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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:44 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 8:44 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, this has certainly been an interesting debate and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for instigating it. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip for providing government time for it.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part for me was the exchange between the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Newby, on the facts of the issue. I welcomed the comment from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that, despite the inevitable impact that elections would have on his Benches, he would still prefer to go forward on that basis. It was perhaps our first seasonal mention of turkeys voting early for Christmas.

The large number of speakers today reflects not only a concern about this issue but the fact that we are a self-regulating House and that we take that role seriously. We are ourselves seeking solutions and looking at how to move forward—and indeed, many other areas of Lords reform have been initiated in your Lordships’ House. If there are to be changes in how this House operates, including in its size, it will be helpful to proceed if not with consensus then certainly with broad agreement.

Labour Peers have been considering these issues for some time, and noble Lords will have seen our 2014 report. It is perhaps worth noting its title: A Programme for Progress: The Future of the House of Lords and its Place in a Wider Constitution. We have not had much debate tonight about its place in the wider constitution, but that has to be taken into account in areas of reform.

During this debate there have certainly been points with which I have agreed and others with which I have disagreed, and there have been a number of views and suggestions which I think are worthy of serious reflection and consideration. My noble friend Lord Cunningham of Felling, who is very experienced in these matters, said that it is difficult and complicated but that we can make a start. Tonight we have made that start. We have heard differing views on what the problem is and how it can be resolved, but there was broad agreement that we could be a more effective and better-understood Chamber, and perhaps be held in higher regard, if we had fewer Members.

However, the first principle should be that form follows function, and the role of this House has to be the central part of our debate. We have been clear about what we do and how we can best do it. The role of a scrutinising and revising Chamber is, as we have heard from many noble Lords, valuable—but, as we have also heard, it is often misunderstood.

The Canadian Senate has had some similarities with our Chamber, although I appreciate that it is very different at the moment. The first Prime Minister of Canada described the Senate as a Chamber of “sober second thought”. I think that that is a good description of how to approach matters. However, I also have no doubt that Governments have become less tolerant of that sober second thought, and indeed of more independent thought. I do not know whether noble Lords have been following the news today. The current political crisis in Italy started with a referendum on reducing the size and power of the Senate—the second Chamber. The Prime Minister was accused of attempting a power grab by trying to reduce the Senate’s powers, and there was a populist campaign in defence of the second Chamber. We should look at what is happening there.

This Parliament has been difficult for the Government. It is the first time ever that a Conservative Government have not had an automatic majority in your Lordships’ House. Both the Government and the Opposition parties have had to manage that—and, despite some transitional hiccups, I think that as a House we have managed the process well. Being a responsible Opposition does not mean that the Government get their own way every time, but nor does it mean that the Opposition can deny the right of an elected Government to implement the programme on which they were elected. As we have also heard, every Government have tended to appoint more of their own party Peers and fewer opposition Peers. In 1997, when Tony Blair became Prime Minster, there were 477 Conservative Peers and 117 Labour ones. But, even then, it was only after eight years and two electoral landslides that the Labour Party became the largest party in your Lordships’ House in 2005. Yet the pace then, from 2010, certainly gathered. The Conservative Party, despite there being two parties in government—the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats—became the largest party in your Lordships’ House after just three years.

Part of the problem is the short-term decisions that have been taken in recent years and a lack of understanding of the role of your Lordships’ House. David Cameron appointed more Peers per year and at a faster rate than any other Prime Minister since 1958 when life peerages were introduced—and more were from the Government parties and fewer from the Opposition. That then became further complicated because a significant number of those Peers were appointed to the Liberal Democrat Benches—which used to be on the other side of the House—meaning an extra 45% in their number, bringing them up to 104 from 72. However, when they went into opposition on this side of your Lordships’ House, the Prime Minister felt he had to appoint more Conservative Peers to try to balance the numbers—“ratcheting up” was the expression used by some noble Lords—to compensate for his former party of government moving into opposition. That is not the sole reason, but it is part of the reason why the size of the House has grown.

In addressing size, we have to look at two issues. One is reputational and the other is practical. When I first came to your Lordships’ House six years ago, we did not have an overflow seating area for Members of this House who were not able to come into the Chamber during Questions. That is something new that has come about with the increase in the size of the House. We should also recognise the reputational issue. A number of noble Lords commented on the difference between the number of Peers who attend and those who are entitled to attend. However, I do not think it is enough to say, “It’s okay because they don’t turn up very often”. It is almost as though we were suggesting to other Peers who do turn up that we could manage that bit better if they did not turn up very often, either. That is not acceptable. Every Member of your Lordships’ House is an equal and is entitled to be here and to vote. I am sure it was not just me and those in my party who winced when we heard one Member of this House complaining that he was appointed as an honour and did not like being called in so often to vote with the Government. That is not a party embarrassment but an embarrassment for this House.

Although I was interested in a lot of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, I have to say that I disagree with him that this is a part-time House. It is not a part-time House; we often sit longer than the other end. What we do have, however, is the fact that Members of this House do not have to be full-time professional politicians to engage in the work of scrutiny and holding the Government to account.

How do we achieve reducing our size? We can agree that we think there is an issue and we can agree on the principle, but how do we make it happen? The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, very helpfully said that we were talking about principle and not detail—but, inevitably, in talking about principle we have to look at some of the detail. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, although I do not feel quite as negative about it as he does, that every proposal will have its downside. But they will also have benefits, and that needs to be taken into account and looked at.

On the issue of a retirement age, I feel very uncomfortable with my great and noble friend Lord Dubs, who introduced me into this place, sitting behind me. I know he said that he would be happy to go but we would not be happy for him to go. Whatever age we suggest, we can all identify noble Lords of that age or older who make an amazing contribution to this House, and name a few others who are younger than them who do not. I think we would find that, although most noble Lords would favour a retirement age, they will choose an age that is five years above the age they are. Therefore, although I am sure that retirement will be looked at as part of the criteria, we cannot look at that solely. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, made the important point that some Members of this House—not just those on the Cross Benches—come in once they have retired from their profession because they want to use their expertise in the work of this House.

If we were to look just at attendance, it would disproportionately affect the Cross Benches. We should expect a basic level of activity and commitment to this House from all noble Lords. Having said that, we need to recognise the contribution of those who do not attend very regularly, but who, when they do, add experience, expertise and value to the work that we do. It is about getting a balance between those two issues so that we can do justice to our colleagues, whom we want here, but with the expectation that people are here not just as an honour but to play a role in legislation and the work that we do.

Another issue is whether we should in some way tie numbers here to a general election. It needs careful thought. I am totally opposed to using the previous election alone as a marker for numbers and proportions of the different parties and the Cross Benches. We should perhaps look at the trends over three elections, as Professor Meg Russell has said. To have this House bouncing about from one side to the other because of one election result would undermine the very essence of what we are about. We are not a reflection or a mirror of the House of Commons; we are a distinct and separate body. We complement and work with the House of Commons but we are different. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, made a similar point about three elections. We have to take care about how we look at that.

What are the guiding principles when looking at size? For me, the one that is non-negotiable—this has been mentioned many times—is a cap on numbers. It does not have to be an absolute number; it can be a band of numbers. I have previously been told—the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, will remember the many discussions we had on this matter—that it was totally unacceptable to the Government as the Prime Minister has to have the right to make appointments and cannot be fettered in any way. However, I am not talking about removing the patronage of Prime Ministers—I am not against Prime Ministers having patronage and making appointments to this House of people who have worked for their parties and their Governments—but there are limits. Unless a cap is agreed there will be no value in—and perhaps more importantly there will be no agreement on—reaching a reduction in the size of your Lordships’ House. If over a period of time—perhaps five, 10 or even 20 years—the numbers grow back, that will happen only through more government appointments. I have had colleagues on my side of the House say to me, “I would retire but, if I do, all I do is create a government vacancy”. That is not what this House should be about. I am not talking about an exact number but there should be a band with a top level on it.

Another point I have made before is that form should follow function. The Labour Peers’ report suggested 450—a working number—but the reason they came to that figure is because they looked at the committee work and the scrutiny that this House does. It is not only about legislation. We work on EU legislation and on statutory instruments—which we do so much better than the other place—and with Brexit coming along there may well be increased activity in your Lordships’ House. As we progress through the Brexit process we need to ensure that the Government are given advice by this House and can address all issues.

We agree that, whatever the number is, it is likely to be lower than the size of the Commons. However, relative size to the Commons is not the driver. The work that we do and how we do it should be the driver. However, it is inevitable that we will be smaller than the House of Commons.

I have two final points. Another point made by Professor Meg Russell, which I feel strongly about, is that we have to take into account the political balance of your Lordships’ House. There is an Official Opposition and Government in the other place and in this place and that must be recognised. The 20% or thereabouts that we have talked about for Cross-Bench representation does not seem unreasonable, but we are a political Parliament with an Official Opposition and a role for political parties and that has to be recognised. I would not go down the Canadian route of all Members now being appointed as independents—that would be a step too far—but we want to ensure that political recognition is taken into account.

Finally, if we are reduced in size it is inevitable that a spotlight will be shone on the appointments process and we need greater transparency in how appointments are made. Again, I am not trying to stop Prime Ministers and the leaders of the Opposition and other parties making their political judgments on who they want in here, but there has to be openness about the criteria used. The Appointments Commission has five Peers and two independents. Should we look at a greater role for independents to get a more widespread and diverse approach to how we appoint Peers?

We have made an important start today. I make one further plug to end the absurdity of the elections of hereditary Peers. The whole House recognises that the time has come to do so. That is not in any way to cast aspersions on the hereditary Peers who play a full role in this House, but it should be done to show that we understand and share the public’s concerns. There is an opportunity here. Although there is not a complete consensus there is broad agreement and we want to move forward.