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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 12:48 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative 12:48 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, I warmly welcome the acumen of the Lord Speaker, who has focused on the vexed question of reducing the size of the membership of the Chamber and set the wheels in motion to create the all-party committee whose most relevant report we are considering today. The Lord Speaker is surely right when he says that the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues give this House an important opportunity for reform. With a membership of more than 800, compared to the 650 MPs in the other place, we are perceived to be far too large and unwieldy. It cannot sit altogether comfortably that when legislatures around the world are listed by size, we come second only to the National People’s Congress of China.

Achieving the proposed reduction to 600 and keeping the total capped at that level will take time, but to reach these goals, I support the idea of limiting new Peers to a total of 15 years in the House and the adoption of an accelerated “two out, one in” programme.

It is also correct to propose that appointments should be shared between the different parties on the basis of the results of the most recent general election. With attempts at wider reform not currently on the political agenda, these are sensible suggestions and crucially can be undertaken by ourselves, without the need for legislation. However, the public might like to see the extent of the participation of each Member having a direct effect on their continuing membership of this House.

I should at this stage mention a former interest when I was an MP. I had been warned that I was in line to inherit a hereditary peerage if I outlived my uncle, the Earl of Selkirk. When he died, I was told that I was now barred from the House of Commons Chamber. I went to see the clerks in both Houses. Their advice was totally different. The clerk in the Commons said that if there was any possibility of me being a hereditary Peer, I could disclaim straightaway in order to vote on the looming Motion of no confidence in the then Prime Minister. But the clerk in the House of Lords, quite differently, said, “I have only one question to ask. Is this something you really want to do?” It was, and I remained an Earl for merely four days.

It was an honour and a great surprise of course to be asked to return as a life Peer in 1997. I recall that I was introduced by Lord Renton, the former MP for Huntingdonshire, who at that point was nearly 90. A few years later, when I became a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I asked a senior parliamentarian from this Chamber how my friend Lord Renton was getting on, as by this time he was heading for a century. The senior Member was full of compliments about Lord Renton and added what was clearly meant as a final accolade. He said, “Old age is just beginning to creep up on him”. The report before us does not advocate a compulsory retirement age. Happily, however, many noble Lords appear to be living very much longer, so if we do contemplate such an ageist move, we could possibly settle for a cut-off date of 100. However, having listened to the debate, I believe that the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, capture a great deal more merit and would be much easier to implement.

This Chamber is a great national asset whose Members have a fund of expertise and acquired wisdom. That should not be lost or even squandered. However, we cannot be complacent. To borrow a quote from Benjamin Disraeli:

“I am a conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad”.

I sincerely hope that this report will receive the backing of the Prime Minister and the party leaders. As the Lord Speaker said so appropriately, these proposals not only present us with a challenge but with an opportunity. While there is yet time, let us take that opportunity.