House of Lords: Size — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:49 pm on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 4:49 pm, 12th December 2013

My Lords, it is about 12 years since my noble friend Lord Norton and I formed a group to which many of your Lordships come quite often: the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. Over the years, my noble friend has with assiduity acted as our convenor, and I have chaired the sessions, and we have had some fascinating discussions. We are all grateful to my noble friend for the clear, forensic way in which he introduced the debate today.

Our group was formed because we believed in a second Chamber that was appointed and not elected and therefore did not challenge the unambiguous democratic mandate of another place. I still strongly believe that there is a real place for such a second Chamber and I believe that we have demonstrated that in recent years. We all know those wonderful lines from “Iolanthe”, looking back to previous eras:

“The House of Peers, throughout the war

Did nothing in particular And did it very well”.

Well, we have over the past 12 years and more done quite a lot of particular things and done them very well. We live in a time, as has already been referred to, where much legislation comes to us not having been discussed at all in another place. The skill with which the experts in this place analyse and scrutinise is of incalculable importance to the people of this country.

That is why it is important that the reputation of this House should stand high. I believe that it does. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester made an interesting speech, but he referred to our being dysfunctional in some respects. I do not think that we are. There are of course dangers, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and others have been right to refer to them, but my noble friend Lord True was also right to refer us to an era when only 12 or 15 Peers were appointed each year. The answer to the problem of size—and it is a problem—lies in three things. The first is an abandonment of any idea of a ratio to the last general election; the second is a degree of self-restraint; and the third is underlining in the appointments that are made the fact that this is indeed a House of expertise.

I welcome as others have done those who have recently joined our ranks. It would be invidious for me to pick out a whole list of names, but I give just four to your Lordships to illustrate the importance of bringing in fresh blood: on these Benches, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, who has remarkable experience in commerce; my noble friend Lord Bamford, who has achieved so much in industry; and from the Cross Benches, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, who is already making a real mark in this House and who knows more about the technological revolution than most of the rest of us put together. And then one thinks of the former Governor of the Bank of England, the noble Lord, Lord King, to whom I was speaking yesterday. The appointment of people such as this enriches this Chamber and therefore enriches the counsels of the nation. It is very important that we should continue to do that.

But there must be an abandonment of the ratio idea and there must be a paring-down of the number of Peers who are appointed each year. As someone earlier pointed out, sadly, we lose 12 or 15 Members each year on average. If the number of annual appointments was of that order, we would certainly not be inflating the size of the House. My noble friend Lord Norton in his very admirable speech referred, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, to the average attendance now being 484 per day, but we must bear in mind that they are not the same 484 people day after day. If we are to draw upon a wide range of experience and deep reservoir of talent, we must not be over-worried about numbers, although we are right to be concerned. Concern is something we all share. We are concerned about the reputation of this House.

I very much hope that Mr Dan Byles’s Bill will complete its passage through another place, come to this House and be given an expeditious passage. In effect, it was passed here last year. It can then get on to the statute book with the Government’s support and it is right that it should. But I will just make one specific request and one suggestion to my noble friend the Leader of the House, fully appreciating that he cannot comment in detail on the first point that I will put to him. When people are being appointed to this House, let us bear in mind the need for expertise. Let us ask ourselves the question “Do they also serve who only come to vote?”. To appoint people to this House who play really no part in our proceedings and merely vote in the Lobbies is not serving the nation or Parliament as it should.

Apart from that comment, I put two suggestions to my noble friend the Leader of the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was an admirable Lord Speaker of this House. In her just as admirable speech, she suggested that party leaders should try to get together. I agree with that but something else should be done. I say this with a degree of hesitation and reservation because I do not want to see a proliferation of committees, but in the last year of this Parliament there is a real case for establishing a Select Committee of this House to consider the sort of suggestions and comments that have been made this afternoon and to try to draw up what might be a blueprint for the House of Lords as we move through the 21st century.

There will always be a need for a place like this. There will always be a need for men and women of expertise and experience to debate the laws of the land. There will always be a need for those set-piece debates—we do not have enough of them—such as we had on Syria where the enormous and varied experience can bring to the counsels of the nation a true balance and some real worth.