House of Lords: Reform - Question

– in the House of Lords am 3:07 pm ar 1 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Llafur 3:07, 1 Mai 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what proposals they are considering to reform the House of Lords, in particular with regard to the size of the House.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I start by sharing the sadness at the sudden death of Lord Stunell.

The House of Lords plays a crucial role by scrutinising, debating and holding the Government to account. However, reform, including in relation to the size and membership of this House, is not a priority in this Parliament.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Llafur

My Lords, I will ask a very simple question. Due to the ageing nature of Labour’s membership of the House, we are now down to as few as 100 Labour Peers regularly attending proceedings. Meanwhile, the Government are openly challenging the excellent and well thought-through Fowler-McFall reforms with a stream of their own introductions, bringing the Conservative membership to nearly 300. If a Labour Government are elected, how can we possibly secure the public business against a background of such overwhelming odds? Is the Government’s strategy to fill the House to capacity and make it difficult for Labour to appoint without further breaching the reforms?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I thank the noble Lord for his Question. On the numbers, we now have 787 Members. The Conservatives have 277 Members, 35% of the House. As the noble Lord points out, the Labour Members are fewer: 172 Members, 22%. But the appointments that have been made, which he referred to, have not changed the dial. It is still hard for the Government to get their business through the Lords, and the numbers fall a long way away from the make-up of the House of Commons, where 53% are still Conservatives. Our priority is to ensure that this House continues to play its important role in scrutinising and revising legislation, which is what the country wants the House of Lords to do.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I thank the Minister for paying tribute to our dear colleague, Andrew Stunell, whom we have lost.

Given that the Government have no time left in this Parliament for fundamental reform—I agree on that—why have they continued to appoint Peers at a rate that clearly prejudices any claim the House has to be generally representative? There have been 74 new Peers. Is the Government’s intention to maintain a situation in which they can always dismiss the views represented by the House of Lords when it is arguing with the Commons, on the grounds that we are not sufficiently democratically representative?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I did not give the Liberal Democrat numbers, but there are 80 Liberal Democrat Members—10% of the House—which is a lot more than in the House of Commons. It is important that we continue to refresh the Benches in this House. There has been a good process of parties encouraging retirements at the right stage. Sadly, we lose people; we have just lost Lord Stunell, and we lost Lord Field last week. It is necessary to continue to make appointments, and it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to advise the sovereign as to who should join this House. There have been some recent appointments to the Labour Benches, which I very much welcomed.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Financial Services Regulation Committee, Chair, Financial Services Regulation Committee

My Lords, further to that last question, is it not the case, as my noble friend pointed out, that the one party overrepresented in this House is the Liberals? Is it not also the case that the Government lost at least two votes this week because of people voting remotely?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

The noble Lord is right that it has been an extraordinary week in that we have had such close votes. I agree with the general sentiment of what he is trying to say. What is really important about this House—people who admire this House say the same—is that we have a different, unique mix of expertise, age, where people come from and the jobs that they have done; some are part-time while others, such as the Front Benches, turn up regularly. That makes for better legislation and better policy-making.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My Lords, I express from these Benches our sadness at the loss of Lord Stunell, a dedicated public servant; our thoughts are with his family and friends, and especially his friends and colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Is the Minister comfortable with the fact that when Labour left office in 2010, there were 24 more Labour Peers than Conservative Peers serving in your Lordships’ House, while today, after 14 years of Conservative government, there are over 100 more Peers on the Government Benches than on the Labour Benches? Does she think this disparity is in the interests of the House?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

It is important that the House is refreshed, and I have already explained that the current Prime Minister recently encouraged Labour to put forward candidates for peerages—I am particularly pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Hannett, with whom I used to work when we were in retail together. The numbers change over time. There are large numbers on the Cross Benches as well as on the party Benches. We have to make sure that we scrutinise the legislation, do our job and refresh the House from time to time. I am grateful for the work that all the parties have done in encouraging retirement and supporting new people to join this House with new perspectives.

Photo of Lord Trees Lord Trees Crossbench

My Lords, in considering changes to the House of Lords, many advocate an elected Chamber. But I suggest that it is usually good practice, before determining the composition of any group, to first consider its function—function before form. I think many would agree that the function of this House, as articulated by the Minister, is as a scrutinising, revising Chamber to make legislation better. In considering that, does the Minister agree that an appointed Chamber, as now, is better placed to deliver that function than an elected Chamber?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I agree that an elected Chamber has problems, because there would inevitably be a clash with the Commons and indeed the devolved legislatures. An appointed Chamber allows the Commons to prevail constitutionally and serve constituents across the country. Reform is not ruled out in the longer term but we have been very clear, certainly ever since I joined the Front Bench, that we should not have piecemeal reform and that any reform should be very careful, considered and comprehensive.

Photo of Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I remind the House of one of the greatest reforms of the House of Lords, which I am sure the vast majority of noble Lords agree with, brought in by a Conservative Government—the Life Peerages Act in the 1950s.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I agree with my noble friend, who always has good historical angles, that the Act was a great move forward. Many of us who are lucky enough to serve in this House benefit from that excellent constitutional change.

Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Non-affiliated

My Lords, surely our objective is the reduction of the number in the House, which is continually criticised outside this place. Can we not revisit the excellent report submitted some years ago by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who is in his place? Can we not persuade Governments at least to abide by that report or stop complaining about the size of the House?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee did, but a number of Administrations have not signed up to those recommendations and have not wanted to move in the direction of a cap. I think I understand why. You want to focus on the number of Peers who attend, not simply the overall figure. As I have tried to explain, we have a mixture of full-time Peers and some who contribute only occasionally but bring unique insights to what they do. It is a little unclear, when people are made Peers, whether they will not come very often—which is certainly what I intended when I became a Peer—or end up contributing in a very substantial way, particularly at different parts of their career.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister talked eloquently about the important role of this House, but why will the Government Front Bench not recognise that public opinion on the role of this House and the quality of its work is diminished badly by the criticisms of its size and the appointments process by which people get here? Will she not reconsider her view about piecemeal reform, which is the only way we ever get anywhere in this House, and look at having a statutory appointments commission with proper scrutiny powers over appointments?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

There were a lot of points there. There are many ideas for reform, some of which have a lot of merit, but to take the final point about making HOLAC statutory, I do not favour that. It is the prerogative of the Prime Minister and the sovereign to appoint. We really value the work done by HOLAC and its new chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, in ensuring the propriety of proposals that come forward, but we do not believe we should move the composition of the House away from nomination by a democratically elected person to a more corporate model. That would be a mistake. On the popularity of the House of Lords, when you talk to people about the work we do, they are much more understanding. We need to get about and explain the work we do in revising legislation and in helping the country to come to better conclusions on matters of policy.