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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:40 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 6:40 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, I begin by echoing the congratulations to my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Norton on the huge amount of work they have put into this subject. I hope that a Select Committee will be established, bearing very much in mind the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who I thought made a very good argument as to why it should be a Select Committee.

I have a certain amount of sympathy with the previous speaker. If our daily attendance is around 497, we clearly may have a problem with numbers, but the problem is not that we are far ahead of the House of Commons in numbers—quite clearly we are not.

Mention has been made of a relentless and cynical Prime Minister creating far too many Peers, so I suppose I must own up to being one of them. I happen to be a great admirer of the last Prime Minister. I spent five years converting him to the good points about trade unions, and when he asked me to serve in the House of Lords, he asked me two questions. He said, “Will you be a working Peer?”. I said, “What does that mean?”. He said, “You will have to go at least two-thirds of the time—that is what we expect”. I said, “Fine”. Then he said, “Apart from that, I’m fed up with Labour having all the people who talk about trade unions on their Benches. I think it’s about time we had someone on our Benches defending good, honest trade unionists”. So I came here at least with a partial mission.

I can see that we have a problem, and this is why we need a Select Committee. Today, we have 60 of the solutions on offer. There are probably another 437 from the other Members who regularly attend here. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is not in his seat at the moment, but I have a lot of sympathy with him. There has to be some protection for the awkward squad. There has to be some protection for the small minorities: our one Welsh nat and our one Green Peer and the like. Also, in looking at retirements, I think we have to be very careful. Clearly, there is a need for there to be a reflection of balance between the parties. But we will get nowhere until we first have an agreement from the Prime Minister—indeed, it will have to be an all-party agreement—on creations. People have quite rightly made allusions to bathtubs with the plug out and the taps on. Unless we can have some sort of agreement, we are, frankly, wasting our time. That is my first point.

The second point is that in an age of rising longevity—that is one of my specialities in life—we need to look at time-limited peerages. The good news is that, at the moment, people are living longer and longer; but the bad news is that that means peerages last longer and longer. A limit on serving time, but with a capacity to renew the mandate, would be something that it would be worth the Select Committee looking at. I also take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, made about a “soft landing”. That is also something that the committee needs to look at.

If you construct—and you certainly can—a mathematical model, you could predict what the size of the House would be if you had a certain number of peerages coming in, and the current membership of the House, with a fairly rigorous retirement schedule based on attendance rather than age. I have a few years yet until I get to 80, but we have abolished age discrimination in society and I do not think that it has a place. But what I do think has a place is a combination of time-limited life peerages and strict attendance at the House, combined with retirement and a soft landing, which could give us a package.

I have to say something nice about the Liberals. Let us remember that they did promise in 1911 that they would come forward with a final reform of the House of Lords. We are probably not going to get a “final” reform—it will carry on evolving. But I believe that we can now evolve ourselves forward and take our time. The noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, talked about not being hounded by the press. If it took us two or three Parliaments to get down to the numbers that are right, that would be far better than reacting to the pressure of the press and running scared. Let us make sure that we get it right, rather than get panicked into a solution and then have to say, “Oh dear, we didn’t get it quite right”.