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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:04 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct 7:04 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, as a member of the subgroup led by the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Norton of Louth, I am altogether more interested in learning the views of others than in expressing any clear views of my own today.

Two things are clear beyond doubt. First, the size of this House really is a problem—alas, not the only problem we face with regard to the reputation of the House, but the one which in my experience is generally the first criticism to be levelled against us with a measure of mockery. We are, indeed, becoming something of a laughing stock, and it cannot go on. Secondly, it is now for us to devise, if we possibly can, a workable solution acceptable to the House as a whole, difficult though that may be in the light of the very many differing views that have already been expressed in the course of this debate. Whatever solution we may devise will ultimately depend for its effectiveness on the Prime Minister being prepared to be fastidious and reticent in the exercise of his prerogative for the future.

As for what the solution may be, I will tentatively offer a few thoughts. First, the fact that we are a House of part-time Members is clearly not understood by the great majority of the public. There are plainly advantages in having within our membership a number of people, experts in their particular field, whose expertise can usefully be called on as and when it is required, but who are not regular attenders of the House. Of course, such Members occasion no expense to public funds unless and until they actually attend and claim an allowance, but undoubtedly, in the public perception, they swell the numbers of the size of the House. Moreover, unless they attend a substantial proportion of proceedings, they cannot realistically play any very effective part in the business of the House. There seems to me to be an argument for moving gradually towards a House consisting largely of working Peers who attend regularly and contribute widely.

It is idle to suppose that Section 2 of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, on non-attendance during the course of a Session, will play any significant part in the size of the House. It will not—not even if, as I would hope, the basis on which Members can obtain leave of absence is very considerably restricted.

Secondly, as others have also pointed out, although our principal function is as an advisory Chamber, scrutinising, revising and occasionally delaying proposed legislation—acting, therefore, rather as wise elders than as an essentially party-political group—we should recognise the need to attempt some broad relationship between party representation here and in the other place. The Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, calls this,

“an appropriate balance between the political parties”,

although—and this point has been made too—before 1999 there was never such a balance under a Labour Administration. Perhaps this could be achieved in the sort of way that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, has suggested for some years: by periodically fixing the size of each group and then achieving that by election within the group. In the mean time, it may be hoped that those Members belonging to parties that are overrepresented will act rather as elder statesmen than as promoters of policies that have not apparently been accepted by the electorate.

The third point is that of age. Unless the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, are adopted, it will become difficult to resist any longer the suggestion that we need to reduce the size of the House by introducing some age limit. The proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, may be the way ahead, there being an obvious advantage in fixing it by reference to the end of a Parliament to achieve continuity. Of course it would mean that some Members would remain until the age of 85. I note that judges appointed since 1995 have to retire not at 75, as my generation did, but at 70. The position is not quite as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, put it.

Surely we should think about following a different, parallel route. May it be desirable instead that at some given age a Member should become what might be called “emeritus” and at that point cease to be entitled to the daily financial allowance? Attending the House is, of course, a privilege and honour—indeed, it is a fulfilling and pleasurable way of spending one’s advancing years. Almost all Members—certainly those aged over 75—will have a pension and perhaps some savings. In any event, they will be unlikely to be forfeiting other sources of income through their attendance here. By all means, pay the direct expenses of those who come from afar, but why more? It is just a thought; its obvious advantage would be to ensure that we could thereby retain the wisdom of our elders as emeritus Members of the House.