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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:32 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of The Duke of Somerset The Duke of Somerset Crossbench 7:32 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, invited me to join his group very soon after my election to these Benches two years ago, and I have become very interested in what I have heard in his meetings, so I am delighted that he has secured this debate for us tonight. Mostly, we seem to concur that this House is far too large in its composition but that the problem lies in how to reduce it. I agree with many that its optimal size should be equal to that of the Commons, or perhaps smaller. I say smaller because, post-Brexit, the need for so many European committees away from the Floor of this House may well vanish, or at least diminish.

What I feel this country really needs of a second Chamber is an efficient mechanism to revise and scrutinise legislation emanating from the other place, while acknowledging its supremacy as the elected Chamber, as so many have said. To my mind, the continuing logic of this, I hope many noble Lords will agree with me, means that we should be thinking in terms of a full-time House that operates along business norms and whose work is carried out by politicians and worldly, experienced men and women appointed to the post. That House should project more strongly the image of what it does—what we do so well at the moment.

Having more than 800 Members is embarrassing but not, I submit, of pressing concern to the people outside, as so many have said. They are more concerned about what we manage to achieve. However, if we were in a position to broadcast a positive story of reform and improvement, I believe that that would be well received. Therefore, I am suggesting that reform could be holistic and all-embracing—the opposite of the gradual and incremental reform put forward by many today, including the Government, I believe. One can think of improvements to many aspects of governance in and beyond this Building—to the Civil Service and to the Privy Council, as well as to the way we conduct our business in this Palace.

The political world is being shaken by seismic shocks, as we well know. We have the ability to head one off by acting soon. We are doing our best, as this debate shows, and we are aware that we need government help. We have heard many solutions offered and perhaps after this debate a consensus will emerge but, for me, not having the experience of a time spent in the other place or from a political party, the obvious difficulty is the patronage of Prime Ministers and their prerogative to appoint any number of Peers for any reason.

To my mind, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, pointed to the way forward. While I acknowledge the caveats of the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, I am still attracted by the notion of holding party electoral colleges immediately after each election. In this scenario, 600 working Peers would be elected by the parties and Cross Benches in proportion to their results in the recent election. Indeed, I would like to see the 20% reserved to the Cross Benches that so many have mentioned. The rest would still be Peers but would not be eligible to take part in proceedings in this House for that Parliament. A statutory appointments commission would produce new Peers, including suggestions from the Prime Minister, who would join the general pool to stand as candidates in future if they wished to be working Peers. This would overcome the Prime Minister’s ability to increase our size but also distinguish the new Peers who had no intention to contribute.

A typical attendance is around 500. However, at normal times the Chamber is populated by many fewer. What are the other 400 doing while they are waiting to vote? They cannot all be researching speeches. Surely this is a waste of the extraordinary talent in our midst. I, for one, feel uncomfortable being here in receipt of an allowance when I am not contributing directly by making a speech—something one cannot do every day. I recognise that my suggestions for a wider reform of governance may be a step too far at this time—as ever. I thoroughly support the Motion and hope it will lead to a Select Committee, not least because so many of today’s contributions have induced second thoughts on preconceived ideas, not least my own.