Skip to main content

Size of the House of Lords

Volume 812: debated on Tuesday 18 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to respond to the latest report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House.

My Lords, the Government have of course noted the committee’s latest report. However, given retirements and other departures, some new Members are essential to keep the expertise and outlook of the Lords fresh. This will ensure that the House of Lords continues to fulfil its role in scrutinising and revising legislation while respecting the primacy of the Commons.

My Lords, good progress was made in the last Parliament in reducing the high numbers in your Lordships’ House by a combination of increased retirements by your Lordships and restraint by Theresa May. But the incentive for your Lordships to play their part is diminished if the Prime Minister does not play his. Will my noble friend encourage the Leader of the House to persuade the Prime Minister to do what the Burns committee recommended —namely, to engage positively with the House—so that we can continue to make progress towards our target of 600?

The Government always seek to engage positively with the House; the House does not necessarily always engage positively with the Government. The Government did not accept the cap when it was proposed to come in by 2027 in the first report, and they do not accept it in the latest report, when it is due by 2024.

My Lords, I think the House has been freshened up rather enough, and we hope that the Government might pause for a little time. Have the Government now set themselves against substantive reform of the House? If they have, why not at least engage with your Lordships’ House to see what incremental change could be agreed?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, there have been a number of changes in your Lordships’ House over recent years. The Government have made their position clear: we are committed to looking at the role of the House of Lords, but we do not want to do so in a piecemeal way.

My Lords, I strongly endorse the views of the noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord Hunt, and indeed those of the Lord Speaker. Is it not now obvious that Mr Johnson is seeking to deliberately damage the reputation of the House to reduce our influence? Will the Government now accept the recommendations of the Burns committee, and the view of the large majority of the House, and take the lead in legislating to end the 20 year-old temporary hereditary Peers by-election anomaly? This is way past its sell-by date.

No, my Lords, for the reason I have just given. The noble Lord speaks with the strength of 86 Liberal Democrat Peers behind him. At the rate of retirement we have seen recently, it would be some time in the 2060s before their representation was reduced to that awarded to them by the British people in the House of Commons in 2019. Maybe there is another aspect of your Lordships’ composition that might be examined.

My Lords, I really hope that the Government have not lost their enthusiasm for proper reform of this House but, given that over the last 20 years there have been a tiny number of Divisions of over 600, I cannot really see what the problem of numbers actually is. Being a practical person, has my noble friend considered the relevance of asking the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee to look again at the whole subject of age limits in this House, as so many other professions are legislated with age limits?

My Lords, of course I was struck by what my noble friend said in the debate on the gracious Speech last week and some of the striking figures he gave then. Having said that the Government are not looking for piecemeal change, I will not follow him directly, but it is of course a fact that somewhere above 110 Members of your Lordships’ House are over 80.

My Lords, the Minister has repeated the Government’s desire not to have piecemeal reform, but does he not accept that the only progress that has been made in your Lordships’ House has been through piecemeal reform? Can he think very seriously about the report’s recommendation about the worrying blurring that has happened between the process for appointing Cross-Bench Peers and party-political Peers? Will he also accept the recommendation that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should regain its control of this process, and perhaps consider the view—which I share with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—that that commission should be put on a statutory basis?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness rightly says, the Appointments Commission has an important role. However, I cannot agree that there has not been progress in reforming your Lordships’ House. I seem to recall a very dramatic reform of your Lordships’ House in 1999—which, considering the age of your Lordships’ House, is relatively recent. Substantial proposals were also put forward in the 2010 Parliament which failed to make progress because the Labour Party would not agree to a programme Motion.

My Lords, I am sorry not to be present, but I am off to get my second jab after this Question. I return to the quite inadequate answer that the Minister gave to the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. He referred to the Burns report but did not accept its recommendations. The Burns report has the interests of the House at heart; clearly, the Government do not. When the Minister mentioned refreshing the House, what he really means is refreshing the Conservative Benches. Since the first Burns report was published in 2017, we have seen an overall decrease in the number on the Official Opposition Benches of 16 Peers and an overall increase on the Conservative Benches of 20 Peers. This House works best when we work as a team to examine legislation. That does not seem to be the Government’s understanding.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that the role of the Official Opposition is extremely important, and new Peers have been appointed —the Prime Minister has nominated people to the Labour Party Benches. Indeed, I had the great privilege of hearing the maiden speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, only last week.

My Lords, may I follow the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith? The Labour Party acted with great restraint in the first 11 years after the 1999 reforms. It was six years before there were more Labour Peers than Conservative, and at the end of the Labour Government there were only 26 more Labour Peers than Conservatives. We now have 83 more Conservative Peers than Labour, almost as many as there are all other party Peers. Do the Government intend to respect the convention that no group should have a majority in this House or do they intend to carry on appointing more until they approach an overall majority?

My Lords, the Conservative Party has only about 33% of the seats in the Lords, which obviously is way short of its share of the vote. This House has always benefited from negotiation and balance. However, there is a fundamental principle of our constitution that the Queen’s Government must be enabled to carry on, and everybody watches very closely the relationship between this House and the House of Commons.

My Lords, I refer to my registered interests. I wonder whether it is time to take advice from Albert Einstein, who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.” As we are about to enter a period where I think the United Kingdom will reflect on its constitutional arrangements as a whole, it may in that context be appropriate to look at the function of the House of Lords, and then its composition and size may well flow from those conclusions quite naturally.

I agree with the noble Baroness that function and role are of substantial importance; too often all aspects of this question fail to be considered together.

Do the Government agree or not agree with the Motion passed by this House on 5 December 2016 that steps should be taken to reduce the size of the House?

My Lords, the Government always respectfully note Motions passed by your Lordships’ House. However, I believe I have answered that in saying that the Government’s view is that this House needs refreshing.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart, that we need to look at the function and the purpose of the House and not concentrate just on its size. This constant concentration on the size of the House detracts from the real purpose of what the House can do. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that we need to put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis and look at the role that the House can play in post-legislative scrutiny.

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Baroness was able to intervene, and, as I replied to the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart, I agree that the broader role needs to be considered. I can only repeat that, yes, the House of Lords Appointments Commission has an important role. However, I will go no further than that.

Sitting suspended.