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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:36 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 8:36 pm, 15th September 2015

I have addressed that point in the remarks that I have just made. I am going to move on from appointments to what was said about addressing the size of this House and our membership.

Several noble Lords suggested a preferred number for the membership of this House. At this stage, I do not want to get distracted by talking about a specific target. What is most important is the effective ways for us to proceed. I have acknowledged, and am very serious about the fact, that we need to make progress in this area and address the size of the House. At the moment, I want to ensure that we proceed with a process that will achieve some improvement in this area without fixating, right now, on a specific end target.

On some of the ways forward proposed today, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, led us by referring to some specific limits. He mentioned age, with some exceptions around that. Several noble Lords expressed support for that measure, but perhaps others expressed some concerns. There was support also for specific term limits; others again expressed some concerns. As time is tight, I shall not go through and name-check everybody who was for or against. What I will do after this debate is study carefully all the arguments that have been made. As I said earlier, this area attracts some serious consideration.

Another idea, put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and referenced as well by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was that we might take a more mathematical approach to slimming down the House, with each group leader agreeing a set proportion from their number to leave the House by either election or another means of their choosing. That could certainly merit further thought as we proceed if it is something that all parties support, and especially if it can be disentangled from some of the other measures which I might describe as adding to the complexity of this kind of arrangement—or, to quote my noble friend Lord Elton, unnecessarily stirring up a hornets’ nest.

I note that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde suggested that if were to look at that kind of approach the small parties be exempt from such a process. I noted as well the exchange between my noble friend Lord Ridley and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, in specific regard to UKIP.

Such an approach, as has been already acknowledged, is not dissimilar to that followed by the hereditary Peers when it was decided to reduce their number. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hereditary Peers who are Members of your Lordships’ House. They make a very important contribution to our work. Any idea of removing the hereditary by-elections is a fundamental question about our composition which should be considered in the round as part of a wider approach to reform.

As to encouraging more Members to retire and the progress that we have made there, I pay tribute to the Lord Speaker. It has been rightly acknowledged that she has done a lot in a very sensitive fashion to encourage retirement. It is right that retirement becomes a fundamental part of our culture, because it should be recognised as a decision of public service when noble Lords feel that the right decision for them is to retire, when they can no longer contribute in the way they feel the public have a right to expect. I agree with my noble friend Lord Naseby that retirement is working. Thirty-five noble Lords will have retired very soon if we include those two noble Lords listed as having given their notice.

Other noble Lords put forward different ideas. The noble Lord, Lord Low, referred to attendance limits. The noble Lords, Lord Stone of Blackheath and Lord Desai, and others talked about withdrawing allowances as a way forward. They are all interesting ideas. I should be explicit that I categorically cannot support the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, that there should be some financial incentive from the public purse for noble Lords to leave your Lordships’ House.

My noble friend Lord Caithness raised some important points that contribute to our effectiveness and the perceptions that people have of us. My noble friend Lord Astor reinforced the importance of the Salisbury/Addison convention, which is so important to maintaining our legitimacy as an unelected House. I was very pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, state that the Liberal Democrats now respect the Salisbury/Addison convention. That is good news indeed.

I will not get into the detail of some of the ways in which our function as a House is affected by size, except to say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and others who made the point that, as we are right now, we are doing a good job. We often do ourselves down about how we are operating. Although I will not rattle through the various statistics, contrary to what some people say—certainly my noble friend Lord Attlee—if we look at 2013-14, when average attendance was at its largest, our average speaking time in Questions for Short Debate was seven minutes and more than 10 minutes in balloted debates. So it is not quite always as people would have us believe.

Although I say that, I was also pleased to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, acknowledge that she agreed with my sentiments, expressed when opening the debate, that the gap between the headline figures in terms of our size versus our average attendance is muddying the public understanding about our work. That is important.