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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:56 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Hooper Baroness Hooper Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:56 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend Lord Cormack for introducing this debate, I should make it clear at the outset that I do not agree with the premise of his Motion, or with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who has just spoken. I see the size of the House as a perceived problem and do not therefore agree that we must reduce the numbers.

I am tempted to say, “Hands up anyone who has seen 850 people struggling to sit in this Chamber”—or 750, or 650, or even 550. On an average day, as has been said, we see between 300 and 400 people, and even after much activity in the various Whips’ offices we may see only 500-plus. So in practice we are considerably smaller than the House of Commons. If the overall size were reduced to, say, 300 or 400, would that be in the expectancy of everyone turning up every day or on the expectancy of the experience we have had that only more or less half the numbers turn up on a daily basis? Unless, of course, it is proposed to pay a salary. That may make things different.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and others who have said that there is much ignorance about how this House works. I agree with my noble friend Lord Wakeham and others who have underlined the fact that this is a part-time House, which is part of its value. These facts have to be made clear to those who may criticise its size because they are looking only at the total numbers and do not realise what happens in practice. I agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, on this. I may add that I do not seem to meet all of those people who criticise the size of the House of Lords and think we are a laughing stock. If I did I would try to correct the false impression which they have obtained—maybe from the media—and I certainly would not agree with it.

The point about the way in which the House of Lords has evolved over hundreds of years—as a hereditary House and a mixed hereditary and appointed House before becoming an almost entirely appointed House—is that Members attend and participate if they have something useful to say, usually in their own area of expertise. Hence the reputation that your Lordships’ House justifiably holds for serious and informed debate and for rigorous scrutiny of legislation. Do we want to change that?

That we are not paid a salary should be made clear. It seems to surprise people when they learn that, if we do not turn up on a sitting day to claim an attendance fee, it does not cost anyone anything. The taxpayers can relax on that score at least.

When I first entered your Lordships’ House in 1985, there were, I think, some 1,400 people entitled to sit, many of whom never came and many of whom came but rarely. The perception of an in-built Conservative majority was also not justified. Even in those days, a Conservative Government were frequently defeated. In fact, the active Members were roughly similar in number to the numbers I referred to earlier and which apply today. Although it certainly did not seem a cumbersome institution, I suggest it operated effectively and efficiently as a pool of talent, with people participating in the main not as generalists but in their areas of expertise.

In those days, the appointment of life Peers was a mere trickle, not the steady stream of newcomers we see today and which has been referred to. So much has already been said that it does not need repeating, but I certainly agree there is a need for a better, more transparent system for the appointment of new life Peers—rather like the immigration issue, in a way.

I therefore suggest to the powers that be that, instead of moaning about the size, they go out and justify it, and educate the media, if need be, and the general public and that, instead of persuading the valuable and experienced veterans of the House to retire early, they should be encouraged to remain. They certainly should not be made to feel surplus to requirements just because they have reached a certain age.

We should rejoice in the fact we have in the House of Lords an historic and traditional institution that does a great job at relatively low cost. It should not be tampered with or changed unless it is clearly a change for the better. I agree that the setting up of yet another committee to look at the future of the House of Lords may be appropriate, but let us look at the function and composition as a whole, not just at a reduction in size.