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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market Conservative 7:56 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, it is difficult at this late stage of the debate, when so many have spoken so well and covered the ground so extensively, to say anything new, so I shall make a few comments to add my support to points already made.

First, like others, I pay warm tribute to and thank my noble friend Lord Cormack for the extensive work he has done over the years on this issue and to my noble friend Lord Norton, who has wide academic and forensic experience from which we all have greatly benefited.

Secondly, does it matter that we are so large, larger than the House of Commons, and the largest second Chamber in the world? Some say that it does not because we should take into account the nature of this House and that the daily attendance reflects the fact that many Peers have outside expertise and experience, which is partly why they are appointed and why they come mainly when that knowledge can be put to good use. They say that the daily attendance of just under 500 is the figure to use. My noble friend Lady Hooper mentioned this point. I am afraid I have to say that I disagree with her. I cannot accept that argument. Now that the elected Chamber discussion is not on the agenda, I believe size is a big issue for us. It is easy for the media to attack us and create unfavourable public impressions, which are made even worse when Prime Ministers appoint even more Peers because the Government have far from a working majority in this place, so this is now our most vulnerable point. Moreover, the last Conservative manifesto committed the Government to tackle the size of our Chamber and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the House of Commons is about to embark on an inquiry, so size is back on the agenda big time. We must make our views known.

Thirdly, my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral referred to the Association of Conservative Peers, of which I was chairman for some years until earlier this year. The executive of the association produced a unanimously agreed paper which was put to the whole ACP at the beginning of this year and certainly seemed to get wide acceptance and support. Some of the main conclusions were that the Lords should have as an objective a membership no larger than the Commons and that the composition of the House should be responsive to any major changes in support for political parties in general elections.

We had two main recommendations: first, we agreed with the proposal of the working group of the Labour group of Peers—the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, spoke about this earlier in the debate—that there should be compulsory retirement at the end of the Parliament in which a Peer reaches 80. That was agreed by all of us. Like me, many of us will be affected by that in this Parliament, but I still believe that it is right, and I would happily accept it. I have always supported the measure that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, introduced about retirement, but the number of Peers who have taken up voluntary retirement does not match the number of new Peers coming in, so it is not a big contribution to the size question, however necessary and desirable it is. We must move on. We hear this proposal criticised on grounds that so-and-so, in his-or-her 80s, still makes a good contribution. But so what? Nearly every other profession has a retirement age at, or more usually well below, 80. One’s experience becomes outdated and mental faculties not always so quick as they used to be. I certainly know that some of my experience of working in industry and other areas, which I gave up three or four years’ ago, has become outdated. I do not think this is a very powerful argument, and unless we have this measure, we will reduce the number of new Members with more recent experience and freshness who can come in. Every vibrant organisation needs to have that, and I believe that quite a consensus, in different parties, is now developing for that proposal.

But here is the rub. As the House stands as present, there would be disproportionate effects between the parties from that age proposal. We wanted to avoid that being addressed by the Prime Minister of the day simply approving new Peers, which is the way of dealing with it at the moment, thus adding to the size problem. So we proposed in our paper a system that would keep the size of the House at 600, assuming the number of Lords spiritual stayed the same, allocating a fixed proportion for Cross-Benchers and—this is the key—allocating the remaining 80% to the political parties, with their share of the seats reflecting general election results. This would be achieved, importantly, by internal party elections.

I will just add one other point on the voluntary retirements of Peers at the moment. There is currently a disincentive under this proposal to retiring for many, particularly in the governing party, because another Peer retired is another vote lost and the threat of more Divisions being lost. That is a disadvantage which causes some of us not to undertake that voluntary retirement.

I conclude on this note. We pride ourselves on being a self-regulating House. If we do not address this issue, others, such the Commons Select Committee, will do it for us. I believe there is a compelling case, and I strongly support setting up our own Select Committee to cover all these issues.