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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 3:29 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee on producing an excellent report which I welcome with great enthusiasm. When I was a teenager, a long time ago, I used to think that all the problems of the world could be dealt with at one fell swoop—the big bang theory, let us just get on with it. I have learned wisdom since then and I much prefer a piecemeal approach. This report is a good reflection of what I think is a piecemeal approach. Many of us, in the fullness of time, would like reforms to go further, but for the moment it is as good as we can get: for heaven’s sake, let us get on with it. If I give voice to one or two reservations, it is only to say that I have those reservations but I am prepared to drop them in the interests of getting this report accepted. For example, we might, one day, think that 600 is too large and 450 might be a more effective number, but getting there would be too difficult and I think the committee was right to say 600.

I appreciate that an elected Chamber, which is what I believe in although I think I am in a minority, was not in the committee’s terms of reference. I simply mention it in passing so that those outside groups that are lobbying hard will not think I have sold the pass, except for many years. There are, of course, other ways of getting the numbers down which have not, perhaps, been fully mentioned. I was not here for all of the debate this morning but when we eventually get on with making the decision of what to do about this building and we move out, maybe that will be a good excuse, or pretext; a lot of people, I believe, will want to retire then. In a way, some of the work of this committee will be done for it if we can only get on and make a decision about the future of this building. I have talked to lots of colleagues from all parties and they all say, “Yes, when our day comes we will probably want to retire from the House”. It will happen that way.

In 1999, when we reduced the number of hereditaries, I was in Northern Ireland for much of that time so I did not follow it all, but I think the decision was for the hereditaries in each party group to vote for the retention of some of their members. That is how we got it done and I suppose one way of naming that would be “a circular firing squad”, which has its merits—it is rather quick, but it can also be rather painful, so I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, did not suggest that.

I think my noble friend Lord Foulkes said this morning that there was a confusion between the titles we get as working Peers and the titles that are given as honours. The report actually takes note of that and suggests a way forward. I have found it very difficult, over the years I have been here, to explain to people that I did not get an honour to be here, I am simply a Labour Party hack who became a working Peer. People say, “Oh, it must be an honour”. I say, “No, it is not”. It is a silly argument to have but it is a confusion we ought to get rid of and I think we can do it without detracting from support. At one point I made a suggestion that colleagues thought was a joke, but I made it quite seriously. At that time, in one of the many debates we had on the subject, I suggested that if people wished to retain their title they should leave the House, and if they wanted to stay in the House they should drop their titles. I think it would work. I am not suggesting we weaken the report by going down that path; I just threw it in because we want a debate about all these issues.

I have just one or two quick comments. I notice that the report, very sensibly, says that Cross-Benchers will retain a certain, fixed percentage of the total membership of what will then be a smaller House. I was told this morning by the right reverend Prelate that the Bishops are here under obligation because of statute. I wonder, however, whether they would not be able to voluntarily reduce their numbers in the same way that the Cross-Benchers do. I seek in support of that Appendix 5, which talks about “Unusual circumstances”:

“Second, parties may for whatever reason refuse to take up their allocation of appointments”.

I am not saying the Bishops’ Bench is a party, but maybe it could do it voluntarily to keep in line with what is happening.

Finally, as regards the remaining hereditaries, we have a wonderful Bill put forward by my noble friend Lord Grocott. We should accept that Bill—it would not detract from this report. There are lots of things that we can do ever so quickly—please let us get on with it.