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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:35 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative 5:35 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, I shall begin with three preliminary remarks. First, I have been debating House of Lords reform in Parliament since 1979. As a consequence, both my expectations and my aspirations have become fairly modest.

Secondly, and differently, I have the minority view here: I believe that the authority of the second Chamber should be commensurate with that of the House of Commons, with powers equal to it. I know full well that that would mean a wholly or largely elected Chamber. That is my belief. I equally know it is not going to happen, at least not in the near future, although it may happen as we move away from a unitary state.

My third point echoes what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said: I agree fundamentally about the importance of the bicameral system, for all the reasons that the noble Earl outlined. We do our job very well.

I turn to the reasons advanced in support of the Motion. I agree that this House is too large, but I also happen to think that the principal reasons advanced are second-order reasons. Yes, we are laughed at—the risibility factor, as identified by my noble friend Lord Cormack—and that is bad news. The facilities are overstrained, as identified by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and the noble Lord, Lord Low. They are right about that too, but that is also a second-order issue. Actually there are some advantages of a very large House: you broaden and indeed deepen the pool of noble Lords here. That is an advantage when it comes to debate, in reports and on committees. I agree again with what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said about that. I believe, as does my noble friend Lord Forsyth, that we do our job very well. So there are powerful reasons for reducing the size of the House but they are second-order reasons, and that is important when determining the scope and the depth of what we have in mind.

Before I touch on what I think should happen, I shall say what I think should not and what will not happen. First, on what will not happen, I agree with my noble friend Lord Wakeham—no one knows more about the House of Commons than he does—that the idea of a big bang reforming Bill going through the House of Commons is for the birds. It would have to be conducted on the Floor of the House; it would be a Christmas tree on which any Member could hang his or her favourite bauble; and, incidentally, as you came towards a general election Members of the other place would be looking at their post-election prospects and would rather like to sit here. So that is not going to happen.

What I do not want to happen is the electoral college, notwithstanding the advocacy of my noble friend Lord Tebbit. I fear that the parties would get a grip on those elections and we would end up with the clubbable, the companionable and the compliant. I speak on behalf of the awkward squad: this place without my noble friend Lord Forsyth would be impoverished. We need the awkward squad in this place, and electoral colleges do not do anything for that.

So what should we do? I shall make a few brief suggestions. First, I entirely agree with the Select Committee. Secondly, we need to agree progressively to reduce the size of this House, which means self-restraint by the party leaders—maybe one in for two out, something like that. Thirdly, I think it would be useful if life Peers were nominated for fixed terms. Fourthly, although I touch on this with caution, there is a need for a retirement age. I look back on my own family and know that people can stay here too long. I think 80 may well be appropriate.

Then I favour the resignation of non-participating Peers. I recognise, too, that that could be bad news because the non-participating Peer could change his or her habits and participate overmuch. But there is a case for non-participating Peers to stand down. I appreciate the allegations of humbug and sour grapes that are about to be levelled against me, but I am pretty cautious about by-elections for hereditary Peers, as they are very difficult in principle to justify.

There are powerful reasons for reducing the size of the House, but I think, too, that they are second-order reasons. That being so, we should be cautious about going too fast or too dramatically. In any case, it will not happen because there will not be a Bill. Let us focus on gradual and modest changes, focusing on those matters where it is most difficult to defend the status quo. If the public perceive that we are getting a grip on it, much of the criticism based on size will begin to fall away.