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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:20 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Lisvane Lord Lisvane Crossbench 6:20 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, it is a pleasure to be able to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, that this is not my annual appearance on these Benches. It is also a pleasure to join in the deserved chorus of congratulation to the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Norton of Louth, for their hard work, persistence and determination in bringing this issue before your Lordships’ House. It has been a pleasure to work with them on the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber—if the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, does not regard that as too sinister a remark.

There is a perfectly respectable argument to the effect that reducing the size of the House will be difficult, contentious and may have unforeseen consequences. But we can no longer indulge ourselves in the luxury of that argument, and we cannot ignore the widespread perception that this institution is losing its claim to be an effective part of this sovereign Parliament. That perception is unfair, but powerful. That view is held in the media, it is held by some—possibly too many—Members of the House of Commons, and it is held more widely by many people outside this place who do not know what this House does.

In his book The English Constitution, published in 1867, Walter Bagehot said—or rather, he put the words into the mouth of a stooge—that,

“the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it”.

Nearly 150 years later, we may reasonably amend that to say that the cure for criticising the House of Lords is to go and look at it: to see exacting scrutiny of legislation, not just of primary legislation but crucially, and uniquely, of the huge body of secondary legislation; exploration of subjects that the House of Commons, for very good reasons, does not have the time to debate—the debate initiated by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on Friday is an excellent example of that—authoritative examination of policies and issues through an energetic and respected Select Committee system; and the ability to ask the House of Commons to think again without challenging the primacy of that House. However, for so many people outside this Chamber, those roles are seen through the prism of size, and the value of those roles is thus obscured or dismissed. We therefore need to deal with this issue, and we need to be seen to be dealing with it ourselves.

This Chamber is not the place to explore the complexities of competing solutions, although I hope that there would be—there certainly seems to be—widespread agreement on the basic principles that have been enunciated. To examine the detailed issues, taking account of a wide range of views and proposing solutions, is a classic task for a Select Committee. I have a strong preference for a formal Select Committee rather than, for example, an informal Leader’s Group. This is not to undervalue the excellent work which Leader’s Groups have done on other issues, but in this case only the transparency and authority of a Select Committee inquiry will answer. Moreover, when a Select Committee reports, there is a more formal expectation that this House will take decisions on its recommendations.

Incidentally, with a thought for the typically wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, I suspect that quite a lot could be done without legislation, although for some heavy-duty things—perhaps a cap on appointments—legislation would be necessary. But legislation can be quite hazardous, because depending on its scope there might be the possibility of Commons amendments arriving here, which would be to an effect that many of us would find unwelcome.

To deal with the size issue is, as several noble Lords have said, only the first step in making the work of this House better understood and so better valued, but it is a vital preliminary. If we do nothing, we shall still be wringing our hands and saying, “Something must be done” a decade hence. The difference may be that the longer the problem goes unsolved, the greater the temptation for others to force possibly unwelcome solutions upon us.