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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:24 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 8:24 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, this has been a very good debate, and an important one. It is not an exercise in navel-gazing; it matters because this House matters. Addressing size is only part, but a necessary one, of what needs to be done to protect and enhance the role of this House as a valuable—and, I would argue, invaluable—second Chamber. This House adds value and, contrary to what some have said, is justifiable in democratic terms. Democracy—demos kratia—is about how people choose to govern themselves. In a representative democracy, the choice of who is to govern is fundamental. In the United Kingdom, we choose a Government through elections to the House of Commons, a Government who are responsible for a programme of public policy and accountable for that policy to the electors at the next election. There is core accountability. We have the benefit of a second Chamber that fulfils tasks that add value to the political process without challenging that core accountability. As my colleague Professor Colin Tyler, a specialist in democratic theory, put it in evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, if you “divide sovereignty within Parliament”, you undermine the capacity of Parliament to give effect to the will of the people.

We have a Chamber that draws on experience and expertise to complement the work of the elected House. By general consent, this House does a good job. Debate about Lords reform focuses primarily on composition, not on functions—there is a general agreement about the functions of a complementary second Chamber. The House of Lords Reform Bill in 2012 was premised on the House continuing to do its existing job. But of course composition and functions are intrinsically linked; who is in the House determines how effectively the functions are fulfilled. We are a legitimate Chamber, but whereas the Commons takes its legitimacy for granted through election, our legitimacy has to be earned through the work that we do. We therefore need to ensure that we are working effectively and efficiently; we need to ensure that the quality of what we do is maintained.

We know from the Ipsos MORI poll of 2007 that electors considered the two most important factors in determining the legitimacy of this House to be trust in the appointments process and in considering legislation carefully and in detail. Seventy-six per cent considered trust in the appointments process to be very important, while 73% thought the same for considering legislation carefully and in detail. Some element of election came way below.

It is three years almost to the day since I initiated a debate on the size of the House. It was clear then that there was a problem; the problem is even greater now. As we have heard, of legislative chambers that meet regularly throughout the year, we are the largest. It is true that the Chinese National People’s Congress has more Members, but it meets for only about two weeks each year. It is true that we have a smaller membership than existed prior to the 1999 Act; the difference is in terms of activity and perception. There is a justified expectation now that those created as Peers should contribute to the work of the House. The level of activity places a burden on the resources of the House, and on the public purse. Any inactivity reflects badly on the House, since we appear to be carrying passengers. So either way there is a problem.

We need to address size, which necessarily entails not only reducing numbers but also, as we have heard, controlling future appointments. That is where public perception becomes important. Some noble Lords appear to say that this is not too important: it is only perception. We do not exist in a vacuum. The more we grow in number, the more the media draw attention to our size, whatever good work we do. Indeed, as we have heard, that coverage masks the work of this House: that is the reality. New creations will be pored over by the media to see if someone has been a party donor. It only takes one for the media to generalise about the whole. Whatever we say, that will remain the case. We therefore need to move from deprecating such activity—or simply ignoring it—to doing something practical about it, hence this Motion and the recognition that action needs to be taken.

It is quite clear from this debate what that action needs to be. We need to establish a Select Committee to address the various options for reducing the size of the House. As has been stressed, we cannot resolve what the precise action is in a single debate such as this. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, seemed to think that the committee may not reach agreement and that was, therefore, an argument for not having a committee. If there is going to be a committee with a majority and minority view, I would rather have that than no committee at all. It can come forward with recommendations. The sooner we get under way and the sooner the committee reports, the better. It need not be a lengthy exercise. It may not succeed, but it is an essential start. I am delighted that my noble friend the Leader of the House is to reply. I trust that she will acknowledge that this is not a parochial issue. It is about ensuring that this nation’s constitutional arrangements benefit it. I end as I began: addressing size is only part of what needs to be done, but it is a necessary part. Let us get on with it and then address what else needs to be done.