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House of Lords: Number of Members

Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for an upper limit on the number of members of the House of Lords.

My Lords, the size of the House of Lords needs addressing, but given retirements and other departures, some new Members are essential to keep the expertise and outlook of the House fresh. This will ensure that the House continues to fulfil its role in scrutinising and revising legislation, while respecting the primacy of the Commons.

My Lords, when the Minister checks Hansard, he will see that that was not an Answer to the Question that I put. Is he aware of the concern right across the House that, at a time when we are voluntarily reducing our numbers, the Government seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction? Have the Johnson Government abandoned the May Government’s support for reducing our size, and do they believe that there should be any limit whatever on how much larger the House should become?

My Lords, the preceding Prime Minister did not accept the Burns committee’s recommendation that the Prime Minister should commit to a specific cap on numbers, and that is the position of the Government.

My Lords, is not the truth that the Government are doing everything possible to belittle this place by stuffing it, staffing the Tory Benches and by other means? Is not the problem for the Government that they want to reduce the legitimacy of this House because they do not like our stand on humanitarian principles and the rule of law?

My Lords, the noble Lord sat in this House when it was much larger than it is today. So far as stuffing the House is concerned, Mr Blair put 374 Peers in this place.

My Lords, my party, Plaid Cymru, has four times as many Members in the House of Commons as it has in this Chamber. If the proportions were correct, we would have a Chamber of just 200 Members. Given that that is not going to happen, is the only way for smaller parties to get a fair voice here by having a fully elected Chamber that would deliver greater representational fairness and give this Chamber the political credibility that it currently lacks?

My Lords, the voice of Wales is extraordinarily important, and it is well served in this House by some of the outstanding Members who come from that great Principality. The noble Lord makes a point of policy. The last coalition Government presented to your Lordships and the other place proposals for an elected House, but they did not at that time find favour.

My Lords, last year, your Lordships’ House demonstrated that it was spectacularly out of step with the country as a whole over Brexit. Does the Minister agree that it is more important to remedy that than to focus on the numerical size of the House?

My Lords, every Member of your Lordships’ House has the right to express a personal opinion, and long may we do so. However, it is important, as my noble friend says, that the House reflects on the risk of becoming out of step with public opinion on this great question.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, following the huge majority for the 2012 House of Lords Reform Bill which Sir George Young, as he then was, secured at Second Reading, this House could by now be well on the way to being a 450-strong senate with a democratic mandate? Further, will he acknowledge that it was only the silly party games played by the then Labour leadership with reactionary Tory Back-Benchers that stopped that Bill in its tracks?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord has rather upset our colleagues on the Labour Benches. Many histories of that period could be written. The fact is that legislation was presented and, as I said in an earlier answer, it did not find favour at the time.

Does my noble friend accept that an upper limit on the size of the House would impose a valuable discipline upon the Government in selecting nominees to fill a vacancy, and, combined with the other recommendations of the Burns committee, ensure a House that was not only smaller but more balanced than the existing House?

No, my Lords. The cardinal facts of this House—which is unique, and that is one of its splendours—are that it is unelected, its Members sit for life and it cannot be dissolved. In those circumstances, the question of a cap raises profound constitutional questions, which, as the previous Prime Minister said, deserve reflection.

My Lords, when numbers in your Lordships’ House go up, public respect for the House goes down. The Minister said that the previous Prime Minister did not endorse a cap on the size of the House, and that is quite correct, but she did commit to restraint in appointments. Given how seriously the House takes the issue of reducing numbers, can the Minister tell me what conversations the noble Baroness the Leader of the House—the whole House—has had with colleagues in the House, with the leaders and the Convenor, and with her right honourable friend the Prime Minister, about this issue? If he does not have that information to hand, perhaps he could write to me.

My Lords, as that question is about the Leader of the House, I think that she would have to address it herself. So far as the numbers are concerned, I dispute that there is any correlation between the size of the House and the respect in which it is held. I remember the very great respect in which the House was held before 1999.

My Lords, there is so much in what the Minister has said that it is hard to know where to start. First, his Answer to my noble friend Lord Grocott on what assessment has been made of the case for an upper limit was that no assessment has been made. On his point about the House having been larger, it was significantly larger pre-1999, with a large number of hereditary Peers, 92 of whom remain. On his comment about Prime Ministers making appointments, the fact remains that David Cameron, when Prime Minister, appointed more Peers per year than any other Prime Minister since 1958, when life peerages came in, with more for the governing party.

The Minister talks about the House needing to be refreshed, and he is absolutely right. However, if he wants to refresh the numbers in the House, why is it that, having lost over 30 Members from the Labour Benches since June 2017, nothing like that figure has replaced them to refresh our numbers, whereas there were huge numbers on the last list to refresh the Conservative Benches? If this House wants to reduce the numbers, it must be so that we can be effective and do the job that we are best at, not to play party-political games, which the leader of the Conservative Party, the Prime Minister, seems to want to do. He wants to play the numbers game and pack this House, because he thinks that the winner takes all.

My Lords, I do not agree with the strictures of the noble Baroness, who I respect tremendously. I said in my first Answer that the size of the Lords needs addressing, but I added some considerations thereafter. I do not accept that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is “packing the House”. The question asked by my noble friend Lady Noakes shows that the House has a very independent mind.

It seems to me that legislation to cap our numbers is being blocked in a way that does us no credit. Will the Minister urge the party groupings each to find a consensual way to limit their own numbers? The House of Lords Appointments Commission needs power to vet the suitability of proposed Peers or to cap the numbers. I hope that he agrees. If ever there was a case for getting rid of royal prerogative, this is it. I suspect that the Government think that only by shovelling us into a less comfortable venue during refurbishment, or by going entirely virtual for the duration, will we find a large number of retirements. That is not the way to do it. How does he propose that we do it?

My Lords, I cannot follow the noble Baroness on many of the things that she has said, other than I hope that one day we might get back to not being a virtual House—that I do agree with. I repeat that there are difficulties in relation to this House: it is unelected, Members sit for life and the House cannot be dissolved. That raises issues for reflection on a cap, as the previous Prime Minister implied.

My Lords, as an excepted hereditary Peer, I am obviously fair game. However, does my noble friend not agree that one way to reduce the size of this House is to ask the Liberal Democrat Benches to reduce their number to one which is proportionate to their share of the national vote?

My noble friend is spot on on that one, and I hear assent in many parts of the House—perhaps not all. That used to be that party’s policy, and perhaps it would be good if it returned to it.