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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:32 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 8:32 pm, 5th December 2016

One of the great strengths of your Lordships’ House, which would undoubtedly disappear were we all elected, is that this kind of seminar would probably not take place. I stand corrected on the point I made about second Chambers but do not resile from the point that an elected House, or a predominantly elected House, would be superior to the current House. I strongly supported the attempt by my colleague in another place, Nick Clegg, to bring about such a change under the coalition Government. If such a change had been brought about, the exasperation of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, and others over the number of Liberal Democrats in your Lordships’ House would already have been largely assuaged because we would have had elections. We wanted that and we would still like it. We may not always do desperately well in elections but in principle we are happy to contest them.

Much of today’s discussion has concerned the need for consensus as we move forward. There is considerable consensus around the role of your Lordships’ House, notwithstanding some of the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, on this issue. I think there is near consensus, if not total consensus, that there is a strong legitimate role for a second Chamber to scrutinise and revise the Government’s legislative agenda; to hold the Executive to account through Questions, debates and the work of Select Committees; and, from time to time, to ask the House of Commons to think again—in short, to ensure that a sober second thought is built into the process of creating laws in this country.

Collectively, the House takes its role extremely seriously. We spend the vast majority of our time picking over the fine detail of legislation, continually asking the Government, “Have you got this right?”, “Did you consider this different aspect when this policy decision was taken?”, and, “Does it do what you want it to do?”. My experience as a Whip in government was that when the Government lost a vote, it was usually because we had lost the argument. This was a very difficult thing to accept at the time but it was the case. In my view asking the Commons to think again in those circumstances greatly benefited the development of legislation.

Since 1999, the Chamber has become much more professional in the carrying out of its important role and has already taken action to improve itself in a number of ways. We have taken measures to strengthen the Code of Conduct and ensure that the Nolan principles on standards in public life are observed. We have legislated on the initiatives of my noble friend Lord Steel and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, to ensure that those who are convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to more than a year’s imprisonment cease to be Members of the House, and to strengthen our ability to take action when necessary to expel or suspend Members. These changes have been achieved by consensus. There is consensus that the size of the House should be reduced, and on the other principles that a number of noble Lords have mentioned: that it should be smaller than the Commons; that we should retain an element of Cross-Benchers; and that no political party should have a majority. However, here consensus begins to break down, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, pointed out in his typically wise speech. This lack of consensus applies to matters great and small, all of which could in theory enhance the credibility and reputation of the House. One such measure, which could be quickly implemented, would be for the House to agree the recommendation in the report of the Committee for Privileges and Conduct entitled Undermining Public Confidence in the House, to strengthen the code of conduct with a “disrepute” provision. However, there is no consensus to do that, so it probably will not happen.

Another measure—it was initially proposed by Lord Avebury in 2006 and was in the initial draft of my noble friend Lord Steel’s Bill—would be to end the system of hereditary by-elections in this House. That has now been taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who can certainly be assured of my support for his Bill. When it was introduced, the by-election system was supposed to be a temporary measure until the then Labour Government’s “second stage” of Lords reform was completed. As a junior Whip on the 1999 Bill, I remember the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, then Leader of the House, at her most imperious, slapping down people who said that the system of by-elections for hereditary Peers with an electorate of under 10 was a nonsense, on the grounds that it might not have been perfect but it would never be enacted because there would be a second phase of reform—so why was anybody worried? We have seen what has happened.

Another measure that could be considered is to reduce significantly the role of patronage in the appointment of Members to the House by giving a stronger role to the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission—the burden of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Jay—and by ensuring that the commission is placed on a statutory basis. The issue of scrutinising the suitability and commitment of potential Members has near unanimity in your Lordships’ House, and we should go ahead and do that.

All the more substantive proposals put forward clearly have major strengths and weaknesses. I have a lot of sympathy with my noble friend Lord Steel’s proposal on retirement age, although I know that that makes me unpopular with some members of my group, and there is certainly no consensus to do it. I have some sympathy with the suggestion that there should be an automatic retirement if a certain percentage of attendance is not reached in a Session. However, given that a number of noble Lords who make good contributions here are doing things outside and cannot be here all the time, we would have to set the bar significantly lower than the 30% or 40% suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. I do not agree with the other suggestion, that we should have a moratorium on appointments. While the tap should certainly be turned down, it would be a mistake to turn it off, as we would just get an ever-older House.