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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 5:00 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, it is a very great pleasure and honour to follow the right reverend Prelate. I was a member of the Lichfield General Synod delegation that met in the appointments committee to recommend a new Bishop of Lichfield when the former bishop retired. We chose the right reverend Prelate to be our bishop in the diocese of Lichfield and he did not disappoint us. He quickly became known for the exercise of quiet, gentle authority. He will be much missed and fondly remembered in the diocese of Lichfield. I no longer live in that diocese—I now live in Lincoln—but I shall always treasure my connections, in particular the friendship that I enjoyed and I hope will continue to enjoy, with the right reverend Prelate. The House of Lords owes him much, and by his speech today he has demonstrated that there is a real validity and value in having a Bench of Bishops in your Lordships’ House.

I must declare an interest. As many of your Lordships know, some 13 years ago my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and I founded the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which only today had a well-attended meeting with more than 50 of your Lordships present. Before the events of July and before the new list, we established a sub-committee, which I have the honour of chairing, to look at the whole question of numbers in your Lordships’ House. This is not a problem that has just emerged; it is one of which we have been very conscious for a long time. It would be wrong for me to come out in favour of any particular solution in this debate because I would be pre-empting the discussion of our sub-group, but there are things that we are looking at and have to look at—some have already been touched on in the debate. I hope that we will be in a position to produce a degree of consensus in a report that your Lordships’ House will be able to consider, along with other reports, later this year.

I am well aware that to go for an arbitrary retirement age would be a simple but slightly crude solution. I am bound to say, along with my noble friend Lord MacGregor, the chairman of the Association of Conservative Peers—who sadly cannot be here today but he asked me to mention this—that I find some attraction in this solution. As the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has already referred to, at the end of this Parliament on 30 March 2020, by which time Dissolution has to occur, 260 of your Lordships will be aged 80 or over, of whom I will be one.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, has indicated in his Motion that his solution perhaps needs refining—maybe we should look at other things. With the help of the Library I got some figures. There are 140 Members of your Lordships’ House who spoke less than once a year in the last Parliament. Some 17 of those eligible to attend in the last Session did not come at all. In the whole of the last Parliament, 119 voted fewer than 20 times and 47 did not vote at all. These are things that we have to take into account. I believe that there are solutions. I am bound to say that, much as I admire and respect the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, I thought that his solution was a tad complicated, but we could set a limit, a cap, on the number of Members in your Lordships’ House. At our sub-committee meeting last week, there was something approaching consensus in saying that we should try to fix your Lordships’ House at a size no bigger than that of the House of Commons—in other words, 600, as it will be at the beginning of the next Parliament. Maybe we should move on beyond that.

How do we do that? One solution that could commend itself to your Lordships would be that at the beginning of each Parliament the Cross-Benchers—who should be guaranteed 20% of the places—and the various party groups should elect, or select, so many of their number. There are constitutional precedents for this. The Acts of Union 1707 gave the Scottish peerage the opportunity and the duty of selecting 16 of their number to sit at Westminster in the House of Lords. Nearly 100 years later, in 1801, the Act of Union with Ireland gave the Irish peerage 28 seats in your Lordships’ House. Maybe this is a precedent that we should look at carefully. If we had a cap on numbers and did something like this within the Cross-Bench group and the party groups, we would have some satisfaction that it would not be driven by age or any other specific factor; it would take into account the contributions made by the Peers concerned. I also think we ought not to have a situation where the Prime Minister’s patronage is extinguished—that would be completely wrong—but, if at the beginning of each Parliament he were given 10%, he could nominate new or reappoint old as he wished.

My final point in this necessarily brief speech is that there is some merit in saying that a peerage should be for life but membership of this House should be for a defined period. I would make it a genuinely long defined period—perhaps as long as 20 years, but certainly 15—because I do not like the power of the Whips, and if they thought they could exercise a sort of perverse patronage every five years, your Lordships’ House would not be what it is today. I believe fundamentally in a House that does not challenge the unambiguous democratic mandate of the House of Commons and that acknowledges the supremacy of the House of Commons, but that brings together talent and experience from all walks of life in a way that no other second Chamber in the world is able to do.