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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Judge Lord Judge Judge 5:21 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, I support the Burns report. With respect to those who take a different view, the case for reducing the size of the House of Lords is overwhelming and unanswerable. Many different reasons have been advanced this morning and this afternoon, and I share them—but there is this to be added. We are virtually facing a constitutional absurdity. This House has its responsibilities—its constitutional responsibilities—but the other place has the ultimate power. The House with no ultimate power—this one—has significantly more Members than the House down there, with powers, has.

You can argue as long as you like about all the justification for that situation, but in the end, I respectfully regret, you cannot avoid concluding: how can this be? What kind of situation has allowed this to develop? It does not matter how it has developed—I shall come to that in a moment—but we have to do something about it, or to put it the other way, something has to be done, to address what I would say is very close to an absurd constitutional situation.

How has that come about? My favourite quotation has been pinched by the noble Lord, Lord Grade, and my second favourite has been pinched by—forgive me, I cannot remember which Conservative Peer quoted it, but it comes from Macbeth. Now I have dredged up another one. John Dunning, in 1780—a bit of history lightens the mood, does it not?—when we were making a complete Horlicks of the American war of independence, led a resolution in the House of Commons, to the effect that,

“the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished”.

That is precisely why I support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Burns.

The influence of the Crown has increased in so many ways relating to our constitution as a whole. If I had time I would set off for a long journey, but I do not. Let me relate it to this issue. Mr Blair and Mr Cameron as Prime Ministers exercised the royal prerogative. I respectfully suggest that their exercise of it was so wide, so deep and so numerous as to come very close to an abuse of our constitution. If the monarch had exercised her prerogative—in medieval times it would have been his prerogative—in that way, he would have suffered the fate of Edward II or Richard II. They did not do with it. We now face a situation in which we have come close to a constitutional absurdity, and there is no measure except prime ministerial self-denial that can interfere with this exercise—an abusive exercise, in two cases—of prime ministerial power. We do not have the power; the Commons could, on an Act of Parliament—but who is going to introduce that? So we have to persuade, encourage, cajole and ask the Prime Minister to address this constitutional absurdity.

In 1719, a proposal was put forward from this House by the Duke of Somerset that there should be a cap on the number of Members of the House of Lords. The suggestion was 235; in those days, there were 345 constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland. Everybody agreed except the Commons. Here we are again, 300 years on; in our ancient constitution, 300 years is but the blink of an eye. And what we are really proposing—or what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is proposing—is that there should be a cap on the number of Members of the House of Lords. There are 54 weeks to 2019. Why do not we celebrate the 300th anniversary of the issue first being proposed by implementing it?