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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:06 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:06 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, this debate has shown that I am not alone among your Lordships in being unable to justify the number of Members of this House. This inability to explain the status quo comes to the fore when speaking publicly, or privately, about our role. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, I disagree with my noble friend Lord Cormack when, in a typically forceful speech, he said that he felt that the second half of his Motion was the least important although, like all noble Lords, I agree with his analysis of the first half. As we all know, we have made a few tentative steps to restrict our numbers. The possibility of retirement springs to mind, as does the expulsion of Peers who seriously transgress our rules as set out in Standing Orders. This is good, but it is not enough. The time has surely come to be radical and I would like to see an attack from both ends of the spectrum—the ever increasing appointments and the further reduction of existing members—but still limited.

Patronage is, as we know, very powerful and over the last 20 or so years we have seen a constant and very large increase in our numbers. Successive Prime Ministers and, in one instance, a deputy, have had resignation honours, as well as mid-Parliament lists. This is virtually the only way that a senior honour is available to be bestowed, the other being the Companion of Honour, which could perhaps be used more. But—and it is a very big but—this would inevitably devalue it. Like my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, I would like to see newly appointed life Peers not necessarily having a seat in Parliament. There are many for whom it would be appropriate; others for whom perhaps it would not be. There are down sides to this. First, it would need the Queen’s approval; secondly it would need an Act of Parliament which, in this particular case, should only come from the House of Commons. My noble friend, with his customary diplomatic skills, would no doubt be able to square this rather inelegant circle.

It has been suggested to me that a knighthood might suffice, but that would certainly annoy the existing holders. The other day, one of my noble friends said: “What about a baronetcy?”. I do not believe that would wash either, given the current attitude to inherited honours. Prime Ministers could, I suppose, have a self-denying ordinance, limiting their appointments to two or three at a time, normally at the beginning of a new Parliament, to go straight on to the Front Bench. But the Government of the day would very naturally be afraid of losing many more Divisions than they currently do, so taking up a lot of very valuable time in another place. Therefore, I do not believe that will wash.

I rather like the Canadian example given by the noble Lord, Lord Low, although “one in, one out” will not solve the problem before us. The suggestion of my noble friend Lord Hailsham of “one in for two out” would certainly help but both suggestions would be pretty well de minimis in their effect.

At the other end of the spectrum is the idea perpetrated by my noble friend Lord Cormack and others, and, I suspect, is about to be by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, not forgetting the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, whose Bill we will consider in Committee shortly. There is nothing wrong with using primary legislation to reduce our numbers still further. There is, thanks to the party opposite, a precedent for this in the House of Lords Act.

Much to the annoyance of some of my hereditary colleagues, I have come to the conclusion that by-elections to replace hereditary Peers are no longer appropriate, although when 800-odd were excluded, they obviously were, as some of the good ones were thrown out. The by-elections eased the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999, but they have now become an anomaly—a point which some of my noble friends have been good enough to accept. I am well aware of the deal struck between my noble friend Lord Salisbury—as he is now—and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, that hereditary Peers would remain here in limited numbers until there was a proper reform of the whole system, so pertinent to the thoughts of my noble friend Lord Caithness, although I do not think that he uttered them just now. Indeed, we may soon be voting on the whole matter. Be that as it may, no one has ever explained to my satisfaction what would constitute such a reform—reducing the House to 600 Members overnight perhaps? I hope that we will not see such a sweeping change as we did in 1999 ever again.

Grateful as I both am, and was, to be allowed to retain my seat after 1999, the problem of my, or, indeed, any of my fellow hereditary Peers’ replacement existed then as it does today, since there has never been any certainty about who will take our seats. Certainly, it has become even more uncertain as the electorate and the candidates have become further and further apart. Given the Government’s current intention, the only way to solve this knotty problem is to do it ourselves. I therefore agree that a Select Committee would be the best way of doing that. I hope that the committee which chooses which sessional Select Committees are picked for our general discussion will take careful note of that item.