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House of Lords: Abolition — [Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 18th June 2018.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact 4:30 pm, 18th June 2018

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The nub of the problem is this: what kind of reform do we want to achieve? Hon. Members who were here under the coalition Government talked about having an elected House of Lords, but they could not agree on one simple solution. The Lords are talking about reform, and I will cover that point in a second.

David Linden talked about hereditary peers. The daft thing is that, with the 92 who are left, it is a halfway house. I understand why people are concerned about the House of Lords and either want to change it or question its legitimacy. In 2016, we had a ridiculous situation when there was a by-election for one of the Members of the House of Lords. A Lib Dem peer, Lord Avebury, died, and seven hereditary peers from around the country were put up for election, but the electorate was only three. How daft is it to have an electorate that is half the size of the field of candidates? It makes a mockery of the process, so we clearly need to look at the situation.

The Government have already gone some way towards trying to lay a path to change. The House of Lords Reform Act 2014 allowed Members, for the first time, to retire or resign permanently. Those who do not attend or are convicted of a serious offence that carries a prison sentence of a year or more cease to be Members. That was not the case before. Again, it is a bit daft and I am glad it was sorted out.

The House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 enabled a suspension running beyond the end of a Parliament to be imposed on a Member, and allowed the House of Lords to expel Members. As part of that process, University of Strathclyde politics students came here, and we discussed the issue with them. Just this morning, pupils of Steyning Grammar School came to do a tour of this place, and went to the education centre—a fantastic resource. Instead of just having a question and answer session with a Member, we sat down and started to look at the options for reform, including abolition. Interestingly, both sets of students unanimously agreed that we should not abolish the House of Lords or elect it. They said we should carry on with appointed peers, but with significant change.

The students looked at the House of Lords and asked why people would be motivated to sign such a petition. They felt that it was because of a lack of understanding: the House of Lords sounds old-fashioned and undemocratic, lacks visibility, is not diverse or reflective of society—people could not relate to it—and it seems to be comprised largely of politicians for life, in effect, with Members moving from one end of the building to the other. Hereditary peers were also a concern. Those students, however, still believed it to be an important institution, which does more scrutiny with a lot of expertise—peers expert in their field and with nothing to lose—so they did not believe that it should be abolished.

How should the House of Lords be reformed? The Strathclyde students said that the bishops should be removed and talked about whether to remove political affiliation—to go totally Cross Bench—but they could not agree how. Again, we come back to the question of how to reform the House of Lords. The students wanted stronger emphasis on post-legislative scrutiny, with Committees looking at laws a year later or so to see whether they are working.

The Steyning Grammar School group had a similar discussion. One student did not believe that we should even reduce the numbers. She made an interesting point: the larger size allows for more diversity and a wider range of opinions. We have talked about how there is not enough diversity in that place, but there is scope. Not everyone turns up for every debate, so there are plenty of opportunities to speak for black and minority ethnic Members or women Members, depending on the subject matter—they are being drawn from a bigger pool.

Everything comes back to what reforms are possible and what reforms are being looked at by the Lords themselves in the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House—the Burns Committee. The Committee has come up with some interesting ideas. It, too, believes that the House is too big—we are talking about 800 Members, which makes it one of the biggest legislative bodies in the world—and recommends that membership should be reduced to and capped at 600 Members, which would bring it into line with this place should the boundary reviews go through later in the year.

The Committee also recommended linking composition of the House of Lords to general election results. It would reduce membership to 600 in just over a decade through a natural system—an accelerated “two out, one in” programme—with new Members appointed for a 15-year term. No party would be allowed an absolute political majority, and a minimum of 20% of seats would be reserved for independent Cross-Bench Members, largely appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The students to whom I was speaking all felt that patronage should be reduced if not removed, so an independent commission should have far greater say in membership of that place.

Political appointments, if there are any, should be shared between the parties. The Burns Committee believes that those should be in line with the result of the previous general election, defined as an average of the party share of the national share and the seats won in this place. That formula and the 15-year term would together ensure that the composition of the House of Lords reflected the country over the medium term.

If consensus can be achieved in the House of Lords, I hope that that would start to bring that place into a semblance of order, though it would not be enough for some, such as those present who have been arguing for election or the petitioner who is arguing for abolition. However, people might start to relate to the House of Lords and see it use the expertise that the Lords undoubtedly have, concentrating on things that need to be done. Given that, we need to understand the concern that the Lords must still, quid pro quo, stay within its existing remit. We should never lose sight of the fact that what matters ultimately is the contribution of peers to the scrutiny and improvement of legislation, and the difference that they can make when doing that.