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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Taylor of Bolton Baroness Taylor of Bolton Labour 7:56 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, in June of last year, this House debated extensively a report by a group of Labour Peers called A Programme for Progress: The Future of the House of Lords and its Place in a Wider Constitution. There was a great deal of consensus in that debate, and it was a very productive one. One of the things that we asked was that there should be a meeting of minds, led by the Leader of the House and others, to take the matter further. That was denied us, but I welcome the statement of the Leader of the House today that she intends to follow such a route. It was a very useful debate and the report is still available, by the way, free of charge. I hope that some people will look back at that, because some of the ideas discussed today are discussed in that report in some detail.

I share the very deep and genuine concern in this House about the Prime Minister’s recent list—both the numbers of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat nominees and the inclusion of the spads. It is damaging to the reputation of this House because trust in the appointments procedure is extremely important in terms of trust in this House, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out earlier. Many people warned beforehand, but we are where we are: the damage has been done and, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I do not think that this is a normal situation. The figures that my noble friend Lady Smith provided earlier show that this is not the usual situation and it creates some problems for us.

The first problem relates to our reputation. It does none of us any good when these matters are raised and we see in the press a photograph of the State Opening, with everybody in robes, and comments such as, “They are nearly as big as the National People’s Congress of China”, with implications about how we operate. Incidentally, if anybody wants to improve the reputation of this House, we might think about whether it would be helpful not to wear robes at the State Opening. Perhaps that is a little too far for some people.

The numbers do affect us all: they affect our ability to do the job, as has just been pointed out. It is a strain on resources, on office facilities and on trying to speak in the House. Earlier, the Leader quite rightly mentioned the distinction between the top-line numbers and actual attendance daily. That is a very important distinction, but intakes over the last decade or so have seen an increasing number of working Peers. That increases the strain for everyone and changes the balance of the figures that she was talking about.

I have a couple of questions that I would like the Leader to deal with, because they are important and relevant to anything that we want to do to change things in future. The first concerns the party balance in the House, because we get contradictory messages here. What do the Government think is an appropriate party balance in this House? Traditionally, Governments have not sought a political majority here. My noble friend Lord Hunt talked earlier about the difficulties in the Labour Government years, where 33% of votes were lost by the Government. However, the PM seems to challenge that view, in the way that the former Deputy Prime Minister once did. Sometimes we hear that this House should reflect proportions in the Commons and sometimes those at the last election—they are not necessarily the same. I am concerned about what the situation might be, and that the Leader said earlier that we should complement the House of Commons. Our job is not to replicate what happens there but, as others said, to revise and scrutinise.

Another question is that I still do not understand why the Government are so opposed to a constitutional convention. Do they not understand the fragmentary nature of and some of the difficulties that we are storing up for the future with all the changes in Scotland and Wales, with EVEL, Northern Ireland and city regions? Those need to be looked at in the round. The role of this House in all that is important. When we suggested and discussed a constitutional convention in the past, we were told that it was being put into the long grass—or the “unmowable grass” as my noble friend Lord Richard used to say. If a constitutional convention had been established when we called for it, we might be nearer a solution to some of these problems today.

However, that is for the long term. We have talked today about some of the more immediate things that this House could do. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, talked about the cap on numbers by the mixed election, which would be very appropriate. I do not think it matters where we draw the line between 450 and 600, we must just work towards that. We heard of separating the honours system and membership of this House. That is worth pursuing, as is perhaps membership and voting, which is interesting. Probably a majority of people favour ending the hereditary by-elections. I think a fixed term is an interesting proposition, be it 15 or 20 years. Minimum attendance and participation is a possibility. However, I do not like the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, for a cull. That is fraught with dangers, difficulties and potential abuse. I am afraid the renewal system of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, did not excite me, except as a former Chief Whip because I would quite like to be a Chief Whip when that is operating.

All these ideas, which are not mutually exclusive, need considering and taking further. One incidental benefit of a discussion of this kind is that it makes us all consider our own individual position. Debates of this nature over the recent past have led to people thinking about when they will leave the House, when they should retire and what their future should be.

The noble Lord, Lord Luce, just said that there is a great deal of momentum on this issue; I agree. We had the work that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to on the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. The Lord Speaker has taken initiatives. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the noble and learned Lord,

Lord Wallace, talked about what their individual parties are doing. However, I am afraid that none of this will get anywhere and that momentum will not translate into positive proposals unless the Government actually take this seriously. The comment that the Leader of the House made earlier was a bit vague. We would like to know more about what is proposed, particularly some indication of the timescale. We cannot leave all these issues in the air if we are to protect the workings and reputation of this House.