My Lords, a second Chamber of more than 800 is grossly excessive and is seen by the public to be so. The House of Lords needs, I would think, around 500 Peers committed to the work of the House if it is to do its job of holding the Government to account, providing close scrutiny of legislation, debating the great issues of the day and examining policy through its array of committees—in all this complementing the different emphasis of the House of Commons.
Aside from the partial removal of the hereditary Peers in 1999, successive Prime Ministers have casually increased the size of the House while failing to think carefully enough about their appointments. No party leader in my recollection has systematically sought to build a coherent and formidable party group with the range of experience and skills appropriate for a Chamber of the legislature. Why is this?
One reason is that neither the Executive nor the House of Commons wants an effective second Chamber. They seem not to understand that the role of the House of Lords as our constitution has evolved is now only advisory. The House of Lords does not make the law. It seeks to improve policy and proposes amendments—but, after offering its advice, sometimes indeed quite insistently, it always defers to the democratic authority of the elected House. Those at the other end have nothing to be frightened of so long as we do not have an elected second Chamber.
Of course, our advice sometimes extends to saving the Government from themselves and giving them time to think again when they set out to do something really misguided, such as bringing in super-casinos or taking away people’s tax credits. Naturally, Ministers resent having their poor judgment exposed; they get huffy and sometimes lash out, as with the Strathclyde review.
Another reason is confusion between peerages as honours or rewards and peerages as conferring membership of the legislature. When the public are persuaded by the media that a party leader is dishing out peerages just to cronies, courtiers and fat-cat funders, it intensifies cynicism about politics. People view our bloated House in an even more jaundiced light as a facility for giving political favours. However unfairly where individual appointments are concerned, Mr Cameron’s lists might have been designed to bring the House of Lords into terminal derision and disrepute. Some animadversions have also been made on Mr Blair’s lists—I was on one of them. Meanwhile, many former MPs, including senior Ministers, might give very valuable service to this House but, through the caprice of patronage, have not been appointed.
A further factor in the disproportionate growth of the House has been the misconception that the Government are entitled to a majority in the House of Lords. That is to misunderstand the nature and value of this House. The practice of packing the House to stack up party numbers not only compromises the ability of the House to perform its advisory role by passing amendments but leaves only meagre room for appointment of the Cross-Benchers, who give special distinction and independence to the House.
The Government, after barking so futilely up the wrong tree in their attempt to create an elected second Chamber, and with Brexit as well as Scottish nationalism on their hands, now have no appetite for Lords reform. They have, however, given us to understand that, in what they perhaps see as the unlikely event of the Lords reaching consensus on desirable reforms, they will consider them. Let us startle them by reaching that consensus.
How are we to do so? The House has gone round and round in circles for years, agreeing on the easy proposition that its size should be reduced, but all over the place when it comes to specific, painful choices. Should there be a cap on numbers? If so, what should it be? What principles should determine the respective sizes of the parties and other groups within the House? How should departing Peers be identified? Should there be an age limit or a limit on tenure? How do we deal fairly with Peers who joined the House when relatively young, sacrificing another career? Should there be renewable terms? Should we finally end the hereditary principle for membership of the legislature? Over what timescale should the existing membership be reduced? Should new appointments be made in future to two classes of Peers: honorary Peers with the title but not sitting in the House, and legislative or working Peers? Should there be a limitation on prime ministerial patronage? If so, how should it be effected? Should there be a statutory appointments commission? What should be its duties and powers?
We could continue to talk interminably about these and other such difficult questions. In the absence of a government Bill which puts a pistol to our collective head, how can we bring ourselves actually to answer them? I agree that a Select Committee should be set up to examine the issues. This committee should, I suggest, formulate a series of questions about options—precise questions with no wriggle room—to be put to the House. The usual channels should then arrange for debates and votes on all the questions, in government time. In that way, the House could reach its conclusions and could present its consensus—or at least its decisively expressed majority view—to the Government. After that, if the Government do want reform—a big if—and if reform is not seen as threatening by the House of Commons, the Government could introduce legislation. We can do some things ourselves but legislation will be needed—and they could introduce it with a real prospect of carrying it.