House of Lords: Size — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:07 pm on 12th December 2013.

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Photo of Lord Hill of Oareford Lord Hill of Oareford Leader of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 5:07 pm, 12th December 2013

My Lords, earlier today this House was debating death, and I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has spoken in both debates. In his choice of debate, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has brought us forward a few years chronologically, perhaps to the transit lounge from the departure lounge.

This has been a good debate and I know that we are grateful to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to raise some extremely important issues. As always, I am reminded of how much noble Lords know, and how well they appear to know every twist and turn of the history of the composition of this House.

I start with a point that I do not believe is contentious—one that my noble friend Lord Maclennan and others made—which is that we perform a vital role and that we do so very well. I start with that point because sometimes, when we discuss our internal matters, we can be in danger of losing that bigger picture. I believe that our scrutiny of primary legislation is as thorough and as expert as ever; I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Cormack on that. Having had the dubious pleasure of taking legislation through your Lordships’ House, I can speak from experience about the rigour of that scrutiny. We may be polite but we are relentless.

The contrast between scrutiny in this House and scrutiny down the other end is remarkable, as a number of noble Lords have said, and I see no sign of any diminution in our performance of that most fundamental role. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on the importance of being able to defeat the Government—a point made also by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. That is what we have in this House. However, we need the addition of new expertise and new vigour from time to time to help us to carry out that role of scrutiny.

Unlike in the other place, all Members in this House can take part in all stages of legislation. All noble Lords can table amendments and, because there is no process of selection, they are guaranteed a debate on each of those amendments, should they wish to have one. Less visible, but, I think, of great importance is the work that we undertake on secondary legislation. Our House gives more time than the other place to scrutinising these rather unglamorous yet often highly significant pieces of legislation—and, again, in this House, all Members can participate fully in all stages of that scrutiny.

Through Oral and Written Questions, Questions for Short Debate and longer debates such as this, the House holds the Government to account, as it does through the work of our Select Committees, involving large numbers of your Lordships in detailed investigations of different areas of government policy. In this context, I thought that the important points made by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, were very pertinent. I know how much we all welcome his appointment as chairman of the House of Lords Appointment Commission.

I am reminding us of the work that we do not to give us a self-congratulatory pat on the back, although sometimes that is not unknown in your Lordships’ House, but to make the important point that not only has the work of the House not been damaged by increased attendance, it has in many respects continued to improve year on year—and long may that continue.

We have talked about numbers this afternoon, and there has been talk, including by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and my noble friend Lord Dykes, about packing the House and overcrowding. I listened to the figures adduced very carefully, but there are other figures. It is the case that the list of new Peers announced in August was the first political list for three years. I am afraid that I have to disagree strongly with the comments made in that context by my noble friend Lord Dykes. There are only 24 more eligible Members in the four main groups than there were in 2007, and I am not aware that in 2007 people were making the point that there were too many Peers in the House. There have certainly been new Peers created since 2010, but around 100 Members have sadly died or taken leave of absence over the same period. I argue that the figures also show that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been even-handed in his appointments. For example, 39 Labour Peers were appointed in his first year compared with 47 Conservatives, as my noble friend Lord True reminded us.

I think there has been general acceptance this afternoon that we need to refresh our ranks from time to time, rather than freezing the membership at a particular point in time, so that the expertise and experience on which the House relies for its good name can be kept up to date. In fact, I think the real issue is not so much the absolute number of those entitled to vote—a point that has already been made—which has been more constant over the past five years than many people recognise, but the higher level of attendance.

I accept that average attendance has been increasing—it was about 480 in the previous Session—but that is the figure we should concentrate on, not the figures we sometimes read about which do not relate to our day-to-day experience. I recognise that higher attendance means that the House will sometimes be crowded on popular occasions, but it is important to remember that we should not overstate the problem. There is plenty of space in the Chamber and in Grand Committee during the great majority of our business, particularly legislation, and the same is true of debate—there are some empty spaces here this afternoon.

Members generally have time to speak. There has been some reference today to Members having only one minute to speak. They had an average of nearly six minutes in time-limited QSDs in the previous Session, and more than nine minutes in balloted debates. Even during Oral Questions, which I know, probably more than anyone, is a particularly busy time, we have a wide range of participants. Work done by the Clerk of the Parliaments earlier this year showed that in the first quarter, 288 noble Lords asked one or more supplementary questions during Oral Questions. Because more Members are attending, one of my priorities has been to increase the scope for Back-Bench Members to take part in the work of the House. Perhaps most noticeably, we have almost doubled the amount of time we make available for Back-Bench QSDs, and the results have been dramatic. The only noble Lords yet to be offered time for their QSDs are those who have already had a QSD this Session.

Indeed, the supply of time is sometimes exceeding demand. For example, this Tuesday evening, the House rose at 6.20 pm because the Whips’ Office was unable to find anyone to ask a QSD or put forward a Select Committee report for debate after the Second Reading. We have also introduced a new slot in prime time for a weekly topical QSD, which Back-Benchers had said that they wanted. We supported the creation of additional Select Committees, especially ad hoc committees and post-legislative scrutiny committees, so that more noble Lords would have the opportunity to participate in that important aspect of our work.

I recognise that participation in proceedings is not the only aspect of the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. Some noble Lords have suggested that the facilities in the House are not able to cope with the current level of attendance. While that is a matter for the Chairman of Committees, we should not overstate the extent of the problem. We know that there is plenty of spare capacity in our restaurants, for example; indeed, the problem we have is too few people eating in them rather than too many. While desk space for Members has always been at a premium, we currently have more accommodation than before, thanks to the acquisition of Millbank House. Figures presented to the House Committee earlier this year showed that there were desks which had not yet been allocated to individual Members. In terms of research capacity, something about which Members are concerned, noble Lords may like to know that the number of Library staff has increased from 31.5 full-time equivalents in 2007 to 38.5 today.

On the cost of the House—and, indeed, the cost of politics, which was raised by a number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath—the cost of the House of Lords has not gone up: it has gone down. The resource budget for the current financial year, including the costs of Members’ allowances and expenses, is £4 million lower than it was in 2010-11. That is equivalent to a real-terms cut of 15%, which is a considerable achievement by the administration, on which we would all want to congratulate them.

There obviously is a cost for new Peers, and I recognise that. My noble friend Lord Norton asked me what it was. It is hard to predict precisely because, of course, it depends on attendance and on how much an individual Member will claim. On future numbers, it is clearly hard for me to predict what any future Government might do on appointments. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath asked me whether I accepted that the mood of the House was that it would not welcome any more new Peers before the next general election. Obviously, I am very aware of the mood of the House in that regard.

A number of suggestions were made by noble Lords as to ways forward. Many of them would require legislation to achieve. I will briefly update the House. We have had a bit of discussion about what we are calling the Byles Bill. As my noble friend Lord Tyler reminded us, there was a government proposal for an elected House that would have dealt completely with my noble friend Lord Norton’s question about size by reducing the House to around 450 Members. However, following the failure of that Bill to emerge from the other place, the Government have made it clear that they do not intend to bring forward any further relevant legislation for the remainder of this Parliament.

There has, however, I am glad to say, been progress on some other issues which have been raised today, particularly in connection with retirement. Here, I share the greater optimism of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, rather than the pessimism of my noble friend Lord Tyler. The House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill, more commonly known as the Byles Bill—but which, down at our end of the building, we still rightly think of as the Steel Bill—has been making some progress. I know that we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood for his work over many years in pursuing that objective.

The Byles Bill would make a number of modest but, I think, sensible changes. It would allow permanent retirement and resignation and the exclusion of non-attenders, and would expel those convicted of a serious criminal offence. I am sure that the House would value having a formal system whereby Members could resign or retire with dignity. I should, however, say for the record that I do not believe—I know that this view is shared by the leaders of the party groups and the Convenor, as it happens—that retirement with dignity is compatible with any system of financial incentives to encourage that retirement. This point was also made by my noble friend Lord True.

I know that in the past some noble Lords have raised with me what possible rationale there could be for opposing some kind of payment on retirement. I have two main reasons for opposing it, which I think are shared by the other group leaders. The first reason is one of principle and the second is practical. The issue of principle is, quite simply, that it is an honour to be here, not a job; noble Lords are given an allowance, not a salary. If noble Lords decide that it is time to retire, they should do so, and if they are no longer coming, they should not require an allowance.

The second reason is a practical one to do with the reputation of the House, about which we have heard a lot this afternoon. I think that the outside world would take great exception to the idea that a Peer who has already had the honour of serving in your Lordships’ House would receive a lump-sum payment from the taxpayer for stopping doing so. I hope very much that the Government’s support for the Byles Bill will help it complete its passage through the other place, and I look forward to its progression through this House and, in due course, on to the statute book.

The House could take other measures short of legislation, some of which have been set out in the recent report by the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and in a paper by the Clerk of the Parliaments. I am not able to pre-empt the Government’s response to the committee’s report. However, some of the issues that were raised in that report are matters for this House alone to determine. For example, the report suggested that retirement from this House could be marked in a more formal way, both in the Chamber and outside. Another proposal was that the leave of absence scheme could be further strengthened to build on the success of the recently introduced practice of the Clerk of the Parliaments inviting infrequent attendees, at the beginning of each Session, to take leave of absence. I am very happy to see whether we can make progress on those points. I welcome any suggestions from noble Lords on what an enhanced retirement ceremony might look like, and on how the leave of absence scheme could be further improved.

On specific points that have been raised with me, my noble friend Lord Cormack suggested the establishment of a Select Committee or some other group to consider possible ways forward. As I am sure he knows, I am always happy to talk to him and other noble Lords. Our challenge is not that there is a shortage of suggestions as to what we might do—we know what they all are and we have discussed them many times. Our challenge is to secure political agreement, not so much in this House but with Members at the other end, and to make progress with them.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, talked about balance in the House—a point I referred to before. It is the case that together, the two coalition parties add up to about 41% of the House. We all know that there are a range of issues where a combination of opinion from the Cross-Benches, Labour and some coalition Peers—on both sides of the coalition—can readily defeat the Government and cause them to think again. A good example of that, which I am sure the noble Lord has been involved with, is the issue that I hope we will try to resolve next week around the lobbying and transparency Bill.

On the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, about a proportion of Peers from the minority parties, I am not convinced that I will be able to give her an answer that she would consider satisfactory, any more than my predecessor did. The best I can say is that that formulation was intended as a general statement of approach rather than a precise mathematical formula. We should not consider it as the latter; that is, in a way, borne out by the practice which the Prime Minister himself has observed since the general election. If the precise formula had been followed, many more Peers from the coalition parties would be joining your Lordships’ House.

My noble friend Lord Caithness asked about the possibility of creating a different kind of peerage—a non-sitting peerage. To do that, we would have to legislate to create a new and different kind of life peerage. Another approach, I suppose, would be to restart the practice of creating hereditary peerages, which would not entitle holders to membership of the House. But I am not sure that I would be able to make much progress with that suggestion.

My noble friend Lord Maclennan raised a point about a constitutional convention. I take the point about the importance of the referendum in Scotland. My view, which I know is that of many noble Lords, is that our focus should be on making sure that that referendum is won by those who want to keep the United Kingdom united and the union together. So I am not keen on crossing bridges which I do not believe we will need to cross. It is also the case, on the narrower aspect of the future of your Lordships’ House, that the three main parties in their last manifestos reached a broad consensus on their preference, which was for an elected House.

A lot of important points have been raised. We are very grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton for giving us the opportunity to consider them again. Some steps we have taken; we all look forward to the Byles Bill coming next year. I know that we will come back to these issues in future, including the one about women Bishops raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. I know that the Government will do what they can to help the church take forward its desire to see women bishops in your Lordships’ House. But pending more fundamental reform that would decisively address the issues that have been raised, we should focus on the important job with which we are all tasked, and which we are performing very well. We are a House that has cut the cost of running itself and has increased opportunities for Back-Benchers to scrutinise the Government—and, above all, we are a House that continues to do its core job of scrutinising legislation rigorously, purposefully and effectively.