House of Lords: Membership - Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 21st May 2018.

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Asked by Lord Adonis

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy on the future size and composition of the House of Lords in the light of the list of new Peerages published on Friday 18 May.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, as I was looking forward to telling the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, tomorrow in response to a topical Question that he tabled on Friday, the Government are committed to working with others in your Lordships’ House to address its size. Noble Lords will no doubt be aware that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister wrote to the Lord Speaker on 20 February to set out the Government’s position in more detail, and a copy of that letter is in the Library of the House.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for answering the Question—I am his most fervent admirer; he once described us as two herbivores in a world of carnivores—but I am surprised that the Leader of the House is not in her place to answer a Question on a matter on which she is clearly and supremely accountable to the House.

When the Labour Party left office in 2010 as a majority Government, Labour had 26 more Peers than the Conservatives. Now, as a minority Government, the Conservatives have 63 more Peers than Labour—more than twice as many—and the Prime Minister has just published a list of Peers with three times as many Conservatives on it as Labour. Does the noble Lord agree that this is a clear and flagrant breach of the constitution? Why does he think it justified for the Conservatives to have 63 more Peers than Labour? When the Prime Minister said that Brexit was about “taking back control”, did she mean the Conservative Party seizing control of the state in the interest of the Conservative Party alone?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

As the noble Lord will know, I have been answering questions about the composition of the House of Lords for some time; that is why I am in my place answering this one. On his main point, there is no constitutional concept that there has to be some degree of parity between the main opposition and government parties in your Lordships’ House. The Prime Minister has shown commendable restraint; it is the smallest Dissolution Honours List since 1979. If one looks at the number of Peers who have retired, one sees that 50% of those retiring from the political groups have been Conservatives. Even with these new appointments, my party will represent only 31% of your Lordships’ House. I do not agree with the accusation made by the noble Lord about unfairness.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 3:09 pm, 21st May 2018

My Lords, this House has already accepted the principle of reducing its size. On 20 February, the Prime Minister’s letter to the Lord Speaker regarding the Burns report described the current list as a legacy issue but said that in any future appointments she would,

“allocate them fairly, bearing in mind the results of the last general election and the leadership shown by each party in terms of retirements”.

In fairness, I suggest that it should be about departures whether by retirement, resignation or by those who have died. On these Benches, we have lost 12 colleagues since the last election, more than any other group in your Lordships’ House. The Burns report recommended that the appointment of Peers should reflect departures—two out, just one in—and better reflect the votes at the previous election. I have been clear that we are ready for that, including all departures and appointments since the 2017 election. When will the Government genuinely make the same commitment?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

So far as reducing the size of the House is concerned, if one puts on one side the appointments which the Prime Minister inherited from David Cameron and the hereditary Peers by-election, there have been 59 departures and 21 appointments since she became Prime Minister. That is well within the two-out, one-in ratio recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. So far as representation is concerned, my party got 42% of the votes and we have 31% of the membership of your Lordships’ House. Compared with some other parties, I maintain that my party is still underrepresented in your Lordships’ House.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, if the Burns report is to be implemented, it is crucial that the Prime Minister follows its proposals when making appointments. The letter from the Prime Minister to which the noble Lord referred simply says that she will operate with restraint and allocate peerages fairly. Could he encourage her to give a firmer commitment to the Burns principle if he wishes other parties to support it going forward with the same degree of enthusiasm as we have in the past?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

With respect, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has exercised restraint. I note that in the 2010 Dissolution Honours List, Nick Clegg insisted on 11 former Lib Dems becoming Peers, so there was not much restraint then. So far as going forward is concerned, the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that there will be no more automatic peerages. As I have said, if your Lordships look at the number of Peers appointed since she became Prime Minister, the House is now smaller than it was then so she is on track to deliver that commitment. What we are still waiting for is some retirements from the Liberal Democrats.

Photo of Lord Burns Lord Burns Chair, Lord Speaker's committee on the size of the House

My Lords, over the weekend the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, tweeted that the Lord Speaker had welcomed the composition of the new list. He clearly did not read what the Lord Speaker actually said; the only thing he welcomed was the Prime Minister’s ongoing commitment to restraint in appointing new Peers, which provides such a contrast with her recent predecessors. As the Minister has pointed out, the 21 life Peers appointed since the last election is the smallest number of appointees in the first year of a Parliament for perhaps 40 years. Does he agree that what is important now is to arrive at an understanding for departures and appointments for the remainder of this Parliament and, furthermore, that this should be closely in line with the framework set out in the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee, which was overwhelmingly welcomed by the Members of this House?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to the noble Lord not just for his helpful intervention but for the work which he and his committee have put in. I understand that he is continuing that work. Yes, I did read the comments made by the Lord Speaker, as reported in the press, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has shown restraint. Tony Blair appointed 374 new Peers—including the noble Lord, Lord AdonisDavid Cameron appointed 245 and Gordon Brown appointed 34, so two years in the Prime Minister has indeed shown some restraint and I think that we are on track. The noble Lord set out targets for the individual parties to reach by 2022, and those are challenging targets. As I indicated a week ago, some groups and parties within the House are making progress but not all of them.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee

On the subject of fairness, raised by the Liberal Front Bench, if the political parties were represented according to the results at the last general election, will my noble friend indicate how many of the Liberals would have to leave this House?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I do not have the mental capacity or the bandwidth to work that out. Fifty? Sixty? Any advance on sixty? [Laughter.] I notice some jostling for position on the Liberal Benches. I am sure that by the time the House rises someone will have worked out the exact proportion and how many Liberal Democrats ought to go.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

I think the noble Lord, Lord Young, will find himself on pretty thin ice if he is suggesting that there has been some kind of fairness between the two major parties over the last couple of decades and the last few Prime Ministers. I remind him that when Labour came into office in 1997, with a majority of around 170 in the House of Commons, it had a deficit of around 250 to 300 in comparison with the Tory representation in this House, and it took nine years, until 2006, until Labour even became the biggest party in the Lords. They of course were the only nine years in the Lords’ history when the Labour Party has been the biggest party. It took the Tories just four years after 2010 to reassert their traditional position of being the biggest party in this House irrespective of the results of general elections. So the Minister needs to be a bit more cautious in talking about the peerage-awarding powers of Prime Ministers when Labour has been at such a massively consistent disadvantage.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I take the noble Lord’s point, but the base from which the two parties were starting in 1997 and 2010 were totally different. That is why it took the Labour Party longer to catch up.