable services.
My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
The key test of this Statement is whether the provisional finance settlement will alleviate the general funding pressures facing local councils. I think that the answer to that question is: hardly at all. As the letter from the Communities Secretary accompanying the Statement explains, the resources available for local government will rise from £44.3 billion in the current year, 2017-18, to £45.6 billion in two years’ time, 2019-20. This represents an increase well under the current rate of inflation and does not reflect rising demand to the extent that it should. In recent years, pressures have grown significantly because of year-on-year underfunding. In the end, the question is how much is local government actually receiving to spend overall, and not simply how much is it going to have over the next two years? Nevertheless, I welcome the extra support allocated for rural services and the thinking on the new homes bonus and negative RSG. However, I hope the Minister will be able to say a further word about government thinking on business rates and what their ultimate objective is.
As I understand the Statement, there is to be an extension to the number of 100% business rate retention pilots. At the same time, all local authorities will be able to keep more of their business rate income, equivalent to 75% overall in 2019-20. Alongside this, there will be a new system of fair funding—or at least I assume that that is the objective. That will be introduced from 2020-21. For the new system to succeed it will require redistribution to reflect needs and resources. Will the Minister say a further word about what the Government are trying to do? Are they trying adequately to reflect needs and resources, or are they aiming at 100% business rate retention? If the latter, where will the support needed for poorer authorities come from?
We have heard about the pressures on children’s and adult social care. There is an issue of principle here. This time last year, I said that council tax should not be used to make up deficits in resourcing, particularly as demand rises in children’s services and adult social care. I do not understand why it should take 15 months from the announcement in March this year of some extra central funding for adult social care to the production of a Green Paper in the summer of next year to discuss the problems of adequate funding for adult social care. I think that the problem is much more urgent than that.
To take another example of things happening too slowly, the 20% increase which is to be permitted for planning fees was debated in your Lordships’ House many months ago. There is a demand now for additional planning expenditure, so I wish government could work a bit more quickly in dealing with some of the real problems on the ground.
There is a question about council tax referendum principles and the right of councils to increase council tax by the rate of inflation without a referendum. I would prefer that there were no referendum system at all and that local authorities were freed up to make the decisions they think are right in their area. In the end, they will face the verdict of voters through the ballot box. What is happening is that the Government are increasing council tax further. As I understand it, an extra 1% is to be permitted without a referendum so that, in practice, the rate of inflation is met at least in the next year. This is putting the cost of supporting national services on to the council tax payer. I am not convinced—and I said the same thing last year—that this is the right way to go. Poorer authorities, in particular, have a lower council tax base, so if the aim is to redistribute, simply charging extra through council tax to pay for services in the more deprived authorities seems not to be the right way to go.
Finally, can the Minister confirm that the Government intend to produce a model which is fair? The words “fair funding” were used a great deal this time last year. I very much hope that those words will continue to be used. For funding to be fair, council tax payers must also have fair demands on their wallets. Will the Minister bear that in mind? I hope that, for the rest of this Parliament, the Government will not simply load council tax so that local government receives more complaints because their council has been underfunded by central government for a considerable time.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, is always straining at the leash. I look forward to his contribution later.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Shipley, for their contributions and send all our best wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, who is unwell. We wish her a speedy recovery.
First, I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I join him in thanking local government officials who work incredibly hard on behalf of their local councils and, indeed, of us all. I will try to clear up a point he made initially about consultation. The consultation on this local government settlement is open until 16 January. The consultation on the fair funding review is open until 12 March at 11.45 am for some reason. I do not know why it is 11.45 am—but just before noon. It will be looking at relative needs, issues such as deprivation and so on. I can confirm that the intention is to ensure—as I suppose the name suggests—that we have a system that is fair across the board and one that achieves some balance.
I appreciate that they do not totally coincide, but council tax payers often also pay income and other forms of tax, so it is a mistake to see the two as totally separate classes of people—council tax payers on the one hand and those who make contributions to central taxation on the other. They are often the same people and we have to appreciate that these services cost all of us money. This is not to say that there are not important issues to be dealt with and a balance to be struck.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to five new business rate retention pilots. It is actually 10. Through him, I thank Lewisham for being part of this. Indeed, all London boroughs are contributing. We had an incredible response although not, I regret, from Newcastle or any authorities in that area, but we had 240 local authorities wishing to be taken into consideration. The 10 pilots will include local authorities from the relevant areas; in all, I think that 89 local authorities are participating in these pilots. So obviously we will see how those pilots proceed and will hope to gain something from them. Both noble Lords asked about the ability to carry the pilots forward. The intention is to look at the issue in the round.
There was a question about adult social care. The review will report no later than the summer of 2018. I appreciate, and sometimes share, the anxiety to move more quickly than we do, but it is important to get these things right rather than to go quickly. I remind noble Lords—although I am sure they do not need reminding—that this year we have had a general election. That has taken some time out of the process for understandable reasons, as I am sure noble Lords will agree.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to a trial of full cost recovery of planning fees. He has previously raised that issue, and I undertook to have a look at what I thought was an interesting and valuable idea. I assure him that we are looking at that possibility.
In the meantime, we have put an extra £2 billion into adult social care and £200 million into children’s social care, and the Department for Education is looking at that. As I said, the review is due to report by the summer of 2018.
I should repeat—I believe I am repeating it, unless I missed a paragraph in the Statement—that the referendum limit is now going up to just under 3%, so an increase of just under 3% is possible without a referendum. I remind noble Lords that a referendum on this has been held on only one occasion—I think I am right in saying that; I will write if I am wrong—and that was unsuccessful. That perhaps indicates that there is not such an appetite out there as is supposed for council tax increases.
Both noble Lords referred to some of the issues that they welcome. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, certainly referred to the rural services grant, the new homes bonus, the negative RSG and the pilots, and I very much welcome that. I confirm that we wish the model to be fair. I think that the noble Lord referred to the new burden being placed on local authorities in relation to homelessness, which he said we are not funding. In fact, we are funding it under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. That legislation had a broad welcome in this House and was steered through this House by the noble Lord, Lord Best, with government support. We are committed to £71.2 million to help fund the new burden.
If I have not covered all the points raised by the noble Lords, I hope that they will be content if I pick up anything that I have missed in writing.
My Lords, first, I remind noble Lords of my interests listed in the register— namely, that I am the chairman of the Local Government Association. I am also the leader of South Holland District Council, which is in Lincolnshire, so I thank the Government very much for letting us be one of the pilots. We much appreciate that.
As my noble friend might expect, I need to be critical of the fact that again adult social care was not mentioned. I cannot see the new funding in a positive light, as the £2 billion will not actually be £2 billion; it will be about £900 million this year, which will be insufficient to deal with the pressures. However, I have every faith that my noble friend and the Secretary of State will be able to persuade the Treasury that it will be in this Treasury’s best interests to find additional money. We all know that the people most affected by adult social care crises are those who vote. Also, as has been said, there has been a massive rise in the number of looked-after children. That will need to be reflected in direct funding to local councils, which will have to pick up that burden. However, I am confident that there is still time for my noble friend and the rest of the DCLG team to persuade the Treasury that that needs to be met.
I do not want to carry on being critical, so I will make some really happy noises. The fact that the changes to the new homes bonus flagged in the last few months will not be implemented will be well received by local government. Clearly, that would have been a counterproductive move and we are pleased that it is not happening. On a South Holland-specific basis, if the Government are looking for somewhere safe to trial the setting of planning fees, somebody whom I know will probably be writing a letter in support of that and offering their council as a pilot. They would not use it to stop development, which, I know, is one of the risks that the Government are concerned about. They are worried that some people might use it as a way of stopping planning permissions being granted in the first place by pushing up the fees to a prohibitive level.
All in all, I think that the Statement was a game of two halves. There was quite a lot to be glad about. The 1% council tax increase was a massive move forward—by 50%—although it is still not massive in terms of cash. In the case of South Holland, I think that it will increase my council tax by about 15p a year over and above what was already in the budget, so it will not make a fantastic difference. Given that 50% of my council tax goes to a drainage board and not to direct services offered by the council, a bit more flexibility around that would be appreciated. However, from the sector’s point of view, it is a welcome move. A move to relinquish the Treasury’s control of what we can charge locally is much appreciated but it would be a much better idea to remove the Treasury from the equation altogether. It is a local tax taken from local people for local services, and that should not require HMT to go anywhere near it.
I am still looking forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. I am sure there will be time.
I thank my noble friend very much for the welcome he has given to the pilot in Lincolnshire, and we certainly look forward to seeing how that pans out. I also thank him for the qualified welcome for the local government settlement from the Local Government Association. I have read its response and it welcomes some of what it is in the settlement. I can well understand its position. It would be most extraordinary if in any year the Local Government Association said, “That’s everything we want”, and my noble friend did not disappoint on that front.
I thank him for the welcome that he gave regarding the new homes bonus. I agree that there is a challenge in relation to adult social care—as I said, we have the summer review coming up—and I also agree that there is a challenge in relation to children’s social care. We have recognised that with additional funding but I note what he says.
I also note what he says in relation to South Holland in general, although perhaps not his request to trial full cost recovery of planning fees. We have not yet agreed to that. It is something that we are looking at, and obviously we would make sure that it went through a proper process if we did agree to it. However, I thank my noble friend for his response.
My Lords, first, I refer to my interests as a Newcastle city councillor, in which capacity this is the 51st local government settlement that I have had to engage with.
I notice that the Statement bears the heading “Check Against Delivery”. I assure the noble Lord that local government will certainly check against the delivery of the Government’s intentions as expressed in the Statement, and it will certainly hold the Government to account for the consequences of this settlement.
Perhaps I may refer in the first instance to the question of business rates. The Statement says:
“The aim is for local authorities to retain 75% of business rates from 2020-21 … From 2020-21 business rates will be redistributed according to the outcome of the new needs assessment”.
I have two questions about that. First, how far have the Government got in developing a system for equalising—or, at any rate, balancing—the distribution of business rates? Secondly, are they now looking at the position of firms such as Amazon with large out-of-town premises, paying next to nothing in business rates and, for that matter, probably diminishing the return of business rates in local authorities with this new economy that is forming? Will the Government look at the implications of that for financing local government, as well as perhaps in other respects?
There is also a distinct question about the funding of children’s social care, which is said to amount to some,
“£200 million on innovation and improvement in children’s social care”.
The present situation is that the funding is £600 million short of what is required to support the existing services. Even if this £200 million were devoted to closing part of that gap, it would still leave those services substantially underfunded. It seems to me that the Government have not taken the right step in adequately funding what is a crucial service and one which, as my noble friend pointed out, is growing and will be an ever-greater call on local government finances.
I also have a question about the slightly odd wording, if I might put it that way, on page 6 of the Statement, in which the Government announce their intention to give,
“local authorities the continued freedom to use capital receipts from the sale of their own assets. This will help fund the costs of transformation and release savings”.
But if these are capital receipts, they cannot be used for revenue purposes—can they?—which the Statement appears to imply. They can be used for capital purposes which might have marginal impact on the revenue side, but they cannot be used to contribute significantly to the revenue situation.
My noble friend referred to the shortfall in education expenditure, but there is clearly also a significant shortfall in social care, to which the Statement made no reference at all, as he pointed out. That is a serious burden on local authorities. Ultimately, and this is the other side of the problem, that will probably increase the costs for the National Health Service. If local government cannot provide social care, the call on the health service, and in particular hospitals, will grow disproportionately. The Statement makes no effort to deal with that situation.
So far, the check against delivery is not encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether, over time, the Government can improve on what has been a pretty downbeat result for local authorities and, more importantly, their citizens.
My Lords, the noble Lord referred to his 51 years in local government. We know from his contribution today that he has not lost any of his enthusiasm—like a young colt, he was anxious to intervene and make his point, and I congratulate him on that. However, it was the usual dismal litany of matters that he set out, and unlike his noble friend on the Labour side, he did not welcome some of the points in the Statement. Let me try to deal with some of the perfectly fair points that he made, some of which I will respond to, if I may, subsequent to the Statement.
On how far the fair funding review has gone, as I indicated we are opening the consultation today for response by 12 March, with the intention of bringing it in in 2021. Obviously, there is thinking on the broad general principle, but we want to see how we look at issues of deprivation and provide a fair funding formula.
The noble Lord referred to the broader question, which has been raised before, perfectly validly, of online shopping and the fact that there are some very large players such as, but not limited to, Amazon. He suggested that it is perhaps a question of rebalancing some of the ways that we raise money. I will cover that in a letter, if I may, but from memory I think that there is an international aspect to this issue that kicks in in the spring—there is reference to this issue and we are participating in that. I appreciate that that is a rather woolly reference, but I will clarify it in correspondence.
The noble Lord referred to the significant challenge, which certainly exists, in children’s social care and adult social care. We have provided already a precept of 3% from the last Statement a year ago, and we have increased flexibility this year in relation to the referendum, which helps. However, I accept that there is a significant challenge. I accept also that the noble Lord is right to say that we will be checked against delivery.
The noble Lord made a point about capital purposes, and we are both mere lawyers in this regard. However, I think that there is probably some accounting process whereby transformational investment from capital funding, which would help with the revenue side of things, is classified as capital. I suspect that that is the case, but again I will take up that somewhat technical point in correspondence.
The noble Lord is right to refer to a broader consideration of the complex—or perhaps not so complex—interrelationship between the health service and social care and the need to get that right. This has challenged Governments of all colours in the past, but I accept that there is a broader question that we need to look at.
The noble Lord will be pleased to know that, in relation to Newcastle, there is a £2.3 million increase in funding from this settlement, quite apart from the referendum uplift, and a maximum additional funding of £6 million as a result of the council tax flexibility previously announced. I am sure that that is of some comfort.
My Lords, the Statement mentions parish councils,
“taking all available steps to mitigate the need for council tax increases”.
It would help if the Government tried not to impose new costs unnecessarily on parish councils. I refer particularly to the proposal that every parish council, however small, should have to appoint a data protection officer, who apparently cannot be the parish clerk. I declare my interest, having the honour of chairing the Marlesford parish council. We have only seven councillors for 230 people, and our precept is only £2,000 a year. We worked out that if we were to have a data protection officer—who has to be a “qualified” professional—that alone could add 10% to our precept. I believe that that is unacceptable, and I hope that the Government will do something about it.
My Lords, first of all, I thank my noble friend for all that he does in relation to parish councils; they are an important part of the patchwork of democratic participation in Britain and are very much valued. If I may, I will take up his point about the data protection officer and come back to him, because I am not sure of the answer. However, I accept that in a small council a cost like that cannot be easily avoided. If there is some way of mitigating it, I will certainly get back to my noble friend with the suggestion.
My Lords, I listened carefully to the Minister’s Statement. Speaking as a former councillor on a local authority for 10 or 11 years, I know that many areas in the country are very deprived. Some of them are not only the most deprived areas in the country, but it is sad to see that in England and Wales we have some of the most deprived areas in Europe. I did not hear much in the Statement about plans to uplift those areas from the deprivation they have suffered for decades.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the points that he raised. First of all, we are talking here about a settlement only for England—obviously, Wales is dealt with by the National Assembly for Wales. On funding generally for Wales, the noble Lord will be aware of the Barnett formula, which takes account in its own peculiar way of the needs of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England, the fair funding formula will seek to address some of the points that the noble Lord quite rightly raises about deprivation. As I indicated in the Statement, it is important that we look at that, and it is now open for consultation until 12 March.