House of Lords: Size — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat 3:48 pm, 12th December 2013

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on this very timely debate. He and I gave evidence to the Select Committee of the other place that looked at this issue, and I shall briefly refer to its report because it was rather useful for people outwith this House to look in, although it has to be said that very many distinguished Members of this House gave evidence to that committee. My noble friend referred to some of the issues looked at—for example, the proposal that there should be legislation to expel Peers who have been convicted of a serious offence. I do not think that reform would produce a serious decrease in the size of the House; I would hope not.

The committee recorded strong agreement that action should not be taken in two areas: first, in relation to the introduction of a long-term moratorium on new Peers, and secondly, in relation to the introduction of a compulsory retirement age. It specifically said that it did not think either of those things were appropriate or would receive proper support in either House. The committee went on to say that there seemed to be some widespread support for no longer replacing hereditary Peers in the House of Lords when they died. That has proved very contentious in this House, so maybe there was a certain naivety at the other end of the building on that issue. On the other hand, the committee quite sensibly pointed out that tackling the issue of persistent non-attendance is by definition not particularly useful in dealing with problems of overpopulation in this House. It is a classic non-solution. Finally, it said that it thought that the evidence about introducing fixed-terms appointment for Peers suggested that it would prove to be just as controversial as some of the more major reforms that both Houses have been looking at in recent years.

The chairman of that Committee, Mr Graham Allen MP, said in introducing the report:

“Establishing a consensus about the principles that should determine the relative numerical strengths of the different party groups in the House of Lords, and for codifying such principles, is probably the most contentious of all the issues we considered in this inquiry, but it is also the most crucial to any further progress. We call upon the Government and political parties in the Lords to set out their positions on this matter and to engage in dialogue that will establish a consensus before the next General Election, so that both Houses can act upon an agreed reform”.

My noble friend the Leader of the House may be able to respond to that challenge. I was disappointed that the committee did not see fit to take evidence from my noble friend because on a number of occasions in this House he has given a very effective, robust and rigorous analysis of the issue of active membership of this House, which is not fully explored in the Library note, which is otherwise excellent.

The search for consensus is fascinating in politics, not least in this building. My very good friend Dr Chris Ballinger of Exeter College, who has given evidence to a number of committees, said recently that,

“seeking a perfect reform through consensus is a fast track to inertia”.

I suspect that is where we are again today. Already we can see that Dan Byles’s Private Member’s Bill, which has now come to our House and is based on the previous Bills introduced in this House by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood, whose Bill was passed by this House, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is likely to be squeezed out in the current Session by the Conservative high command’s insistence on giving precedence to the European Union (Referendum) Bill. Is there really a chance of making progress in this Session—I doubt it—or the next Session, a few months before a general election? Presumably we can now confidently assume that all three major parties will reiterate their previous and repeated manifesto commitments to full reform of this House. It would presumably be perverse if Labour failed to commit itself to legislation which incorporated all the main features of Jack Straw’s White Paper of July 2008, including specific recommendations on the transitional, steady reduction in the size of the House. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in his place this afternoon. He was not only a crucial author of those proposals; I think that he was really the godfather—I mean that in the nicest sense, not the Italian sense.