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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 12:10 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 12:10 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, it is a real privilege to be able to follow one of the great Speakers of the other place. She has certainly not lost her vim or vigour, nor her questioning powers. I begin by declaring an interest as the chairman of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, of which the noble Baroness is a regular attender and participant. I also have to apologise on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who, with me, began this group in 2001. Sadly, he has to be at the funeral in Hull of a very close friend and mentor today. Another founder member of the group, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, is also at a funeral today of his oldest and closest friend.

In extending sympathy to them and giving an apology to the House, I am also warning noble Lords that we will not have the benefit of their wisdom and experience. Another person has asked me to mention his absence, about which he is very sorry—my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. He asked me to stress, particularly to colleagues on this side of the House, that he stands 100% in support of the Burns report. That does not mean that he agrees with every jot and tittle; nobody possibly could. But we owe the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues a real debt of gratitude for the rigour and vigour with which they conducted their investigations, the elegance—a word used by the noble Lord, Lord Newby—of their conclusions, and for producing something that is entirely practical.

As I am in the business of giving thanks, I would like to say how much we owe to our Lord Speaker. I had the honour of introducing a debate on 5 December last year that addressed this problem, in which more than 60 Members of your Lordships’ House took part. Within two weeks of that debate—a year ago tomorrow—the Lord Speaker announced from the Woolsack that he was setting up a committee under the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and gave the names of the committee’s members. That committee got down to work immediately and would have produced its report much earlier, had it not been for the somewhat unexpected general election with which we were confronted earlier this year.

We owe the noble Lord, Lord Burns, a real thank you for what he has done. At recent, well-attended meetings of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, we have had unanimous support for the general principle of the Burns report. I hope that, after today’s long day, we will be able to convince my noble friend the Leader of the House, whose suggestion it was when she wound up the debate last year that the Lord Speaker might convene a committee, that there is—not unanimous; that is impossible—widespread support for the Burns proposals. I hope that she will then respond by doing all she can to facilitate progress towards implementation of these very sensible proposals. As a number of colleagues in all parts of the House have said, if we get the Government to respond, they will have to recognise that successful Burns implementation depends on the Government accepting constraints and limitations on their power, particularly the prime ministerial power of appointment.

We have no written constitution in our country; we operate through evolution. If we are to accept this report and all its implications we have to recognise that there will be new conventions within our system. Of course, this is nothing new. As it has evolved our constitution has required recognition of the acceptable, rather than assertion of the theoretically possible. That is why no monarch has declined to give assent to an Act of Parliament since the reign of good Queen Anne. If we are to build a new Chamber capped at 600 Members, those constraints must be accepted.

I conclude by echoing what has already been said by a number of colleagues. There will be no change unless your Lordships’ House wills it. We will not have this chance again this Parliament and who knows what will happen after that. One of the fundamental principles of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I founded in 2001, is that the supremacy ultimately lies with the elected Chamber. We believe in an appointed House because we do not wish to confound the position of the elected Chamber by having an ambiguous mandate at this end of the Corridor.

I urgently request that everyone here considers very carefully indeed that this is a chance that may not come again and certainly will not come again in the near future. Let us show the Leader of the House that we are very much behind these proposals and, having done that, let us hope that we can proceed to seeing them implemented during the rest of this Parliament.