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House of Lords

Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th December 2016.

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Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons) 12:00 am, 14th December 2016

What plans the Government have to bring forward legislative proposals to reduce the number of members of the House of Lords.

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

The Government are clear that the House of Lords cannot continue to grow indefinitely. However, comprehensive reform of the House of Lords is not a priority for this Parliament, as set out in the Government’s manifesto, given the number of pressing priorities—hon. Members know what they are—elsewhere. Of course, where measures can command consensus across the House, the Government will welcome working with peers to look at how to take them forward.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

Even the House of Lords now thinks the House of Lords is too big, so how can it be the Government’s priority to reduce the elected house by 50 Members, when under David Cameron the Lords expanded by 260?

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the excellent debate that took place in the other place on 5 December, in which 61 noble Members took part over six hours. It was clear that there was a consensus among all political parties, as there is a consensus among all political parties in this House, that the size of the Lords is an issue that will have to be addressed. Our manifesto commitment set out very clearly that it was not a priority. When it comes to the boundary changes, our manifesto commitment to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600 is critical as it will save £66 million across a Parliament and, crucially, equalise constituencies that for decades have remained unequal.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

Does my hon. Friend agree that while reform of the House of Lords might not be a priority at the moment, if their lordships try to frustrate the will of the British people over Brexit, reform of the House of Lords should become a top priority?

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I refer again to the debate that took place last week, in which an interesting consensus developed. Baroness Evans, the Leader of the House of Lords, said in her summing up:

“It is right that we collectively seek a solution to address concerns about the size of this House raised today while ensuring we continue to refresh and renew our expertise and our outlook so we remain relevant to the Britain of today and the future.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 December 2016;
Vol. 777, c. 590.]

The House of Lords has a critical part in our constitution as a revising Chamber, and I hope that will continue.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Last week, we witnessed the outrageous spectacle of Tory peers trying to filibuster plans that would have removed the archaic charade of the hereditary peer by-election that takes place in the House of Lords, in which a small number of privileged Lords decide which among their number will join this legislature. Does the Minister not agree that that makes a laughing stock of the House of Lords and underlines the need for this House to engage in serious plans for reform?

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

It is a shame that there were no SNP Members of the House of Lords taking part in that debate because that party refuses to engage in the democratic process and lets down the people of Scotland by not allowing them adequate representation. Talking about frustrating processes, there was a vote in 2014 in which 2 million people voted to remain as part of the UK, but that party over there continues to frustrate the will of the Scottish people.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

I am sure the Minister shares my disappointment that when there was an opportunity to reform the House of Lords in Government time in this Chamber, the main Opposition party decided to frustrate it. Does he agree that any reform of the size and composition of the Lords needs to be linked to wider reform that delivers a whole package, and should not just set a particular number on the membership?

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

What is important is that reform of the House of Lords is led by the Lords themselves. As the debate last week showed, there is clearly an appetite for that. We have had significant reforms, including on the retirement of peers, which has seen about 50 peers retire. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House of Lords said at the end of the debate that she would consider

“whether a more immediate, practical step could be taken in convening a small, Back Bench-led consultative group whose work could be overseen, for instance, by the Lord Speaker.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 December 2016;
Vol. 777, c. 591.]

I look forward to hearing more about the development of those plans.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Labour, Bolsover

How can the Government justify having more than 800 unelected Members of the House of the Lords and reducing the elected House of Commons from 650 Members to 600? There are that many people in the House of Lords that they are running short of toilets.

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I am not sure about the toilets issue, but the Labour peer, Baroness Taylor of Bolton—a colleague of the hon. Gentleman with whom I am sure he often agrees—commented that while there are 845 Members of the House of Lords, average attendance is around 497. I am not sure what that does to the situation with the toilets.

Let us come back to the boundary changes. The hon. Gentleman has been around for a long time. He knows that when we look at the size of the constituencies in this House, we see that some have 95,000 constituents and some have 38,000. That discrepancy was first picked up on by the Chartists—he may have been around at that time. Two hundred years ago, a working-class organisation demanded change and we are the party that will deliver it.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office)

We have heard a great many words from the Minister. Why can he not understand that it is simply untenable to have a bloated revising Chamber with substantially more Members than this elected Chamber? This comes at a time when, as we have heard, he is ploughing ahead with his plans to reduce the size of this place. He might not think that reform of the House of Lords is a priority, but their Lordships do, so what is he going to do about it?

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

As I stated in a previous answer, it is up to the House of Lords to command cross-party consensus in that House. Labour Members of the Lords are willing to get involved with that. But let us talk about priorities, as the language of priorities is the language of politics. Our priority is to ensure that we deliver the will of the British people in leaving the European Union. The Labour party’s priorities seem to be frustrating the Brexit process and demanding we take up our entire legislative time reforming the House of Lords. If we are looking at who should be getting their priorities straight, the hon. Gentleman should look at himself.