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House of Lords Reform — Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:23 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 4:23 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, there is always a slight sense of déjà-vu about debates on your Lordships’ House. The number of speakers in this debate, and the fact that there are four Motions before us—including those in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Pearson and Lord Steel, and my noble friend Lord Lea—is an indication of the interest in and concern about the ever-growing membership of your Lordships’ House. As much as your Lordships’ House has to address this issue—and there was ample information and facts behind the speeches we have heard so far—I have to tell the noble Baroness that I remain disappointed that the Government have brought forward a short debate on this issue at such short notice. It has meant shelving another important debate. We did not need to have this debate today, when another debate—also of considerable importance and urgency to your Lordships’ House—on English votes for English laws was already scheduled. So is the urgency because this is a new issue of which the Government were previously unaware? Of course not. This is an issue that has been raised by Peers across this House for some time, and the Government have chosen not only to ignore the concerns raised but also to exacerbate the problem.

Indeed, the Leader of the House herself said recently that she did not think size mattered. She wrote in the Daily Telegraph of 31 August that,

“it’s not where any debate about the House of Lords should start”.

Although in some ways I agree with her, I fundamentally disagree with what she said in her speech—that the core purpose of your Lordships’ House was to complement the House of Commons. The core purpose of this Chamber—of your Lordships’ House—is not to complement the House of Commons. It is a revising, scrutinising Chamber which holds the Government to account and assists Governments in thinking again and reconsidering issues. However, that is not a reason or an excuse to step back from this issue. Neither can it ever be a solution to suggest that Members of your Lordships’ House should just not turn up so often. We take our responsibilities seriously.

However, the noble Baroness’s predecessors have taken much the same line. The noble Lord, Lord Hill, told the House that although,

“the House will sometimes be crowded on popular occasions … we should not overstate the problem”.—[Hansard, 12/12/13; col. 996.]

He also referred to the size of the House previously having been larger prior to the 1999 Act, which removed most hereditary Peers. This is extraordinarily complacent, particularly when others, from all corners of your Lordships’ House, have been warning of the looming problems. I find it even more extraordinary when the Government are planning to reduce significantly the number of elected representatives in the House of Commons and increase the number of Members of this House. How can that be right?

The House will know that on these Benches, the Liberal Democrat Benches and elsewhere across your Lordships’ House, we consider a constitutional convention the right way forward to resolve—among other things—the issue of the place of this House in our constitution. I am sure that today we will hear many colourful views on your Lordships’ House. However, I find it hard to disagree with the opening lines of the excellent report A Programme for Progress, produced by a number of my noble friends, including the now retired Lord Grenfell:

The House of Lords needs urgent reform. The number of peers, growing fast, is too large. Its procedures creak. Its image is rendered antediluvian by flummery, and it falls short of what is required of an effective, modern second chamber”.

Your Lordships’ House is groaning at the seams. The current Prime Minister has appointed more Peers per year than any other Prime Minister on record. The excellent work of Professor Meg Russell at University College London illustrates not only that record number of appointments but that they have been more intensely party political. Mr Cameron has appointed a larger proportion of government Peers than any other Prime Minister, with fewer Cross-Benchers and fewer for the Opposition. Professor Russell also notes how Mr Cameron’s new and somewhat bizarre policy statement that appointments should reflect the most recent general election result will ensure that, year on year, your Lordships’ House will expand—and with a greater proportion of government Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, had great fun with that nonsense of a policy, but this has never been what your Lordships’ House has been about. It does not reflect our functions and responsibilities, and it is ludicrous to appoint Peers to your Lordships’ House on that kind of policy basis. Does the Prime Minister so fear the independence and wisdom of this place that he seeks to contain us by appointing more government Peers, despite their already being the largest party?

The noble Baroness is quite right to be concerned about the reputation of your Lordships’ House. The excellence of this House’s reputation rests as much on its ability to ask the Commons to think again and reconsider as it does on the expertise and wisdom of your Lordships. However, this House and the Government must also recognise that the Prime Minister’s programme of appointments threatens that reputation. Indeed, the Prime Minister—as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said recently on a trip to Singapore that,

“it is important to make sure the House of Lords more accurately reflects the situation in the House of Commons”.

There is another part to that quote, which the noble Lord will recall as well. The Prime Minister went on to say that,

“that’s been the position with prime ministers for a very, very long time and for very good and fair reason”.

Has it? I do not recall any other Prime Minister—only the current Prime Minister and the previous Deputy Prime Minister—saying that that was the basis on which appointments to your Lordships’ House should be made. It has not been the position for a “very, very long time”. Therefore, can the noble Baroness confirm that it is truly the Prime Minister’s intention that, with each election, new appointments to your Lordships’ House should be made based on the result of that election? How does she feel that squares with the view she expressed in her article for the Daily Telegraph? If that is not the Prime Minister’s view, why has she not taken any opportunity to dispel the myth that this is common practice? If it were common practice or were to become so, as the Prime Minister seems to indicate he wants, it would seriously undermine the effectiveness and reputation of your Lordships’ House.

The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has said we need appointments to renew the House. That is true, but the current number of Peers is 131 more than the average post-1999 House with Labour in government. Alongside those additional numbers, we should welcome that the current House is more active than ever. The Lords Library Note of last December records that average attendance in your Lordships’ House as a proportion of membership rose from just over 50% about 10 or 15 years ago, to figures in the mid-60s today. This means the average daily attendance has risen from the high 300s to around 500.

The noble Baroness has the best access of anybody in your Lordships’ House to the Prime Minister. Has she discussed this with him? Does Mr Cameron recognise that if meaningful change is to be made, he cannot continue with the scale and number of his appointments? Did she ask him how his desire to,

“cut the cost of politics”,—[ Official Report , Commons, 1/7/15; col. 1476.]

squared with the record number of appointments to this House at a time when he is pushing ahead with cutting the number of elected MPs? Have they discussed the idea of a constitutional convention? I hope she is able to answer those questions today.

This is an arms race that this House cannot win. Of course there must be new Peers to replenish and renew but this level of appointment and its skewed nature diminishes this House. We stand ready, as we have put on record, to look at any potential ways forward. I have told the noble Baroness, as she mentioned in her comments, that we are happy to take part in such discussions, but I have also said that there is a caveat. The Prime Minister said, in rather a strange response, that this is a matter for the House of Lords to address, as if in some way he has no responsibility and it does not concern him. Of course it concerns him. All the facts show that he must bear responsibility for the acceleration in the growth of the size of your Lordships’ House. Because he has the authority to appoint, without being curtailed other than by the Appointments Commission on very limited criteria, he can use any changes we make here to reduce the size of this House as an invitation for more political appointments.

We want to see change. We believe the House is too large and that the evidence shows that this Prime Minister’s approach to appointments is not only providing the opportunity for external criticism but sidelining serious discussion of our true purpose and value. It is hard to believe that there is not a political agenda here. Before any meaningful discussion and serious decisions can proceed, we need an assurance from the noble Baroness the Leader of the House that the Prime Minister understands the role of this House in assisting the Government in scrutinising legislation; that he recognises that the approach to new appointments he has instigated is not sustainable; and that he will not use any measures that reduce the membership of this House as an excuse to create additional skewed government appointments.

These are important issues. We want to make progress and we will be involved in discussions to reduce the size of your Lordships’ House. However, we cannot do this in isolation, without a commitment from the Government that they have also signed up to the same agenda.