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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench 5:21 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, even if it means that my own humble efforts are likely to be put in the shade. I begin by declaring my interests as a member of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, but I make it clear that anything I say today is said in a purely personal capacity.

The size of the House should certainly be reduced. There are three reasons for this. The first has to do with the character of its membership and its relationship to the House of Commons. Its membership is open-ended, uncontrolled and spiralling out of control. From 666 Members in 1999, membership rose by about 50 in the 11 years to 2010. Since then, it has grown by approximately 150 more to more than 800. It is one-third bigger than the Commons and will be more than that when the number in the Commons is reduced to 600. The UK is the only country in the world with a bicameral system where the second Chamber is larger than the first.

Secondly, the rapid rise in numbers has made the House dysfunctional. Has any noble Lord tried getting on the internet lately? The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, spoke of overcrowding, inefficiency and the enormous burden on both the administration and the taxpayer. In the past five years, the average daily attendance has risen from 388 to 483, an increase of 95. That is up to £28,500 a day more in allowances—which, if the House sat for only 100 days a year, would come to nearly £3 million annually.

The third reason concerns the reputation of the House. Our newspaper editorials used, on balance, to be positive about the Lords, but they have become increasingly negative of late. During the 2010 to 2015 Parliament, negative editorials outnumbered positive ones by three to one. I think the House of Lords is often respected by the general public as the conscience of the nation for the way it holds the Government to account and mitigates the worst features of legislation. But this good work is increasingly being obscured by stories about excessive appointments, anachronism, cronyism and sleaze. On account of all the good work the House does, I have heard people say that such unfavourable comment is just perception inflamed by our detractors which bears no relation to reality and that we do not need to worry too much about it. But such perceptions from influential quarters, especially if they come to predominate, can easily influence wider perceptions of reality, and the growing size of the House can come to pose a serious threat to its reputation and hence to its effectiveness, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has said.

I am therefore certainly in favour of the first part of the Motion, that the size of the House should be reduced—I would think by about 250 to something like 550 or 600, so that it is no larger than the House of Commons, even if that body’s numbers are reduced to 600 with the boundary changes. I do not think that this debate can get to the bottom of the question of how, precisely, that is to be achieved. For that, I think we need the Select Committee that so many noble Lords have spoken in favour of—a Select Committee that can go in detail into all the pros and cons of the various methods that have been suggested, such as fixed terms, a retirement age, a minimum attendance requirement, elections in groups, and so on.

The much-respected authority on the House of Lords, Professor Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit at University College London, in a recent blog post, has outlined four key elements which need to be part of any package of measures if it is to succeed. The first is an initial cull to effect the required reduction, using age limits, attendance requirements or elections as deemed appropriate. The second is a cap on the size of the House at somewhere round about the number reached as a result of the cull. That is essential if the initial cull is not to unravel as a result of the Prime Minister’s use of their unfettered power to make new appointments. As Professor Russell wrote in an earlier blog covering her 2015 report, Enough is Enough:

“Because each Prime Minister appoints more of their own, each change in government results in tit-for-tat action by the new Prime Minister to catch up. This has a continuous upward ratchet effect on the size of the chamber”.

Thirdly, and following directly from that, there needs to be a restriction on the number of new appointments that can be made. The Prime Minister would only be able to appoint to fill vacancies. This is the system that prevails in relation to the Canadian Senate. Finally, it will be necessary to have some fair principles covering the sharing out of new appointments between the groups.

We have no time to lose. I said over a year ago that publicity hostile to the Lords had reached a tipping point. It is important that we are seen to be proactive in addressing this question of numbers. We need the Select Committee and we need it soon, with a specified date by which to report.