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House of Lords: Membership

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the proposals contained in the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House, published on 31 October 2017, for new appointments to the House of Lords to be on a “two-out, one-in” basis.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Balfe on being the first Peer in the history of the House of Lords to ask a virtual Question. Those who know me know that it will be the ultimate technological stress test for me to get through this. The Government are grateful for the work of the Burns Committee. I refer my noble friend to the response of the former Prime Minister in February 2018.

My Lords, I am sure the House will agree that, particularly at the moment, we need to look to our reputation. This is not helped by the mass creation of new Peers. However, no Peer can be introduced to sit in the House without following the Standing Orders, in particular Standing Order 1.12 of the 24th edition of the Companion, 2015. It would seem that alterations to the normal procedure are achieved with the agreement of the House. So, a resolution of the House to amend this resolution, to reduce introductions to the number in the Burns formula, would theoretically be the way to try to import the target set by the noble Lord, Lord Burns; new Peers could be created but would have to wait to be introduced. Does the Minister agree that this matter could usefully be referred to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee—to look at this suggestion as a way of bringing some discipline to the procedure?

My Lords, it is not for me to decide what should be referred to the committee. The size of the House is reducing, given retirements and departures; we have, sadly, heard some today. However, some new Members are essential to keep the expertise and outlook of the House of Lords fresh.

My Lords, I congratulate all those in IT, the usual channels and the Procedure Committee for their tremendous achievement in making this possible in just two weeks. It is extraordinary; I thank them all. While I entirely support the two-out, one-in plan, if it fails to deliver for whatever reason, will my noble friend the Minister not rule out other measures to reduce numbers? These could include creating non-legislative Peers who would not sit in this place, looking at an age retirement point, or simply ejecting those who failed to participate in our proceedings above a threshold of, say, 25% or 30% of sittings in any Parliament.

My Lords, my noble friend makes some concrete suggestions, some of which would require legislation. The Government’s view is that any reform of your Lordships’ House would need careful consideration and should not be brought forward in a piecemeal fashion. On a minimum participation threshold, I think many noble Lords feel that it is not the quantity of participation that matters in this House but its quality.

My Lords, I am of course strongly in favour of the proposal for two out, one in, as it is an important part of the transition to a smaller House. However, I would not like to lose sight of some of the other issues which the Lord Speaker’s Committee felt were important in the longer term. We concluded that the hard work of getting the numbers down would be in vain unless a cap on the size of the House is maintained and the allocation of new Members reflects each party’s electoral performance and progress in achieving departure. Does the Minister agree that without some combination of proposals such as these it is difficult to see how we will bring an end to the almost continual growth in numbers that we have seen since the 1999 Act?

My Lords, as a matter of fact, the recent history is not of numbers increasing. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee for the inventive and constructive suggestions they have made and commend the spirit with which many in the House are following them. However, the longer-term proposals of the committee to maintain a steady-state size require further careful thought and wider engagement, particularly with the House of Commons. That was a point made by the previous Prime Minister.

I think we can take it that the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, is not there, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.

My Lords, this requires a simple yes or no. For clarity, can the Minister tell us whether the present Prime Minister has committed himself to the same self-restraint as of his predecessor in relation to the Burns committee recommendations?

My Lords, I do not usually respond when a pistol is put to my head, but I have already told the House that some new Members are essential, always, to keep the expertise and outlook of the House fresh.

My Lords, further to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, he will know that a year after his original report, he produced a progress report, which set benchmarks or targets for each of the main groups, for the remaining years of the 2017 Parliament. Since then, we have had a general election. Would it not make sense for that committee to be reconvened and new benchmarks for the current Parliament to be set, so that we can see what progress is being made towards the target of 600? Do the Government accept that 600 is a realistic target to aim for?

My Lords, on the first point, it is a matter for your Lordships’ House. We have had two follow-up reports from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the Lord Speaker, which have been very informative and helpful. As far as a specific number is concerned, the previous Prime Minister did not commit to that; nor I think will this one.

My Lords, in addition to two out, one in, there is the issue of the hereditary Peers having a different policy: one out, one in. Given that the Leader of the House got agreement before our recent Recess to postpone hereditary by-elections until September, would it now be possible to suspend all such by-elections as they arise, so that we are at least working towards two out, one in, rather than the hereditary Peer system of one out, one in?

No, my Lords. This matter has been given extensive debate—I think “extensive” is a fair word in the context of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. The Government’s position remains that reform of the House of Lords should be considered at the due and appropriate time, and not conducted in a piecemeal fashion.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I very much apologise to those Members who were not able to ask their supplementary questions.