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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:23 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 6:23 pm, 15th September 2015

I have only limited time, which is not as much as the noble Lord had. However, I agree with the principle of what he is after but the wording is wrong. I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Steel, because his proposal will not have that much effect. He spoke about the gross numbers of Peers over the age of 80. What he did not and cannot tell the House is the percentage of the over-80s who are active. I do not think that his proposal would make that much difference. I will come back to the point later. Having to select among yourselves who is going to stay is not an enjoyable performance—I say that having been through it.

I have some sympathy with the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, because it moves away from dealing with the size of the House into the much more important area of public trust and confidence, which is at a lower ebb than it was before the reforms of 1999. I wish to touch on one point with regard to that. Do not assume that the judgment of this House should be based on the number of defeats against the Government. I agree with my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and wish to enter into his debate with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. When I was a Minister, it was the persuasiveness of the argument that was much more important than the defeat. I remember on many occasions being persuaded, particularly by Lord McIntosh of Haringey—my opposite number for much of my career—to agree to his amendments. The Government would word the amendment and I would give it back to Lord McIntosh to table on the Order Paper and accept it. That was the right way in which to do so because it was his idea, not that of the Government. If one considers the effectiveness of opposition from that point of view, one gains a totally different perspective.

I thought that it would be wise to reflect on what I consider to be the major changes that have happened since I joined the House. Perhaps the obvious one that we all know about is the introduction of the life Peers in 1999. However, that led to a situation that changed the House dramatically; it became a much more political House and is increasingly a political House. I pose the question, as I did a couple of years ago: is it right that the second Chamber should be over a quarter full of ex-MPs? Our MPs are not held in the highest regard. I like individually those who are here, and those who are coming, but is it right that a quarter of the second Chamber should be composed of people who have served time in another place, let alone the party hacks who are going to come in?

As a result of that, the House has become much more active. When we talk about size, we must differentiate between the size of the House and the active House. We talk about the size of the House now, but in 1998 its size comprised 500 more than at present yet the average daily attendance was only 50 fewer than now. The issue is the amount of time people spend here. This House has become much more professional; it has become much more necessary to attend, and all the reforms that have been suggested today will be a further step in that direction.

My fourth point derives from that. The part-timers are being squeezed out, and that is a huge loss to us. I have tried to take part in debates and to take part after Statements, and it is sometimes difficult to get in to speak because those who attend and speak regularly are quick at getting up and are very forceful. This is not the courteous House that it used to be when people gave way.

My fifth and final point relates to one of the other changes to this House—the increase in expenses, which happened after the 1999 Act when the new influx of life Peers would not accept the same expenses that we hereditaries had existed on. When I joined the House, the maximum daily rate was £36, which amounts to about £157 in today’s money. We are now, therefore, allowed to claim twice as much as I was allowed to claim when I first came into the House. That encourages people to attend and to participate. As we get more for coming to the House—although it has been frozen for the last five years—all the reforms that we have heard proposed today would increase the number of people wanting to come and wanting to participate. That will add to the fact that this House is not as respected as it used to be and will continue to decline in the public’s estimation.

I believe that the number of people who are actually worried about the overall size of the House outside the Westminster village is about equivalent to the number of speakers today. What they are much more concerned about is whether we do a good job and whether we are trustworthy.