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House of Lords Reform: Elected Second Chamber

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber.

The Minister did warn me that he was going to give me a brief reply, but I had hoped for more than one word. During the coalition Government there were plans for reform, which were dropped because of Back-Bench rebellion and that sort of thing, but since then the public atmosphere has changed and even staunch traditionalists are calling for the abolition of this House. Does the noble Lord not think that the Government should think again and make this House truly representative, accountable and democratic?

I say to the noble Baroness that no discourtesy was intended and that it allows noble Lords more time to ask questions. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the proposals in the noble Baroness’s House of Lords Reform Bill last year. The hereditaries would disappear, to be replaced by 292 elected Peers for eight years on a regional basis. The rest of us, including the Lords spiritual, would survive. We would be able to speak but not vote—we would be talkers but not walkers—enabling the Whips to focus their skills on the small minority who actually mattered. I think that having non-voting and voting Peers would introduce unacceptable class barriers into your Lordships’ House. It would also pose a problem for the Cross-Benchers. If the Cross-Benchers wanted to survive, they would have to stand for election, which might prove to be an indignity for some of them. The noble Baroness also suggested that, if they wanted to do that, they would have to stand as a party. We would all envy the role of the Convenor in trying to corral the various Members on the Cross Benches into a party. That would make the rest of us look positively disciplined.

My Lords, when the noble Baroness talks about elections to this House, we should perhaps be mindful that an elected second Chamber might not be so mindful of the primacy of the elected House. A constitutional convention may well be the best way forward. When we look at reform, we know that the wheels of progress sometimes move very slowly. But this House has already agreed a way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee made proposals to reduce the size of the House so it would not be as large as the Commons, for 15-year terms and, to get to that point, for there to be two out and one in. Does he not think it is time the Government took those proposals on board and moved forward on Burns? Reform has been agreed by this House: it is the Government holding up reform, not your Lordships’ House.

The noble Baroness will know that the Prime Minister responded to the Burns report, and my party has responded very positively to the suggestion that numbers should come down. The House may remember the figures I gave in an earlier exchange: 15 noble Lords have retired since October last year—eight Conservatives, four Cross-Benchers, two Labour and one Democratic Unionist—but, sadly, no Lib Dems. My party has played its part in reducing the number of Peers. We urge other parties to follow our example.

My Lords, I commiserate with the Minister. In a previous existence in the other place, he indulged in a very considerable effort to get the 2012 coalition Bill through, and secured the biggest majority for such a Bill. Does he note now that he was thwarted by an unholy alliance between the Opposition Front Bench and rebel reactionary Tories? Does he also note that the public believe that the complete abolition of your Lordships’ House would be preferable to maintaining it in its present undemocratic state?

I am not sure on what evidence the noble Lord makes that final statement. He is quite right that in the Parliament before this there was a majority of 388 on Second Reading for the Bill that he referred to—partly, perhaps, because I wound up that debate. Sadly, it was not possible to progress with a programme Motion, partly because of some dissent in my own party—I would not call them rebel reactionaries, as I think the noble Lord did—but, had the Labour Party joined the Government in the Lobbies, that programme Motion would have been passed. So I think the responsibility needs to be shared.

The noble Lord was right to remind the House that there is some discontent in the other place about the role of your Lordships’ House. There was a debate last week in the other place on the abolition of your Lordships’ House and some disobliging remarks were made. It was the view of one Member of Parliament that,

“it is about time the Commons decided who is an appropriate Member of the second Chamber … Select Committees are the obvious bodies to interview them”.

Another said:

“My final point is that whatever money we save from the House of Lords should be given to MPs—not in pay but to run our offices”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/6/18; col. 13WH.]

But I do not believe that there is a public appetite for the abolition of the second Chamber.

My Lords, I do not favour election, but does the Minister not agree that it might constitute a worthwhile advance if Members of this House were still to be appointed, possibly by an appointments commission, but greatly strengthened by a system of nominations from the different branches of civil society, such as the law, medicine, the arts, sport, education, the armed services, business, trade unions, the third sector, and so on?

I agree that all those professions and interests should be represented in your Lordships’ House and that the Cross Benches have a good representation of those interests. I think there is a quota of Peers allocated each year to HOLAC in order to appoint more Cross-Bench Peers. All this is against a background of the Prime Minister exercising restraint on political appointments. The recent Dissolution Honours List was the smallest since 1979—and here I warmly welcome my noble friend Lord Haselhurst.

My Lords, I think most noble Lords would accept the idea that the size of the Chamber needs to be reduced, and it will be in due course, but does my noble friend agree that in the recent passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill the House of Lords proved its value, working across party, across the House, together to make significant improvements to the Bill?

The House of Lords played its traditional role as a scrutinising Chamber, looking at legislation that came before it. Some amendments were made, and I am glad that, when it came to the second stage of ping-pong, the House recognised the primacy of the elected Chamber.