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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:56 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench 3:56 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, as other noble Lords have rightly done, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the members of his committee on the imaginative and thoughtful way in which they undertook their sensitive task. Their report proposes an evolutionary development of your Lordships’ House that addresses some key concerns, and in my view it does so in a way that strikes a good balance between a number of conflicting tensions. It will not satisfy everyone, but no proposal ever could. It clearly leaves some people feeling dissatisfied on certain points, but that is the nature of a successful compromise—and I suspect that a compromise is what most people seek.

However, we should start by reminding ourselves that we are addressing changes to an institution that by and large has worked very well over the past few years. The most important measure of success in an organisation is to be found not in its internal structure and processes but in its output, and the output of your Lordships’ House—most obviously its scrutiny of draft legislation and the detailed investigations of its committees—has been workmanlike and valuable. Some would argue for a second Chamber with other tasks and wider powers, some for a more biddable House, but these are deeper constitutional issues than we are meant to consider today. Within its present remit, your Lordships’ House has, I believe, performed its tasks well. Some might ask why, if it works so well, we should seek to change things. The question, and it is a very important question, is whether the House could continue to be successful under arrangements that were more efficient and more acceptable to the citizens whom it serves and who, rightly, sit in judgment on it.

When one examines any successful constitutional arrangement, one can never be quite sure why it works. It is an accumulation of intellectual theory, historical accident, social development and, above all, a nation’s sense of itself—of its internal mythology, if you will. That is why experiments that have sought to transplant the precise constitutional system of one nation to another have so seldom been successful. Uprooted from the soil in which it has grown, any given system seldom flourishes elsewhere. We should therefore be cautious in changing our own arrangements, odd though they might seem to an outsider. Our constitutional system has grown and evolved in our national soil, and evolution is not about what is best but about what works.

However, evolution, while gradual, is also a continual process. Just as with organisms, organisations that do not adapt and evolve usually die out. I believe that what is proposed in the report before us today is a sensible evolutionary step. In my view, the key problem that it addresses is not the present size of the House as such. Under the committee’s proposals, the numbers active in this place at any one time may even become greater than they are now. The problem is, rather, the potential of an unbounded system eventually to reach proportions that are deemed absurd by anybody’s measure. The report therefore introduces boundaries, and sets out ways in which these could be achieved and maintained.

In doing so, the report draws a number of lines—for example, the idea of a 15-year term. Whenever lines are drawn, one can always find unfortunate cases that fall just the wrong side of the line. Moving the line does not alter this; it simply changes the identity of the unfortunate cases. If we are to move to a bounded system—and I believe that we should—we will introduce some consequences that are unwelcome. This is inevitable.

I believe that the report before us strikes a sensible balance in this regard. Of course one could argue with the quanta that it sets—but similar arguments would be made even if a different set of numbers were chosen. It is not comprehensive, and it leaves unanswered several difficult questions, many of which have been touched on today. We shall need to return to these in time. But as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, learned at an early age, if we seek to solve all problems at once, we end by solving none. We should remember that evolution is a continuing process, not an end state in itself. The proposals in the report represent in their own right a significant step forward, and I support them.