My Lords, I have brought this Bill before your Lordships because, although I have served in this House since 1973, I do not remember a time when Parliament has stood lower in public esteem than now. There is deep unease in this country with not just parliamentarians but Parliament itself. We need to be aware of what lies further down that road if we do nothing: a growing disillusion with not just us—we are expendable—or with the Westminster model, which is amendable, but with parliamentary democracy itself as the safest and surest way for a free people to manage their affairs under the law.
An important function of this House is to give the public reason to be confident in our Parliament, and to do that we need to take action now before that troll begins to stir in its mountain. Noble Lords may think that I exaggerate the danger but I assure them that it is there. It is frequently cloaked by the smoke drifting across the field from the artillery engaged in Brexit, Boundary Commissions, Calais, Syria and so on, but it is there and it constantly emerges, and every time it is stronger. If only we could give eye-catching, attention-getting proof that Parliament knows that it needs mending and is prepared to do the job itself. The attempt in 1999 to carry out wholesale reform of this House proved that every aspect of that reform was highly controversial. Controversy in Parliament takes time—legislative time—which we do not have.
On only one issue that has not already been dealt with in isolation has controversy subsided and consensus begun to emerge in the media, among the public and even in Parliament. The irony of the present situation was highlighted by the debate in the Commons on Wednesday on a complex Motion which brought together the two issues of Lords reform and boundary changes—that is, one big House getting bigger and one smaller House getting smaller. That alone is enough to draw the attention of those who have not been paying attention to the embarrassing position—to say the least —in which we find ourselves today. If your Lordships care to read that colourful debate, which is not at all flattering to them, they may be wiser on this issue.
People agree that there are too many of us. However, that is not the only, or the most important, problem. The reservoir of expertise among rare attenders is a strength rather than a weakness. Against that we have the experience of debates with speaking time limits of a single minute for Back-Benchers and, indeed, for an Archbishop of Canterbury, of more than a few not being able to get a seat in the Chamber at all on an increasing number of occasions, even of a certain difficulty, which I hope does not yet extend to the Doorkeepers, although it well may, of remembering who everybody is and where they are coming from, in the current jargon.
There is internal unease and growing public resentment of the cost of our numbers at the present rate of attendance. Because of the absolute need for consensus, this Bill addresses only one issue—the number of Members of this House. The prime importance of consensus means that it has to leave intact the Prime Minister’s power to appoint new Peers, which is a position many of my noble friends and others would like to see diminished. However, that is not on the table at the moment. The Bill avoids all the other wasps’ nests stirred up by the great debates on reform in 1999, because every one of them would cause enough disagreement to kill the Bill. It does not affect existing party balances, does not propose an age limit or a limited tenure or any involvement of the parliamentary electorate and does not stake out a particular number of seats for Cross-Benchers or anybody else. It does not even touch the Bishops’ Benches, although we shall be very interested to hear the account of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham of his brethren’s intentions. The Bill addresses the single question of size and no other.
The Prime Minister’s power of appointment means that whatever limit is agreed will be exceeded as soon as he or she uses it and must be reimposed at the beginning of every Parliament. Therefore, the Bill focuses instead on the Writ of Summons which will entitle its recipient to sit only until the first Session of the Parliament after the one in which he or she was appointed. Membership beyond that point would be determined by elections within each affiliation group. The power to design those elections is delegated, within certain parameters, to the House of Lords and is to be implemented in the new Standing Order. This is, therefore, essentially an enabling Bill, but I anticipate that your Lordships will be more interested for the most part in what we do with the enablement than what is in the Bill itself, which is of course important. The Standing Orders in this House, however, are devised by the Procedure Committee and then put into place by a Motion of the whole House. The draft Standing Order I put into the Explanatory Notes to the Bill is just that—a draft. It is important that we discuss it—our discussion will be helpful to that committee in drawing up the final version—but we cannot amend it in any way at any stage of the Bill. That is for the committee, to which any representations must be made.
The draft is a modification of
Under the proposal, each affiliation group will hold its election in secret. Each will be allocated the same proportion of the new, smaller total that it had of the total immediately before the election. In other words, every group will be reduced by the same percentage. In round figures, if 800 were to be reduced to 600, the new total would be 75% of the old, the House would therefore have lost 25% of its Members, and every constituent group would be reduced by 25%. The political balance in the House would remain unchanged; as I say, the Bill and the draft order do not seek to do anything except to address the size. There is great discontent about all sorts of other elements of our House, but this is all it touches.
The Explanatory Notes are pretty explicit, but I had better follow the convention and quickly tell your Lordships that Clause 1 limits the period during which the holders of peerages are automatically Members of the House. Their right to sit extends through the remainder of the Parliament in which they were appointed, and ends at the end of the first Session of the next Parliament. Clause 2 delegates to this House the power to grant exemption from this rule and sets the parameters within which it may do so. A lot of this draws on the 1999 Act. Clause 2(1) provides that the disapplication should be by means of a Standing Order; Clause 2(2) limits the exemptions to a specified number and their duration from the beginning of the first Session of one Parliament to the end of the first Session of the next. Clause 2(3) defines the specified number as the number of MPs and not as that number or less—that may have got obscured in my explanation earlier. Clause 2(4) says that the two ex officio hereditary Members are unaffected by the Bill. Clause 2(5)—this is the reassuring one—gives the Clerk of the Parliaments the power and duty to decide whether a person has been properly elected if that comes into question. Clause 3 is necessary to preserve the rights of non-parliamentary Peers to vote in parliamentary elections. Clause 4 is a consequential amendment of the 1999 Act.
That is all I will say at this stage. However, I will revert to the question of the need for consensus. To give your Lordships a glimmer of hope as to the future of this measure I read from the words of Mr Ellis, the deputy leader of the House of Commons, who said:
“It is right that the House of Lords continues to look at how it can work more effectively. Where further possible steps can command consensus, Her Majesty’s Government would welcome working with peers to take reasonable measures forward in this Parliament. If that is possible in consensus with peers, we would welcome doing so”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/16; col. 888.]
Following the continuation of the brawl that constituted the debate—at least that is what it would look like from these Benches—we come to the wind up for the Government of the debate on a Scottish Nationalist Party Motion:
“The Government agree that the House of Lords is too large, but believe that it must be for the Lords themselves to lead the process”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/16; col. 915.]
I invite noble Lords to become the leaders of that process. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend in this debate on the Second Reading of his Bill. As he has ably demonstrated this morning, he knows a great deal about the House of Lords; he has studied it for a long time and has come forward with a workable proposal. I also thank him because he consulted widely on the Bill, right across the House, amended it from his original draft and has now presented it to the House. As he explained, the aim is to reduce the total number of Members of this House. My noble friend produced but one reason for it: the way Parliament is regarded as a whole from outside, by the public. I am not entirely convinced that the Bill would necessarily solve that. The reasons why Parliament is not held as well as it once was are many and varied; we do not need to go into those today.
There are a number of ways to achieve what my noble friend wants. The simplest—the noble Lord, Lord Steel, talked about it—is an automatic age limit of 80, and there are powerful statistics to demonstrate that, in an ever-ageing House, that would be a good way to reduce the numbers. However, for obvious reasons, that is deeply unpopular in this House and, apart from anything else, I am not entirely convinced that it would be legal, given the various equalities Acts that exist.
More Peers could be encouraged to take voluntary retirement from the House, which was impossible until two or three years ago. You could take a leave of absence but you could not exclude yourself permanently. We now can, and there are various ideas about how that could be made more practical. My view is that, given that this House is due to be relocated in a few years and we are to be removed from this building, we may well find then that more Peers are prepared to take voluntary retirement than is the case today.
The system that my noble friend has alighted on is well precedented, and the last time it was used, it worked. However, I have to say to noble Lords from all parts of the House that it is not an easy or pleasant system to go through—in fact, it is deeply unpleasant, and my noble friend and I have both been through it. It is precedented by the late Lord Weatherill’s amendment to the 1999 Act, which generally speaking has been a success. I wonder whether, if we were to use this for the whole House, my noble friend has considered some de minimis provisions for very small parties. We have only one Member from the Green Party, and it would be difficult to reduce her by 25%. I am not sure whether UKIP is a full designation in this House, but it may well be under the terms of the Bill or if it becomes an Act.
My real purpose is to question the motivation, intention and necessity behind the proposal. I spent a bit of time reading some statistics from the very helpful people in the Library. Taking the basis of the Bill—that the House should not be bigger than 600—I decided to test how many people currently attend the House. We all know the overall figures: just over 800 Members are entitled to sit, and that is an increase since 1999-2000 of about 220. Since 2015-16, the figure has increased by about 100. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the daily attendance has increased by a similar number: currently, about 100 more Peers attend on a daily basis than did in 2009-10. What is interesting about these daily attendance figures—these are averages across the Session—is that none is anywhere near 600; in fact, none breaches 500. Therefore, they are well within the limit set by my noble friend. In the current year, the average daily attendance is 471 and in 2009-10 it was 388.
The next interesting statistics to look at are for Divisions over the past 10 years, which measure a good degree of participation in the House. In 2009-10, which was a short Session, the average number of Peers voting per Division was 206. The most recent figures available, for 2015-16, show that there were 114 Divisions with 362 Peers on average voting. It is interesting that, in the past 10 years, the highest average number of Members voting per Division was 394 in the 2013-14 Session. What I extrapolate from these figures is that the problem may not be quite as big as my noble friend thinks.
In discussing this with many Peers, I have realised that there seems to be more of a problem at Question Time, when the House is very full indeed. Again, there are many different reasons for that, and perhaps we should ask the Procedure Committee to consider moving Question Time to another time of the day to see whether that would lessen the problem. My question is: is the proposal necessary?
Comparing this House to the House of Commons is also not as helpful as one might initially suggest. We are a very different and varied House. We are not like Members of another place. We do not represent anybody and we do not have constituencies, but we are very regionally based. There are full-time Peers here, sitting on all the Front Benches, who devote their lives to this House. There are Peers who have retired from their formal employment who devote a great deal of time to this House, and there are those who are in part employment or full employment. In other words, people come when they can to try to play their part. I worry that the Bill would create the spectre of a full-time and, increasingly, fully paid House. My point for the Minister is to be very cautious in accepting this.
This will be an extremely useful and interesting debate.
Does my noble friend not conclude from the statistics that he has drawn to the attention of the House that the issue is the relationship between attendance and participation?
My Lords, no, I do not. I produced the average daily figures for attendance and for voting in Divisions. It is entirely fair that some Peers come here and do not necessarily vote. There may be many reasons for that, including for the Cross-Benchers, who often do not vote in Divisions for their own political reasons.
The point I was about to make, which my noble friend might enjoy, concerns whether the House of Commons would welcome the Bill. We know what the House of Commons thinks. Only a few short years ago, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, produced a Bill in the House of Commons to have a largely elected House of Lords, which was passed overwhelmingly. I wonder whether enough time has gone by to ask the House of Commons to consider again a reduction Bill rather than an elected Bill.
My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Strathclyde in warmly congratulating my noble friend Lord Elton on bringing this Bill before the House. I offer both him and the Bill my warm support. My noble friend mentioned the surgeon who told a bewildered patient that they needed some form of surgery. My late father was a doctor. He told me that when faced with a particularly bewildering diagnosis, he occasionally fell back on the formula, “Have you had this before?”, to which the patient would usually say, “Yes, something like it, a few years ago”. My father would then say, “Well, I think you’ve got it again”. We have been round something similar to this course before.
My noble friend Lord Strathclyde referred to the unpleasantness of the elections that took place following the passage of the Weatherill amendment. Those of us who have even more experience of elections than my two noble friends would say that that would have to be a matter for the opinion of noble Lords, but elections, unpleasant as they may be, are tolerable and sometimes necessary.
The Bill encapsulates a growing consensus in the House—consensus rather than unanimity—about how best to limit our numbers. That consensus has a long pedigree, for which my noble friend Lord Jopling—who I am happy to see in his place but who I know cannot stay until the end of the debate because of a charitable obligation and therefore cannot contribute—deserves a large amount of credit. He has blazed the trail for this particular format.
The Bill, is wisely narrow in scope. Important matters such as the functions and powers of the House are wisely left for another day. That narrowness in scope none the less does not entirely avoid the necessity of considering contentious issues during its further stages, if such there be. Is it wise to leave the Prime Minister’s present powers untrammelled? We are in the present position because they are effectively quite untrammelled.
The Bill does not solve the problems raised by the current definition of recognised affiliation groups. The UK Independence Party’s 4 million votes at the last election are not reflected in its representation here. The position of the Liberal Democrats here is similarly anomalous. A combination of votes cast in favour of and seats won by existing and—who knows?—as yet unthought-of political groupings, could produce a formula for a better definition of recognised affiliation groups. My noble friend Lord Jopling has done much work on this. As to the timing of elections within affiliation groups, perhaps it would be better for them to take place immediately after general elections rather than immediately before, to give a more up-to-date reflection of popular opinion.
My noble friend’s Bill is wholly in tune with the will of the Government, as expressed by my noble friend Lady Chisholm of Owlpen in our debate on
“Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly
For the Last Judgment draweth nigh”.
My Lords, I am resisting the temptation to tear up my notes and respond to the noble Lord’s last quote. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for again bringing before us this important matter. It is widely agreed in many places that as we seek to be effective as a House, the size of the House is of great concern. Of course, as has already been said by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, recent changes have attempted to alleviate the size of the House—we have adopted retirement provisions—yet they have not been sufficient to alleviate the flow of new Members. The statistics have already been referred to.
From this Bench, the Lords spiritual have spoken consistently over the past few years in support of reform aimed at addressing the size of the House—and we do so again, keeping in mind the aim of the House to improve the core functions of our scrutiny of legislation and government proposals from the other House, and of offering expertise and independence, which have already been referred to. That the initiative for change, responding to a clear need with a focused and incremental approach, is once again being led by your Lordships’ House rather than imposed from outside is to be welcomed. But taking decisive responsibility for making delicate if radical constitutional improvements is something that we can do, keeping in mind our determination to better serve the country. I believe that it is a good way forward.
In detail, your Lordships’ House and this Parliament have already made a change to allow women to serve on this Bench in a small constitutional change. I will also refer to the debate this week in the other place that has already been mentioned. Noble Lords may also like to know that there are some such as myself on this Bench who were born and bred in Scotland and have strong roots in that part of Britain—but if that is too detailed a point to make, noble Lords may ignore it and I will continue.
This current Bill leads the Lords spiritual untouched at this stage and applies only to the Lords temporal. Noble Lords may think that that is appropriate, given the different circumstances that pertain as to how we on this Bench arrive and leave your Lordships’ House. Nonetheless, when it comes to the size of the House, including the most recent government Bill in 2011-12, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, we acknowledge that if the overall size of the House is to be reduced, of course the Lords spiritual must play their full part in that arrangement. That means that we would indeed continue to look constructively at a decrease in our own numbers in proportion with an overall decrease in the size of your Lordships’ House.
Noble Lords may know that at the moment, the number of Lords spiritual is fixed at 26, which has been the case for more than 150 years. I cannot compete with the detailed statistics provided by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, but the proportion of bishops in your Lordships’ House has risen and fallen over that long period over successive decades. It is currently running at about 3% of your Lordships’ House and has been in recent years.
I thank the noble Lord for his reminder of that. I did not want to give a history lesson today, but behind my remarks and the responsibility that we are taking for incremental change is the desire for stability and to give consistent service to the country at a time when there is widespread uncertainty in other areas.
Lords spiritual have some experience, therefore, under the present arrangements, of living within the constraints of an upper cap on numbers. We also have the experience of one of the alternatives to a cap on numbers—a compulsory retirement age. In your Lordships’ House, that is set at the ridiculously young age of 70—which is when a bishop has to leave their see and retire from stipendiary service. The 2011-12 Bill wisely left space for the Church to determine a mechanism for a smaller number of Lords spiritual to be selected to receive a Writ of Summons. As we go on in these debates, that is something that we might find useful in the process.
I will indulge in a pastoral note in passing. While we are having these discussions, we should not inadvertently regard newcomers to the House as an unwelcome nuisance, nor should we regard older Members —here I am not patronising the excellent initiative taken by the noble Lord, Lord Elton—as merely taking up space. There are many on all sides who will bring great value to this House during the years ahead.
There are many noble Lords here today who are better qualified to go into the detail of this Bill and suggest alternative schemes. In the proposals before the House today, there are, as has already been hinted, unresolved questions about patronage and the potential to add numbers during the period suggested, which might distort the process. I hope that the Bill proceeds from today so that we can have these and other matters discussed further for decisive action as well as careful consideration.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Elton is absolutely right to say that there is concern about the size of the House. But my noble friend Lord Strathclyde is equally right to say that this is more a perception than reality. Of course, there was a perception pre-1999 that the House was too big, but the vast number of the hereditary Peers did not attend. The net result of the 1999 Act was that about 90 working hereditaries were removed from the House, as well as lot of non-working hereditaries.
If we are concerned about the size of the House, the Bill before us does nothing to reassure me. To limit this House to the size of the House of Commons would positively encourage Prime Ministers to keep on appointing working Peers in order to build up their number to 600. I think that that would be to the great detriment of the House.
My noble friend Lord Strathclyde was absolutely right to say that when we move out of here in a few years’ time, that will be the ideal point at which to start reducing numbers. Rather than follow the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Elton, I would rather go for a fixed number of Peers. I would go for 350, which is not that different from the current working House. To have a figure of 600 that would be variable over the course of a five-year Parliament would be a nonsense that would not help the situation.
If it comes to an election in order to achieve that, it will be nothing new in your Lordships’ House. For 273 out of the last 309 years, part of this House has been elected. I refer in particular to the Scottish representative Peers. Since 1707 until the Peerage Act 1963, there were 16 elected Scottish Peers—Peers of Scotland. After every general election they held an open election in Holyrood Palace, to which they were summoned, and they decided who the 16 would be. When that happened in 1707, it represented a reduction of 90% of Peers sitting in Parliament, because there had been 143 Scottish hereditary Peers sitting in the Scottish Parliament. So what my noble friend Lord Elton suggested, and indeed what the Lord Chancellor at the time, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who I am pleased to see in his place, did in 1999 is minor in comparison with what the Scots suffered in 1707.
One of the problems that resulted from the reduction in 1707 applies to what my noble friend suggested. There was resentment in Scotland that they were not properly represented. As we move increasingly towards becoming a full-time working House, the remoter parts of the country are going to get cut off. I found this particularly when I was living in Caithness; it was one of my reasons for moving back to London. If one wanted to take part in business here on a Monday, the only way to guarantee that was to leave home on Sunday night. On a good day it was possible to make the journey in around five hours, but on a bad day it could take well over 16 hours. If the House of Lords is to become more political and professional, inevitably Peers in the outer reaches are going to be squeezed because they will not be able to participate.
My Lords, I am grateful to hear that from someone who lives comparatively close to an airport compared to where I used to live. I always welcome the noble Lord’s support—and indeed he makes a point for me. We are far too south-east orientated—M25-orientated—and if there is to be an election, it should be on a regional basis rather than on any other. We must make certain that we cover the geography of this country.
Also, the election should not be held on the proportion of Peers sitting at the moment but on the vote at the last general election. At the moment we have a disproportionate number of Liberal Peers, while the number of UKIP Peers in this House is insufficient to represent the electorate, and there are no Scottish Nationalist Peers. That might be their choice, but at least it should be built into our legislation that the parties that get a certain percentage of the vote at a general election should be allowed to be represented here. It should be up to them who they put up and in which region.
So I say to my noble friend that I would like more of what he is proposing in the Standing Orders to be on the face of the Bill—far too much is left to Standing Orders—and that the system that he is proposing is not one that will be workable or indeed popular throughout the country.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Elton for the work that he has put into this Bill and I appreciate the wide consultation that he has undertaken. The Bill is to be welcomed because it is a constructive attempt to address the problem of the size of the House, which dominates our thinking at present. My noble friend has made the point that it is complementary to other related measures which may be on the table for consideration or debate at some point in the future, an example being that of possible legislation to abolish the by-election of hereditary Peers.
Several other schemes are being introduced to restrict the size of the House, many of which are based on the arithmetic of linking its composition either to votes cast, seats won, or a combination of both based on the results of the last general election. I think that the Bill in the name of my noble friend Lord Elton would fall into that category. All of them will involve a cull of Peers who are currently Members of your Lordships’ House. As my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and others have pointed out, there is only one example of this, which was the House of Lords Act 1999. There will be many Members of your Lordships’ House who will recall the sadness and bitterness that accompanied the process. Perhaps I may retrospectively pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde for the sensitivity and skill with which he conducted that process.
Every cull will cause its personal problems, but my noble friend’s Bill has one positive feature. Unlike most of the arithmetical schemes which are based in some form on the results of the most recent general election, this Bill provides that the proportion of Peers surrendered by each category is the same. This is a very important point. We have had an example which according even to my limited arithmetic would mean around 800 Peers being reduced to 600. I suggest that this arrangement will be seen both inside and outside the House as more equitable than some of the other proposals where the proportion surrendered, geared to the results in the Commons, will vary widely between the categories. My noble friend Lord Caithness was slightly more specific about this point.
The process of reducing our numbers under this Bill will be relatively straightforward in the case of the three main political parties. For the Cross-Benchers it will be a challenge, but I suggest that the members of that group will be well able to achieve a mutually acceptable procedure. However, I have one problem about the proposed reduction. On the first time there is no problem but can my noble friend reassure me that, under paragraph 6 of the new Standing Order, in the case of a large number of Peers being appointed by the Prime Minister there is not a danger of the advantage to that party being carried through to subsequent Parliaments? I shall leave that with my noble friend, and in conclusion I congratulate him on the work he has put into this Bill.
My Lords, I have been here for only 50 years or so. We have six Members who have been here for more than 50 years. It is a remarkable institution that I thoroughly enjoy. The question here is about age and length of service. I have details of every single Peer who has served in this House, and our weakness at the moment lies in the number of new entrants who are untrained and inexperienced. As I say, six of us have been here for more than 50 years, 23 for between 40 and 50 years and 30 for 40 to 45 years; those are long years of service and they mean that we have quite a remarkable knowledge base.
I am an elected hereditary Peer who was one of those who fought hard to be elected when my noble friend Lord Strathclyde was trying to do something else at that point. Since then we have found that the elected hereditary Peers have the highest level of attendance and the greatest amount of participation in the House. The problem above all others is that we do not know each other. I have before me details of the length of service and details of every Peer. For fun we had an exercise whereby it might be nice to reward people for their service by binding up copies of their speeches in red vellum as memorial gifts for their long service. My noble friend Lord Carrington is our longest-serving Member, followed by my noble friend Lord Denham, and this great expertise and knowledge, if we can call them that, need to be understood. However, we do not know who we are. It is extraordinarily difficult to put names to the faces one sees in the House. I was sitting quietly and looking to see who I knew as several Peers came through the door. I found that the only way to get to know anybody these days is to ask the doorkeepers. How they have that ability to remember everyone, I do not know.
The question, therefore, is: if we look at length of service, do we ask people to retire because of age, or do we ask that they should retire because they have not performed? Performance is probably one issue to look at. I have all the figures for those who have not attended at all and for those who have attended only once or twice. But whoever people are, and whether they attend or not, they cost money and organisation.
My Lords, I did not intend to intervene again in this debate if I could avoid it, but I would like my noble friend to tell us, rather than for me to hear afterwards, how much somebody who never attends costs the House.
My Lords, I am afraid that is beyond my pay grade.
The facilities of the House are designed to accommodate a whole range of people. If one wants to see attendances, we have figures for them. It is not just attendance in the sense of walking in and out of the door and claiming one’s allowance that counts, it is people’s participation. There should perhaps be a requirement to invite people to participate. Having been in the research world for many years, I can say that I have learned more by being drip-fed in this place than in any other institution that I have come across. The difficulty I find is that I am not very good at putting names to faces. Therefore, when I look at someone, I am not sure who they are or what their background is. However, we now have quite a good internet facility for everybody and if anybody would like details or information, I would be happy to provide them. I have in my hand figures for the length of service of everybody. I have great respect for this and for the noble Lord, Lord Elton.
So my simple question is: what do we do next? I am not sure, but if your Lordships would like to share some of the data that I have, I would willingly pass them on. They are quite interesting and provide confirmation that we have probably the greatest institution in terms of concentration of knowledge and experience in the world.
My Lords, the quality of the work of this House and its committees depends on the range and depth of the knowledge, experience and expertise possessed by its Members. It is surely essential that whatever is done to reduce the size of the House should not impair those resources.
The proposal in this Bill that for each successive Parliament there should be an election of a limited number of Peers presents a number of practical implications. Voting in an election would call for each Member of the House to make a personal choice. He or she could hardly be expected to gauge the overall effect of that choice on the availability, strength and balance of the resources to which I have referred. As regards candidates, some Peers may be less visible than others, preferring to concentrate on subjects on which they have some particular expertise. So there is a risk that the outcome of an election may be a loss of Members who are distinctly well qualified to assist the House and its committees.
If a Member of this House fails to secure election under the proposed system, it appears to mean his or her final exit from the House. I say final, since he or she will have ceased to be a Member of the House and so would not be eligible to stand as a candidate for the next Parliament after that. That is reasonably clear from the draft Standing Order attached to the Explanatory Notes for the Bill. On the face of it, there does not appear to be any way in which that Peer could stand as a candidate in the next Parliament, however desirable that might be.
New Peers, such as new Cross-Benchers, provide a particular case in point. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent those who have newly been made Peers becoming Members of the House during the life of a Parliament. However, their membership would indeed be short-lived if they did not secure election for the next Parliament. They may have been Members of the House for only one or two Sessions and thus would be at a disadvantage compared with seasoned Members of the House who were better known to the electorate. If they were not elected, it follows that they would not be able to stand as candidates for the next Parliament after that. That would be particularly unfortunate. The House surely benefits from the infusion of new Peers who can make valuable contributions, perhaps in fields not previously well represented in the House, if at all.
I have mentioned the Explanatory Notes, which brings me to say something about the content of the Bill. It is remarkable how brief are its provisions. One might expect the Bill to set out the substance of what was proposed, whereas notes would set out the explanation for the Bill, what the point of it was and how it fitted into the law. However, in this case, the Explanatory Notes seem to extend the content of the Bill in various ways that I need not go into. I wonder whether that is a usual or appropriate use of Explanatory Notes. At least some of their content should appear in the legislation. That is not an academic point, since the Bill seeks to restrict the entitlement of Peers to sit as Members of this House. For the purpose of discussion in this House or, for that matter, in the other place, the legislation should contain what is proposed and do so with clarity and certainty.
My Lords, I agree with most of the wise words of the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Elton on the way in which he has introduced the Bill; he is a great ornament to the House and his wisdom is respected by us all. However, I confess to a mild dulling of the senses when another Bill comes forward to reform your Lordships’ House: three Bills up and more than six months still to go in this Session—perhaps we are trying for the record in the number of discussions of ways to reform ourselves. I sometimes think that there are greater priorities to discuss.
Of the schemes advanced, that of my noble friend may in many ways be the least bad; indeed, if we are to accept the proposition, which I do not, that there should be a cull of the numbers in the House which did not pretend to be reform—and this is certainly not real reform—then a proposition that imitated for the life Peers what happened to the hereditary Peers in 1999 is clearly one logical way to proceed.
However, I am afraid that I share the view of those who have said that limiting the numbers in the House is not a tearing need. I do not often feel that I need sharp elbows here, nor do I think it a disaster if a great Chamber of a great Parliament is sometimes crowded on a great occasion. What is so wrong with that? Nobody outside here has ever tugged me angrily by the sleeve and said, “By God, we need to reduce the number of Lords by a hundred or two”.
The problem that some noble Lords do not wish to face is that if there are people out there who want real reform of the Lords, their beef is not that we have more than enough life Peers to ride into the Valley of Death at Balaclava but that we have any appointed Peers at all in the 21st century. I have never hidden the fact, uncongenial though I know it is to many of your Lordships, that I would have no objection to standing for election to the political Benches—after all, I face the electorate daily in my day job—but if we are to have election, the daringly modern part of me would rather that the electorate of the political Peers were the British people and not the Bishops’ Bar.
I do not follow my noble friend with this Bill, however well intentioned it is; but if we are to proceed, I agree with what has been said: that much of the material in the Standing Orders will have to be discussed in detail. Let me give just a couple of examples.
First, there is the problem of even a periodic limit on the size of the House, alluded to by my noble friend Lord Bridgeman. The five-year cull, as I understand it, would cut the size of the House to 600. Then—and I must make it clear that I make no objection to this, for with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act preventing Dissolution, a cap on the size of the House that does not allow a Government to swamp this House in the case of a constitutional crisis is unacceptable—my noble friend’s Bill rightly allows for creations after every cull. However, as my noble friend Lord Bridgeman said, the effect of that could be that a Prime Minister could pump the numbers back up from 600 to 800 and those new loyalist Peers would then weigh the percentage size of the various party colleges in the next Parliament. There could be a ratchet towards a party in office that did not show the restraint in creations that Prime Ministers should show. We all know that the real root of the matter is the rash of creations by Prime Ministers, excepting Gordon Brown and Ted Heath—there have been a few who have shown restraint. We should not appoint more Peers than, frankly and bluntly, die. So the ratchet would be a problem.
The second potential objection—which was alluded to by my noble friend Lord Caithness, although I fear I have to be a little blunter than he was—is why on earth should the proportion of Liberal Democrat Peers in this House be frozen by paragraph (6) of my noble friend’s draft Standing Order? The Lib Dems won 7.9% of the vote at the last election. They now have 13.2% of the whole House and 17.9% of the political House. Under that party’s policy, until the 2015 election made it rather inconvenient and awkward for them, the number of Lib Dem Peers reflecting the votes cast at the election would not be 104 but 62 on the eligible House basis and 46 on the narrower political base. I could not support any propositions, such as those of my noble friend, which entrenched such a gross over-representation in this House of a party represented by eight in the other place. I calculate that the effect of the Standing Order as drafted would be 79 Lib Dem Peers in a House of 600 if we used the 13.2% number or 107 in a political House-only calculation.
My third point, alluded to by the right reverend Prelate in some telling remarks, relates to the treatment of newer Peers. I have always found very distasteful the underlying messages of those who say that because there are too many of us, either at the long-serving end, “Bring in an age limit; you are 75 and past your sell-by date, you must go”; or, at the newer end, “There are too many like you coming in, not of the right calibre and we have to stop it”. I do not care for either of those messages, but I read in my noble friend’s draft Standing Order that anyone who has been appointed to the House after the first Session of the preceding Parliament—in other words, less than five years before each cull—would have no vote in the quinquennial balloon debate about who should be chucked out, in that they are not deemed to have served for a whole Parliament. I understand the idea, though I do not agree with it, that new bugs don’t know enough to be allowed a say, but surely by the time they have worked their way up to C or even B block they might actually have enough knowledge to cast a vote. I appreciate that my noble friend’s intention may be to deny a voice to nominations made after each cull, but we cannot presume that every new Peer is a party hack incompetent to judge fairly. As I read this provision, it is fairly demeaning and we will need to look at it as it goes forward.
As I have taken a little time, I shall stray no further into what I think is an absolute mare’s nest of probing amendments, bringing into the Bill some of the Standing Orders that we will have to have if the Bill goes forward. However, I will speak about the process involved, following on from the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, but in a slightly different guise. People have said that the process of choice is difficult. Of course it is. I have been rejected at the ballot box and I have won at the ballot box, but the problem with this proposition as it is emerging is that in my judgment it risks empowering a club mentality. One can imagine the grey suits of the “Campaign for Effective Peers”, or whatever it is called, chewing over who might stay. The people who would stay might be the product of a consensus into which some are either not privileged to be invited or not inclined to join. Had I not known my noble friend Lord Goodlad better, I might have thought that the conclusion of his speech was a veiled threat to the inconvenient and those who do not fit the consensus, that if they do not pipe down they may not be chosen. I do not wish to go down that road; perhaps I misinterpreted my noble friend, but with his Whips’ Office experience, I doubt it.
I fear that it would be divisive, alter behaviour, have the perverse effect of raising attendance levels in every pre-election Session, as Peers try to catch the eyes of the selector or to join the consensus, and would inevitably prove hurtful to the losers, many of whom make a good, if occasional, contribution but might not make it, perhaps for lack of knowledge through the straitened gates of a cull. On balance, therefore, I would prefer it if my noble friend were to leave what is reasonably well alone.
My Lords, I do not intend to detain your Lordships for more than a very few moments. During the course of the debate this morning I have learned a number of possible difficulties with the Bill proposed by my noble friend, which he will no doubt take into account. If the Bill is to proceed I suspect that it will need a fairly massive Committee stage. Whether that proves to be possible remains to be seen. I was particularly struck by the observations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, who felt that much that is in the Explanatory Notes ought to be put into the Bill. I rather agree with that. I also agree about some of the difficulties that have been described over Peers who have come to this House for a comparatively short period and then find themselves unelected.
The other point that occurs to me is that the Bill does cut across the famous undertaking given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, back in 1999, about the position of the hereditary Peers, who would remain here, topped up by by-elections as necessary, until House of Lords reform was complete. If my noble friend believes that his Bill is in that position he will, perhaps, tell us. I would not have said so and I remain of the view that the undertakings given in 1999 ought to be honoured. I hope that they will be and that the Bill will not cut across that.
My Lords, on
“there should be a moratorium on further appointments to this House until sensible measures are agreed to reduce its size and that seeking consensus through a constitutional convention, involving all parties, is the best way forward for reform of this House in the long run”.—[
I made it clear that I wanted to see action to limit the size of the House and many noble Lords have referred today to concerns about its size at present. Sadly, the Government accepted neither the principle of a moratorium on appointments, nor the kind of constitutional convention argued for then by my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed and others.
The reason that we now have a House of more than 800 members is a simple one. The last Prime Minister and the present one have between them created 261 Peers over the last six years. That is a rate of 43 per year. Gordon Brown was relatively modest, only creating an average of 11 Peers per year, but his predecessor, Tony Blair, created them at a rate of 37 per year. So the current rate of creating Peers exceeds significantly the number of Members leaving the House for whatever reason. I do not want to dwell too much on actuarial calculations, nor on the fact the fact that the average age of membership of your Lordships’ House is 69. Suffice it to say that what one might call the natural reduction in the size of the House is somewhat less than 20 per year. Some progress has been made on reducing the size of the House through various measures such as the House of Lords Reform Act introduced by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood. Between them, these measures have allowed 61 Members to resign or retire in the past six years—an average of 10 per year. So the size of the House has increased by more than 100 since 2010, giving rise to present concerns.
I want to address particularly the issue of linking the size of this House to that of the House of Commons. I have said before that I agreed with the Lord Speaker when he said in an interview with The House magazine:
“I don’t think that we can justify a situation where you have over 800 peers at the same time as you’re bringing down the Commons to 600 MPs”.
But I also believe that we should re-examine the case for a reduction in the number of MPs. The passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was a very difficult experience for me and for a number of other noble Lords present—I look particularly at the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. It was part of the coalition programme that I had to accept if I accepted the coalition. The constituency boundary review proposals were a major part of it, and I was really unhappy about them. This was partly because I did not see the case for reducing the size of the Commons from 650 to 600 without securing the progress that we needed on other related measures such as reducing the size of the ministerial payroll in order to prevent the Executive gaining greater leverage over the elected House, much greater devolution of power from Westminster, and establishing greater legitimacy for this House to hold government to account, which I believe could come only from electing at least some of its Members. In the absence of these things, the case for reducing the size of the House of Commons was, in my view, not made.
It was claimed that the size of the House of Commons had grown inexorably with previous Boundary Commission reviews. But the fact is that membership of the House of Commons grew only from 640 in 1945 to 650 in 2010, while in that 65-year period the electorate grew by more than 12 million voters. In 1945 each MP represented an average of 52,000 voters, while in 2010 each MP represented an average of just over 70,000 voters. The Boundary Commission proposals that have just been published show that in future MPs will be expected to represent an average of 75,000 voters; in other words, after the next general election, MPs will be expected to represent 44% more voters than their predecessors did in 1945, even though expectations of what they can do for individual constituents have risen inexorably. So when we compare the size of the Houses, parity is not such a bad principle, but we need to agree on the relevant size of each House. If we consider again the size of each House, we also have to consider the representation of the Lords Spiritual in this respect, which the Bill does not.
Of course, the fundamental question is: how might we reduce the size of this House? I believe that this Bill does not provide a good way of doing that. The noble Lord, Lord True, appeared to think that the simplest and best answer to the problem is to reduce the size of the representation on the Lib Dem Benches, based on our level of support at the last general election. I would be very happy if our representation was based on the latest election result: 30% in Witney yesterday. My more serious point is that if you do base representation on previous election results, you should not base it simply on the most recent election. In five of the last six general election results, the Liberal Democrat share of the vote was always 20 plus or minus three. So actually our representation of 105 out of more than 800 is less than proportionate if based on votes over the past 30 years. I rest my case.
Repeating the kind of process by which hereditary Peers voted to determine which of their number remained in the House would not be very seemly, as many noble Lords have said. It seems to me, working out the maths, that it would be possible for everyone who wanted to stay here to do so provided that they voted for themselves and found one Peer who wanted to vote for them also. Finding support from people who have been appointed to the House in various ways but do not wish to remain in the House would not, I think, be a great exercise in democracy.
However, we could take some practical and immediate steps to reduce the size of the House. First, we must end the farcical process of the by-elections to replace hereditary Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has put forward a Bill to do exactly that and it should be properly considered without the threat of filibuster. I noted the suggestion that this Bill might require a rather long Committee stage. I believe that we should take these issues rather more seriously. Secondly, and most importantly, we have to curb the power of prime ministerial and party leader patronage. The original “Steel Bill” was drafted so as to put the independent Appointments Commission on a statutory footing. Pending the kind of real reform that my party supports, the Appointments Commission should be able to consider and approve party nominations subject to a strict cap on numbers aimed at bringing the size of both Houses into line over time.
In conclusion, we should be acting to reduce the size of the House, and in the absence of other constitutional reforms, the size of the House of Commons may be a good target to aim for over time. This Bill, while worth considering, does not provide the best answers to the problem, but curbing prime ministerial and party leader privilege to appoint Peers may be an important part of the solution.
My Lords, I welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in bringing the Bill forward because it deals with a topical and, I think, urgent issue on which this House must take a lead. I am also delighted that the noble Baroness the Minister and I are able at last to reflect the women in the House. If we do come to any method for reducing the numbers here, a gender allocation will be high on our list of considerations. The noble Lord, Lord True, referred to selection being done in the Bishops’ Bar. To spare their blushes, we should make it clear that it is a coffee bar that I have never seen a bishop enter.
I rarely repeat anything the SNP says—but, as it has no representatives here, I will, for once, endorse its words in the other place this week when it expressed concern about the size of the House of Lords, which,
“with more than 800 members, is considerably larger than the elected House of Commons … there is no case … for the number … to exceed the number of members of the democratically elected House”.
The SNP said that it,
“cannot condone any Government action that may increase the number of unelected members while reducing the number of elected Members of Parliament”— as has just been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. It called on the Government—splitting an infinitive—
“to significantly reduce the number of unelected Lords”, and,
“to abandon any plans to reduce the number of Members of Parliament”.—[
Two years ago, Labour Peers concluded that the House had to reduce its size—since when, of course, it has grown significantly. The fault, although he has not been named, lies, I am afraid, fairly and squarely with David Cameron, who, despite the 2015 manifesto promise to reduce the size of the Lords, handed out life peerages at a faster rate than any other Prime Minister since their introduction in 1958—some 260 since the 2010 election. At a cost of more than £100,000 each, that is some £30 million—and this despite his party’s repeated rhetoric that it wants to cut the cost of politics. Furthermore, as Professor Meg Russell has shown, he has appointed a greater proportion of government Peers, with fewer for the Cross Benches and the Opposition. It is time to take action.
We support the very modest Bill referred to by others, introduced by my noble friend Lord Grocott, to end hereditary by-elections. Surely it is right in itself, and a tiny step on size, but it is too modest to take us anywhere near the size of the Commons. So we need more—and parts of this Bill point the way. There must, however, be some serious debate about the actual size, the freedom of a Prime Minister to appoint at will, as has been mentioned, and the balance of composition. Freezing as of today will not attract consensus. Indeed, without clear agreement on an appropriate balance between the parties and the Cross Benches, it is unlikely that there will be consensus on a way forward.
This Government—the first Conservative one without an effective majority here—seem to dislike having their will challenged. But that is our role. Their action on numbers seeks to undermine a balanced House to which an Executive must listen. Indeed, the Conservatives became the largest party in the Lords after just three years of minority party government. Tony Blair, the Labour Prime Minister, has been referred to; it took him three successive general election victories—two of which, we must recall, were landslides with majorities of 174 and 167—before Labour became the largest party in the Lords in 2005. Yet only just over a year into the first majority Conservative Government, and with a majority of only 12 in the other place, the Tories are now 50 ahead of Labour. So how we move forward on size has to include consideration of the role of the House and whether it is right to engineer a government political majority.
The Liberal Democrats, as the noble Lord, Lord True, mentioned, are greatly overrepresented here compared with their eight Members in the Commons. It is hard to justify the continuation of this, as I fear the current Bill would allow. The issue is one of balance between the Government, the Opposition and the Cross Benches. As always, we welcome the very non-political spiritual Members. Cementing the currently engineered relative numbers between those groups might not attract the wide political support which we will need for any move forward. This will probably be the issue that most needs addressing before we look at how each political grouping should be reduced pro rata. Perhaps we might move to an all-female House and do it that way.
The hope today from this Bill is that the Government will see size as the “incremental” step referred to by the Minister on
“looks forward to working with Peers to support incremental reform”.—[
I hope, too, that the Bill moved by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will nudge the powers that be to ensure that, before we move out of this building, we, too, have our own restoration and renewal to make ourselves fit for purpose.
My Lords, let me start by congratulating my noble friend Lord Elton on securing time for the consideration of this Bill. My noble friend’s proposals address a matter that continues to be of interest to us all. I thank him for his thoughtful contribution to this debate and all noble Lords who have taken part, with many excellent and amusing speeches. I am humbled to be answering this debate following speeches from many noble Lords who have been part of this House for far longer than me. I, too, am pleased that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, mentioned, two women are speaking from the Front Benches but I make no further comment on this.
This is a subject that we have debated many times before and will continue to debate in the future. It goes without saying that this House plays a vital role in the scrutiny of legislation and in holding the Government to account. It is crucial that it continues to undertake that role effectively. We therefore welcome this debate and the commitment of Peers from all sides of the House in contributing to it. We are aware that consensus is a crucial component of any proposals for reform, if they are to progress past the stage of debate. As many noble Lords will no doubt recall, in 2012 the House of Lords Reform Bill was withdrawn not for lack of commitment from the Government but because there was no overall agreement on what shape any reform should take.
We have many pressing constitutional reforms on which we should focus our attention in this Parliament—not least devolving more powers to Wales and delivering all that is necessary for the UK’s exit from the European Union. However, that does not mean that we should rule out further change. It seems logical that this House should continue, as it has for centuries, to question whether there are better ways to work and whether we can find ways of fulfilling our role more effectively. Where there are ideas for change and improvement that command consensus, we would welcome working with noble Lords to take them forward.
We know that change is possible. The Government supported the Bills introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. Those Bills enabled Peers to retire for the first time and provided a mechanism for the House to expel Members where their conduct fell below the standards that the public have a right to expect from those who make laws in this country. I am glad to say that we have not had to use the latter power. However, 52 Peers have taken the opportunity now open to them to permanently retire from this House, reflecting a real cultural change among our membership of which we can be proud.
Turning to the detail, my noble friend Lord Elton’s Bill would introduce elections every five years to elect Members of the House from among existing life and hereditary Peers who were Members of the House. Only those Peers who were already Members would be able to vote. The provision in Clause 2 would cap the number of Members elected to be Members of this House at the number of seats in the House of Commons. Currently that is of course 650, although under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 it will reduce to 600. The Bill does not seek to amend the process for appointing life Peers or their right to membership of this House, although Clause 1 would prevent their remaining a Member after the first session of the Parliament after they first receive a Writ of Summons. The effect of this would be that any new peerages conferred would take the overall membership above the 650 cap for the duration of that Parliament. It also means that some Members may serve as a Member of this House for only a very short period.
The Bill would also amend the House of Lords Act 1999 to ensure that the 90 hereditary Peers provided for by that Act to sit in this House becomes a maximum of 90 since, depending on the outcome of the elections, all 90 provided for in the 1999 Act may not be elected. The Bill would not otherwise amend that Act, so it would appear that the process by which a hereditary Peer is replaced through a by-election remains intact and that if a hereditary Peer died, they would be replaced by another hereditary Peer. As we heard in debate on the Private Member’s Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, a number of weeks ago—and during the debate today—this is an area where noble Lords have slightly differing views. The Bill also provides for Peers who are not Members of this House, in accordance with the provisions in Clause 1, to vote in elections to the House of Commons and to stand for election to that House. Currently, those Peers who are not Members by virtue of being excepted, expelled or resigned are able to vote. This provision would extend that to those Peers who are not Members by virtue of having not been elected under the Bill.
As a Government, we agree that the size of the House cannot grow indefinitely. However, the kind of fundamental change to our composition that the Bill outlines would represent comprehensive reform of this House and, as noble Lords will not be surprised to hear me say and as my noble friend Lord True said, at a time when there are many pressing challenges facing us as a country, not least in giving effect to our withdrawal from the European Union, we do not believe that now is the right time to embark on such reform. I must therefore express reservations about the Bill.
However, that does not mean that we should not continue to work to make sure that your Lordships’ House continues to work well. Indeed, it is vital that this House continues to work effectively in holding the Government to account and scrutinising legislation, given the challenges ahead of us, and as a House we should always consider whether there are ways for us to do our job more effectively. Where there are reforms which can command the consensus of the House and improve how we work, we would be interested to work with noble Lords in taking them forward.
So while I express reservations about the Bill before us today, I welcome again the spirit of the debate and the quality of the contributions we have heard. The best step forward from here would be to harness the enthusiasm around the Chamber to explore the options available. That is something I will absolutely take away to discuss with my Front-Bench colleagues, as we move forward, and I would also welcome further conversations with many of those involved today.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, friendly, confusing or hostile. I am not quite sure where to classify the Minister’s remarks. They seemed to be about as bright a red light as you can get without actually feeling that you necessarily have to stop because of it. If I spend a moment in replying as best I can to the remarks noble Lords have made, it may not be time wasted in the future.
In response to the Minister, I shall anticipate what I was going to finish by saying. Consensus remains the jewel—the holy grail—that we should try to achieve, and we should not abandon the search at the first difficulty. Time is very much of the essence, and I therefore hope we shall be allowed a Committee. To make that not a complete waste of time, I hope noble Lords will accept my invitation to come to an informal discussion in which we can each bring improvements to the Bill—I have some myself—and perhaps as a result we can finish with something approaching consensus. Listening to my noble friends Lord Caithness and Lord True, and very carefully to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, I realise that that may be a vain attempt, but it should be made.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I am not sure noble Lords want a response now, before Committee, to the points they have made. I feel like the unfortunate English soldiers leaving the Battle of Hastings and pulling arrows out of their shields when they got home. I have so many of your Lordships’ arrows in my shield, I think I had better write as I will give much clearer, more concise answers than if I grope in my memory for the slightly unfocused recollections I have of the diamond-sharp ideas put forward.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.