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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:33 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 4:33 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, it is important when we are debating a take-note Motion that refers to “further incremental reform” to put it in context by recalling that the introductory text to the Parliament Act 1911 passed by the then Liberal Government says:

“And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”.

I rather suspect the House would have been surprised that 104 years later it still had not been brought into operation. In the 21st century, in a modern, forward-looking, innovative country like the United Kingdom, it is simply wrong that the public have never had the opportunity to vote for Members of this House, or the ability to hold us to account for our record. I believe that anyone who makes the laws of the country should be accountable to those they expect to obey those laws. In a democracy, we believe that legitimate power and political authority ultimately derive from the people.

It is worth reflecting that if the coalition government Bill proposed in 2012 by Nick Clegg and passed at Second Reading in the Commons with a majority of 338 had not had its progress frustrated in the House of Commons, we would now have Members of this House who were elected by the public and we would not be having this debate today. Questions of the burgeoning size of this House would not have arisen as membership of the House would have been reduced by a third under the provisions of that Bill. To be frank, I accept that the number on these Benches would be smaller, but the House of Commons frustrated that move.

Although I do not necessarily agree with the conclusion of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, on what should be done, I can perfectly understand his frustrations. He made points that I readily recognise. His party received a larger share of the vote in the United Kingdom general election than my party, yet there is only one UKIP MP in the House of Commons and there are eight Liberal Democrats. If there was a fairer, more proportional system of election to the House of Commons, there would be more than 80 UKIP MPs and 51 Liberal Democrats. At Question Time, last week, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggested that 40 of my colleagues should retire. It occurred to me that it would help address the balance in both Houses if it was possible to dispatch 43 colleagues from this House to the other place, but I suspect that that would not be democratic, either.

We are addressing issues this afternoon about the size of this House, the size of individual parties within this House, the balance across the House and, in discussing retirement, whether in effect membership of this House should actually be for the whole of the rest of one’s life. These are important issues about how this House is composed, and all are symptoms of a wider problem which has not been touched on in all the discussions around reform over the course of the summer in particular: what is the House of Lords for?

If there has been a weakness in the previous efforts to legislate for reform, it has been the inability to address the fear in the House of Commons that a democratically elected second Chamber would pose a threat, or at least be a rival, to the supremacy of the Commons. That is why it is necessary to address the question of function as well as composition. To my mind, the role of the House of Lords is not dissimilar to that articulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. It is: to scrutinise and revise the Government’s legislative agenda; to hold the Executive to account through questions, debates and the work of Select Committees; and, from time to time, to ask the House of Commons to think again. To be a Member of your Lordships’ House is to be in a position to fulfil this role. It is an honour and a privilege. Collectively, this House takes that role seriously. Individually, it has to be said, not every Member of the House applies themselves to this role with the same degree of dedication. Over the years, this Chamber has upped its game. It has listened to criticism and taken measures to strengthen the Code of Conduct and ensure that the Nolan principles on standards in public life are observed.

However, there is no job description; and, crucially, most appointments are still largely reliant on patronage. As long as that is the case, this House and its Members will continue to be vulnerable to the charge, however unfair, of not working hard enough.

My noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood has suggested a compulsory retirement age. I am not personally persuaded by that; it is a somewhat blunt tool, designed simply to reduce the size of the House without asking the fundamental question of what kind of Members we need to have to effectively do the job we are asked to do. Experience and collective memory can both be useful attributes in fulfilling our revision and scrutiny roles. Not only does a fixed retirement age jar because of discrimination; it could lead to the exclusion of some who have still much of relevance to contribute. Some of my colleagues have suggested automatic retirement if a certain percentage of attendance is not reached in a Session. It is superficially attractive but attracts the old adage “Be careful what you wish for”, because it will defeat the object if it leads to Peers who seldom attend turning up more often but still not contributing, simply to keep up their membership.

Many rudimentary issues may be touched on this afternoon regarding the role of your Lordships’ House. One to which I could dedicate the entirety of this speech is how this House relates to the nations and regions of this country. In its evidence to the Kilbrandon commission in 1970, in which my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood played a part, the Scottish Liberal Party argued that,

“a second chamber could facilitate federal co-ordination if it were composed of representatives of the national parliaments elected by them in proportion to their political composition”.

In a more federal United Kingdom, with a confident Scottish Parliament, an Assembly in Wales—which is set to see its powers increase—a still-delicate devolution settlement in Northern Ireland, and the promise of a northern powerhouse, we should be considering how this House can and should relate, and be relevant, to an evolving constitutional settlement. Such a discussion should surely take place and be remitted to a constitutional convention, as has been proposed in his Private Member’s Bill by my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed. In spite of what the Government have said, I urge Ministers to give serious consideration to supporting that Bill. It would ensure a process that is fully representative of the nations and regions in this country, and there would be an important conversation about our constitutional future.