House of Lords: Size — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:33 pm on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 4:33 pm, 12th December 2013

My Lords, a Session of Parliament without a regular debate about ourselves would not be the same. We have become so used to having such debates over the past 15 years, or even longer, and our regular navel gazing has become part of each Session. I therefore thank my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for introducing the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, hit the nail on the head when he said, “What is the purpose of a second Chamber?”. Once you have the role of second Chamber, you can then decide how that is best fulfilled, and on its numbers. However, deciding on a role for the second Chamber depends on the role of the first Chamber—in our case, the House of Commons. Despite joining Europe and many powers going to Europe, both Houses have evolved to the state they are now in, and perhaps we ought to stand back and say what we really want from them.

It was interesting and a matter of concern to read that, despite the low level of scrutiny of legislation in another place, the number of amendments tabled in your Lordships’ House, and the number agreed, have gone down. The statistics on this from the Library are interesting. In the period 2005-06 to 2010, the number of amendments tabled in this House dropped from around 10,000 to about 2,000. We pat ourselves on the back and say that we are doing a good job, but I do not know whether we are. When I cast my mind back 44 years to when I first came here to the job that that House was doing then, and a Conservative or whatever Government of the day were defeated, just as today’s Government are defeated, I wonder whether we are doing a better job than our predecessors. There are more people and we are doing more work, but is it better? I am not in a position to answer.

My noble friend Lord Maclennan made a good point when he mentioned the work of the European Union Committee sub-committees. When he said that, I immediately thought of two reports, one of which was on the common fisheries policy. That report had a marked effect on the thinking of the Commission in Brussels, because most of the ideas set out in it were taken up and brought forward as proposals in EC legislation. The other report is one that I have been involved with: the report of Sub-Committee A on the financial transaction tax. It made our Government think again and led to them submitting a legal objection to the Commission. Those are two instances where our reports have had a marked effect, but I wonder whether in the generality, despite some extremely good work, our reports are getting the attention they deserve.

On the question of our work, another statistic that has both surprised and alarmed me is the number of Written Questions that we are putting down. The rate is on an almost perpendicular upward trend at the moment. Each Written Question costs a lot of money to answer and takes up a lot of civil servants’ time. Why has there been this sudden trend? The population of the House has not grown markedly over the past couple of years, and yet the number of Written Questions has, and that is a potential cause for concern.

My noble friend Lord True mentioned the age profile, and of course he is absolutely right. I agree entirely that it is very good that an older House up here complements the young enthusiasm of the Commons, but a closer look at the statistics shows that we now have only 31 Members under the age of 50. I think that some of us regret the passing of the hereditary Peers in 1999, because at least a lot of young people were brought in, which added to the balance of the House. At the same time, 24 Members of the House are over the age of 90, and 13 of them are active. The great majority of the House, something like 66%, is aged between 60 and 80, and the average age is around 70. I cannot think of any job or organisation in the world that I could have been a member of for 44 years and still be under the average age, and I am extremely grateful that I am still here and able to participate. But perhaps it is something that we ought to contemplate.

As long as we have the Prime Minister’s prerogative to create peerages, we are never going to solve the problem of numbers. I do not think that past Prime Ministers, such as Prime Minister Blair and Prime Minister Brown, did this House any good, and in fact I am not certain that my Prime Minister and the Leader of the Liberal Democrat party and Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, have done us any good with the number of people they have appointed. That has changed the House quite markedly. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said that the House ought to be politically balanced. To an extent that may be so, but if every five years there is a marked swing in another place, a whole lot of new Peers will have to be created here—