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House of Lords (Hereditary Peers) (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:29 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Burns Lord Burns Chair, Lord Speaker's committee on the size of the House, Chair, Lord Speaker's committee on the size of the House 10:29 am, 13th March 2020

My Lords, I am speaking in this debate because I am asked from time to time whether the reform in this Bill would help to meet the proposals made by the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House. I chair that committee, which continues to meet. We met again this week to review our position on this Bill. As a committee, we agreed that, since the Lord Speaker asked us to come up with non-legislative solutions, it is not within our remit to take an official position on the Bill. However, I can say that we as individuals do not oppose the Bill and some of us, including myself, are in favour of it.

For me, the decisive issue is that it is unreasonable that some positions in this House should be filled by candidates from such a narrow hereditary group. We accept that some talented people have joined the House through this route, but they could have come through the normal processes of party recommendations and HOLAC appointments. We acknowledge that the effect of the Bill is small and does not address wider questions about the future of this House, but it follows in the footsteps of the 2014 and 2015 Private Members’ Bills that made small but crucial improvements to the House. In my view, this Bill falls into that category.

Last autumn, the figures for appointments and leavers were not too far away from the committee’s targets in aggregate, even though the balance between the parties strayed somewhat from our suggestion. But now, it appears that any restraint seems to be at risk. The change in Prime Minister produced a resignation list and we understand that, following the early general election, a dissolution list is forthcoming. Taken together, they are in danger of undoing all the progress that was being made on reducing the size of the House.

Relevant to this Bill, the long-term solution to our problem of size is hindered, as was said, by the continued existence of hereditary by-elections. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, pointed out, hereditary Peers are not subject to the two-out, one-in formula, which the committee argued should guide the reduction in the size of the House. They are replaced one-for-one. Secondly, over the longer term, by-elections inhibit the rebalancing of the House; as political trends change, the allocation of the hereditary spaces in the House between the parties is set in stone. As we warned in our first report, by-elections use up some of the Conservative and Cross-Bench notional allocation of appointments, which could otherwise go to life Peers. I note that, during the last short Parliament, between 2017 and 2019, there were only three HOLAC appointments to the Cross Benches, yet there were three by-election appointments to the Cross Benches during the same period.

Amid this renewed concern about the size of the House, I close by emphasising that the most important question for me is not how quickly we reach our target size but how we stop it constantly growing, while also refreshing and rebalancing the membership. The underlying problem is that life membership means that only about 20 to 25 of our Members leave each year. The committee suggested non-renewable terms of 15 years for new Members to provide more scope for appointments. Without changes like this, it will be impossible to refresh and rebalance the membership as political trends change without seeing the size of the House creeping ever closer to the 1,000 Members that we mentioned in our report.

Our committee will continue to seek progress in this area and scrutinise the performance of the groups towards the departure targets. Meanwhile, my position, along with that of many others, is that we should welcome this albeit minor Bill and the valuable improvements contained within it.