Motion to Resolve
To move to resolve that this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved.
My Lords, in moving the Motion, I first thank the Leader of the House, the Government Chief Whip, and all those who have co-operated in the usual channels to ensure that we have a debate on this important subject today. I am extremely grateful to them, as I am to the 59 colleagues who have put their names down to speak in the debate.
In 1984, when the House was even larger than it is at the moment and had an enormous built-in Conservative majority, I sought to introduce a Bill in the other place that would have reduced the number of hereditary Peers to around 150. I begged Mrs Thatcher to give time for this, saying that if that Government did not take the initiative, the day would come when a Labour Government with an equally large, or larger, majority would do so—and that, of course, is what happened in 1999. A lot of water has flowed under Westminster Bridge since then and I am now moving this Motion on behalf of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. It is a group to which many of your Lordships belong, and of which many noble Lords speaking today are members.
It is, I think, the largest informal group of Members of both Houses dedicated to reform of your Lordships’ House. This is not a reactionary group against reform; it is a positive group that wants reform. We have the support of something like 300 Members drawn from both Houses of Parliament. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and I established the group about a year after the 1999 Act came into force. We invited to be members some of those who we knew shared our strong belief in a non-elected second Chamber, complementary to but not in competition with the elected House—and one that would therefore never be able to challenge the unambiguous democratic mandate of the other place.
We must remember that at that time all the major parties were signed up to support the replacement of your Lordships’ House with a wholly or largely elected one. For those of us who gathered in those days, there was no attraction or appeal in either a wholly elected House or in a hybrid House. Among the most enthusiastic trailblazers in that group were the late Lord Dahrendorf—the Liberal and then Cross-Bench Peer—the late Lord Howe of Aberavon, who, until his retirement from this House some 18 months ago, hardly ever missed a meeting, and the first Green to sit in your Lordships’ House, the late Lord Beaumont of Whitley. However, there are others, who I am very glad to say are not late but very much living, and two of them who were in on those early days—the noble Lords, Lord Gordon of Strathblane and Lord Steel of Aikwood—will contribute to this debate.
Within a year of founding that group, we had 100 Peers and Members of the House of Commons signed up. We began to meet regularly and frequently, quizzing Ministers, opposition spokesmen and others, including academics. We like to think that we had some deterrent influence on the Labour Government, because they did not produce any more measures to deal with your Lordships’ House during their remaining period in office.
Then, in 2010, the threat to our existence became more real than apparent. Together with a sizeable group of colleagues from the other place, we helped to frustrate Mr Clegg’s designs. I shall always be very glad that we succeeded in that, and pay great tribute to those in the other place who ensured that that Bill never came before your Lordships’ House. I am very proud to be wearing the tie that they designed to commemorate their endeavours.
We had already had the Steel Bill—I emphasise that we are not opposed to reform—which had sought in a very comprehensive manner to deal with a whole range of matters such as a statutory Appointments Commission, retirement and suspension. This was pre-Clegg. Then, post-Clegg, the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, with the assistance of Mr Dan Byles, then Member of Parliament for North Warwickshire in the other place, managed to get the truncated Steel Bill through, which brought in the retirement scheme.
A year later, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, our former Lord Speaker, picked up another portion of the original Steel Bill and brought in the Bill that allows us to expel—a power that I hope we will never have to use. I say in parentheses that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is particularly sorry not to be with us today as she is performing extremely valuable relief work in Nepal. We wish her a safe return.
In consequence of the introduction of the retirement scheme, a number of colleagues have taken their leave, and many of them are much missed. But, although the scheme is effectively in operation, we have had far more arrivals than departures over the last few years. In 1999, the size of your Lordships’ House was some 680; today, as we all know, it is over 800. In consequence of this, almost every time your Lordships’ House is commented on in the public press and in the media, two remarks are made again and again: that this is the largest second Chamber in the world, and that it is the largest legislative Chamber of any sort in the world after the People’s Republic of China.
The constant reiteration of those facts—unfortunately, they are facts—cumulatively drowns out the recognition of the exact scrutiny we apply to Bills and the quality of our debates. All of us will remember the first debate on the Assisted Dying Bill of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Whatever line one took on that Bill, one had to be proud to be a Member of this House. The very next day, all the papers had leaders and long reports of the debate which said that this was Parliament at its best. That is the image we wish to present—not that of a bloated House with too many Members in it.
Last autumn, the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber produced a discussion paper that was widely and favourably commented on in the press. We had all signed up to a number of principles. First and foremost was the supremacy of the elected House. Secondly, your Lordships’ House should not be bigger in numbers than the House of Commons. Thirdly, there should always be a minimum of 20% of Cross-Benchers; and, fourthly, no political party should ever be in a position to achieve domination. We are all united on those points.
We went on in the paper to explore some of the means by which your Lordships’ House could be reduced. We also looked at some of the difficulties of those means. For instance, imposing an arbitrary retirement age would bear disproportionally upon the parties. It would affect the two major parties and the Cross Benches significantly but the Liberal Democrats not very much at all. So all these things need to be looked at very carefully.
I hope that today we will not become too preoccupied with how to reduce our numbers but will concentrate on the fact that we must. The question of how is dealt with in the second part of the Motion: “methods should be explored”. Our group would—I think unanimously—favour the establishment of a Select Committee. But, whatever is done, it is essential that all solutions, both in our paper and from colleagues in all parts of the House, are properly examined and assessed before recommendations are made. The time for reform has come, and it is for us to take the initiative and work with government, not for us to wait for government to decide and then to impose. In the last two weeks the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the other place has decided to conduct an inquiry into the size and composition of your Lordships’ House. Now it is for us to state unequivocally that we believe that our numbers should be reduced, and today we have that opportunity.
This House has a combination of experience and expertise unrivalled by any other Chamber in the world. It adds value to, and does not detract from, our democracy. All of us in this House have the same rights, responsibilities and duties to scrutinise and improve legislation and to comment on the great issues of the day. We are constrained only by the restrictions of the Parliament Act and by the conventions and practices of a responsible, self-regulating House. Many of them are based on the far-sighted Salisbury/Addison agreement, drawn up in the 1945 Parliament when the overwhelming number of Conservatives could so easily have sought to frustrate the designs of the Labour Government, who had an overwhelming mandate from the people.
We must always remember that there is no point or purpose in a second Chamber that gives smooth, unimpeded passage to government proposals no matter how ill prepared they may be. There should be no future for a second Chamber that never seeks to amend, never urges caution or never insists on further consideration, or which flinches from defeating the Government of the day. That is something that we must all bear very much in mind. Tomorrow your Lordships’ House will examine the Higher Education and Research Bill, which desperately needs the expertise and experience that can be brought to bear on it.
Prime Ministers have often regarded us with impatience as an irritant in the body politic. Perhaps they should remember that, without grit in the oyster, no pearl is ever produced. The nation deserves good government and wise counsel. We are in a position to contribute to that—but only if we set our own House in order. This is the moment and the opportunity to begin that process. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a very real privilege for me to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and to be the first to congratulate him on the way he has opened this debate. I am tempted, after listening to his compelling and comprehensive speech, to follow the advice that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, gave me last Thursday. “Just say you agree”, he said, “and then sit down”. But, of course, it is not quite as easy as that, as I am not sure that I agree with everything that the noble Lord has said, although I was at a disadvantage by not being part of his group. There is no time to go into that now, but I should like to endorse what I take to be the two main messages of his speech, with which I most certainly do agree.
The first is the message that this House believes that its size should be reduced. What a significant step forward it would be—if we are unanimous on the point about which there is so much disquiet among us—for the House itself to make that very public declaration. The second is the message which is perhaps even more important than the first—that methods should be explored by us to reduce its size. That is more important because it is a statement that we are taking the matter into our own hands as far as it is possible for us to do so. We would be saying that it was not for others to tell us what to do—this is our House, we know best what makes it work and we are best placed to sort the problem out. Of course, we may need some assistance, as not everything that affects the issues which the noble Lord has addressed is within our control, but this is our initiative, and I hope that we can make a declaration that we intend, in seeking a consensus, to get on with it.
I shall not attempt to offer any solutions as this stage—this is not the moment to do that—but I should like to identify what I see as six assumptions that I suggest might guide us on our way. The first is that there will be no change in the role of the House as an advising and revising Chamber. It is on that assumption that any calculations as to what its size should be should be based, when we compare our numbers with those of the other place.
The second is that we will continue to be unsalaried for what we do. That is quite important because, where there is a salary, there is an obligation to turn up and to do what one is paid for. In our case, we benefit greatly from the freedom that many of us enjoy to keep ourselves informed by maintaining outside interests and commitments. This means that at least some of those who make some of the contributions that we value most are not here all, or even most of, the time. That is a factor to be borne in mind.
The third assumption is that we will continue, at least for the foreseeable future, to be an appointed, not an elected, House. The fourth, which goes with it, is that for this reason our going out cannot be considered without considering our coming in. That really is where the nub of the problem lies. An elected House has two characteristics that we do not have: its numbers are fixed and any vacancies are filled by the election process. In our case, as I think the noble Lord hinted at in the beginning of his address, the going out used to be in the hands of the Almighty and the coming in in the hands of the Prime Minister. Now, we can choose our own time for going out, but the system for coming in has not changed. It is to the question of how that system can best work for a smaller House that we will have to direct our attention, as well as to how our present numbers can be reduced.
The fifth and sixth assumptions are that the Cross-Benchers should continue, as at present, to be about 20% of our membership, and I am grateful for what the noble Lord said about that. Also, the way on to the Cross Benches from outside the House should continue to be as at present. It is worth repeating that there are only two ways in, and they are very tightly controlled. The first is the Prime Minister’s list, limited to 10 for the lifetime of each Parliament, for very senior members of the Civil Service, the Armed Forces and so on. The second is by way of the independent Appointments Commission, limited by the last Prime Minister to only two per year. For obvious reasons, we do not receive any appointments by way of the political list.
Speaking as I am, from and not for these Benches, it seems to me that, with us, the potential for an imbalance between those coming in and those going out does not present as much of a problem as it does for the other groups. There is one other characteristic of our Benches to which I would draw attention also: in comparison with the other groups, a larger proportion of our number arrive here at or about, or even after, the time of retirement. Our age and length of service profile, and our attendance profile, differ in some ways from the other groups. I am speaking only for myself, but these two characteristics suggest to me that, as our coming in is so tightly controlled, there may be something to be said for leaving it to the Cross-Benchers to work out for themselves, if given a target at which to aim, how to arrange the going out for our group. But that detail is for another day, and I am happy to support the Motion.
My Lords, I feel greatly honoured to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in his speech. I think it is the nearest I will ever get to addressing the Supreme Court. First, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Cormack on securing this important debate, and on all the work that he and others have done to bring to our attention the very important matter of the future of the House of Lords. It is an important debate, and my noble friend is absolutely right: the House of Lords is too big. It is of course much smaller than it used to be not so many years ago, but nevertheless, it is still too big. I am not of the view that it should be reduced to any size in relation to the House of Commons. This House is a part-time House, and long may it continue to be. Therefore, the total numbers are not necessarily quite so critical.
Having expressed my support to my noble friend, I just wonder whether the Government are likely to agree to any changes if those changes require a government Bill. We need to be realistic. In my mind, there are three reasons why this may not happen very soon, and each one of them is likely to be sufficient to delay matters.
First, there is a clue in the lessons from the royal commission report that I chaired some years ago. The House of Lords was not then, and is not now, in a mood to accept a compromise—some Members are, but not enough. Our report, which is now history, was an attempt at a compromise. Many said how good it was but, in the end, not many would have supported it in the Lobbies if it had been brought before the House in the form of a Bill. They were not prepared for that compromise.
The Liberal Democrats want an elected House. Many on this side of the House would like an appointed House. I do not think that has changed very much. Many members of the Labour Party will say that the first thing that has got to happen is that the Prime Minister has to give up his right of patronage. I doubt very much whether a Labour Government would give up the right of patronage as things are at the moment because that is the one ultimate strength an elected Government in the House of Commons has got if the House of Lords is being extremely difficult. Of course it would be possible to change the system but, at the moment, that is not very likely.
The second reason why there will not be any change is, of course, Brexit. Whether any Government would bring in any legislation until the legislation relating to the European questions is dealt with we have no idea. There would certainly be switches across parties if there is legislation. The business managers would be horrified if it was announced that we were going to find a non-voluntary way for people to leave and we had legislation of that sort.
The third difficulty is a little more subtle. I do not know whether the Government realise that the present situation suits them quite well. Bills come from the Commons, are thoroughly debated in the House of Lords—in very good debates, which are still of the high standards they always used to be—and a number of amendments are passed. The Bills go back to the Commons, which deals with them, and the issue then becomes not the substance of the amendments but the elected House against the non-elected House. They go back a couple of times and then this House decides the elected House has to have sway and the thing ends. That is not the way it used to be done. However, it is the way it is done now. It is not very good but I do not think the Government find it necessarily all that difficult.
I therefore thoroughly support my noble friend’s Motion. The House is too big. We ought to find a way of reducing it but a lot more work needs to be done now. We have to find consensus; we have to get Brexit out of the way; and we have to realise that the Government, at the present time, do not find the existing arrangements too arduous.
My Lords, I also welcome the debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and agree with much of what he has said.
There is general agreement—and has been for some time—that this House is too large and increasing frustration on the part of many Members that nothing has been done before now to address the problem. We need now to think about how we deal with the problem rather than arguing whether or not it is one.
A basic fact that I would put in people’s minds is that, according to the Library, 845 people are entitled to sit in this Chamber. The average attendance in 2015-16 was 497. It is not always the same people, of course, but that gives you some idea that we have people who can contribute regularly and people who cannot.
We can criticise how we got here. We know that there was a surge in the influx of Liberal Peers, and that the former Prime Minister pushed every boundary in terms of appointments. I do not want to go into that—tempting though it is—but a couple points have to be made clear. If we are to take steps to reduce the size of this House, we cannot have a Prime Minister of any Government using that as an excuse for stuffing it with more of their appointments. Secondly, we must maintain the principle that no Government have a right to a majority in this House. That would undermine its purpose.
In June 2014 I had the privilege of introducing a debate on the role of this House. The debate arose out of a report written by a working party of Labour Peers. That debate showed that there was widespread support for taking some action on these problems. I remind the House of the basic concept we put forward in that report: there should be a distinction between working Peers—not full-time, of course, but those who regularly take part in the proceedings of the House, speaking, debating, serving on committees, asking Questions—and those who for whatever reason cannot contribute regularly. No one would suggest that those Peers who do not or only rarely contribute should lose their titles. Indeed, there is a possibility of a formal distinction. Maybe we could use a title such as “Peer emeritus”, but certainly a distinction should be made. The essence of the problem is that we have a lot of people who are appointed as Peers but do not see it as their responsibility to be active Members of this House.
Mention has been made of the appropriate numbers. We have to have sufficient Peers to fulfil all the roles suggested and outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The doomed Clegg Bill suggested 300, but that was generally thought to be too few. We in our working party suggested that 450 might be sufficient to make sure committees could function properly, but certainly, whatever the figure—there is scope for discussion—this place should not be larger than the House of Commons.
There are other ways of looking at this issue that have not been mentioned. An obvious point would be to support the Bill proposed by my noble friend Lord Grocott and end by-elections for hereditary Peers. Some of us would go further and end hereditary peerages altogether and the Bishops’ Benches, but that would require legislation and is just a personal view.
We could and should look at retirement age. Our working party suggested that we should retire at the general election after we reach the age of 80. There was a suggestion of limits on the length of time we spend in this House—maybe 15 years. It has a disadvantage: it might deter younger people. We thought about whether there should be an attendance requirement. This is not a full-time job, but it may not be unreasonable to suggest that we should attend and contribute 60% of the time the House is sitting.
None of those suggestions deals directly with the problems of ensuring proper political or regional balance, or balance of gender or ethnicity, but none of those problems is insurmountable. There can be solutions if there is a will and determination.
I hope this debate is not simply one to allow Members to let off steam. Unless this House can take steps itself to deal with its own problems, we may face more difficulties in future. It is a critical time in politics. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, this House has a significant contribution to make, but people will look at what we are doing only if we put our own House in order as well.
My Lords, the position of my party is very straightforward and consistent. This is the one respect in which we agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. We endorse the primacy of the House of Commons.
It is therefore important to remind your Lordships that on 10 July 2012, a clear majority of Conservative MPs—193 to 89—voted for the Second Reading of the coalition Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill, including David Cameron and Theresa May. Great credit is due to the then Sir George Young, now the noble Lord, Lord Young, who led them into the Lobby. An even bigger majority of Labour MPs did so too: 202 to 26, including their then leader and the present one. All the Liberal Democrat MPs supported the Bill, as did a number of minor parties. The result was an overwhelming majority in the other House of 338. As we have been reminded, the other House is supreme.
That was scarcely surprising. The Bill was the product of years of cross-party preparation and careful compromise, building on the Labour Government’s 2008 White Paper and many months of pre-legislative scrutiny by a high-powered Joint Committee.
In the current era of threatened post-truth politics, it is important to remind your Lordships’ House that that Bill was not defeated; instead, it was the victim of a squalid party game played by some Tory Back-Benchers colluding with the then Labour Front Bench to deny the coalition Government an agreement such that time could be allocated to the Bill’s scrutiny in a business-like way. Indeed, the Labour Front Bench would not even suggest a preferred time for its consideration. Had that Bill not been derailed by tribal tactics, we would now be well on the way to dealing with the problems identified in this debate, with an end total membership of 450—here again, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor.
Political appointments would have ceased in 2015 and instead we would have had the first tranche of elected Peers—or perhaps they would have been senators—including, no doubt, several excellent new recruits, among them those who all around the House now come to us in a different capacity. The essential difference would have been that they would have come with democratic legitimacy. For us, the 2012 Bill is still the starting point for a full, comprehensive and democratic response to the frequently reiterated public demand for reform of the composition of your Lordships’ House.
There have been many variations of musical chairs suggested by those who want to tinker with the problem. What they have in common is a denial of surely the first principle of parliamentary democracy: for legislators to be at least predominantly elected. In our view, the suggestion of an upper, or indeed lower, age limit is unacceptably ageist. If the electorate wish to be represented by a 75 year-old or a 25 year-old, that should be up to them. If on the other hand there is the incestuous suggestion that group or party colleagues should select who goes and who stays, that would simply reinforce the public impression that we are a self-serving elite. Any artificial quota on speeches, Questions or days of attendance would be open to blatant mismanagement. If the electorate wished to retain the services of a representative whose busy life outside Parliament gave him or her extra dispassionate, well-informed judgment, it should be entirely up to them and not to the whims of party Whips or group leaders.
Every single one of those devious schemes has major disadvantages. Significantly, when the public are asked to express a preference, there is a much bigger group now demanding total abolition than supporting the present, very unsatisfactory appointments system or any other proposed modifications of it. Those in this House who continue to obstruct real democratic reform risk an increasing public demand for a unicameral Parliament, which my colleagues and I certainly do not support.
In short, the only acceptable method for reducing the size of a House of Parliament in a parliamentary democracy is democracy.
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to contribute to this important debate and am grateful to the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, in which we are allowed to participate from time to time, for bringing it to us today. I am also grateful for the remarks of the noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have already spoken. I have written down that I share their widely shared view that the House is too large, and I shall start on that point.
We have realised in recent debates, particularly those led in the past couple of months by the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Elton, that arriving at a satisfactory mechanism for achieving the best number for and the highest quality of the second Chamber is no easy task. We can and should, as we are doing today, grasp the opportunity to take responsibility ourselves for reducing the size of the House as best we can. We have already heard several suggestions for the best number: the same size as the other place—about 600; the number of 450 proposed by the Labour Party; or even a smaller number. We already have voluntary retirement, but in any new arrangements the reduction of overall numbers by compulsory retirement will also be ineffective unless there is restraint on appointments. This point was already made in some detail.
I am sure that more will be said today about who should make up the composition of your Lordships’ House, in what proportions and how they should be selected and appointed. My main point today is to remind us that the Lords spiritual have been capped by statute since the middle of the 19th century to the number of 26. Also, there is automatic retirement at the moment that a Bishop leaves their see or at the age of 70. Following the excellent reminder from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, the Convenor of the Cross Benches, we are unusual in that we are appointed by the Almighty and dismissed by the Almighty but with time for amendment of life before we have to face the Almighty. Clearly, while we remain in the House we do so with enthusiasm, participating on the basis of our full-time jobs in the regions. In the context of this debate, we fully participate in a sense of proportionality, in that the size of this Bench should be in proportion to the size of your Lordships’ House in future.
Of course, the number is not the only issue. This is particularly important when we remind ourselves, as we have already, that the work of the House is about revising, scrutiny and, sometimes, challenging. To achieve that, it is desirable to have the widest and most skilful and knowledgeable expertise available from all regions of the country participating in support of the democratic process of this legislature. In this, there is a vital contribution from the Cross-Benchers and independent Peers. As has already been pointed out, much of this has been rehearsed as far back as the White Paper of 2001, in the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and—as just mentioned now—the Bill of 2012. A welcome new critique was offered by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza—I look forward to hearing her remarks later in this debate—on not only the effectiveness of some of our arrangements but also the strain on services and administration under the current size of the House.
It is clear that there is no pain-free option, and there is a need for all sides to give a little in order for the upper House to function better. There is in some of the proposals an opportunity for a working group or, as has been mentioned, a Select Committee of all parties to agree a mechanism. The Lords spiritual on this Bench are more than willing to participate in achieving a fully working reform of this House.
My Lords, I start by congratulating my noble friends who lead the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. That group’s discussions and the debate we are having today show that there is a consensus that we must make some changes to the House of Lords so that our important work remains relevant to the modern world. In doing so, we should have an eye to the message of change that many voters rightly associate with the Brexit result.
My message is that we—your Lordships—have all the power we need to make positive change happen. In this debate, the premise is that the size of the House is the problem that needs addressing and that we should explore options to reduce it. But we need to be careful about addressing symptoms before tackling the cause of this perceived problem. We cannot escape the fact that there are 400 fewer of us than there used to be overall, yet more of us attend more frequently. So, before taking steps to reduce the size of the House, we need to consider some basic questions. First, why are more of us attending more often? Secondly, why do we hear disproportionately more often from the same colleagues? Thirdly, how can we ensure that more of our colleagues with current and fresh professional expertise contribute to our work so that we do the best possible job of revising and improving the legislation before us?
This House is at its best when it is not overtly party political and when it works together to find solutions in the public interest. I would like to believe that all of us agree that we owe it to the people we serve to come up with some honest, non-partisan answers to those questions. I think the source of those answers lies in us reaching a consensus and clarity over this House’s purpose. I believe that our purpose is to complement the House of Commons and give people confidence in the laws that Parliament makes. That is why we are doing all this revising and scrutinising. But the fact that I cannot articulate that purpose, or any other, and know for sure that all Members of this House endorse it and are genuinely signed up to it is what will put our future at risk.
It is not by chance that the media now routinely ask how a piece of legislation will fare in this House. I am not seeking to lay blame on any side of the political divide for that—I am not. We all—and I include the Cross-Benchers and the bishops—have to accept some responsibility for the inescapable reality that for the past 15 years or so this House has become more political in its behaviour. Too often one side of the House is frustrating the will of the elected Government because it can; while the Government are so focused on getting their legislative programme through at all costs that they struggle to discern when to stop and listen.
I fear that if we start down a path of change towards a goal marked simply, “smaller House of Lords”, we could compound that problem yet further. Fewer of us attending more frequently would diminish our range of expertise, and using election results to determine the numbers in this House would encourage us to be even more political—with the result that it would be hard to tell us apart from the House of Commons. We would have all the vices without the virtues.
However, if we could reach consensus on what the House of Lords exists for and unite in promoting that purpose, I truly believe that we would become more effective. That is because it would become clear to everyone that the motive of this House collectively, wherever any Peer sits in this Chamber, is to improve—not block or hijack—legislation for the benefit of the people of this country; in other words, it would be clear that all noble Lords believe that the value of this House lies in its important constitutional role, which is different from that of the more political House of Commons. The other place should be more political because only it has the authority that comes from democratic legitimacy.
My noble friend Lord Cormack has expressed the urgency of us taking action. The action I urge is for all noble Lords to encourage my noble friend and distinguished successor the Leader of the House, the Lord Speaker, the other party leaders and the Convenor to seek consensus and clarity over this House’s purpose. That is what we need to be a more effective second Chamber. We hold all the power we need to make change happen. We just need to agree what this House is for and be united in working towards that common public purpose.
My Lords, realistically there is to my mind only one answer to the central question raised by today’s Motion: yes. Swollen as this House now is, not least through a whole host of new appointments by Mr Cameron over recent years, we are plainly too large and we are widely mocked on that account.
There may be those who say—the noble Baroness our erstwhile Leader, whom it is a great privilege to follow, may be among them—that this is not a real problem; rather, it is a problem only of perception. They say, “Make clear what we do: our valuable work in scrutinising and revising legislation. Indeed, what an advantage it is to have a number of Members who seldom appear, rarely therefore claim allowances or clutter up our facilities, but who contribute usefully on those occasions when their particular expertise is required”, and the problem disappears. If only that were so; I fear that that is cloud-cuckoo-land. Unless we reduce in size, certainly to a number no larger than the Commons, we will continue to be regarded and portrayed as absurdly overweight and our reputation will thereby suffer. We must therefore now explore the methods by which we can achieve such a reduction. Plainly, this is not the debate and today is not the day that we should be committing ourselves to precisely how this can be done and which of us should be culled.
I certainly agree with the views expressed by a number of those in the group of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who wrote a letter published in the Times on Saturday. They said that the Commons must remain supreme as it alone has the democratic mandate; that no single party should command an overall majority in the House; that party strength should “broadly reflect” electoral results—failures as well as successes; and that at least 20% of our membership should be Cross-Benchers and thus independent of any party affiliation. That much seems to me reasonably clear. But how precisely within those basic parameters we should reduce our numbers—with perhaps some transitional arrangements—must be for a smaller body within the House to explore. Given that the recommendations of such a body will need to be as authoritative as possible, surely the best body would be a Select Committee, as already suggested. Indeed, I would go further and say—although he may not forgive my doing so—that it should be a Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who made such a conspicuous success of his committee’s consideration of the tricky questions that arose under the Trade Union Bill.
I add only this. It seems clear that we shall not achieve our ultimate aim of reducing in size unless and until two basic conditions are satisfied. First, the Government will not assist us in our proposed reform unless we ourselves reach a substantial consensus as to how to achieve it—as I say, I hope that will be by a Select Committee. Secondly, there never will be such a consensus unless and until the Prime Minister’s prerogative and powers of patronage to continue flooding us with new appointments is abridged, curtailed or attenuated, call it what you will. That would probably be best achieved by legislating for a cap on our number, perhaps one flexible enough to cater for a limited number of fresh appointments to meet any immediate ministerial requirements.
For now, however, I hope that your Lordships will pass the present Motion with acclaim. The public should know that it is not our fault that the House is so overlarge and that we ourselves wish it were not so. I hope, too, that the House authorities will immediately then appoint a Select Committee to report speedily upon how best to achieve the slimmed-down House that most of us desire.
My Lords, I was very proud to be elected earlier this year as chairman of the Association of Conservative Peers. I was then immediately able to endorse and promulgate a discussion paper recently produced by the executive committee of the association, and I congratulate my predecessor and noble friend Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, who deserves much credit for this sensible, pragmatic and, most important of all, highly practicable piece of work to which he will speak later in the debate.
I hope that colleagues on all sides will recognise that the paper was drafted not from a partisan point of view but because we all want this House to be genuinely effective. In order to meet any useful conclusions at all, it was necessary to begin our work having made five assumptions, which bear repetition. First, this House is presently too large; secondly, the House of Lords should have as an objective a membership no larger than that of the other place; thirdly, the Government of the day should not enjoy an absolute majority; fourthly, Cross-Benchers should comprise at least 20% of the House; and, fifthly and finally, the composition of the House should be responsive to any major changes in support for political parties in general elections.
The very fact that those assumptions could safely be made without any significant demur from any side shows how far we have come in the almost 17 years since the report of the royal commission to which my noble friend Lord Wakeham referred earlier. The ACP paper also draws fully on the very helpful options paper prepared for the subgroup on the size of the House by the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. The paper acknowledges first and foremost that there is no ideal solution. Instead, it seeks—and I believe succeeds in finding—a judicious balance, a synthesis even, between the various options that have previously been regarded as mutually incompatible. The broad approach recommended is a combination of a retirement age and allocating seats based on party strength in a general election, with both to take effect from the start of the next Parliament. I firmly believe that a cross-party consensus is now a genuine possibility, and I warmly commend the ACP report as a possible basis for such a consensus.
I want to remind the House that six years ago I served as chairman of the Leader’s Group on Members leaving the House. It is perhaps a sombre thought, but Members leaving the House must inevitably be the key to any meaningful reform. Our report was published on 13 January 2011. Much of its spirit was captured in the reforms instituted by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. One or two other suggestions in that report are worth revisiting. In particular, I draw the attention of the House to paragraph 63, where we recommended that,
“in future the honour of a life peerage should not automatically entail appointment to membership of the House, which should be reserved to those who are willing to make a significant commitment to public service in Parliament”.
A precedent of sorts has already been set for hereditary Peers who have left the House or who have inherited titles since the reforms of the late 1990s and for those who have taken retirement, and I understand that 52 of our noble colleagues have done so. It seems to me increasingly anachronistic that we have, outside this Chamber with no right to speak or vote here, hundreds of people with inherited titles and a growing number of retired colleagues with life peerages, yet every new peerage necessarily confers on the recipient a parliamentary role. I believe it may now be time to extend that principle of separation to include the creation of new life Peers who have no intention of becoming active parliamentarians. Of course, that echoes much of what has already been recommended.
Rightly, we respect our inheritance, but we have to be sensitive to the changing demands and expectations of modern society. I believe we have within our grasp the possibility of creating a modern, credible, bicameral legislature, well respected by the people, well suited to its real and present role and well equipped to face the considerable challenges of the future.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip for providing this debate in government time, which is a big step forward compared with the recent past, and secondly, I strongly support and endorse the Motion moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The reality is that it is a fairly simple Motion on the Order Paper today—one might almost say bland. Since most people recognise that the size of your Lordships’ House is our biggest problem and our greatest vulnerability, it is surprising to hear speeches which suggest that there is nothing for us to be concerned about. I find that quite astonishing. I also found it astonishing to hear people say there is no need for us to take this step. I do not think that view is widely held outside your Lordships’ House.
Of course reducing the numbers in this House will be very difficult and complicated, but we are not here to discuss the details of that today; we are here to decide whether we support this Motion or not and whether we should begin to look at the problem. As I was always told when I was a small boy, the best way to tackle a problem is to begin, and that is what we are being asked to do today. The details of the proposals will best be decided by a Select Committee of this House, which can thoroughly study all the issues, take evidence, listen to witnesses and come to a series of consensual conclusions—I believe this is possible—which protect party and Cross-Bench balance and, I might say, the Lord Bishops too. That is what our aim should be, and it is in the interests of all of us—Parliament and government—that the unnecessarily large number of Peers is reduced.
What we should be doing in this debate today is sending a clear message to the Government and to the people outside that we want to take on this challenge. After all, the people of this country will ask how, if we cannot deal with our own problems, we can expect them to have confidence in us to deal with the manifest problems they face every day of their lives. As I said earlier, the time for us to begin to address this problem is now.
My Lords, I begin by stating the obvious: this is a very complicated and deep-rooted issue. We cannot of course determine it this afternoon, or at any other time in a debate such as we are having today, but I certainly support the call for a Select Committee that was enunciated by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, to explore all these great matters and to report back to us.
However, I caution your Lordships that the reforms we need will not be easily won and that much will depend on the willingness of party leaders in this House to work together. The parallel inquiry in the House of Commons that has been mentioned is already under way, and I hope that both Houses will exert their joint influence when the two inquiries—ours and theirs, as I hope we will have an inquiry—report.
The last Conservative manifesto commended us for addressing the size of the second Chamber and the retirement of Peers. Sadly, Governments tend to have short memories. David Cameron ignored his manifesto’s reference to our bulging size within three months. He inflated the size of this Chamber and—I believe—tarnished our reputation. In his Dissolution Honours List, 45 new Peers were introduced. The figures are there for all to see. Without the intervention of the Appointments Commission, the damage might have been even worse.
That is one of the reasons why we need an Appointments Commission on a statutory basis with the powers to curb the unrestricted use of patronage that Prime Ministers currently enjoy. We cannot be easily abolished, as Prime Minister Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, found—but Downing Street can swamp us, and it has done so already.
We are in a new era, with a good deal of legislation to face over the coming years. We must be alert, probing and assertive. As has already been said many times, we respect the primacy of the Commons. But that respect must be mutual, and a smaller number of Members would ensure that. The Commons will have 600 MPs after the next election and I believe that our Chamber should match that, with around 400 working Peers. There seems to be a good deal of agreement on the numbers game.
I pay tribute to the work of the Appointments Commission and the thoroughness with which it interviews non-party nominees. But, for the life of me, I cannot comprehend why, when it is interviewing political nominees, it is not allowed to carry out the same rigorous interviews to ensure probity, experience, suitability and devotion to public service. To me, it is an affront when a Peer says that he thought his peerage was a reward for his success as a composer and he did not expect to attend debates and vote on policy issues. Likewise, No. 10 advisers sent here as lobby fodder who cannot speak do us a disservice. The mother of Parliaments is not mute.
Yesterday the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, called for incremental reform. She said in an email circulated by the Constitution Unit that,
“one cannot escape the conclusion that appointments too often reflect Prime Ministers’ personal preferences, which in turn are offered as rewards for support of a financial or non-financial kind”.
I respect her courteous restraint, but I speak as I find. The repeated abuse of Prime Ministers’ powers of privilege is as plain as a pikestaff. To my mind, it betrays arrogance, reeks of hypocrisy and has no place in a parliamentary system. The abolition of their untrammelled power is long overdue. Begone, I say—and I hope Theresa May takes note.
I am sure she will.
My Lords, the need to reform the way in which this House is composed and reduce its size is common ground. There has been a growing problem for some years over the size of the House. That was seen very clearly by Mr Cameron when he was Prime Minister; he sensibly declared that there were too many of us and that our membership should broadly reflect the votes cast at the immediately preceding general election. Unhappily, he ignored his own advice. Indeed, in his six years in office he created 245 new Members, a sharp contrast to Baroness Thatcher’s 201 in 11 years. Not only that: he made no UKIP Peers, but made a large number of others with very little electoral support.
We must do better than that. We have a great opportunity, since the Prime Minister at the moment has more than enough urgent matters on her plate and might well welcome a consensus reached here. Of course, if the House was stupid enough to attempt to frustrate the will of the people expressed in the referendum then that would force her to act, so I hope there are not too many kamikaze Peers in this House.
I hope I will be forgiven if I try to say a lot about a complex matter in a very short time. My proposals for reform of the House are based on these considerations. First, it should not be directly elected by the country at large. Secondly, it should be reduced in size to about 600 to 650 Members. Thirdly, the power of the patronage of the Prime Minister should be reduced. Fourthly, the composition of the House should be decided afresh, immediately after the forthcoming general election, and it should reflect the outcome of that election. Fifthly, there should be provision for the Bishops and the Cross-Benchers. Sixthly, the governing party should have about 260 Peers, of whom 20 would be nominated by the Prime Minister, the remainder elected by and from among the Peers of that party or parties. Seventhly, the Opposition should have 240 Peers, 20 nominated by the Leader of the Opposition and the others chosen by election among the sitting Peers of that party or its allies.
The time to institute this change should be immediately after the next election. Those Peers elected would be described as sitting Peers, all others as reserve Peers, who would have no rights except to stand in by-elections and stand and vote in the subsequent election. After the subsequent general election, all Peers—both sitting and reserve—would be able to stand and vote in their respective parties’ elections. There should be provision for the Prime Minister to create up to five Peers a year for the government Front Bench, and others in the Dissolution Honours List, the latter category having the right to stand for election to the post-election House. There should be a similar provision for the Leader of the Opposition.
I am sorry to spill such a bib full of complex proposals in a very short time. Hopefully, when colleagues read the Hansard report of our debate, they will make sense. It is important that we have a concept of how the process could be done, and I am sure that we would be right to take our cue from the way in which the hereditary Peers elect from their own kind to replace Members as they fall by the wayside. I do not think it is that difficult. It can be done, and the sooner we get about doing it, the better.
My Lords, I am delighted to have a chance to take part in this debate, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for having initiated it. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, who may be disconcerted to find that I have a large measure of agreement with what he said—unusually.
Of course we are too large, of course our functions must influence the size that we end up with, and of course the primacy of the Commons has to be maintained. I had the privilege of serving on the committee led by my noble friend Lady Taylor, and we came up with about 450 Members as the right size, with a number of other suggestions, most of which my noble friend has already iterated. Of course, we also need a bicameral system. I know in the past people have said that the easiest option is just to abolish this House and not replace it. I reject that entirely. I value this House and I feel very privileged to have been Member for some years—some would say for too long.
How do we move forward? I have one suggestion, which is meant seriously although it will be assumed I am not serious. Why do we not establish a position whereby those Members of this House who wish to stay as Members relinquish their titles, but if they leave the House they can retain their titles? I say that in all seriousness because I think it might work. The last time I raised it, people laughed at me, but we will see. I reject the idea that there is a case for appointing Peers for a fixed term of, say, 10 years. That, as my noble friend Lady Taylor said, simply means only older people would do it. The younger ones would not because they would have a career left that they could not easily take up.
I think there are three options. First, we could have an elected House, or at least a 90% elected House. It is still the option I favour, although I agree it is not very popular here. Secondly, as my noble friend’s committee suggested, we should reduce the House according to low levels of participation and high levels of years. That would enable us to get the House to be made smaller, although it would be contentious as to how it could be brought about. We need a constitutional commission to deal with this. A Select Committee has been suggested. Maybe that would work, but a constitutional commission might be better than a Select Committee because we would not be looking after our own.
Of course we must maintain a political balance, so that no one party dominates. At my age, I would be happy to fall on my sword provided that others also did so, or provided we had a clear-out of those who did not conform to the idea that they should be achieving a certain level of participation. On that basis, I would happily go, but others would have to join me as well. The Labour Party in this House is probably older than the other parties, so if we had a percentage reduction, that would hit the Labour Party much harder than other parties, so we have to be aware lest that might happen.
The question is whether the baseline for any change should be the percentage of existing Members here or bear some relationship to the strength in the Commons. I know that the Lib Dems would not be very keen on that, but would it not have some sort of logic? What I do not like—although it has not been suggested specifically—is what I call the Billy Bragg idea. He said that the House should be re-established not just after every election but that we should start again with zero membership and the political parties could appoint their Members. That would be a recipe for a sycophantic House, which is the last thing that we would want. Where would our level of independence go?
However, if we did it as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, suggested, and simply vote in each party group and on the Cross Benches for who should remain, based on a baseline percentage, I think that would work pretty well. I know that it has been called a circular firing squad, but I think it would not be a bad idea. After all, the hereditary Peers did that, way back in 1999, and it seemed to work quite well. That would be a quick and easy way—it would not deal with the sophistication of my noble friend’s report, but it would be a quick and effective way in which to reduce the size of the House.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I hope that he will not go just yet, because we would lose a huge amount in this House if he did. I am glad to take part briefly in this debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on initiating the debate but also on the work of his group on the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. The title says it all: our constitution needs a Second Chamber, not to challenge the primacy of the Commons but to revise and improve legislation and hold the Government to account through debates and committees.
As with all organisations, the House’s ability to carry out its task effectively depends in good part on its reputation, and its reputation depends in good part on its size—and not just its size but on the rather haphazard and, to almost everyone outside the House, pretty incomprehensible way in which appointments and retirements are carried out. I agree with those who have said that the House is too large and should be reduced. I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, that 450 is a good size. I shall not pursue that argument further now, although I am attracted by the arguments of the noble Lords, Lord Tebbit and Lord Dubs, on how we might bring that about.
The right way in which to address an issue as important to our constitution as the size of the House is through a properly constituted Select Committee of this House. I do not think that Leader’s groups or other less formal groups would reflect the importance of the task to the House itself or to the constitution of this country. I am reinforced in that view by my five years as chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Those five years were a huge pleasure and, even more than that, an enormous privilege. But throughout those years, I felt uneasy that a task as important as nominating Cross-Benchers of this House and vetting political appointments for propriety should be carried out by a body that was accountable to the Prime Minister of the day and not accountable to your Lordships’ House. I persuaded the Leader of the House of the day, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, that I should be accountable on behalf of the commission to the Constitution Committee of this House once a year. That was not a natural thing for a former public servant to do, but it was important to do it.
It has been argued that any future appointments commission should be charged, in addition to its present functions, with selecting members of political parties on grounds of suitability, not just propriety. My noble friend Lady Boothroyd spoke very eloquently on that subject. Not only that, but it has sometimes been proposed that a new appointments commission should also decide which Members of the House should be obliged to retire and which might be allowed to stay. It goes without saying that such a commission, which would be not only an appointments commission but, I fear, a disappointments commission, would have to be on a statutory basis. I support those who argue that an effective second Chamber, which is a key element in our constitution, needs to be significantly smaller than today and that the right way to address these complex issues and get to that goal should be through a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jay, with all his experience. I agree with every word he said. I also echo the thanks that have been expressed to the Leader of the House for making this debate possible. In the debate so far there already seems to be a degree of consensus which many people said did not exist.
The summer before last, I went to a wedding. I did not know many people there and I found myself on a round table for 12. Someone at the far side of the table leaned across and said: “Michael, are you still involved in front-line politics”? I said: “No, not at all, but I do try and do my bit in the House of Lords”. To this, he said: “Oh, I expect you are like all the others: you turn up for five minutes and claim your £300”. I shall not tell you what I responded, but I regret that this is a view which is widely held, not just about me but about every single person in this Chamber. Among the many important things said by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, the most important was that the effectiveness of this House depends upon our reputation: our reputation is at an all-time low. I know that Parliament goes through bad periods. When the other place caught fire, people were in the streets cheering the fact. There is nothing new in Parliament being unpopular, but as my noble friend Lady Stowell said, when she mentioned the impact of Brexit, this should, if nothing else, alert us to the dangers of ignoring the views of people and living in a bubble where you can pretend that things are different from what they are or that they are as you would like them to be.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, suggested that some people are so angry that they are in favour of abolition. When there are nine MPs in the other place at the end of the building and 104 Peers sitting on these Benches, I can see why they might be inclined towards abolition. We know that the work done in this place is immensely effective, not just in the Chamber but by the Select Committees. The Economic Affairs Select Committee—I declare an interest because I am on it—produced a brilliant report on the housing problem. I was even persuaded to go along with the fact that we needed to build more council houses. It was based on evidence and consensus. As my noble friend Lord Young said in the debate the other day, many of the ideas will be included in the Government’s forthcoming White Paper. Did it get any publicity? A smidgen. Did anyone take any notice? Hardly any. Notwithstanding the excellent work done by the Information Committee and the officials who work to promote the House, this House really needs to do something about improving our PR and ability to communicate the work which we do here.
Some people say, and I agree, that the House is too large. However, there is absolutely no point in reducing its size if we do not put a limit on it. There is no point in having a limit if we do not do something about appointments. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, is much more tactful than I am. He said that he enjoyed being chairman of the Appointments Commission for five years. I would have found it an absolute nightmare, because that commission is used to justify appointments to this House. The public think that because they have been to the commission, all political appointments have been interviewed. They think they have actually been asked: have you got the time to do the job, are you prepared to make the commitment, what experience have you got? The Government tell people like me, who are appointing people to boards in financial services, that we must look at balance and experience; we must have a proper interview process and avoid any sense of patronage being used. Yet when it comes to the most important body in the land, which is responsible for revising legislation, there is no interview process. I asked a question the other day and my noble friend—I know she did not have a choice—answered that the Government felt it was up to the political parties to be accountable for the appointments that they make. Where is the accountability for some of the appointments that have been made in the past? I believe that the Appointments Commission, like every other organisation, should be able to interview people before they are appointed to this place to see whether they have the necessary qualities.
My noble friend Lady Stowell talked about the importance of the House’s role in revising legislation and helping the Government to achieve the best legislation. However, we are not the Executive’s little helpers; we are here to make sure that they are held to account. I regret to say that I loyally voted with the Government on the tax credits measure. However, when we voted down the secondary legislation on tax credits, we did the Government an enormous favour and saved millions of people in our country from a huge loss of benefits. When the measure went to the other end of the building, what happened? They all woke up to the measure’s consequences, and the Chancellor dropped the proposal entirely because he could not get it through the House of Commons, not because he could not get it through the House of Lords. Therefore, I believe that this House does an excellent job. It needs to be reduced in size. I agree with many of the ideas put forward by my noble friend Lord Tebbit and by my noble friend Lord Cormack in his excellent address. This is not the occasion to work out how we do that but we need to do it now. The Motion does not say how it should be done. There should be a Select Committee to bring forward recommendations so that we are in a position to go into another Parliament with a House that commands the respect that this place deserves for the excellent work which it does.