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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 12:01 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 12:01 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, it was a privilege and a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and to work with such a wise group of Members as composed the committee. Among us there were differing views about the future of the House and many more differing views have been expressed today and will be before the day is over. These are on a range of issues: what to do about hereditary by-elections, how many bishops there should be, the methods of selection, the allowance system and the way—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, pointed out—it works against those distant from London. There are the also other respects in which the system tends to make it difficult for people to undertake work here if they are not London-based.

But we need to act and we do so at a time when major legislation is frankly out of the question, particularly when we see what other legislation is heading down the track as a result of Brexit. We need to control the size of the House in order to protect its reputation and, indeed, to avoid raising question marks over all new appointments to the House, however meritorious, that will result from people saying, “It is too big already. Why is this or that person being appointed?”. We need to enable the refreshment of the membership of the House. We cannot simply lock the doors and put up a “House full” sign and preserve the present House. Attractive though that might be to noble Lords, we have to enable the groups to bring in new people and we need to reflect shifting public opinion over time.

It is time to bury the now fanciful notion of Prime Ministers packing the Lords with hundreds of Peers as a response to government defeats in this House. We say in paragraph 3 of our report that Governments over the years have learned how to get their legislation through, with concessions, arguments and the eventual deference of the House to the primacy of the Commons. Prime Ministers will remain under pressure from many directions to appoint Peers, as any former Prime Minister or former Chief Whip will in all honesty admit. In the absence of an orderly process it is more difficult to resist that pressure. If we can put in place the kind of process that the committee has recommended, so that Governments and other parties are all working within a clear and understood system, strong pressures can be resisted.

I hope not to see not merely to see a firm government commitment to go ahead with these proposals but that kind of commitment as part of the advice given to future Governments, featuring in the Cabinet Office manual and becoming a settled part of how we organise things for so long as this is an appointed House. As my noble friend has pointed out, we on these Benches wanted to see a predominantly elected House, but that is for another day and for the kind of legislative opportunities which clearly are not coming our way at the moment.

We have set out a scheme which is fair to parties and groups, fair to existing Peers, imposes no fixed term or formula on them, fair to new Peers—who will come in on an understanding that they will serve for 15 years—and does not challenge the role of this House or the primacy of the Commons. But for it to happen, we need a clear expression of wide support in the House—which can be achieved today—and a clear indication that the Government are willing to accept and operate the system. Once it is in place, any Government failing to observe the cap would bring retirements on all sides to a sudden halt. Just as Opposition parties can pull out of the scheme so, as has been explained, can the Government. It is a voluntary scheme based on mutual respect and understanding.

On House of Lords reform, support for our proposals may not be unanimous, but I believe that it is very widespread indeed, quite widespread enough for the Government to accept that it should go forward. This is the only show in town, so let us go for it.