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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:04 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench 6:04 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, with whose remarks I found myself in a very large measure of agreement. I declare my interest as a member of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, but I make it clear that anything I say today is said in a purely personal capacity. To pick up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, at the end of his speech, we in the commission did not feel that we had a great deal of jurisdiction over the cases of people who are civil servants, or spads—special advisers—but we might be able to do better about that on another occasion.

The deluge of hostile publicity over the summer seems to have reached tipping point, such that it is now imperative that we do something to neutralise the cheap hits that it is all too easy for people to make at the expense of the House. At least three issues need to be addressed. First, on size, like everybody else, except possibly the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I would like to see the size of the House substantially reduced to somewhere between 450 and 600 Members. Various formulae for achieving this are suggested. I have my doubts about the arbitrary way in which a retirement age might work, although the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for introducing an element of flexibility might make that more acceptable. Time-limited terms might have something of the same effect, but perhaps not quite to the same extent.

I favour a cull of those who attend infrequently and contribute little. From figures I have recently heard, this might go a considerable way to achieving the desired result. After that, I would invite the party and Cross-Bench groups to complete the required reduction through a process of deciding who should leave rather than who should stay—the reverse of the exercise that was undertaken to determine which of the hereditaries should remain after House of Lords reform in 1999.

Secondly, there is the issue of prime ministerial patronage. In 2007, the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee urged,

“that the next stage of Lords reform should not wait for a consensus on elections”,

proposed that the Prime Minister no longer determine the size of the House of Lords and the party balance and called for an agreed formula for sharing out appointments. In 2013 the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee emphasised that agreeing such a formula was the “most crucial” next step in Lords reform.

Professor Meg Russell of University College London’s Constitution Unit has made detailed and carefully worked-out proposals for addressing the questions both of size and of prime ministerial patronage. Her suggestions include applying a one-in, two-out formula until the desired reduction has been achieved. I was going to say that that is somewhat more radical than that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, until I heard the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, recommending a one-in, three-out formula, which seems even better. Professor Meg Russell argues that the Prime Minister should be pressed hard to commit to changes along the lines of her proposals. I am not quite sure how one persuades the Prime Minister to engage in a self-denying ordinance. However, perhaps the noble Baroness the Leader of the House might have a word with him and draw the UCL report to his attention with a view to promoting a positive discussion. At all events, I endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said about her role in creating the necessary political will.

Thirdly, while I do not favour elections as the means of populating this House, further consideration needs to be given to the way in which Members are appointed. The threat of elections has been seen off for now, but so long as appointment is based principally on a system of patronage this House will continue to be vulnerable to charges of illegitimacy. As noble Lords may recall, I favour a system of appointment by an Appointments Commission as at present, but greatly strengthened by a system of nominations from the different branches of civil society—the law, medicine, the arts, sport, education, the armed services, business, the trade unions, the third sector and so on. Schemes of this sort are sometimes spoken of as a system of indirect election based on electoral colleges. They are more correctly thought of as a more broadly based system of appointment. This is my idea but a range of alternative proposals have been made in a similar vein. I was pleased to see that both the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill and the alternative report on that Bill called for further work to be done on the question of indirect election. That would provide a framework for examining the various proposals for strengthening the system of recruitment to this House. I hope that once they have finished addressing the question of the size of the House, the various groups looking at these things may agree to undertake some work on the issue of appointment, and I should like to think that the Government might give some support to this work.

Do I get an extra minute to bank for future occasions?