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House of Lords: Size

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 28 January 2021


Asked by

To ask the Senior Deputy Speaker what plans the Procedure and Privileges Committee has to consult the House on the further steps that could be taken to implement the recommendations of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House.

My Lords, at present the committee has no plans to consult the House on further steps to be taken to implement the recommendations of the Lord Speaker’s committee. I note that this committee is continuing its important work, and I am sure it would welcome the noble Lord’s thoughts as to how it takes that work forward.

My Lords, I will first make it clear that this Question is not aimed at any of the new creations. In my view, we need to make the House of Lords fit for purpose, but we have not received the co-operation from the Government that we could have expected over the Burns committee. We are often told that we are a self-regulating House, so I ask the Senior Deputy Speaker whether he will seek to set up some further body to look at ways in which this self-regulating House can regulate itself to a situation more acceptable to the British people, so that it can do the valuable job that is far too often rubbished because of extraneous events.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. It is a follow-up to the Question that he asked me on 23 June last year, and I promised to take that issue to the Procedure Committee. Both that committee and the Burns committee are very exercised by this issue, but the matter rests with legislation and with the Government. I will refer his Question again to the Procedure Committee, but in the meantime it might be helpful for him to talk to the Burns committee itself.

Surely a painless way to reduce the size of your Lordships’ House would be to abolish hereditary by-elections, as proposed in the admirable Bill from by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Does the Senior Deputy Speaker see this as a possible way forward?

Under the Life Peerages Act, Her Majesty has the power to confer a peerage for life, and that peerage entitles the holder

“to receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords and sit and vote therein accordingly”.

The committee of the House does not have any say over that issue. So, in terms of the hereditary Peers’ by-elections, the Procedure Committee met earlier this week and we have deferred the by-elections for a further period. Information on that will be forthcoming soon for the entire House.

My Lords, the Senior Deputy Speaker will know that the House has given its wholehearted approval to the Burns committee’s recommendations. Does he not believe that, following the creation of a large number of new Peers, all of whom either have been or will be welcomed to your Lordships’ House, it would be appropriate for the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee to be asked to consider further what non-legislative steps could be taken to address the size of the House?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question. Again, this is a matter for the Government, and I know that the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip will be listening to this. I will certainly arrange for that to be noted and brought to the attention of the Procedure Committee—it is a very positive suggestion.

My Lords, the chairman of the Procedure Committee did indeed undertake in June of last year to look at various issues around the size of the House. Has any discussion taken place within the committee? Given the distinguished role of the Procedure Committee to contribute to the smooth running of the Chamber, would it not be appropriate for the committee to undertake some actions in the near future to reduce the number of Peers, thereby contributing to the efficacy and reputation of the House?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question; again, there is something very positive in that. However, the problems that have arisen in the past lie elsewhere; they do not lie in the House itself. Whatever the Procedure Committee can do, it will do because, as mentioned earlier, the whole House endorsed the Burns report and the Lord Speaker’s initiative in setting it up.

My Lords, I do not expect the Senior Deputy Speaker to comment on anything to do with party politics, but I wonder whether he could reflect on whether the Procedure Committee—and the Burns committee, for that matter—could think about the writ of summons to attend the House and whether, after a year of some Members not attending the House physically at all, it would be possible for the political parties to be brought together to think about the implications for those who might choose to stand down once the House returns fully in person.

I thank the noble Lord for that question and apologise for the delay in answering; I am having to unmute every time. On the issue of the writs of summons, the person who receives writs of summons

“to attend the House of Lords and sit and vote therein accordingly”.

So the House is restricted in what it can do to limit introductions without undermining that Act of Parliament. It is the Government and the party groups who are best able to ensure that we continue to reduce the size of the House, should they choose to accept the recommendations in the report from the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House.

My Lords, between 2003 and 2009 there were a number of inquiries into executive prerogative powers by parliamentary committees and the Ministry of Justice, which led to an extension of parliamentary oversight. Given recent controversies over Prime Ministerial abuse of prerogative powers over Parliament, which includes some recent Lords appointments, would it be appropriate to encourage the Constitution Committee to launch a new inquiry into this?

I think that that is a matter for the Constitution Committee itself. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and her staff will have been listening to that, and they can take it forward if they think it is perfectly acceptable and possible to do.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree with me that the efficacy and reputation of the House are determined more by its behaviour and conduct than by its size? Given how the House has operated recently—I am thinking of examples in the last few weeks—would the committee’s time not be better spent in trying to keep our standards to a higher level rather than at the level to which they seem to have sunk recently?

That is the noble Lord’s personal opinion. I think the House has conducted itself in an excellent manner in the past six months, not least with regard to remote engagement. By all standards, according to outside commentators, the House of Lords has been the House that has done most in that regard. I think the work of the House is important and its reputation has to be increased. Indeed, the recent review of committees which we undertook—on which I am moving Motions later today —is to ensure that we enhance the reputation of the House. As a House, we do what we can, and I think we are doing that.

My Lords, I would like to take the noble Lord back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. He said that reconstituting the Burns committee was a matter for the Government, but it is also a House matter. Could the Senior Deputy Speaker, through the Procedure Committee reporting to the House, arrange an opportunity for noble Lords to debate the re-establishment of the Burns committee? This is very much a House matter.

My Lords, I understand that the Burns committee, the Lord Speaker’s committee, has agreed to meet again to consider the latest situation. As we know, the committee is an informal body, which I do not speak for. The noble Lord would be best placed to speak to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, directly—but I will bring this Question to the notice of the noble Lord, Lord Burns.