House of Lords: Size - Motion to Resolve (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:10 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 5:10 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, notwithstanding the Elton and Grocott Bills that are before us, we have our annual debate on the size of the House. The previous one was in September last year. It seems to be our annual navel-gazing. I was deeply saddened by the way in which my noble friend Lord Cormack introduced the debate because he said that he was speaking on behalf of his campaign group. I hope that none of us here speaks on behalf of a group. We speak for ourselves. The group might agree with us but if we start speaking on behalf of groups we will fundamentally change the reason for us being here.

We are talking again about the size of the House. In overall numbers, which is one way of measuring it, we are down to 64% of the size the House was at its height, some 19 years ago. In actual attendance numbers, we are up about 10% since 1999 but that still makes us about 20% smaller than the House of Commons. Limiting the size of the House will have a detrimental effect on the number of Peers who can come here on a part-time basis. In saying that, I look at history. Your Lordships have only to study what happened to the Scottish Peers after the Acts of Union 1707, when the number of Scottish Peers was reduced to 16 and the influence that the Whips and the Governments had immediately after that on the selection process is a lesson that we should take note of. It will be equally relevant to this House. Indeed, the elections in 1999 following the dismissal of most of the hereditary Peers showed that those who were elected were not the part-time ones but the ones who attended on a regular basis. If we believe that working part time is a function of this House, limiting the size is not the way to do it.

If we are going to limit size, we must also limit the power of patronage of the Prime Minister, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and my noble friend Lord Tebbit said. That cannot be allowed to continue unabated. But size is just one of the problems of this House and if we focus on size alone, we will be doing ourselves a disservice. We need to look at the function of the House. We have been told that we need to have a bicameral system in the United Kingdom. That is only partly true. We do not have a bicameral system in the whole United Kingdom. Look at Scotland and Wales: a lot of their legislation is not considered by a bicameral parliament and we do not have a say in it here. The British constitution has adopted a bicameral system but we need to look also at how we function and, indeed, how the House of Commons functions.

We ought to remain a revising Chamber. If we look at what has happened with the Policing and Crime Bill, in the House of Commons there were 112 clauses and 12 schedules; there were amendments to only 25 clauses and five schedules—a quarter of the clauses and fewer than half the schedules. We have important work to do and in order to do that work we need the right composition. My noble friend Lord Elton said how important it was that the reputation of the House was upheld. I believe that a key part of our reputation is our composition.

Is our age structure right? Is it right that the average age in the House is 69, in an unelected Chamber, or that only 26% of the House is women? These are areas of criticism. Is it right that a quarter of those Peers appointed to Parliament since 1999 have been former politicians and that a further 7% have been linked to a party either in senior positions or as working for it? When Members of Parliament are held in such low esteem, perhaps we ought to look at that as well.

On a regional basis, the present House is tilted entirely towards the south-east—here I know that I will get support from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. It is extremely difficult to operate effectively in this House if you live in a remote area of the country. The business of the House and the decisions of the party Whips make it virtually impossible. I repeat that when I lived in the north of Scotland, in order to guarantee being here for a Monday afternoon I had to leave on Sunday evening. That is not an effective system; it is open to abuse and criticism. Let us not believe that solving the size problem is going to solve our reputation. It is not.