House of Lords: Size — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:16 pm on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Liberal Democrat 4:16 pm, 12th December 2013

My Lords, I express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing this debate—and for doing so in a thoughtful way, as is his wont.

I must say, however, that the real question that has to be asked about this House is: does it do its job properly and with effectiveness? The answer has to be that it does. That is increasingly clear. Meg Russell, probably the greatest scholar on this House, has indicated the impact that we have on the legislative process. That impact has grown since the reform of 1999, when there was a self-denying ordinance to some extent. The Select Committees of this House also give great scope, perception and insight to others who are contemplating legislation in these fields. As a member of the Select Committee on the European Union and its sub-committee on external affairs, I am conscious of how well regarded the work of the committee is, not just in this country but in the other member countries of the European Union.

The main problem that we face, which has been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, comes from the lack of understanding of the role played by this House, which is largely due to the press and media—particularly the press, which used to quote in columns what was said in the debates in the House. In the broadsheets, that gave some weight to our deliberations. I regret that we now suffer mostly from comment that is to some extent derisory and does not convey the practical reformative work that is being done here.

There are modest changes that could be made and they have been largely encapsulated in the Bill produced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman: the changes providing for permanent retiral, ending by-elections of hereditary Peers’ successors, enabling those who do not attend a full Session of Parliament to come back, and excluding serious criminal offenders. Those all seem commonsensical. The probability is that they would not have a massive effect on the Members of this House but they would meet the observations of those who want to see some change. I hope that they might be considered in legislation before the end of this Parliament.

However, I think it would be wise if we looked at the wider functions of this House and its representative nature in a much broader context. We are, after all, facing the possibility of a restructuring of the governance of the United Kingdom. We face the possibility of Scotland becoming independent, and it seems to me that we are tinkering at the margins if we become obsessed about this House before we have understood how the nations of the United Kingdom are to be governed. If there are changes, they might have to be reflected in the structure of the second Chamber.

Consequently, I repeat what I indicated not very long ago in a debate in this House: I think that it would be wise to establish a convention on the future governance of the United Kingdom. That should not be done in a hurry; it should be deliberated upon and attract input from the citizenry of this country so that they can sense that what is being done is based on a consensual decision with the backing of the majority. I do not believe that including reform of the House of Lords in a manifesto will necessarily give that kind of legitimacy. Manifestos list dozens of policies, and what moves people’s minds in elections is not necessarily the small print of manifestos. The structure of our governance is so important that it needs to be considered not in an election period of three, four or five weeks but in a wider context involving expertise and the general will of the British people.

I hope that before the Scottish independence referendum an announcement might be made that such a convention will be established; otherwise, as I have said before, the Scots might think that there are only two choices—independence or the status quo. However, it would also have a much wider impact on the thinking about the effectiveness of our governance.