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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 3:25 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, following the most informative, positive and engaging course of the debate so far, I start with two simple questions. First, is there a problem? Secondly, if there is, does the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee provide a solution to that problem? My answer to both is yes.

There is clearly a problem with the size of the House. The number of Members is such that it creates a problem of resources, both in terms of space and cost. We have problems fitting everybody in, not just physically in the Chamber but it is also difficult when there are too many who wish to speak. It is difficult to have a debate if speakers are confined to two or three minutes each. There is no real engagement between those taking part and no opportunity to develop a sustained line of argument.

Today’s special debate has been a joy to follow and I thank the Lord Speaker for making all this possible. However, there is an ever-bigger problem: public perception. Those who argue that there is not a problem ignore the fact that size is not an abstract concern but something that will be used by critics whenever they take issue with what we have done. We will always be open to attack by those who wish to get rid of the existing House, but also when we take controversial decisions. It will not just be a case of saying, “The Lords got it wrong on the merits”, but rather, “Look at that bloated House—a drain on public resources”. If we are to be criticised, let us at least be criticised for what we do rather than for matters unrelated to the quality of debate and decisions. As long as there is a perception that we are too big, and as long as it appears that we are unalert to the issue and not doing something about it, we will be criticised by the media and others.

It is true that the size of the House is not something that keeps most citizens awake at night—we should remember that—but to say that is to miss the point about our vulnerability to media criticism. We remain vulnerable so long as we are so big and, equally important, as long as we are seen not to be tackling the issue. We have to address it. Tackling size is necessary, but it is not sufficient to address how we are seen. We need to do other things, not least on standards. However, doing something about size is a good and necessary start.

Does the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee provide a solution? Yes. It may not be the ideal, but I doubt if we will achieve that. As has been said already, it is important that the best is not the enemy of the good. The report before us provides a sensible and ingenious way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues are to be truly congratulated on devising a scheme that is within our gift. It is not dependent on legislation and therefore not dependent on Government support and time, or indeed the support of the other place. We can make progress; we should make progress; and it is important that we are seen to make progress.

I appreciate that it will take time to reach the goal set in the report, but it is important to begin the steps necessary to get there. If we say no, there is nothing realistic to be achieved. In this Parliament, it is this report or it is nothing. I remind your Lordships that in the Parliament of 2010-15, the Government came up with a major scheme of reform. It never made it out of the other place. More incremental reform was pushed by Members of this House, especially the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber—I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Cormack and, in his absence, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. This was achieved in the form of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015. We cannot expect to get legislation during this Parliament to tackle the size of the House, but we can again achieve incremental reform, this time by our own efforts. We should grasp the opportunity; we must grasp the opportunity. We cannot wait for another Parliament or the one after that.