House of Lords: Size — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:57 pm on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:57 pm, 12th December 2013

My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate and particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton. We are indeed fortunate in having such a constitutional expert as a Member of your Lordships’ House. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, while I do not always agree with all the emanations from the group that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, chairs, there is no doubt that it has added very much to our knowledge and enabled us to debate some of the very important issues that we must when it comes to reform of your Lordships’ House.

I tend to agree with the key point made at the beginning by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that your Lordships’ House has grown, is growing and ought to be reduced. I think I share the following point with a number of noble Lords: while the size of the House is important, much more crucial is the question as to whether it is effective in acting as a check on the Executive and as a revising Chamber, and in adding to the effectiveness more generally of parliamentary scrutiny.

As ever in your Lordships’ debates, most noble Lords who asked that question have tended to come to a view in the affirmative. Of course, we all understand the strengths of your Lordships’ House but we ought to examine its effectiveness in the context of the impact of coalition government. We have a situation where the coalition parties in your Lordships’ House have a political majority over the opposition. I would argue that that threatens the effectiveness of the House. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hill, when he comes to wind up will refer to the defeats that his Government have suffered here but the rate of defeat is much less compared to the period of 1997 to 2010. I know that it is a little early to draw conclusions from the impact of the latest appointments to your Lordships’ House but, certainly from this side of the House, it would appear that the Government are able to win votes which in normal terms they would not have done. The problem with that is that if a Government are no longer able to be defeated in your Lordships’ House on a regular basis, this can no longer call itself a revising Chamber. We need to consider that very carefully.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, on substantive reform in the sense that we surely need to see the outcome of the referendum in Scotland and any constitutional fallout from it. Substantive reform of your Lordships’ House cannot be considered in isolation from either wider constitutional issues or the impact on the primacy of the Commons. At the risk of tempting the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, to get up and remind me of my past sins, in the joint working group chaired by my right honourable friend Jack Straw—the noble Lord is right that I served on that, with its cross-party talks—there was a failure, which the Deputy Prime Minister repeated, even to contemplate how an elected second Chamber fits with a House of Commons when there is a pretty consensual view that we wish to retain its primacy. That failure, in my view, led to the failure of Mr Clegg’s Bill. In the end, that was a failure; it was quite clear from what was happening in the other place that it did not stand an earthly chance of getting through.

The question of size was discussed by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on which I had the honour to sit. It came up with a proposal to allow Members of your Lordships’ House to retire and it has been enormously successful, as noble Lords will know. I think we have not quite yet reached double figures but one is ever hopeful. The Hunt committee said that the problem with an ever increasing size is that it risks the reputation of the House, that it probably makes conducting business more difficult and that the effect of the additional Members on the resources of the House and its ability to do its job would also be adversely affected.

We are right to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hill, the Leader of the House, what the Government’s intention is with regard to any further appointments between now and the general election. Are the Government intent on implementing what was in the coalition agreement or have they stood back from that commitment? Does the Leader of the House accept that the general view of Members of your Lordships’ House is that there should be very few appointments between now and the general election? Does he agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that there ought to be a cap on membership, and will he institute cross-party discussions as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler? The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggested that there might be a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House and there is an argument in favour of the political parties and the Cross-Benchers discussing these matters in a small group or in a more formal Select Committee. It would surely be useful, in the run-up to the election, for there to be some discussions across the House.

Does the noble Lord, Lord Hill, agree that if the size of the House is limited, in the end there have to be questions as to how to achieve a party balance? It is not possible to have a cap without some general agreement on how the parties should be balanced in your Lordships’ House. That would also need to reflect on Cross-Bencher representation and on the number of Bishops who should remain in your Lordships’ House in the event of such agreement.

Does the noble Lord, Lord Hill, take the point raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester that if we see women bishops, as many of us devoutly hope, will there be a way of accelerating them to membership of your Lordships’ House? I am not sure whether this is a question of law or of practice, but no doubt the noble Lord will be able to inform us of that.

My next point is one that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norton: what advice would the noble Lord, Lord Hill, give to an incoming Government in 2015 faced with a political majority against it? How many noble Lords does he think an incoming Government ought to appoint if we are to keep to the mantra that he has stuck to over the past three and a half years? I must say that I rather warmed to the reference by the noble Lord, Lord True, to Tony Benn’s 1,000 Labour Peers; that has a certain ring to it.

I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hill, about time and the question of whether a fair wind will be given to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on the assumption that she takes through Mr Dan Byles’s Bill. I was rather shocked by the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that the time taken for the European Union (Referendum) Bill might crowd out Mr Byles’s Bill. I do not think that that would be the will of the House; I think that the will of the House would be that the noble Baroness should be given a fair wind.

Lastly, I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hill, about finance. I have been riveted by the debate on the recommendations of IPSA regarding MPs’ pay, but I noted the Prime Minister’s comment that he wished to see the cost of politics reduced. Although I accept that the costs of your Lordships’ House are rather modest compared with the other place, I wondered whether the noble Lord thinks that the Prime Minister making all these appointments is consistent with wishing to reduce the actual amount that our politics cost us.