House of Lords: Size — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench 4:25 pm, 12th December 2013

My Lords, I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on introducing this debate with his usual clarity and intellectual analysis, and on his passionate commitment to this House and the way in which it does its job. It is a commitment shared by all those who have spoken, most notably the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, who enjoined us to look at the quality of the work that we do rather than having an obsession with size.

Size does matter, actually. Political balance matters, and the balance between the political appointees and the independent appointees matters. It matters because the function of a second Chamber, particularly one like ours that is not elected directly, is to ask the directly elected Chamber where power resides to think again. That is a very important responsibility of this House, and it is important that the House can discharge that responsibility, not least when, as we know because of timetabling in another place, much legislation comes to this House without having been scrutinised.

The role of this House is not to overturn or to have the final say, but it is very important that it should be possible for a Government to be defeated in this House so that the other place can have second thoughts—or sometimes first thoughts, because it has not looked at the legislation at all. It is imperative to safeguard that. The quality of the work that we do is not essentially posited on the size of the House. We all agree that we probably need a larger House than we might think at first glance, because of the part-time nature and the quality that is added to our work by the fact that people have interaction with the outside world.

When I joined the House in the Session 1996-97, the absolute membership was 1,204 and the daily average attendance was 381. In the previous Session, 2012-13, the absolute membership of the House was 810 and the average daily attendance was 484. Where was the decision taken that we needed a 25% increase in average attendance to improve the quality of the work that we were doing? This has happened. It has happened because of some of the political dimensions that the noble Lord, Lord True, spoke of, and without an analysis of the need for it to happen.

It is really important to stop, take a breath and think about that. I have a question for the Leader of the House. I asked it twice in Written Questions of his predecessor, and never got what I would call a satisfactory Answer. I asked to which of the political parties that fought the previous general election the pledge that the House of Lords should reflect the votes cast in that election applied. It is quite an important question.

What has been done is that the membership of the House has been changed in line with the two major parties that form the coalition, not by taking a totally proportional view and bringing in minor parties. I do not particularly mind not having the votes cast for the BNP or indeed UKIP at the previous general election represented in membership and appointments to this House, but it is very important that we understand the terms of engagement going forward into the next general election. We need consensus and convention on this. The famous definition of consensus—that it is what the House of Commons votes for—does not do it in this respect. We will not get unanimity on many of these issues, but it is important that they are addressed.

I welcome the Bill that Dan Byles introduced into another place. It is true that not many criminals will be barred, but it brings disrepute to this House if any people who have committed serious criminal offences can return as Members. It would not make a huge difference to numbers if non-attenders were not allowed to attend. However, some of us with long political histories know that there is danger in having a group of people who may not participate all the time but who have the right and the power to participate in moments of great political crisis. If I have not been clear enough in my message about that, I will say only three words—the poll tax. So it is important that the membership of this House reflects those who are active and participatory.

I have no desire to introduce mechanistic or arbitrary solutions to this issue. I do not believe in a moratorium on new Members because I also welcome what the new Members have brought to this House and continue to bring. However, we cannot just continue to expand. I sometimes said when I had the honour of representing the House and acting as its ambassador that I sometimes thought the Government believed that the Chamber of the House of Lords was the TARDIS—it got bigger and bigger inside so that it could accommodate whoever came in. It is not quite like that. This is not only about having enough seats but about having time to speak in debates—a one-minute limit on speeches—and a whole range of issues.

I hope that the Leader of the House, with support from the Government—I am not as pessimistic as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on this—when Dan Byles’s Bill becomes law, will undertake to have discussions with leaders of the other parties about retirement provisions and how we could make progress on reducing the size of the House in a sensible, constructive way that will not damage our performance. However much we know that 800 is not a bad thing at the moment, the outside world finds it difficult to understand those kinds of numbers and we should do something to reduce them.