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House of Lords: Membership

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 5 May 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of recent press reports, whether they are considering proposals for reform of the House of Lords based on the exclusion of those over the age of 65.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

With respect and admiration for my noble friend the Minister, I ask: as this Question is about the future of this House, why is the Leader of the House not answering it? What have the Government done to rebut the Sunday Times report that Ministers are examining whether they could retire every Member of this House who is over the age of 65 and that we are all so old that there is no prospect of us doing our job? Will the Government name the Whitehall source responsible for this false and malicious briefing? If this is not known, will they invite the Cabinet Secretary to investigate and, if the source is identified by him, ensure that they are summarily dismissed?

My Lords, there are a number of questions there which I am sure have been noted. I am sorry if my noble friend thinks it is only the second division that has come out to answer the Question, but I think the second division is adequate to put paid to a third-rate story. There is no substance in it. It is not the intention of the Government to introduce such a policy.

In the light of that answer, would the Minister ask the Leader of the House, who is meant to represent the whole of the House of Lords, to put in her own words in the public domain, either through a statement or press release, the answer that has just been given, which is that there are no plans of this nature? Could the Minister give us that undertaking and say why on earth anyone in Whitehall is thinking about reform of this House at the moment, rather than the national emergency facing us?

My Lords, I have stated on the record the position of the Government—I am sure that any number of Ministers could do the same—and I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will be following our proceedings. The current total priority and focus of this Government is to deal with the Covid-19 emergency. I assure the noble Baroness that, were such an idea ever to be suggested, it would be given the very lowest priority.

My Lords, is it not obvious that somebody in No. 10 is playing party games with the constitutional role and responsibility of Members of your Lordships’ House, as set out in our Writ of Summons from Her Majesty the Queen? Following the answer that was given just now, can we be assured that the Leader of the House will start leading for the House and will stand up to No. 10? Will the Minister confirm that any changes of this sort will follow the normal process of scrutiny, debate and votes in your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the point on scrutiny. The Government have made it very clear that they do not consider piecemeal reform of this House to be sensible. However, I repeat that there is no substance in this story. I am not sure whether it was a case of the ill-informed meeting the inventive or perhaps one or the other, but I repeat that it is not government policy.

My Lords, reducing the size of the House is obviously not a priority for the moment but it is something that we need to do. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will consider putting a cap on the size of the House, allowing its numbers to be reduced along the lines of the Burns report? However, as other noble Lords have said, the priority now is surely to enhance and increase both the scale and the effectiveness of the scrutiny that we as a House can bring to the conduct of the Government during the current crisis. Are there plans to expand the role and function of the House from their limited forms at the moment?

My Lords, I welcome scrutiny and think that it is vital for a democracy. Obviously, the arrangements made by the authorities of the House are beyond my remit; I am here to answer for the Government. The Government do not currently intend to put a cap on the size of the House; indeed, their position is that from time to time the House will need refreshing. That has always been the position; it has never been a static House.

My Lords, I speak as a Member who is still just in his 50s. Our House does indeed need to be kept fresh and current, so reform is necessary. However, does my noble friend agree that the expertise and knowledge brought to this House by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, or the mastery and love of democracy and its institutions of my noble friend Lord Cormack, to name but two examples, rather proves the point that the implementation of arbitrary criteria would be not only wrong but seriously detrimental to our deliberations?

My Lords, I understand what my noble friend is saying. For example, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern makes an immense contribution, even though I think he only gives a year in age to Her Majesty the Queen. Anybody who had half a tin ear to the work of your Lordships’ House would understand the immense contribution made by older people in it. I submit that if an appointed House is not in good part a House of expertise and experience, it is nothing, but I repeat that the House needs to be refreshed from time to time.

My Lords, the story has all the hallmarks of a No. 10 briefing intended to stifle scrutiny by your Lordships’ House. If that is not the case, will the Government agree to strengthen scrutiny by this House, perhaps by agreeing to a daily statement by the relevant Minister following the Downing Street press conference, and allowing more time for debate and routine questioning of the Government? Surely the Minister accepts that transparency will strengthen public confidence in the Government and their handling of the present crisis.

My Lords, I agree that transparency is vital in public affairs. I am not responsible for usual channels. I would be a wealthy man if I had a pound for every unattributable briefing that was knocked down under the last Labour Government. I have repudiated this story and the alleged proposals on behalf of the Government in Parliament, and there it should rest.

It cannot really rest, of course, because this is only one of a series of unattributed weekend briefings from No. 10. Although the finger cannot be pointed definitely at someone, most of us have a pretty good idea where the briefings are coming from. Frankly, it is not acceptable; it should be stopped, and the Prime Minister should stop it. On refreshing the House, what the Minister said is of course true, but it is generally accepted that some 40 names are already waiting to be introduced to the House. That goes far beyond “refreshing”, and drives a horse and cart through the Burns proposals, which the House unanimously accepted.

My Lords, I think this is going wide of the Question, though the noble Lord might wish to reflect on the large number of Peers on his own Benches who were brought in under the previous two Administrations. I shall not enter into conspiracy theories; the House should concentrate on fact and work. I have stated on the record that this is not, and has not been, government policy.

My Lords, while I completely support reform of the House of Lords—indeed, I was enthusiastic about the last reform—I hope that when Ministers get round to considering this matter they will look at the need for a more balanced Chamber representing not only the protected characteristics but expertise beyond the current framework. The House does need refreshing from time to time; I support the Minister in that view.

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes important points. We all need to be mindful of the need for this House to be representative widely of opinion and people across this nation.

While I welcome the brief and robust way in which the Minister has answered this Question, will he take a moment to put to bed a couple of other stories circulating in the news at the moment which are alleged to be future government policy and are causing worry particularly to our older people: first, that the triple lock on pensions is to go and, secondly, that 9 million people over 70 are to remain incarcerated after lockdown is eased? Does he agree that these stories have caused increased anxiety and entirely justifiable anger and outrage? Will he assure us that both stories are also fake news and that there is no reality in them now or in the future?

My Lords, again, I understand where the noble Baroness is coming from, but her questions go slightly wider than the Question before the House. On future arrangements on lockdown, the Government have promised further advice shortly. As noble Lords will know, the position is that everyone is being asked to stay at home at the moment however old they are, but I will not speculate here on what may be considered appropriate in the next phase.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.