My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on having secured this important debate. In so doing, I declare my own interest as chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, raises an important issue which has implications for the practical discharge of the work of your Lordships’ House, as he rightly pointed out in his excellent introduction to the debate. It also has an important impact on the external perception of your Lordships’ House and therefore more broadly on the regard and standing of Parliament.
It is therefore vital that we look at the size of your Lordships’ House in the context of what the ongoing role of a second Chamber might be in the 21st century, in a bicameral Parliament where the primary Chamber enjoys the democratic mandate and has reserved for itself specific powers with regard to supply and confidence; and where there is a convention that your Lordships’ House does not frustrate the will of the primary Chamber but, rather, plays an important and active role, respecting the democratic mandate of the primary Chamber; in scrutinising and revising legislation, ensuring that our fellow citizens can live under the best possible laws that have been informed by active consideration in your Lordships’ House; by holding the Government to account, applying itself in a rigorous and fastidious fashion, questioning what the Government are doing and how the Executive are discharging themselves; and, of course, stimulating and initiating debates and inquiries which address concerns of national importance.
To discharge those functions, your Lordships’ House has concentrated on work in the Chamber, but also in Grand Committee and a number of Select and ad hoc Committees, currently over 30, populated by noble Lords who bring unique insights and expertise to their work. It is in that context that we need to consider how your Lordships’ House should be populated in the future. A driving principle of membership of this House has been that it brings experience, insight and expertise to much of the work that it does.
That has been an important and distinguishing characteristic of the composition of your Lordships’ House and it helps us to distinguish it from the other place. Therefore, in considering questions of the future size of your Lordships’ House it is important to understand whether at the heart of that particular question your Lordships and those who are in a position to make appointments to the House are fully cognisant of the current composition of the House and, in particular, what expertise exists within it.
For instance, do we have any clear understanding of the range of expertise that is required in a Chamber of this nature to be able to address issues of complexity in terms of modern legislation? How frequently is the declared expertise brought to bear in addressing in detail—in Committee and in work in the Chamber—the kinds of issues of legislation that your Lordships’ House is faced with, to ensure that the citizens of our country can be certain that they live under the very best laws, which have been thoughtfully considered? How often are we able to refresh that expertise to ensure that we are able to discharge our constitutional responsibilities? How can the House go about identifying the kinds of issues—and therefore the kinds of expertise—that might be required on the horizon to ensure that we can continue to discharge our responsibilities to scrutinise and revise legislation appropriately?
An important example of one of the areas where your Lordships’ House has taken a particular leading role in this Parliament is on the question of the scrutiny of legislation from Europe. I declare a further interest as a member of Sub-Committee B of your Lordships’ European Union Committee. The work of that network of European Union committees is highly regarded. It informs debate in the other place, and of course it informs further consideration among the European institutions and among other member states. How are we to ensure, when considering the size of a future House, that we retain that type of expertise?
Your Lordships’ House has another very important function in this bicameral Parliament. That is to ensure that Parliament, in the broadest sense, is able to reflect the diversity—in age, gender, ethnicity and in geography—that reflects our country as a whole, and which may not always be achieved through the ballot box and our particular electoral system in terms of membership of the other place. It would be a great pity, when considering questions about the size of your Lordships’ House, if those important defining characteristics were lost through the application of arbitrary solutions. That is not to say that the question of size is not an important one, but in addressing that question, your Lordships and others must be sensitive to the fact that your Lordships’ House, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said in his introduction, works well, discharges those important responsibilities, and must be able to do so in the future.