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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:16 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 7:16 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, when I became a Peer in July 1999 there were approximately 700 hereditary Members of the House and its total membership was around 1,300. As a new boy and a life peer, I, of course, respected all the Members I met and I enjoyed conversing with them. However, I was surprised that I was asked several times about my father. As he had died in 1963, I found it strange to be asked about him, until I realised that the assumption was that, as I was only 39 at the time, my father must have been a hereditary Peer who had recently died.

There were then more Members of the House aged over 90 than those aged under 50. I discovered that some of the hereditary Peers regarded themselves as “boarders”, while life Peers, such as me, were seen as “day boys”. Almost everywhere in the House, including in the Library and the dining rooms, was filled with tobacco smoke.

There have, of course, been very significant changes in the House and its culture since then. Shortly after I arrived, some of the highest ever numbers of Peers voting were recorded as we debated reducing the size of the House and removing most of the hereditary Peers. While some hereditary Peers were then, and still are now, among our most active and respected Members, others who attended specifically for those votes were doing so for the very first time—ironically, it seemed to me, to preserve their voting rights. I recall packed scenes just outside the Chamber when the Division Bells rang and some of those Peers asking me, “What’s that noise?”.

Thanks to the House of Lords Act 1999, the size of the House of Lords shrank by about half to around 650 members, bringing it in line with the size of the House of Commons. After the passage of that Act I could show visitors where I now had my own coat peg; I had had to share one previously. I could explain that further changes to the size, composition and role of the House would soon follow. But they did not. Since then the size of the House has grown by around 200 members, hence today’s debate. My initial optimism about more radical reform following rapidly after 1999 was quite misplaced, as Tony Blair’s Government appeared to lose interest in constitutional reform.

I am sure that 104 years ago, those who voted on the Parliament Act 1911 would never have believed that the process they began would still be continuing more than a century later. A century seems to have been not long enough to work out what further reforms to make. So I make no apology for having supported the House of Lords Reform Bill in the last Parliament. If I may correct the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, the Bill was not rejected by the House of Commons; it was supported by 462 to 124 votes, a majority of 338. The Bill was based on common principles set out in all three main party manifestos at the previous general election. I believe that we should have considered it here. I and my party were disappointed by its failure to make further progress, but I was not then someone who thought that this failure should prevent us looking at more modest and sensible reforms that might be agreed.

Thanks to the efforts of my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood and others, his Private Member’s Bill enabled Peers for the first time to retire. As we have heard, 35 Members of the House have already done so using its provisions. My noble friend’s original Bill also provided for the ending of what I might call the ludicrous by-elections to keep topping up the number of hereditary peers. We will soon have had 27 such by-elections, and we should have no more. Ending them would contribute significantly over time to reducing the size of the House, and this should be our next priority.

However, the biggest problem with the composition and size of the House is the power exercised by party leaders, and by Prime Ministers in particular. Their power of patronage is simply not appropriate in a 21st-century democracy. The Appointments Commission appoints Cross-Bench Peers and, in my view, it or a similar body, put on a statutory basis, should also take responsibility for political appointments, taking such powers away from party leaders. This was, of course, provided for in my noble friend’s original Bill. The commission’s remit should also include containing the size of the House in future.

We have heard several ideas today for reducing the size of the House, including age limits, term limits and elections from within Members of the House, but none of these ideas would be of any value whatever unless we do something about the appointments process. In the longer run, more radical reform should be subject to a constitutional convention. In the mean time, I welcome the conversion to the cause of proportionality of a number of Members of the House. I note that the principle of proportionality shows that the Conservative Party is currently overrepresented in the House of Commons by some 91 Members, and the Labour Party by 34, while the Liberal Democrats are underrepresented there by 43 seats. I look forward to the day when the will of the people is reflected in both Houses of Parliament.