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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:18 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 6:18 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, it is a pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Lord.

All sorts of things have been said, so let me start with something that has not, and that is about the way the public, and especially the media, view the House. Whenever there is any whiff of scandal or when they want to criticise us, the picture they give is of the State Opening of Parliament. People are invited to ridicule us because there we are in our robes and tiaras and so on—this is not a frivolous point but is very much evident. I have proposed before in this House that we should move the State Opening of Parliament from here to Westminster Hall. The Commons and Lords should be invited to sit down together, so that we do not have to be in robes, and Her Majesty should give a speech about her personal moments, rather than having to read the Prime Minister’s speech, and then invite the Prime Minister to read the speech he has written. This would do lots of things: it would reduce the absurdity of the House of Commons people standing at the Bar; it would get us out of our robes; and it would increase our respectability in the eyes of the public, because people cannot understand that we do not actually come in robes every day—they still think we are always like that, prancing around. That is my one constructive suggestion for the evening.

Being the 22nd person to speak, I think that practically every solution that I could have thought of has been put forward. However, we have what economists, artists, engineers and so on generally call a “stock-flow” problem. We have a large stock of life Peers and the egress is very small, with maybe 20 per year; the incoming flow is always much larger than the annual egress, especially around election times. In the nice paper that the House Library has produced, I notice that over the past 15 years we have had a large ingress around election time—either in the year before an election or in the year of the election. In 2000 and 2001, there were 87 new Members. In 2004 and 2005, there were 96 new Members. In the Parliament of the coalition Government, the figures were really extreme: in 2010 and 2011, there were 129 new Members; and, when the coalition was going out, in 2013 and 2014, there were another 69, so there were 200 new Members within the coalition Parliament. It is a problem when one has a limited reservoir; with little egress and a lot of people coming in, the place will be flooded—and we are flooded right now.

There are solutions. First, let the Prime Minister do whatever he wants by way of appointments but say to him that, to begin with, he can only give people a peerage but not the right to sit in the House of Lords. That right would be rationed by the number of people exiting. Either we have “one for one” or we have “three for one” or whatever. That will slow things down. Secondly, we should try another solution: as we did at the time of the reform of the hereditary peerage, each party or constituent group should select from within it a number of people who should leave. That could be done by a “first past the post” or proportional system. If we could say that the number would not reduce from 800 to 400 unless each group decides to halve itself; and, perhaps after deciding whatever the necessary number of voluntary retirements should be, the groups would choose who leaves. In that way, we could reduce our numbers ourselves voluntarily. We could say to the Prime Minister, “You can appoint who you like, but those men and women can come here only if there is a vacancy”.

If we combined those two things, we may within five or 10 years achieve a House of Lords of about 400, which is the ideal size. But it would have to be done by a drastic reduction in the current numbers and a limit on the number of people coming in to match the number of people leaving.