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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:33 pm on 19th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative 5:33 pm, 19th December 2017

My Lords, almost exactly a year ago, your Lordships expressed the very clear view that the House of Lords was too big and ought to be reduced in size. At that point, there was clearly a danger of the whole thing being kicked into the long grass. We are therefore deeply grateful to the Lord Speaker for having taken the initiative and set up the Burns committee. Its report has almost universally been said to be extremely fine.

The report builds on the basic idea of a 15-year term, which had not been enormously advocated previously. It is very positive, although almost all the bases it is founded on are negative. There is to be no government majority, no length-of-service limits, no compulsory retirement and so on. There has been very wide support in the House this afternoon. We will need to check Hansard to see exactly how wide, but my impression is that support is at a level to which the Government should pay due attention in deciding where we should go next. I very much hope we can make rapid progress on implementing the report.

I was worried that there might be some opposition to the report from those who are still much preoccupied with having a wholly elected House. I was therefore heartened by the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who expressed a clear view that that should not take precedence over what is obviously a very important reform. The fact that it will make your Lordships more acceptable to the wider community does not mean that one cannot go ahead with the reforms simply because one would rather have a more radical reform. I am glad that that is so.

The Lords is concerned at its size. We need to ask why it should be cut. There are arguments about resources; the difficulty of getting in at Question Time; the fact that a larger House means stricter time limits on speeches; and so on. The Whips are able to cope with those problems but, at the same time, we need to recognise that the Lords can make progress only if it has the co-operation of the Government. It emerges clearly from the Burns report that there has to be a balance between the number of people who volunteer to retire, on the one hand, and the creation of Peers by the Prime Minister, on the other. It is important to stress that, if one is fit and still able to take part in your Lordships’ proceedings, making the decision to retire is very difficult. You seek to make a marginal reduction in the number of Peers by retiring, but even on the basis of two out, one-in it is not a very significant change. It is difficult to give up the great privileges that one has as a Member of your Lordships’ House if one’s action is not effective because it is countervailed by action taken by the Prime Minister.

It is therefore very important indeed that we should have, without too much delay, a clear statement by the Prime Minister—it is, in a sense, her area of responsibility primarily—and the Government that they will clearly curtail new appointments, and impose a cap of the kind proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. I hope the Government can make progress on that without too much delay.

The timescale envisaged by the report is that we will get some way to a steady state within 11 years. I think that is a reasonable objective and shows that we are determined to have a more effective chamber, as the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber has consistently said, and that we can bring about a reform which will establish this House on a far firmer basis than it has at present.