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House of Lords: Membership

Volume 788: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to pause making further nominations for membership of the House of Lords by virtue of a life peerage until arrangements for reducing the size of the House have been agreed.

My Lords, while the House cannot keep growing indefinitely, it is important that the House’s expertise can be refreshed and renewed from time to time to ensure that it continues to fulfil its vital role in scrutinising and revising legislation. The Government thank the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for their work and the House for expressing its views in the debate on 19 December. We are now considering the committee’s recommendations carefully.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but does he recall the debate on 19 December, when the collective wisdom of this House was very strongly that the Prime Minister should show restraint in making any further nominations to the House while we are considering the question of the size? Would it not be an embarrassment and make a nonsense of any further consideration of the Burns report if the Prime Minister were to go ahead and make a series of nominations before we have considered it fully?

The point that the noble Lord has just made was made in the debate. I thought that it was dealt with very well indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who said:

“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”.—[Official Report, 19/12/17; col. 2017.]

I hope the noble Lord is reassured by the words of the former Cabinet Secretary.

My Lords, I always enjoy listening to the noble Lord’s answers: he has perfect comic timing. As my noble friend Lord Foulkes said, there is widespread support in your Lordships’ House for the principles and recommendations of the Burns committee to reduce the size of your Lordships’ House. We know that for Burns to be effective the Prime Minister has to exercise restraint and a sensible, proportionate approach to appointments. It would be entirely unacceptable for Mrs May to announce a raft of new appointments and only later to accept Burns—I think that that was part of the point that my noble friend was making. I am happy now to make an offer and give a commitment to the noble Lord and to the Government that if the Government are prepared to accept the Burns proposals, including that departures from and introductions to this House should be on the basis of two out, one in and a 15-year term limit, probably from the recent general election, we will abide by that. Will the Government agree to do so as well?

As I said, the Government are considering the report and will make their views known shortly. But to pick up the point that the noble Baroness just made, in her speech—she made a good speech, if I may say so, as did my noble friend and the Leader of the Lib Dems—she said:

“It is not about giving up patronage or appointments but about showing some restraint, as it used to be”.—[Official Report, 19/12/17; col. 2105.]

The Prime Minister has demonstrated restraint. Putting on one side David Cameron’s resignation honours, in the past 18 months the Prime Minister has appointed eight new Peers: five Cross-Benchers and three Ministers. I think that is demonstrating the restraint that the noble Baroness has just asked for.

My Lords, is there not another way that this little dilemma might be resolved? It is quite clear that when we look at the electorate as a whole and the votes that have been cast in recent elections, the Lib Dem Peers are grossly overrepresented here. Suppose 50 of them did the decent thing and resigned, this would all be resolved.

If I may say so, my noble friend’s question is addressed not to me but to the Benches opposite. It is indeed the case that on almost any objective basis the Liberal Democrats are overrepresented. In credit to them, they actually recognised this during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, when he spoke on behalf of the Lib Dems, recognised that their numbers would have to come down under the proposals of the Burns report. However, for the Lib Dems to unilaterally cut their numbers without anybody else doing anything at all would be to exhibit a generosity for which the Liberal Democrats are not well known.

My Lords, looking beyond the issue of restraint at the current time, the conclusion of the report was:

“Our proposals would only work, though, if the Prime Minister (and her successors) undertook to appoint no more new members than there were vacancies, and to do so in the proportions implied by our recommendations”.

As has been said, the agreement of the Prime Minister is absolutely central to implementation of the report, and that was stressed throughout the debate. The Leader of the House was in listening mode during that debate. I ask the Minister: has the Leader had the opportunity to discuss the issues with the Prime Minister, and if she has not yet, will she do so in the very near future?

As the noble Baroness said, my noble friend sat through nearly all the speeches in that debate. I can say that she will be having a discussion with the Prime Minister to discuss both the Burns report and the debate that we had in this House, and the Government’s recommendations or views will be known in due course. I hope the House will understand that there were only three sitting days after the debate on 19 December. We have been back after Christmas for only three days. The Prime Minister has had personnel matters on her mind in the meantime. So I think the Government are entitled to a little bit of time before they come out with their views.

In the discussion to which the Minister has just referred, will he and his colleagues make it absolutely clear to the Prime Minister that a very large majority of the speakers in that debate on 19 December made it absolutely clear that the proposals of the Lord Speaker’s committee are wholly dependent on the Prime Minister accepting the principle that was inherent right through the report that there must be two out before there can be one in? Will the Ministers on the Front Bench make that clear to the Prime Minister? If she is not prepared to respect that, how can we expect anything to come from this exercise?

In the analysis of the speeches in that debate, by my calculation, only nine out of 95 contributors were opposed to what was in the recommendations. I think that is as near a consensus as you are ever going to get in this House. I have to say that I thought the noble Lord struck a slightly different tone in his wind-up speech from that of his noble friend Lord Newby. Winding up for the Liberal Democrats —despite what the noble Lord has just said—he referred to Burns as,

“a temporary expedient … a process appropriate for the membership of a gentlemen’s club”—[Official Report, 19/12/17; col. 2100]—

and an “incestuous” process that runs the risk of leading to our abolition. That does not sound to me like wholehearted support for Burns.