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House of Lords Reform

Volume 813: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, for reform of the House of Lords.

My Lords, the Conservative manifesto committed to looking at the role of the House of Lords. That is the manifesto position. We are keeping these issues under consideration but have been clear that we do not want piecemeal reform.

My Lords, with respect to the Minister, I do not think that was much of an Answer. It was a pretty simple Question; a yes or no would probably have been acceptable. The Minister has been involved in these issues for a long time and will be aware of two proposals for reform that are strongly supported in all parts of the House. The first is to reduce the size of the House to around 600 Members. The second is to end these ridiculous by-elections for hereditary Peers. Given that these two reforms are simple and popular and would cost nothing and hurt no one, will he tell us whether the Government are prepared to support them and, if not, why not?

My Lords, on a cap on the size of the House, which we have frequently discussed, both the previous Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister have made it clear that it would require further consideration and wider engagement and have not accepted that proposal. As for the noble Lord’s repeated efforts to put forward his Bill, we look forward to discussing his Bill. I will ask him to explain, when he introduces it at Second Reading, why he supported the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, which reinforced and entrenched the position of hereditary Peer elections in this House.

My Lords, I think there might be general agreement that the reputation of this House has been enhanced by the way in which we were able to continue our business with the hybrid system over the last 15 months. The reputation of this House would surely further be enhanced if we brought ourselves from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries by backing my noble friend Lord Grocott’s Bill to abolish something that is clearly an anachronism.

My Lords, I always pay tribute to the noble Lord opposite, who has been a distinguished servant of this country, this House and the other House. When we are looking at the role, future and reform of your Lordships’ House, perhaps we need to look a little wider than the speck of dust to which the noble Lord referred.

The Minister has been in his Cabinet Office post since February 2020, so was it he who told the Prime Minister that it was perfectly okay to ignore the Burns committee report on the House of Lords, which was trying to reduce the size of this House? It was a two-out, one-in policy. Did he tell the Prime Minister it was okay to just keep on putting Peers here?

My Lords, it is perfectly reasonable, given the House’s membership—not least the fact that its average age is 70—for it to be refreshed from time to time. I repeat an answer I gave before: neither the previous Prime Minister nor this one has accepted that the House of Lords should be able to impose a cap on its own size.

First, does my noble friend the Minister agree with me that, now that the other place has agreed that it will stay at 650 Members, we can review our aspiration of 600 to 650? Secondly, we should recognise that unlike in the other place we are not salary men. We represent a wide pool of expertise and experience that needs to be deepened and strengthened. By admitting more Members to this House, we will counter the correct allegations of underrepresentation of minorities, women and businesspeople.

My Lords, my noble friend’s suggestions seem to arouse laughter on the other side. I strongly agree with him and suspect that many of the British people agree that this House needs refreshing from time to time. I will not get hung up on any number between 600 and 650. The membership should be appropriate to enable the House of Lords to carry out its role in a way that reflects that role and the primacy of the House of Commons as the elected Chamber.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why dedicated, public-spirited, widely respected people of high integrity should continue to serve on the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which is independent? The Prime Minister, Mr Johnson, seems determined to treat its recommendations with complete contempt.

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord opposite’s assertion, which seems one of the most sweeping examples of the generalisation of a particular that I have ever heard. He may have a case in mind. The correspondence on that case has been published with proper transparency, and for my part I welcome the presence of that new Peer in this House.

My Lords, does my noble friend not realise that the best way of solving the problem presented by the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Blunkett, is to fulfil the promise—laid out in the Parliament Act 1911 and successive recent manifestos of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats—to select this House on the basis of popular representation?

My Lords, as we look forward, clearly that is an option for considering reform. I do not note enormous enthusiasm for that in the many debates in your Lordships’ Chamber. My noble friend is absolutely right to say that everybody opposite campaigned in 2019 on the creation of an elected senate.

My Lords, the Minister is scathing about piecemeal reforms, but I would have thought that, this week in particular, the Government would be sensitive to issues of propriety and impartiality in the processes for public appointments. I make it clear that this is not a new or an ad hominem issue but one I have been raising for more than a decade. Will the Minister now accept that we need an independent, statutory House of Lords Appointments Commission to vet all appointments to your Lordships’ House on the grounds of both suitability and propriety?

My Lords, we have an advisory House of Lords Appointments Commission, whose advice is given careful and full weight. The constitutional position in this country is that the Prime Minister is responsible for advising Her Majesty on appointments to the House of Lords. I do not believe that that responsibility can be passed from a Minister, who is ultimately responsible to Parliament, to an extra-parliamentary statutory body.

My Lords, I am not really sure I understood the Minister’s answer on that point. The point that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was making was that the commission’s advice on membership of your Lordships’ House at present is only advisory.

To reach a point of agreement, the Minister is quite right that this House needs to refresh its membership, but on his basis the House would just grow and grow until there were no room at all on the Benches for noble Lords to sit and debate issues. There has to be an optimum size range at which this House is most effective and does its work best. Piecemeal reform is not something to be dismissed and disregarded but a way of getting things done where there is broad consensus. There is broad consensus on the end of hereditary Peer by-elections and overwhelming consensus on a statutory body for appointments—not one the Prime Minister can ignore when it suits him.

My Lords, I will not repeat the answer I have just given. The commission is an independent, advisory, non-departmental body. It has an important role, but the sovereign, on the advice of the Prime Minister, formally confers all peerages. It is the Prime Minister who must advise on that. Ultimately, the Prime Minister is responsible for the way in which he conducts that duty.

My Lords, further to his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, the Minister will be aware that the reason the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, put forward by Lord Steel, did not include the abolition of by-elections for hereditary Peers was the threat of filibuster and of the tabling of hundreds of irrelevant and repetitive amendments to avoid this House being able to express its wish on the issue and allow the vote to go to the other place to consider it. Does the Minister consider that a legitimate tactic?

The noble Lord writes his own history. I observe that, given your Lordships’ interest in the Burns committee recommendations, perhaps the Liberal Democrats should do something about their own numbers.

My Lords, reducing the size of the House is clearly the most urgent issue. That said, would the Minister agree that there has been a fall-off in the courtesies normally observed by the House, including in participants’ failure to attend the greater part of debates, the conventions of respect towards the Lord Speaker and Deputy Speakers and forgetfulness about registering relevant interests? Furthermore, does he agree that these issues contribute to the public’s negative view of the work of this House?

I would not agree with those generalised comments. I believe that all of us should be mindful of our manner of behaviour and our manner in referring to and engaging with each other. I do not believe that making comments in general terms about the weakness of this House necessarily improves its reputation. One of the most remarkable things about this House is that last night 467 of your Lordships were following and voting in a debate on the Republic of Cameroon, rather than watching the England and Germany match. Nothing can be wrong with a House with such a deep attachment to its public duty.