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House of Lords: Size

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2020


Asked by

To ask the Senior Deputy Speaker what consideration has been given by the Procedure Committee to bringing before the House a resolution to amend Standing Orders to provide that the House should reduce the number of introductions of new Peers annually to the number recommended in the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House.

My Lords, under the Life Peerages Act 1958, Her Majesty has the power to confer a peerage for life, and that peerage entitles the holder

“to receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords and sit and vote therein accordingly”.

The House is therefore restricted in what it can do to limit introductions without undermining that Act of Parliament. It is the Government and the party groups who are best able to ensure that we continue to reduce the size of the House by accepting the recommendations in the reports from the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House.

I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for his response, but if this House is to get back its reputation and remove the odour of disrespect from Downing Street, it has to put its own house in order and not wait for others to do so. Will he therefore support bringing before the House, for a vote in the near future, a resolution along the lines outlined in my Question?

That is a matter for the Procedure Committee. I made reference to our possibly undermining the Act of Parliament. However, I will refer the noble Lord’s question to the Procedure Committee when we meet.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, which would abolish hereditary by-elections, would help to achieve a gradual reduction in the size of the House? I understand that this is a matter for the usual channels, but will the House authorities try to ensure that there is sufficient time to debate and pass this important Bill—perhaps third time lucky?

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has a question, and I presume that will add to what the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, has said. Again, the Burns report was set to ensure that we achieved change without legislation. That is a difficult issue, but the Procedure Committee will be looking at it and other issues.

My Lords, to implement the “two out, one in” principle, there have to be two out in the first place. Will the Senior Deputy Speaker commit to the Procedure Committee revisiting the whole of the Burns committee report to see what can be implemented through the rules of the House rather than relying on good will, to give effect to the recommendation to reduce the existing number of Members and achieve what the committee termed an accelerated “two out, one in” programme?

I inform the noble Lord that the Burns committee is still sitting. If it had not been for the lockdown, the committee would have been producing its fourth report. I am sure that will come shortly, so I await the comments of Burns regarding peerages in light of the new Government.

Will the Senior Deputy Speaker join me in congratulating the House of Lords Appointments Commission on maintaining the highest standards in approving appointments, and in the hope that I express that it will extend its remit to considering the ability of appointees to contribute to the House? In relation to the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, will the Minister note that to do anything like that would open the appointments system to judicial review all the way to the Supreme Court, and would drag the Crown in as those appointments are made by the Crown?

That is a very perceptive point on this issue, and it feeds into the point I made about the limits on the House and the Procedure Committee. The Appointments Commission has done an excellent job on that issue, and I am sure that any further suggestions or initiatives it produces will be looked at seriously.

My Lords, since 23 March, when the House resolved to suspend any by-elections for hereditary Peers until 8 September, three further vacancies have arisen. Does the Senior Deputy Speaker agree that we cannot be serious about reducing the size of the House if we are to have a clutch of by-elections for new hereditary Peers in the autumn? Will he ask the Procedure Committee to recommend at least postponing these wretched elections or, better still, getting rid of them altogether?

The noble Lord has been both determined and courteous in his approach to this. I will certainly bring up this issue. Standing Order 10 was suspended for three months, and it has to be looked at again. I will include the noble Lord’s questions and suggestions on that.

My Lords, does the Senior Deputy Speaker agree that the central problem lies not in our House but in No. 10? Has any notification been received from Messrs Johnson and Cummings that they are prepared to stick with the promise made by the previous Prime Minister to abide by the suggestions and recommendations of the Burns committee, which were approved by the House?

The previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, most certainly showed restraint in her letter and her engagement with the Lord Speaker on that issue but, as the first Burns report stated, the proposal would work only if the Prime Minister undertook to appoint no more Members than there were vacancies. I look forward to the fourth Burns report looking at this issue and giving us its reflections.

My Lords, last July the Burns committee produced its third report with benchmarks for year 3, indicating by how much each group should reduce its numbers if we were to hit the target by 2027. Year 3 ended on 7 June. Does the noble Lord agree that when the Burns committee reconvenes, it would be helpful if it then set targets for the remainder of this Parliament, taking account of the recent election?

The suggestion of benchmarks is very sensible. The outline for the appointments was from 2017 to 2022. I am sure that the Burns committee will look at that issue when it reconvenes and reports, and we will certainly ensure that those comments are relayed to the committee.

My Lords, does the Senior Deputy Speaker agree that the continuing misuse of the appointments system to reward those who, through financial donations or in similar ways, support political hierarchies brings the whole House and Parliament itself into disrepute?

We have mentioned the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and it is doing an excellent job. I am sure it will have keen views and reflections on that issue as we go forward.

My Lords, is there not a huge irony here? Here we are, Members of your Lordships’ House from all the different political parties and none, and we are the ones calling for reform as soon as possible, while the only reason that we have not got it is because the Government will not do it. The Burns report made a very modest and sensible proposal but, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, said, it has now been overtaken by events. Should we not be pressing the Government to say that this really cannot wait? We are more effective and useful if we are a smaller House. With rumours of a huge government appointment list coming, is there not some urgency to this situation now for both the Government and your Lordships’ House?

The House endorsed the Burns report. There is a keenness to ensure that we reduce the size of the House. Pressure or further lobbying on this issue can be made, whether in the Chamber of the House or in the Procedure Committee. As she is a member of the Procedure Committee, I have no doubt that the noble Baroness will be raising that at a future meeting.

My Lords, the message has been quite clear in all the questions put that there is a general desire across the House that we keep numbers of new Members to a minimum, and thereby reduce membership levels. Can we have an urgent debate on the subject, so that we can clearly indicate the mood of the House and how the matter might be resolved?

That issue is outwith my remit, but the Government’s business managers are listening to this. Again, I will convey that to the business managers to reflect the strength of feeling in the House overall, and particularly on the Question today.

My Lords, the problems with the size of the House are exacerbated by continuing the by-elections of hereditary Peers. By-elections and elections to local authorities have been postponed for a year, so will Parliament be given a say as to whether by-elections of hereditary Peers will resume in September? How can the opinion of this House be tested on this issue before then?

Standing Order 10(6) will have to be looked at again in September. I am sure that there will be an opportunity for the House to make comments to the Leader on that issue.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords. All supplementary questions have again been asked, and we now move to the fourth Oral Question. I call the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge.