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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:07 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 8:07 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, I have a variation to suggest to the incentive proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for Members of your Lordships’ House to retire. If life Peers retire immediately, their Peerages should be converted to hereditary ones carrying no right to a seat in this House. It would cost nothing, and I believe it would be effective.

I will make four brief points. First, I have to say to my noble friend Lord Cromwell and the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, that it really is not sustainable to say that the size of the House does not matter on the grounds that it is a pool from which Members contribute when they have relevant expertise. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, has said, we have substantially more Members than we need to do our job. Not only that, but there is substantial number of Members who do not contribute to the work of the House, whether by attending, speaking in debates or serving on committees. To add to the statistics that the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, gave, I say that well over 100 Members of the House attend fewer than 15% of the sitting days. Others attend only when whipped by their parties to vote. We have a long tail which could substantially be reduced, with benefit to our reputation but without reducing our ability to do our work.

My second point is that the problem of our size is now more urgent than it has been in the past. As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, said, the opposition political parties in the House now have a substantial majority over the Government, and when they act together they can defeat the Government at will. There are only two ways in which this can be dealt with. One is by the Prime Minister making further appointments to the House on a scale which would damage public perception of the House even further. The second is by the opposition parties showing self-restraint, which, to their credit, they do, at least most of the time. However, this is not a satisfactory basis on which to run a House of Parliament.

Thirdly, I want to deal with the issue of the Prime Minister’s exercise of patronage. When I worked in government, I had the privilege of sitting in on discussions between the then Prime Minister and Leader of this House when appointments were to be made. The Prime Minister would ask the Leader what areas of expertise needed to be reinforced to help this House to fulfil its scrutinising role. That meant people with expertise in science, business, medicine or cultural activities, and many others. With no disrespect to any of those appointed recently, it is difficult to believe that this happens with political appointments today; the main concern appears to have been simply to get the Government’s voting numbers up.

Fourthly, and I say this with great temerity, I venture to be less pessimistic than the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, about the prospect of getting effective action taken, subject to one condition: that any legislation must be introduced first, and debated and passed, in your Lordships’ House. I believe it will pass through this House, even if it does not give the Liberal Democrats what they want, if, however painful, it is fair. If it is passed by this House and does not threaten the position of the House of Commons, I think there is a good chance that it will pass that House as well. So I believe we should go forward with determination and with confidence.