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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:11 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 8:11 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, I entirely agree with a good deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said. I believe that an Act of Parliament is ultimately necessary. It is true that we can do quite a lot, but a Select Committee examining this would find that some essential aspects require to be dealt with by an Act of Parliament. The most important of these, of course, is the prerogative of the Prime Minister in appointing Peers to this House.

I entirely agree with the view that, for various reasons, including very irrelevant ones, the size of this House has become an obstacle to the fulfilment of our task with the degree of acceptance in the community that it should have. Our fundamental task is to revise legislation that has been passed by the House of Commons. It is true that, from time to time in the past, and indeed this year it has been so, some Bills have started in this House. That is a perfectly reasonable way of proceeding in some cases. For example, I had responsibility for the embryo Bill that came here, and which was discussed by eminent experts who knew all about these matters, before it went to the House of Commons. I am glad to say that on the essential issue—namely, when embryo research should be allowed—the House of Commons accepted the view that had found favour here. If you go for a completely free vote, as we did on that Bill because of its nature, you are always risking that the House of Commons and the House of Lords might take different views. But that worked extremely well, and it is a very important piece of legislation in an area that is outside the ordinary scope of legislation that we have to pass.

The fundamental job of this House is the revision of legislation, with the exceptions that I have just mentioned. Over the time that I have been here, which is now a long time—I would immediately pass any retirement age that could reasonably be thought of so I would not object to one being suggested, although I think it is for someone else to do so rather than myself—the House of Commons, which I was never in, has found itself more and more subject to very heavy tasks arising in constituencies; so many people have problems that Members have to deal with. One of the results of that, I think, judging from afar, is that they do not have so much time or possibly so much inclination to revise the detail of Bills in Parliament. After all, those of us who do this know that it is not a particularly attractive task; in fact, it is rather a grind. But it is mightily important, because if legislation goes out of here wrong, it can do terrific damage to a lot of people.

I think we have found a way to try to deal with that, and often with quite contentious matters. As I say, I was never in the other place, but there is an atmosphere in this House of trying to get the right answer irrespective of any sort of political consideration. I have relished the atmosphere here since I came here a long time ago, and that atmosphere continues in an attempt to find a satisfactory answer that will do right for all manner of people. Even if we are not judges, we still try to do right to all manner of people in accordance with the usages of this realm. And it seems to me very important that that role is preserved, and that the people who are willing to undertake it, and to do so in a fairly comprehensive use of their time, are here to do it.

My noble friend Lord Caithness talked about coming from a distance. I live in Inverness, which is quite a distance from here, but it is possible if one is devoted to it that one should come and try to carry out one’s responsibilities. When one has a certain amount—a little, maybe—experience in this area, I find it a responsibility to come for as long as I can come: not every day or every week but as often as I possibly can, and certainly to matters which seem to be on something I know about, such as the universities Bill tomorrow. It is extremely important that we should have people here who have that mission, and I believe that a lot of people here do have it. I do not wish to show myself as unwelcoming to the people who have recently come; on the contrary, many of them may be much better than me at doing just that.

I want to mention just at the end that if we are to succeed in reducing the membership of this House we have to have a statutory cap on that membership; that is the only way in which we can control the size after it is reduced. It is one thing to reduce it and another to keep it reduced. I believe that a statutory cap is necessary. Of course there are complications about that, and I think it would be appropriate for a Select Committee to consider them. There are statutory complications: for example, when people in this House change their religions. Occasionally they move from being in the Conservative Party to the Cross Benches—more often, perhaps, from some other parties.

These are difficulties, but I do not think that they should be obstacles to our carrying out this fundamental task of having the House reduced in a permanent way to a size that is accommodating to the important task that has to be undertaken.