House of Lords: Size — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 12th December 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord True Lord True Conservative 4:03 pm, 12th December 2013

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, and I agree wholeheartedly with what he said about arbitrary solutions. I thank, as have other noble Lords, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for initiating this important debate. However, sometimes, and increasingly, it seems that debates about our own future are becoming like the story of Penelope’s tapestry in Homer’s Odyssey: great labour, ingenious designs, but of it there never comes an end.

That this House should be comfortable with itself is important. But if the belt fits a little tightly at some times and in some places, is that the end of the world? We did not need too many sharp elbows to get to our places this afternoon; some looking on will be bemused at the idea that a House so allegedly overcrowded looks so empty. What is so urgent or damaging about this alleged problem that it claims our monthly attention? Surely it cannot be that some, as well as not wanting hereditary peers any more, do not want too many more like ourselves. I express my unqualified welcome to new Members of the House on all sides—I am sure they will enrich our work.

Most of your Lordships have recently rejected a reduction in the size of the other place. The House also set its teeth, as my noble friend Lord Tyler said, against the solution of election of a set number of Peers to stock the political Benches of this House. That would be the easiest way to set a cap on the political sides of the House, while preserving through appointment the independent expertise of the Cross-Benchers.

This House is still one of the cheapest in the world. Why are we agonising so much about cost? It continues to be a House of expertise, unpaid and part-time. Few here want to change that. Such a House inevitably needs a larger pool of Members from which to draw to do its work. There are high hopes of proposals for permanent retirement, and I welcome them, although I could not support a payment to leave. Voluntary retirement would be preferable to compulsory ejection of Members who reach a certain age—and I agree fully with the comments of my noble friend in the report of the Commons Select Committee on this issue.

In a country where policy-making and comment on it is ever more dominated by people under 45, while the growing majority of the electorate is—and will continue to be for the foreseeable future—over 45, it seems highly eccentric to seek out one of the few parts of our constitution where the voices of older, more experienced people are regularly heard and to force them out. It is often a little more experience and a much longer view we need in the counsels of the state, not less. So I am against age limits.

The arguments for a formal cap on the size of an appointed House raged three centuries ago over the Peerage Bill in 1719, and were skewered very effectively by Robert Walpole in debates on that legislation, not only by frightening his fellow MPs that, if they voted to limit the size of the House of Lords, a pleasant retirement home would be denied them, but on the more serious basis that a firmly capped unelected House could not be overborne by new creations if it brought a government to deadlock. Creation to secure the Crown’s business was needed or threatened in 1711, 1832 and 1911, and some of us are old enough to remember hearing Tony Benn call for 1,000 Peers to carry Labour’s programme of 1976. Even with the cumbersome blunderbuss of the Parliament Act, an unelected House can still disrupt business, as we all recently experienced. There needs to be an ability to break a cap, and defining that would be difficult.

Nor is a moratorium reasonable for obvious reasons of renewal and political balance. Roughly half the existing life peerages were recommended under the Blair Governments of 1997 to 2007. It is a little chary, in this light, to chunter that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is overegging it. Mr Blair allowed only 49 Conservative Peers in his first two Governments; my right honourable friend has allowed 44 additions to a Labour Party that was already the largest in the House in one as yet uncompleted term. In his first three years, Mr Blair appointed Labour Peers at a rate 50% faster than that allowed himself by Mr Cameron in appointing Conservative Peers. Mr Cameron has, by contrast, been actually restrained.

We have been through a stage of exceptional creation—a missile-building period—and the House will take time to get over the hump of those massive creations. But I think that it can return progressively, as I hope that it will, to the lower rates of creation that were standard in the past. There may well need to be a steady decommissioning of the stacks of Back-Bench ICBMs, waiting in the Bishops’ Bar to come into Divisions—but with patience and a will, it can be done. Even in the quarter century from 1905 to 1929, which included the Lloyd George era, the average was 11 creations a year. In 1929 to 1955, with many changes of Government, it was 12. Those figures are less than the number of those leaving the House in every year so far this century—and, with an average age of 70, sadly, the number of leavers, is likely to be steady in the years ahead.

We should be far more relaxed on this score, stop constantly fussing about the matter and turn our attention to other affairs of state, although I think that ingenious heads might come together in the usual channels to consider the active House and the escalating size of Divisions, the main reason why many are called to the House day by day. Pairing would be extremely difficult in this House, partly because of the coalition but also because of the existence of Cross-Benchers. However, a search for a START treaty in the usual channels might bear fruit, if searched for. If some of the Peers who do not intend to take part in proceedings could be slipped from the duty to vote, the House could keep, and draw on, the pool of their wisdom while not flooding the byways of the House for the more humdrum Divisions that punctuate our lives. That task would be difficult but I hope that the Front Benches might rise to that challenge and prefer it to mechanistic and legislative solutions.