We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:25 pm on 15th September 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:25 pm, 15th September 2015

My Lords, I am delighted to wind up for the Opposition. I, too, would like to pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, who made his valedictory speech. He has made a rich contribution to your Lordships’ House and he will be much missed in his retirement.

This has been an excellent, highly significant and encouraging debate. Of the many discussions that noble Lords have had about the future of this House, few have displayed such a unanimity of view on the need to constrain the size of the House, while enhancing our crucial scrutiny role.

The fact that the Government wanted to have this debate today and to postpone other important business suggests that they have been stung by the criticism of the latest list of appointments. Up to now, they have turned their face against substantive reform and rejected the widely supported proposal for a constitutional convention through which the whole future of the House of Lords would be looked at in the context of wider constitutional change. To noble Lords who hark back to the last Government and the ill-fated proposals of Mr Clegg, I say that the reason why they ultimately failed was that the Bill that was presented made no reference whatever to the relationship between an elected House of Lords and the House of Commons. That issue needs to be grappled with and the question of the respective powers of those two Chambers resolved. All the other issues that noble Lords have discussed concerning Scotland, Wales and devolution in general need to be looked at before we can hope to come up with any substantive proposal about the future of your Lordships’ House. That is why it is so important to have a constitutional convention. We remain committed to having one. My right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition has appointed a specific Member to take forward our proposals on such a constitutional convention. I hope that reassures the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, about the continuity of policy in this important area.

Let us come to the question of size. Size is not everything. I take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, made and I pay tribute to him again for his royal commission report—which was so sensible that, as he said, unfortunately the political process made sure that nothing would be done with it. I take his point about not talking down our achievements, but the threat of an ever-increasing size is now putting our reputation at great risk.

We have all looked at the outstanding work of Meg Russell. She has examined what the impact would be if the coalition policy were still in place relating to securing a second Chamber reflective of the votes of political parties at the preceding general election. The Leader of the House has made it clear that that was a coalition Government policy and that the Government have moved on from that. We have seen that the Prime Minister appears keen on further appointments, and we seem to have a new policy, enunciated in Singapore, that the second Chamber should match the make-up of the Commons. We know from Meg Russell’s work that eventually, this would lead to a House of more than 1,000 Members. I suspect that, unlike the last time we had over 1,000 Members, we would have 1,000 pretty active Members, which would become unsustainable. If you then take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and add seats for the minority parties, clearly you reach a ludicrous position.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, talked about the public reaction to events over the summer, and there is no doubt that size has something to do with that reaction. We also know that many times under different Governments—too many times over the past few years—sensible incremental change has been postponed or rejected on the altar of substantive reform. However, substantive reform never came, and it ain’t gonna come any time soon. Therefore, the argument for making progress on the issue of size is persuasive and very clear tonight.

I am glad that the noble Baroness the Leader offered today to convene cross-party talks, including the Cross-Benchers. That is welcome, and Her Majesty’s Opposition are glad to take part. I hope she will respond to my noble friend Lady Taylor, who asked her to spell this out in a little more detail, and I am sure the House would welcome that. There is a great body of work to draw upon: that of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirrall; the work co-chaired so ably by my noble friend Lady Taylor; the work undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, which he talked about; and as we know, the Lord Speaker has also convened a working party. We have heard some very interesting and wide-ranging proposals tonight. I do not agree with all of them, but surely the options and parameters are now pretty clear. The stage is set for progress.

I want to emphasise a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. This will not work if the Government stick to the principle of the Prime Minister’s Singapore edict. One way or another, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will have to make it clear that the Government have no intention of seeking anywhere near a political majority in your Lordships’ House. Agreement on a scheme to reduce the number of Members will have to be predicated on an agreement on the appropriate balance between the different parties and the Cross Benches, plus the level of discretion to be given to any Prime Minister after a general election. If you look at all the options proposed for reducing the size of the House—whether it is age retirement, activity level, length of service, election or a combination of all those—the question of balance cannot be ignored. That is clear from research done by the Lords Library.

If we look at the outcome of retirement at 75, 80 or 85, the results are different for each option with regard to party balance. On the elections option, I know that the hereditary Peers opposite, who went through it, think that life Peers ought to be made to suffer in the same way; I have always recognised that that is a factor. I gently warn the House of the consequences of elections: the risk is that those with independence of thought might be put at some disadvantage. I do not need to spell that out to politicians in this House; if I mention the terrible word “slates”, they will know what I mean. If elections is the chosen option, you will still have to decide how many seats each party and the Cross Benches are going to get, and to do so you will have to reach a long-term agreement; otherwise, it just will not fly. At some point, the noble Baroness the Leader will have to face up to that. There is no point in going into discussions about a scheme of reduction without knowing how it will work out as regards balance.

This is also tied in to the effectiveness of this House as a revising Chamber. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is right. Our reputation depends on the power of argument, and often we have very powerful arguments but, as he found when he was Leader of the Opposition, and as I found to my cost as a government Minister at the time, the power of argument is not half supported by the power of votes. My goodness me, he was very happy to use those votes. Our ability to revise legislation is in direct proportion to the House’s ability, within the widely understood conventions, to ask the Government to think again by passing amendments or by the Government making concessions because of the risk of being defeated. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, was absolutely right on that point. Getting an appropriate balance is crucial to resolving the problems of size.

I end by saying that I am very proud to be a Member of this House. I am proud of what it does. I am proud of the fact that we improve legislation. I have no doubt whatever that we safeguard the public interest. In recent months our reputation has taken an awful knock. Every Member of the House has had to listen to comments made by friends, colleagues and members of the public, and frankly those comments have not been very kind. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, was absolutely right. We have all been damaged. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, is right too. Size is much less important than function, of course, but size is harming the way people look at us. It is part of what my noble friend Lord Soley called the perfect storm. It is upon us. The ball appears to have been put into our own court. Surely we should now accept the challenge and run with it.