House of Lords: Size — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:41 pm on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Liberal Democrat 4:41 pm, 12th December 2013

My Lords, I am sure noble Lords are all grateful for the explanation of the age paradox from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. I hope I am correct in saying that the main speaker in the debate so far who has not been worried about size in the future was the noble Lord, Lord True, whose points I can understand. The general sense of the debate so far, as far as I can tell, is that size is a problem and that something needs to be done.

The Bill from Dan Byles MP in another place has 11 very able and senior members of all the parties acting as sponsors, including some of course who are also in favour of an elected House of Lords. When it comes to this House, it will have a very tight timetable for us as well, as it will follow the European Union (Referendum) Bill, with its equally stringent timetable. I hope that there will be ample time for discussion. The Dan Byles Bill is really the intellectual and psychological follower of the four earlier Steel Bills—which were, incidentally, ignored by two Governments not just by one. If we add Peers who do not attend during a Session and do not apply for a leave of absence under the Standing Orders, ceasing membership would be an important part of any future elements.

All the way through the efforts that I have detected to make rational progress on the successive Steel Bills, as I will call them, the hope was entertained that the Government of the day would pick up the Bill and make it central government business. There is still an opportunity for that and I think more and more Peers would support that aspiration. Although the three or four measures for reducing individual membership seem to be very modest and at the margin, the practical effect would be quite rapid over time. It is crazy that we contemplate the fact that this Chamber is literally too large with some calmness at the moment—although I hope not too much. It is around the size of the entire European Parliament, which represents 28 member states. The latest text of the Bill, which began its Second Reading before June 2010, in February 2009, added the helpful provision of non-attendance producing disqualification.

Whatever the fate of the fundamentalist parts of these ideas—mostly having elected Members in the future—in the Joint Committee’s plans published at the end of April 2012, the stage has now been decisively and helpfully set to bring about a reduction in numbers if this legislation becomes government business. To my mind, the Commons would never have accepted the election plan. Although there was a huge majority on Second Reading of the fundamental reform Bill, ironically it began to unravel almost immediately after that. Many members of the leading coalition party refused to ordain new laws which they feared would inevitably lead to the upper House challenging their unique powers and legislative primacy. Eventually, beyond the inaugural Session of a new elected House of Lords, they would presumably want to turn themselves into an ambitious senate in no time at all. There were articles about this saying that there would eventually be senators in the House of Lords demanding office facilities and staff expenses of £1 million per office to deal with all the correspondence and work that would now arise as a result of being elected. The House will indeed be large and expensive if attendance claims rise, even if, as we hope, they rise because of expanding membership rather than individual claims as the number of days goes down.

This has been a long, drawn-out, painful episode of various bits and pieces. The provisions of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill of July 2009 that covered the suspension, resignation and expulsion of Members were taken out of the text in the final version; hence the reintroduction pledge by my noble friend Lord Steel. He repeated his view then that the Bill did not deal with future composition. The Bill also provided for the end of the hereditary Peers’ by-elections, which were described as farcical by some, but that section was later taken out.

All these matters lead to the fact that a good number of non-Tory Peers have always agreed with Tory traditionalists in both Houses that an elected senatorial peerage would be bound to challenge the superior powers of the other place. In the mean time, the size problem has acquired the ominous characteristic of an almost grotesque situation, with Parliament being unable to make rational progress on these matters, in a perverse and ridiculous setting, which gives rise to very great public dismay. The most recent intake of nominated Peers, we remember, had to be announced deliberately after the House rose for the summer holidays. There was an outcry in the press and it is very difficult for the public to accept the seeming illogicality and absurdity of yet another large increase.

It gives me no pleasure to say these things about the financial side of it but the reality that we now face is that the incidence and weight of the Tory party’s very large tribe of donor Peers gives much offence to the public—I am sorry to say that but I have to—especially among those who happen to believe that the House of Lords does a pretty good job as a revising and improving Chamber, which I feel is definitely the case. Of course, all parties have donors so I will avoid smugness. I will only mention in passing that we Liberal Democrats have donors only from time to time; they do not come along in serried ranks. Labour, too, has a good crop nowadays, which only underlines one of the great weaknesses in British politics, which is the failure in recent times, mainly in the Commons, to reach consensus on vital factors affecting Parliament as a whole.

We should think of the damage that has been done by the terrible imbroglio over the MPs’ expenses saga and our own expenses saga, when the Times took the lead because it was annoyed that the Telegraph had the priority with the previous articles, and the fact that there was not any consensus between the party leaders. I understand the pressures but the competition between political parties is now so excessive that no party can admit that it believes in anything that the other parties are suggesting—apart from the coalition parties, of course. The pressure is very strong.

We should work to persuade people in the Commons to listen to this and to revive the suggestion of £5,000 maximum personal donations with, if necessary, further restrained sums of public money for essential party infrastructure spending. The opposition leader’s offer to break the trade union membership nexus is a concrete, positive step, which might help to get the parties around the table soon, but this has been going on for an awfully long time and it is about time they reached agreement on this matter.

The only time when an independent recommendation for a salary increase for MPs was accepted was when Edward Heath was Prime Minister in 1972. All the others were blocked, once again because of the lack of consensus. This is doing damage because these are parliamentary matters rather than matters of different policies and competition between parties on policy. If we can separate those two things out and see how the Dan Byles text makes progress in our House and goes back to the Commons in unamended or amended form, we can begin to see the beginnings of common sense in size reduction. I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to give us some guidance today.