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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:59 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 8:59 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, I am grateful to everyone for their contributions to the debate and to my noble friend Lord Cormack for securing the opportunity for us to discuss this important matter. Today’s debate has shown that across the House there is a strong desire to ensure that we continue and, indeed, improve the way we perform our critical scrutinising and revising role. What has also come across loud and clear is the concern noble Lords have about the public’s perception and understanding of the work of this House. This evening has reinforced to me that many noble Lords believe that the size of this House presents problems on both counts.

As Leader, I want to be clear at the outset that I have heard the strength of feeling on this issue. I also add that I am strongly of the view that any action we might take on the size of the House must at heart enhance our ability to perform our vital role of revision and scrutiny. Any reform cannot and must not be simply about numbers; it must result in this House working better in fulfilling our role effectively, as well as serving the public at large.

What has been encouraging about today’s debate is that there is a strong desire for us to work constructively together across the House to make progress on this issue. Indeed, I am strongly of the view that that is the only way progress can be made. However, as noble Lords will no doubt expect me to say about a topic that has occupied your Lordships’ House for many, many years, this is not something we will be able to make decisions on immediately and implement reforms overnight.

As noble Lords said earlier, today is not the day for me directly to address the merits and demerits of each and every proposal suggested during this interesting and extremely well-informed debate, but I will of course read Hansard and reflect further on the detail of noble Lords’ contributions. What I will do is set out my approach. In doing so, I remind noble Lords that this is a subject I will consider with two different roles to play.

First, as Leader of the whole House, it is my responsibility to ensure we remain able to perform our role as a scrutinising and revising Chamber as effectively as possible, complementing the work of the elected House, and that any changes we make are consistent with that purpose. It is also my role to listen to the concerns raised by noble Lords across the House and to work to see whether solutions can be found to address them. This debate reflects the fact that one of the most frequent issues noble Lords have raised with me since I have become Leader is concern about the negative public perception of this House, and the view that our size is one of the contributing factors to this. I understand these concerns and agree that we must reflect upon how we can better command public confidence in the excellent work we do.

Secondly, I am also Leader in this House of the Government Benches—a Government elected with a manifesto which acknowledged that size is an issue to be addressed, but also made clear that comprehensive reform is not a priority for this Parliament. As a number of noble Lords have acknowledged, that must be right when there are so many pressing legislative priorities to deliver over this Parliament, not least around the UK’s exit from the EU and our ambitious social reform agenda.

I am sure noble Lords will not be surprised that I will not set out a stall at this stage and propose specific changes. I think that today’s debate has, despite consensus, shown there is further work to do to reach a broad consensus on the precise way forward. However, neither am I suggesting that we should simply set ourselves in aspic. It is right that we collectively seek a solution to address concerns about the size of this House raised today while ensuring we continue to refresh and renew our expertise and our outlook so we remain relevant to the Britain of today and the future. Whatever reforms might be implemented, it is essential that this House continues to be able to draw on the invaluable breadth of expertise and experience of Peers as we do today.

Over the past few years, we have shown what progress can be made when we come together to make this House work more effectively, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned—whether in enabling Members to retire from the House, in legislating so that Members are removed when they do not attend at all or in giving this House the power to expel Members for serious misconduct. These may have been incremental changes, but the sum of their parts has been significant and led to tangible changes in the culture of this House. I know that many noble Lords who have spoken today are impatient for more wide-reaching reform, but we should not underestimate the importance of what has already been achieved and the value of taking steps forward together.

In light of today’s debate, I sense that noble Lords want to bring that same spirit to moving forward. While it will not be possible, either practically or politically, to achieve everything that has been raised this evening, I hope that it will be possible for us to examine and consider what ideas might be able to command support across the House in relation to our size. If, in the light of that consideration, there are ideas or proposals that are able to command broad consensus, I would welcome working with noble Lords, both as Leader of the House and as a member of the Government, to explore taking them forward.

Following today’s constructive debate, we have an opportunity to make progress. It is clear that there is strong feeling across all Benches that the size of the House is an issue of concern and that noble Lords want to continue discussions about how we might address this, although I think it is also fair to say that there is not currently clear agreement on what a solution might be. In further discussions about our size, it will be important that we reflect on the work we do and how we can do it more effectively. As I have said, I am clear that any further reform must enhance our role as a Chamber of scrutiny and revision and that we must continue to be able to draw on a wealth of expertise and experience. I will reflect on the comments made this evening and consider how best to take matters forward. I will of course want to speak with my fellow leaders, the Convenor and the Lord Speaker, to consider the best approach.

As I have made clear, if we are to make any progress on this issue, we have to do it together as a House. The way forward will not be instigated, led and imposed by government alone. A number of noble Lords have suggested a Select Committee as their preferred way forward. As the House will know, we have a Liaison Committee which oversees Select Committees and is currently seeking submissions for next year’s ad hoc committees. That may well be a route that some of your Lordships wish to pursue. I would also like to consider whether a more immediate, practical step could be taken in convening a small, Back Bench-led consultative group whose work could be overseen, for instance, by the Lord Speaker. Such a group would be well placed early on to look at pragmatic options for progress on this issue, analyse their implications and identify the important questions that need to be resolved so that we can go further. Obviously, I will discuss this further in light of today’s debate, and I will bear in mind the strong desire that noble Lords have expressed for this to be a process led by Members. As the noble Baroness said, for any proposals for reform to have a chance of success, they will have to command broad consensus around the House.

I have heard the clear call from today’s debate and from the broader discussions that I have had in my time as Leader for a renewed momentum to have constructive discussions about our future on this issue. Although I come to this debate afresh, I am struck by the strength of feeling across the House on the need to try to make progress. I am encouraged that the debate today has set us on our way in a welcome spirit of partnership.