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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:47 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Turnbull Lord Turnbull Crossbench 3:47 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, in the absence of a vote on a Motion, speaking in a debate is the only way we can express a view, even though it makes for a degree of repetition. Nevertheless, I register my strong support for all three main propositions in this report: a reduction in the size of House to around 600 Members by two out, one in; once that is reached, terms limited to 15 years; and allocation of places to fill vacancies to reflect the general election results.

The beauty of this approach is that it is consistent with a House that complements the Commons rather than duplicates it and scrutinises legislation while accepting the primacy of the Commons. For this role, I believe an appointed House is more appropriate than an elected one, better still if, as this scheme proposes, a mechanism is built in to incorporate over time the changing balance of power at the ballot box. However, for those who still hanker after an elected House, no options are closed off, so that argument for delay fails.

There are several loose ends, particularly around those groups whose numbers are set by legislation. First there are the Lords Spiritual. In the new arrangement, they would become even more overrepresented, but they bring one vital element: they have the best geographical coverage, in England at least—a domain in which this House is weak. Eventually, as they recognise, a permanent solution is needed which reduces the number of Bishops while providing for other faiths. In the meantime a solution which retains their ability to speak for their region and to operate their duty rota would be an understanding that they would exercise restraint in voting in their full numbers.

Next, there is the position of the hereditary Peers, which will become even more anomalous. Some may argue that we should not do anything until we can legislate for this. I take the opposite view. We should make progress where we can. In the meantime the position of the hereditaries will become so indefensible that the wise among them—and there are many—will come to accept legislation to end by-elections. Some may argue that this would violate the 1999 agreement, but that agreement was recognised as an interim agreement pending major reform. This is major reform and 20 years is a decent time for an interim solution to run.

Next, there is a loophole. Someone who has been urged to retire by their party group should not be allowed to dodge the bullet by becoming non-affiliated or, worse, eating into the Cross-Bench quota.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I believe we also need to make a much clearer distinction between the honours system, which recognises people’s past service, and membership of the Lords, which should be a commitment to future service. Former Ministers and MPs bring vital experience to this House, but long-serving MPs should not be rewarded with an honour unless they commit to serving in this House in the same way as other people. In my view, the suggestion of honorary peerages perpetuates the confusion. What is the logic, in the 21st century, of giving someone a life title in return for a fixed-term appointment? I personally look forward to a world in which honours and offices are recognised only by letters after one’s name rather than by name changes

Finally, we need to recognise that just as we would be acting voluntarily, so too would the Prime Minister. Some may advise her not to surrender any degree of patronage, on the grounds that she might need it if the Government were having difficulties securing their business. However, although swamping the House is never going to solve that problem, it would do damage to the reputation of the House. There will be a great deal of detail to sort out, but I believe this debate has demonstrated a clear message to the Government and a clear mandate to take things forward.