My Lords, unlike the majority of my fellow Liberal Democrats, I have never believed in an elected second Chamber. However such a Chamber might be constituted, it seems self-evident that two elected Chambers in the Palace of Westminster would be asking for trouble—a guaranteed recipe for conflict. People argue that an elected House of Lords could simply continue to perform the same important role as the existing one, which seems like saying that you are going to exchange your dog for a cat, and that the cat is expected to do exactly what the dog did. It is as fatuous as that.
However, we all accept there are many flaws in a totally—or almost totally—appointed Chamber too, and one of them is the subject of this debate. We have built up a membership a third as large again as that of the House of Commons and there no seems no way of making substantial reductions without causing much bitterness and feelings of injustice from those who are unwillingly ejected. The problem of this House’s excessive size is not the result of being an appointed House as opposed to an elected one. The fault lies, as others have mentioned, with the person or persons responsible for doing the appointing. Apart from the Bishops, hereditary Peers like myself and some of the Cross-Benchers, who are chosen by the Appointments Commission, appointments to this House are nearly all made or approved by the Prime Minister alone. He or she hands out peerages to distinguished friends, powerful political supporters and ex-Ministers whom no one else knows what to do with. To justify this, he or she also offers a number of peerages to leaders of the other parties, to deal out as they think fit. There seems no limit to the number of peerages that can be handed out. In this respect, I am in total agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd.
I propose that a powerful new body should be created, responsible for not only appointing new people to the House of Lords but for managing the House’s affairs and regulating the behaviour of its Members. One of its immediate responsibilities would be to reduce the size of the Chamber to something slightly less than that in the House of Commons, and then to maintain it at that level. By limiting the number of new peerages and, possibly, compelling existing Peers to retire at the end of a Parliament if they are over the age of 80, it should be possible to achieve this objective within the life of two Parliaments. That is surely not too long to wait. This proposed body, which I rather clumsily call the House of Lords appointments and regulatory council, would also have the power in special circumstances to extend the term of individual Peers beyond the age of 80, allowing them to remain for another Parliament or perhaps more.
The Prime Minister, and other outgoing Prime Ministers, could still continue to make a limited number of appointments to the Lords, but the vast majority would no longer be in his or her prerogative. This new body would thus not only be responsible for controlling the size of the House; it would also ensure that its appointments represented the widest spectrum of British interests. The most important function of the House of Lords, as now, would be to review and, where appropriate, improve Bills passing through Parliament and to highlight and debate important issues that are not necessarily part of government policy.
The need to balance the House on party-political lines would be less important than now. Here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell: party politics is the job of the Commons. Although party-political balance must be a consideration when making appointments, the need to fill the House with loyal party Members would be much less necessary than it is deemed at present. Any power or influence that the Lords might have should come from the weight and experience of its Members, and the fact that it represents the largest possible number of professions, regions, classes, sexes, ethnic groups, religions and special interests. I am advised that no present or future Prime Minister would ever willingly agree to relinquish their power of appointments to the House of Lords. Maybe not, but now is a good time to try when everything—constitutions as well as many other things—is up in the air.