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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:02 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Gordon of Strathblane Lord Gordon of Strathblane Labour 7:02 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, I add my thanks to the many already expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for the Motion he has put before us, and a very sincere thank you to the Government, in particular the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip, for granting us the time to debate it. I dislike disagreeing with the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, but the reality is that we would have a higher reputation if people did not think we had 800 people here on any one day, but thought we had something more appropriate, such as the 550 who actually come. Perception is an important ingredient in modern politics, which, somewhat regrettably, tends to be pretty well instantaneous in its reaction to things.

There is a consensus around this House that we could do with fewer Members. It is not the sole problem we have, nor by any means the biggest, but it is one. I share the analogy used by many other speakers: if I came home one night and found the bath overflowing, the first thing I would make sure is that the taps are turned off. Any settlement we put forward has to be conditional on agreement from the Prime Minister and likely Prime Ministers of the future that they will moderate their appointments to fit in with the overall cap. That in turn depends on everyone reaching agreement on what a fair allocation of seats would be. The only point of consensus seems to be that everyone, with perhaps one exception, thinks 20% for the Cross Benches is a very good idea. I echo that.

Beyond that, it is easy to see where the problem comes. Successive Prime Ministers have sought to replicate the effects on the House of Commons of MPs leaving by simply increasing the numbers in the House of Lords. That inevitably, mathematically certainly, leads to more and more Peers coming each day because there is not a system for removing them. That is what we want the Select Committee to look at.

What system we go for to bring about the cull that will bring us down to a more reasonable number is very much a matter for the Select Committee. I just urge people to beware of solutions that look to be simple and attractive. A year ago, I freely confess, I endorsed the idea put forward by the Labour group of a retirement age of 80. I then realised it would further increase the disproportionately high representation of the Liberal Democrats, which is one of the problems this House faces. It is an embarrassment to defeat the Government at the moment because it is mathematically too easy. If Labour and the Lib Dems line up, the Government are defeated. It is as simple as that. There is a great sense of achievement in defeating the Government of the day—not just the present one—if you do it with the support of the Cross Benches and feel you have won a moral victory. There is no sense of achievement in defeating it by sheer force of inflated numbers.

We have to find a formula. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, put forward one. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, made a sensible suggestion that it should be the average of not just one election, because the electoral pendulum can swing quite violently, particularly at the moment, but maybe the previous three elections. Surely the role of the House of Lords should be to temper and modulate excessive swings of public opinion rather than exaggerate and amplify them. We could go back to what ancient Athens did and do it all by lot. That might give us a result that is not totally unattractive, particularly if you had a manual override where, if somebody clearly had lost out in the raffle, they could be appointed by a committee to ensure that their contribution was not lost.

That would at least stop people electioneering, and that is the great problem about what was referred to as the democratic deficit—there is also the democratic dynamic. That is, if I stand for election, I make promises to people to secure their votes and I will then demand the powers to deliver on those promises. If that conflicts with the House of Commons, so be it. You would end up with gridlock, as you have in quite a lot of other situations.

Above all, the important thing is to leave it to a Select Committee. A Select Committee will command the support of the House, which will be a vital ingredient when we are persuading rather a lot of turkeys to vote for Christmas.