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My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commissions and emphasise that I speak in this debate from an individual perspective.
Your Lordships have recognised in this debate that the size of the House has now become the subject of considerable concern, both within Parliament and outside. This concern has the potential to impact on the standing and reputation of your Lordships’ House and its ability to discharge its constitutional responsibilities. The debate rightly emphasised time and again the importance of recognising our constitutional role in determining the way forward in further stepwise reform, particularly on the question of the size of the House. It is well recognised that our principal role is that of scrutiny, revision of legislation and holding Her Majesty’s Government to account, but in such a way that complements the work of the other place—particularly with regard to the role of holding Her Majesty’s Government to account. Any proposal on addressing the size of your Lordships’ House should also, I believe very strongly, help consolidate our constitutional role and ensure that we can continue to discharge those responsibilities most effectively.
A number of proposals have been made in this debate on how the size of the House might be limited, among them the suggestion that there might be an age limit for participation, a term limit or a simple cull of Members. The problem with the suggestions of either an age or term limit is that they are rather indiscriminate. In adopting either proposal, your Lordships run the risk of removing from the House Members who make particularly good and active contributions, whose expertise and wisdom is of the greatest importance in discharging our constitutional role or who, in many ways, help distinguish and differentiate us from the other place most effectively. The potential problem of a cull might be that it would exclude on a permanent basis Members of your Lordships’ House who have the capacity to make an important potential contribution, especially recognising that the nature of legislation coming before your Lordships’ House is determined by the priorities of the Government in question and those priorities change over time. Any system dealing with Membership of your Lordships’ House must retain the ability for flexibility in ensuring that the appropriate expertise is represented when it is necessary.
An alternative solution to a cull might be for all Members of your Lordships’ House to continue to receive a Writ of Summons, therefore forming a pool of eligible Peers from which a smaller pool of sitting Peers could be elected by each individual grouping, potentially on a sessional basis dependent upon the nature of legislation that the House would address for that particular session. If a sessional basis were considered too short, it could be done for the duration of a Parliament. The advantage of such a system is that it would allow each grouping to determine how best to put at the disposal of your Lordships’ House, from among its wider pool of eligible Peers, those most able to contribute to the work of the House for that particular Session or Parliament. It would also allow the groupings to determine from among their eligible Peers those willing to make an active contribution, participating in the work of the Chamber, committees and other responsibilities of active, working Peers. It would provide the opportunity for those not in a position to make that contribution for a specific time to stand aside, not putting their names forward for election to the pool of sitting Peers from their grouping.
On the cap on the size of the House, I use as an example the suggestion that we reduce the current size by 50%. Under those circumstances, there would be about 410 sitting Peers from among the 820 or so currently eligible to sit in your Lordships’ House. To that would be added the Government Front Bench of some 20 Peers. That would give a House of around 440 to 450 Members. As I said, that would be composed on the basis of each grouping electing those from among the eligible Peers receiving the Writ of Summons. Only those sitting Peers would be in a position to avail themselves of any allowances, expenses or other accommodation in your Lordships’ House. Other eligible Peers would continue to receive information about the work of the House and to be eligible to be elected by their groupings to serve as active sitting Members.
This proposal might require some attention to the wording of the Writ of Summons, but may not require extensive primary legislation beyond that. If that were the case then it would be something that the House could act on in a relatively short time. It would deal with the question of the size of the House and the perception about the House being too large, as it would be reduced by a very substantial number. But it would not exclude Peers permanently and it would provide the opportunity for noble Lords, as and when their expertise would be of greatest use to the work of your Lordships’ House, to be available on the basis of the support of their party groupings, having elected them to do so.