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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:10 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Conservative 7:10 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, there has not been one speaker who does not agree that the House of Lords has become too big and needs to reform if it is to survive as a respected revising Chamber. The age-old question is how. There are perfectly respectable arguments for an elected second Chamber, for an appointed Chamber and perhaps even for no second Chamber at all. The recent attempt in the last Parliament, with some elected and some appointed Peers—one could call it the “Clegg plan”—fell through the gap in the middle and was quite rightly rejected by the House of Commons.

We have heard that some would prefer a retirement age and some a limit of service, all with their advantages and disadvantages, which are well understood by your Lordships. There is also the suggestion of only one in when two, or perhaps three, leave, which might take quite a long time to work. What is clear is that reform of this House must now come from this House. It must be acceptable to the main political parties and to the House of Commons. The alternative is probably, one day, abolition by the House of Commons, unless we come up with a solution.

I cannot resist adding my thoughts to those of other noble Lords on a solution. It is somewhat similar to the proposal put forward by my noble friend Lord Jopling. It would involve legislation, but as we know from the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, it is possible to get one’s legislation through—it is a long and tortuous process, but one gets there in the end. I believe that this House should remain appointed. Its role must be to hold the Government to account and to revise, but ultimately the Government must always be able to get their legislation through this Chamber. We must not be able permanently to block legislation; the Government must always get their business through. I believe that the composition should be no more than that of the House of Commons—say, 600 or whatever the House of Commons turns out to be. The Cross Benches should be limited to about 100.

After every general election, the leaders of the political parties in this House shall agree numbers based on the numbers of MPs elected to the House of

Commons in their respective parties. They shall then hold a ballot, similar to the ballots conducted by the hereditary Peers, to limit numbers within their respected parties. This way Peers elect themselves; they know best who should continue to serve in this House. Leave it to noble Lords to decide who stays; they know best. It worked for hereditary peers when we had that reform. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde said that it was a painful process, but I do not think it was painful; I think that it worked rather well. I should say that that is perhaps because I was elected—I think largely because, having a name beginning with “A”, it came top of the list; had it been further down, God knows what would have happened, but luckily it was in alphabetical order. If a Peer cannot remain in this House for whatever reason, there could be a by-election among the political parties. During a Session, the Prime Minister would be able to advise Her Majesty to create further Peers, either to become Ministers in this House or to top up numbers.

I am sure that the Lib Dems and now UKIP want it to be based on share of the vote. I do not think that that would work because it would produce a House very different from the House of Commons. It would undoubtedly lead to a logjam of legislation, and it would not stand the test of time.

I also believe that we should look at the Bishops’ Benches. They should also limit their numbers of who should attend. I have always believed that we should find some way of ensuring that other faiths are better represented in this House than they are now.

The result of my modest proposal—it is simple, which is important—is that the Government would have a majority, but they could be easily defeated by a combination of opposition parties and the Cross Benches. We would still be a revising Chamber; we would still have clout. We might be respected, so that we might even be able to persuade the SNP to nominate Peers to attend this Chamber.

I hope that the opposition parties and the leader of the Cross Benches will work with the Government to consider proposals. Time is of the essence and we must not lose it. I understand that the position of the Lib Dems is that they do not feel bound by the Salisbury convention. If that is correct and they oppose or wreck government Bills in alliance with the Labour Party or whoever, that will put the final nail in the coffin of a second Chamber. I hope that when he comes to wind up on behalf of the Lib Dems the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, can enlighten us on their position. I do not think that the Commons would stand it.

We also have to wonder what the position is of the Labour Party. It has not been made clear. I am not sure whether its new leader is in favour of an elected second Chamber or its abolition. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will reveal all when he comes to sum up for his party.