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House of Lords: Lord Speaker’s Committee Report - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:06 am on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Burns Lord Burns Chair, Lord Speaker's committee on the size of the House 11:06 am, 19th December 2017

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and all those who have made today’s debate possible so soon after the publication of our report. I also recognise the contribution of my fellow committee members. It has been a great pleasure to work with them. We produced a unanimous report and the contributions of all members were very important. We were fortunate in having the support of the talented Tom Wilson as clerk, together with his team, and some experienced external advisers, who are listed in the report.

The committee has been greatly encouraged by the response of noble Lords to our proposals, and indeed from those outside the House. For their part, the Government have made it clear that they are interested in finding out whether the committee’s conclusions command widespread support in the House. I hope that today’s debate, involving almost 100 noble Lords, will serve that purpose and demonstrate that the proposals have strong backing.

Today, I will not repeat the details of the report. Many noble Lords have already heard me go through them—some more than once, I am afraid to say. Rather, first I will make a few general comments about key aspects of the committee’s approach and proposals. Then I will tackle some of the questions and issues raised with us since publication. Later today—if it is today—I will try to answer queries and concerns raised in the debate.

From the outset, the committee recognised that most people were understandably focusing on how to reduce the current number of Members of this House. By contrast, little thought had been given to how to stop the historic tendency of the House to increase in size. Whatever your views on the current or future size of the House, such a trend is simply not sustainable. Accordingly, while looking at how to get numbers down, we also focused on designing a system which would cap the membership of the House for as long as it remains an appointed Chamber—we called this the “steady state”.

Throughout our discussions, the committee’s overriding priority was pragmatism. We all know how difficult it is to achieve any legislative reform of this House. We set out to design a system which could be implemented without legislation, but which could be formalised in statute in due course if the political will was there. I stress that the purpose is not to exempt our proposals from the spotlight of legislative scrutiny in both Houses. Rather, it is to make progress in the areas where widespread agreement can be reached, as quickly as possible.

The first step was to analyse the options for ensuring a turnover of Members sufficient to allow the membership to be rebalanced and refreshed within a cap. It is clear to us—the reasons are set out in the report—that fixed terms are the only solution which will provide a steady stream of vacancies in a way which is fair to all groups. Therefore a key pillar of our recommendations is that all new Members should serve a single, non-renewable fixed term of 15 years. They would be offered the peerage on that basis and would make an undertaking to retire after 15 years when joining the House. We do not envisage any Members going back on their word, but we have robust legal advice that the House has the powers to enforce the undertaking to retire.

A second pillar is that appointments which became available would be allocated between the parties on the basis of the most recent general election results. This would be calculated as a combination of each party’s share of Commons seats and of the national vote. Along with 15-year terms, this would mean that the composition of the House at any point once we reach a steady state would give a 15-year picture of the political views of the country, as expressed in elections. Our calculations in the report show how the relative strength of the parties would have developed historically under our proposals. For recent years, they generally mirror what happened in real life in broad terms—with the single crucial difference that it would have been within a cap of 600 Members. Election results would of course not affect the Cross-Benchers. They would, as proposed by the great majority of your Lordships and others, make up a constant proportion of at least 20% of the House.

I now turn to the more immediate question of reducing the current membership to a reasonable level in a way that is fair to all, which is what the committee called the transition. The weight of opinion supported a membership of about 600, although our proposals would work just as well with a higher or lower number, within reason. In reducing the current membership of 824 to 600, there are two important but conflicting priorities. The first is to make the reduction within a reasonable period. The second is to enable a continuing flow of new appointments, so that the membership can be refreshed and rebalanced rather than stagnating.

The committee came to the view that, until we were down to a membership of 600, the best compromise would be a system with half of the departures contributing towards a reduction in the overall membership and the other half being allocated to new appointees. Once the target had been reached, each departure would lead to one appointment. I emphasise that these figures apply in aggregate across the House, not within each party group. I will touch on this later because there has been some confusion.

Appointments would be made in line with election results as I described earlier, so replacement rates would vary between parties. The speed by which the target of 600 is reached depends on how rapidly existing Members leave the House. We understand that no current Members can be forced to leave without legislation, so it will be for the House as a whole to decide how quickly to proceed and for individual Members to retire when the time comes.

The committee’s report sets out a proposed profile of departures, which would enable the House to come down to 600 over about 11 years. The departure rate starts off gently but increases over time; the committee came to this view because it reflected the increasing age and length of service of current Members, and the fact that they will have longer to make retirement plans. Each party group would contribute the same number of retirements as a proportion of its pre-2018 membership each year, but of course the number of new appointments would vary according to how well that party had performed in the most recent election. As for which individuals should leave and when, the committee felt it was right to leave this decision in the hands of the party groups, but we have made some suggestions. For example, age or a combination of age and service might be useful yardsticks.

These are the key elements of the scheme. If we are to make progress, we will need agreement from the Prime Minister that she will make new appointments in line with the suggested formula for total numbers and for the allocation of appointments by party. She has the power to give this scheme the momentum it needs. If subsequently we can show progress it is difficult to imagine that her successors would revert to the current unsustainable position. But to get to this position we require the support of the party groups, which will be responsible for meeting the retirement targets agreed by the House—and a willingness from all of us to take a constructive approach to our own retirement plans.

I now turn to some of the main comments and queries we have received since the report was published. First, many people have asked why the reduction to 600 cannot take place more quickly. It certainly could, but increasing the ratio of departures to new appointments would slow down the flow of appointments, with a knock-on effect on refreshment and rebalancing. The only desirable way of speeding up the reduction is for people to retire at a faster rate. This is in the hands of your Lordships. The committee put forward what it thought was a reasonable pace.

Secondly, others have suggested that the “equal contribution” process is unfair—why should each party be required to achieve the same rate of departures regardless of whether they are currently overrepresented or underrepresented in the House? But departures are only half the story. It is necessary to take into account both departures and appointments. Because new appointments will be allocated on the basis of the most recent election the party breakdown will adjust accordingly from day one. If a party’s electoral performance is better than its initial share of seats, its overall share of the House will gradually increase—and if its electoral performance is worse than its initial share of seats its overall share of the House will fall.

The third common query has been about what happens to groups that miss or exceed their departure targets. The answer is straightforward: for each departure below or above target the party gets one less or one more appointment. We are satisfied that there is no realistic way of gaming this arrangement. A party that overdelivers on retirements will have more appointments but this will not affect its total strength in the House. Similarly, a party that underdelivers on retirements will have fewer appointments but will not gain in its overall party strength.

Fourthly, some Members have expressed their dissatisfaction that the hereditary by-election system is left intact under our proposals and that the number of Bishops will remain at 26. We have stressed that this does not reflect our personal preferences, but the reality is that legislation would be needed to make any changes in these areas. We suggest that this is not an issue for today.

Fifthly, a number of people have stressed that a Prime Minister needs to be able to appoint Ministers directly to the House. The committee agrees. Our proposals make specific provision for Prime Ministers to bring forward one of their appointments when they are due, enabling them to appoint Ministers at short notice.

Sixthly, there was some concern about effective Ministers being forced to leave office when their Lords terms expire. We propose that serving Ministers within the statutory cap, as well as certain Lords officeholders, should be allowed to remain in the House until the end of their period of office, even if this takes them beyond the 15 years.

Seventhly, some Members have asked what would happen in certain unusual circumstances, such as the swift emergence of a new party or a party refusing to use its allocation of appointments. I refer noble Lords to appendix 5, which deals with these issues.

Finally, we are aware that our proposals in respect of non-affiliated Members need further work. We hope that they will sign up to the principles of the scheme and take a responsible decision about when to retire, but we accept that the House may need to exert pressure in some instances. It is particularly important to get this right so that there are no incentives for Members of the main groups to join the list of non-affiliated Members to avoid the tap on the shoulder from their group.

We have also received representations on a number of issues which, while we have sympathy with the points raised, were not within our remit. These include the regional, gender, age and ethnic balance of the House, which lies in the hands of the party leaders and HOLAC, who are responsible for selecting new Members. We have also had questions about the system of financial support for Members, which is a matter for the House of Lords Commission and the party leaders.

These are important issues for the future. The only question now is whether implementing our proposals would make it more or less likely that we would be in a position to make progress with these issues. For myself, I cannot see why the position would be worse and in the longer term I hope we would see an improvement.

In concluding, I say to your Lordships that this may well be the last opportunity for the House to tackle its size on its own terms. Our proposals would end the anomaly of it being the only Chamber in a western democracy which has no cap on its size and no limits on length of service. Resolution of this issue would comprise the third and final key step in the development of a sustainable appointed House, without prejudice to any future introduction of elections.

The first step was the introduction of life peerages in 1958, which enabled Prime Ministers to rebalance the composition of the House without creating permanent titles to be handed down the generations. The second step was the House of Lords Act 1999, which largely dealt with the outmoded phenomenon of membership by birthright. The problem is that neither reform dealt with the inflationary pressures which stem from combining political rebalancing with lifelong membership. I regard the committee’s proposals as this third step.

If we can create a system which enables rebalancing and refreshing of the membership within a fixed cap we will have cracked a problem inherent in granting peerages that entitle the recipient to a lifelong seat in this House. I greatly look forward to hearing the views of noble Lords throughout the day. I beg to move.