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House of Lords: Size

Volume 791: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2018


Asked by

My Lords, as I said yesterday, the Government are committed to working with others in your Lordships’ House to address the question of its size. Noble Lords will no doubt be aware that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister wrote to the Lord Speaker on 20 February to set out the Government’s position in more detail, and a copy of that letter is in the Library of the House.

I thank the Minister for his reply and for his response to the PNQ yesterday, which helpfully set out a number of points. Bearing in mind his reassurances then, does he recognise that there was widespread surprise and dismay about the timing and number of the appointments? Given the very widespread support in the House for the Burns report and its recommendations, does he agree that although “one in, two out” is a useful yardstick, the quicker we can get down to the Burns target of 600, the greater the respect in which this House will be held as a self-regulating body?

The noble and right reverend Lord’s Question no longer has the sparkle it had when he tabled it on Friday as a Topical Question. Indeed, it is the 15th question on the composition of the House that I have answered in the past week—or to be more accurate, it is the 15th question I have been asked.

In response to the noble and right reverend Lord, who was a member of the Wakeham commission and spoke in support of the Burns proposals in the debate in December, I say that it is time for us to move on from the adversarial position we had yesterday. I apologise and ask for absolution for any role I may have played in that. We need to put behind us the announcement, which was a legacy issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, and address ourselves to the question posed yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, which the noble and right reverend Lord has just mentioned; namely, the time has come to arrive at an understanding for the system of arrivals and departures from the House between now and the end of this Parliament, within the framework—if not necessarily to the letter—of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. As some noble Lords said in the debate on Tuesday, if we do not do this ourselves, somebody will do it to us.

I gently suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Young, that he would not be answering 15 questions if he could give us one answer. The answer that I would like him to give us is the one that was presented by the Burns report, which has been largely accepted by the House, and indeed implicitly by the Government; that is, the completely anomalous position of having 92 protected places while trying to reduce the size of the House, so that, following last week’s vacancy caused by the retirement of Earl Baldwin, this House will be by law obliged—against its policy—to replace that exiting Peer with a new Peer. If the Minister will simply answer yes to my question of whether the Government will put an end to that anomaly, I guarantee that he will not get any more questions from me.

There are, however, many others who might fill the gap. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was the first to admit that his Bill would have but a marginal impact on the size of the House, which is the subject of this debate, dependent as it is on the mortality of the hereditary Peers—none of us would wish to see that accelerated. So far as his Bill is concerned, as I said when he asked a question last week, unusually we have offered additional time to him. There will be another Friday when he can take the Bill forward and I have made it absolutely clear that the Government will not obstruct it. It is up to him and the House to make progress with the additional time that we will make available.

My Lords, if memory serves me right, I believe that Jeremy Corbyn gave an undertaking that, if elected leader of the Labour Party, he would not nominate any new Peers. If that is the case, can my noble friend the Minister speculate on what might have led him to change his mind?

Certainly, one positive outcome from the announcement last Thursday was that Jeremy Corbyn recognised that the House, as at present constituted, has a role to play in holding the Government to account and refreshing its membership. My noble friend is right that when Mr Corbyn was campaigning to be leader in 2015, he pledged:

“I don’t think there should be any more appointments to the House of Lords”.

When pressed as to whether he would appoint new Labour Peers as Labour leader, he said:

“I see no case for it”.

I am delighted that sensible heads on the Benches opposite me have persuaded him to change his mind and help refresh those Benches. Speaking personally, I hope that at some point in the future Alan Johnson and Jack Straw might join us.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the Institute for Government this morning that Andrew Tyrie cannot be an independent chair of the Competition and Markets Authority and take the Government whip? Will he suggest that he should follow the precedent of the noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, and sit as a Cross-Bencher?

Andrew Tyrie was a robustly independent-minded chair of the Treasury Select Committee in the last Parliament and regularly held the Government to account. I spoke to him this morning and I can confirm that he will be sitting as a non-affiliated Peer. I gather that if you want to join the Cross Benches, you have to do a period of quarantine if you have been a member of a party. Since he took up the job as chair of the CMA, he will sit as a non-affiliated Peer and therefore not be in receipt of the Conservative whip.

My Lords, the original Question from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, asked what plans the Government have to reduce the size of the House. As illuminating and entertaining as the Minister’s answers always are—they are very enjoyable—I have not yet heard the Government’s plans. Given that the only sensible, credible plan on the table is that of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee, and that other parties have agreed that if the Government abide by its terms then we will too, is that not the plan which the Government have to accept and move forward on?

The Prime Minister set out the Government’s plans in her four-page letter to the Lord Speaker dated 20 February, which I referred to. There are two basic elements. One is restraint on appointments; the Prime Minister has said that she will sign up to it and I think that she has already shown that. The other is to take forward the work which the noble Lord, Lord Burns, referred to yesterday. The Government are prepared to play their part in those discussions as the Burns committee continues its work.

Rather than the Government just being prepared to play their part, is there not a part for the Leader of the House to play in bringing together the leaders of the other groups? Does the Minister not agree—indeed, he pointed this out acutely yesterday—that relying on retirements and, even more so, on deaths produces an unfair and disproportionate result between the parties? If we are to succeed by our own volition in reducing the size of the House, we need the leaders of those groups to come together and agree on a fair formula so to do.

The noble Baroness makes a powerful case. The Government will play our part, within the framework of the Burns committee recommendations, in getting the size of the House down. That committee has now been reconvened and the Government will listen carefully to any proposal that it makes. We are anxious to play our part in reducing the size of the House. As I have said before, and without wishing to be provocative, we have led the way, in promoting retirements from our Benches.