The House of Lords – how we can make it more effective
December 5th, 2016 | Posted in Uncategorized
There was a debate in the House of Lords today on the following motion: “That this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved.”
This was my contribution to the debate:
“My Lords, I start by congratulating my noble friends who lead the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. That group’s discussions and the debate we are having today show that there is a consensus that we must make some changes to the House of Lords so that our important work remains relevant to the modern world. In doing so, we should have an eye to the message of change that many voters rightly associate with the Brexit result.
My message is that we—your Lordships—have all the power we need to make positive change happen. In this debate, the premise is that the size of the House is the problem that needs addressing and that we should explore options to reduce it. But we need to be careful about addressing symptoms before tackling the cause of this perceived problem. We cannot escape the fact that there are 400 fewer of us than there used to be overall, yet more of us attend more frequently. So, before taking steps to reduce the size of the House, we need to consider some basic questions. First, why are more of us attending more often? Secondly, why do we hear disproportionately more often from the same colleagues? Thirdly, how can we ensure that more of our colleagues with current and fresh professional expertise contribute to our work so that we do the best possible job of revising and improving the legislation before us?
This House is at its best when it is not overtly party political and when it works together to find solutions in the public interest. I would like to believe that all of us agree that we owe it to the people we serve to come up with some honest, non-partisan answers to those questions. I think the source of those answers lies in us reaching a consensus and clarity over this House’s purpose. I believe that our purpose is to complement the House of Commons and give people confidence in the laws that Parliament makes. That is why we are doing all this revising and scrutinising. But the fact that I cannot articulate that purpose, or any other, and know for sure that all Members of this House endorse it and are genuinely signed up to it is what will put our future at risk.
It is not by chance that the media now routinely ask how a piece of legislation will fare in this House. I am not seeking to lay blame on any side of the political divide for that—I am not. We all—and I include the Cross-Benchers and the bishops—have to accept some responsibility for the inescapable reality that for the past 15 years or so this House has become more political in its behaviour. Too often one side of the House is frustrating the will of the elected Government because it can; while the Government are so focused on getting their legislative programme through at all costs that they struggle to discern when to stop and listen.
I fear that if we start down a path of change towards a goal marked simply, “smaller House of Lords”, we could compound that problem yet further. Fewer of us attending more frequently would diminish our range of expertise, and using election results to determine the numbers in this House would encourage us to be even more political—with the result that it would be hard to tell us apart from the House of Commons. We would have all the vices without the virtues.
However, if we could reach consensus on what the House of Lords exists for and unite in promoting that purpose, I truly believe that we would become more effective. That is because it would become clear to everyone that the motive of this House collectively, wherever any Peer sits in this Chamber, is to improve—not block or hijack—legislation for the benefit of the people of this country; in other words, it would be clear that all noble Lords believe that the value of this House lies in its important constitutional role, which is different from that of the more political House of Commons. The other place should be more political because only it has the authority that comes from democratic legitimacy.
My noble friend Lord Cormack has expressed the urgency of us taking action. The action I urge is for all noble Lords to encourage my noble friend and distinguished successor the Leader of the House, the Lord Speaker, the other party leaders and the Convenor to seek consensus and clarity over this House’s purpose. That is what we need to be a more effective second Chamber. We hold all the power we need to make change happen. We just need to agree what this House is for and be united in working towards that common public purpose.”