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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:49 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 7:49 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, I extend my thanks to the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Norton, for sustaining the effective second Chamber group, of which I am a keen member. I strongly support the proposals in the title of this debate. Membership of the group also means that I subscribe to all the tenets of the Steel Bill, including making the independent Appointments Commission into a much stronger statutory commission. The noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell, Lord Jay and Lord Forsyth, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and many others have emphasised this. The noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, just talked about a similar commission.

I mention this first because the group recognised early on that the Prime Minister’s patronage has to be tackled at some stage of reform. I heard the warning given by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, about legislation. There has always been resentment of royal patronage, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, reminded us, and it is clear that in reducing our numbers to the size of the Commons we will have to have a cap on new appointments.

I am also encouraged by the decision of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to continue its previous work on reform and ensure that,

“the House of Lords continues to work well by addressing issues such as the size of the chamber”.

This chimes in very well with us. It intends to identify the “unarguable next steps” for Lords reform. What are they? Having read the call for written evidence, I conclude that the committee will focus a strong light on patronage and methods of appointment, and I welcome that as a measure which will certainly command public support.

My old friend the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, used the term “self-restraint”. That might perhaps avoid the need for legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Geddes, made a similar suggestion, and the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, spoke of moderation. Inevitably, the question of honours and rewards should be part of any discussion of future peerages which, in many people’s view, should be firmly separated from appointments to this House. Today’s Peers who have been rewarded may even feel happy to be released from taking part in the legislature when they come in only very occasionally.

I do not support a proportional cull with an election such as happened with Scottish Peers and as I experienced in 1999 with my 89 colleagues. That was all very well with hereditary Peers, most of whom hardly came into the House, but today it would be very divisive and would be influenced, perhaps even monopolised, by Whips and factions.

Naturally, I reassert the requirement for at least 20% of the House to be Cross-Bench Peers. In the past, that figure was 25% or more because of the Law Lords, but it has fallen to 22%. Cross-Bench life Peers are a unique feature in this Parliament. They are highly respected by the public, and I would even say that they are a cornerstone of our current democratic system. I dare to add that it happens that many, if not most, hereditary Peers can also claim similar expertise in various fields.

I have been pondering the special problem of Cross-Bench Peers, which is that they were given different instructions on arrival about attendance. Most independent Peers feel they are obliged to come only for subjects of which they have special knowledge or expertise, while those chosen by the Appointments Commission are required to attend as working Peers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others spoke about the concept of the working Peer. It may be a good principle, but it has contributed largely to the increase in the visible size of the House. The only reason that attendance has not risen faster—it has actually gone below 500—is that some Peers still do not feel under any obligation to come in regularly and, as experts—the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell, spoke of this—they may well have, and should have other, occupations. May that continue. Those Peers include a smaller number among the political parties and those who feel they received a peerage as a reward and an honour. There is a possibility that those Peers, both those rewarded and those making an occasional contribution, could be classified differently in future, but that is a subject for another day.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said in a previous debate,

“we must recognise that the gap between our headline size and our average attendance adds to some of the misunderstandings”.—[Official Report, 15/9/15; col. 1749.]

Before that, we must do more about retirement. That will be a little easier for the committee when it is set up. I have long felt that there should not be an age limit, but that Peers approaching 80 should be asked to talk to their Whip or Convenor about their contributions in the future. This might act as a gentle brake and a reminder that Peers cannot go on for ever. Of course, we all know that there are a few exceptions who not only go on for ever but make a real contribution even in their 80s and 90s.

We need to come up to date. It is fairly normal these days for human resources departments to interview and review staff on a regular basis. Most Peers are likely to have some direct experience of that. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, said there are Peers in need of help and advice. We could appoint a human resources manager to oversee the process while keeping the responsibility within parties and groups. I shall be 74 next birthday. I feel relatively active now, but I am beginning to feel able to forecast my retirement in a few years.

Finally, I repeat that I fully support the principle of a cap on numbers. I strongly recommend that a committee is set up in the new year, not later, under the noble Lord, Lord Burns, I hope, as was mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, to sort out those solutions that will in the end achieve unanimity.