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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 4:25 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, that is a daunting finale to follow, but I am delighted to follow the noble Lord. This morning when I left my Select Committee meeting to come to the Chamber, the special adviser said, “Are you off, then, to save the House of Lords?”. To be honest, I had not thought about it in that way, but that might actually be where we are.

In the public’s eye, as far as the House of Lords goes, size matters. There is clear evidence both from polling and from the media that when Prime Ministers of the past—I shall not name any names—stuffed the House with Members and it grew, public confidence in the House immediately dropped markedly. Today we have a real chance to do something productive to help ensure that that vital public support for the House continues. As the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said, it might be one of our last chances. Not only do I wholly support the excellent and cunning report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns—he is, and has been for many years, very cunning—but I believe that failing to implement it would be a further nail in our reputational coffin.

I confess that I would have liked the target size of the House to be smaller: 400 seems to me to be plenty, especially if all Peers are involved, committed and here. I would like to see the end of the charade that is the hereditary Peers’ elections, so I will put forward a proposition. I know that it is enshrined in legislation, but if we are in the spirit of committing to voluntary reduction and change, why cannot the hereditary Peers—or the wider electorate, if that is the case—simply take the law into their own hands? If the electorate for the hereditary Peers’ elections simply refused to vote, we could get a system of two out before one in very rapidly in that field as well.

In common with many Members of the House, I believe that we have to get started. The Burns report is an excellent start, and we should simply get on with it. Much depends on the honour of the Prime Minister and successive Prime Ministers, which is a rather uncertain ask. We need to have some sort of orchestrated precision system, a bit like—for noble Lords who have seen it—the system for exchanging spies in the movie “Bridge of Spies”. We will march out our outgoing Peers only when we see that the Government, and other parties, are marching out theirs and that the PM is not flooding the House with new appointments. I can see Westminster Bridge as the site for re-enacting that process. Noble Lords who have not seen this movie really ought to; it is an extremely good one, almost as good as the movie of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which is one of my favourite movies of all time. Let us get on with this: there is no time to lose.

Before I finish, I will talk about age. I am really old: I am 69. A woman should never lie about her age and that is the real one. That is the average age of noble Lords. The biggest age band in this House is 71 to 80 year-olds; 108 of us are over 80 and only four are under 40. There are 39 between 41 and 50. The average age of leaving is 83. When I first came to this House, I used to think that the bishops looked a bit old—but now, with their admirable retirement age of 70, the bishops are the youngest group in this House. More than half of this House is over 70, so I am now going to fall into the trap that I fell into in the first year when I came here. My noble friend Lady Jay, were she here, would remember that at that stage she was Leader of the House. We had a small soirée in her apartments here, and I raised the question of whether we should have a retirement age of 70.

It has taken me 16 years to get over that. Again, when the hustings were afoot before we elected the last Lord Speaker, I tentatively expressed the view that it was a shame that all three candidates were over 70 and that two of them, although wise and noble, were considerably over 70. So I know that I will not win many friends by what I say, but if we are risking the repetition of the House by being “large and bloated”, we can also be represented as being “very old”.

I know about wisdom. We all hugely value—and I feel privileged to be in the presence of—the wisdom that is demonstrated by many of the older Members of our House. But wisdom and age do not universally go hand in hand. We need to be able to reflect and understand the needs of the population right across the age groups and not be out of touch—so we need more younger Members. To say that younger Members will not have the requisite experience, gravity and understanding is belied by the current Leader of the House, who was a mere babe in arms when she arrived. Indeed, she still is, but none of us would not recognise the wisdom and the contribution that she makes to the House.

So I hope that those who will finagle the retirements in this House will make sure that we start to address this issue of age, and I hope also that those who finagle the appointment of new Members to the House will also bear in mind that we need younger Members.