24 January 2020
By Lord Fowler
We need the whole-hearted cooperation of the Government to reduce the size of the House of Lords, writes Lord Fowler
Personally, I am in favour of the Government’s proposal to have a Constitution Commission whose terms of reference will include reform of the House of Lords. Goodness knows there are enough issues to consider in this area. There is however one danger in establishing such a Commission; it could easily mean that issues that can be dealt with now are put off and postponed.
You can almost hear ministers replying to probing questions with “I am sure that this very important matter can be considered by the Commission in due course”. What will not be said is that implementation of the final report is likely to be two or three years down the road. So, let me set out two urgent issues where we do not have to wait.
The first is the size of the House of Lords itself. My chief hope had been that the Prime Minister would follow the course of his predecessor, Mrs May, who pledged herself to “moderation” in new appointments and that he would adopt the formula set out by the committee I established under the expert chairmanship of Terry Burns. I fear that my hopes may soon be dashed.
If the leaks are to be believed, then Labour have nominated eight new peers. But they are just the Labour-nominated peers and the Government will also have their own nominations which could well be double that of Labour. In addition, two new ministers have been introduced to the House. It could mean that in the few weeks since the general election there will have been around 25 new appointments and the total number members in the Lords will have been pushed up past 800 once again. This will have been in spite of the efforts made by the House itself, without the benefit of Government legislation, to curb this excess.
My argument against new arrivals is in no way personal; I assume the list will include obvious candidates like Ken Clarke. My primary concern is one of numbers. Put simply, we do not need a House of 800. The target set by the report of the Lord Speaker’s committee was 600 members, and there is an argument to be made for a House of 500. But to achieve either of these totals we would need the whole-hearted cooperation of the Government.
It is both unsustainable and unfair for peers to retire, only to find that they are immediately replaced by a Prime Minister who appoints more than the number who have departed. The dissolution honours are now all but water under the bridge but after that, I would advocate an effective moratorium on new appointments until the commission has completed its work.
There can be a few exceptions, such as front bench appointment, but the general approach should be one of reduction, not increase.
The second substantial change that can be made now is in the process of appointments. Currently, the House of Lords Appointments Commission has the duty to check on the propriety of appointments on matters such as financial background. What they do not have (with the exception of a small number of so-called people’s peers) is the duty to check whether prospective peers know what their work obligations will be when they enter the second House.
This is not just a question of speaking in the chamber on major debates. It is also the often-unreported scrutiny work during the committee stage of bills. It is membership of select committees which is both time-consuming and important. It is the voting in divisions and carrying out the important roles which enable the House to function, like Deputy Speakers.
It is demanding work but not always recognised by new peers on entering the House. I remember a new peer coming to see me only days after being introduced and confessing that he/she had no idea of what membership of the Lords actually involved or what hard work it was.
In my experience, when you look at the record of members turning up to the House, most take their role seriously. However, in the 2017-19 session, there were over 100 members who took part in fewer than 10 percent of divisions.
One newspaper took the issue further and claimed that one in nine peers did not participate in any House of Lords business whatsoever. Doubtless, some of the detail of such a survey could be challenged but what is difficult to dispute is that there is, unfortunately, a small minority of peers who take very little part in the work of the Lords.
This is not a plea for full-time peers, but it is a plea for new members to understand the obligations they are taking on and the need to make some meaningful contribution.
The obvious solution is for the powers of the Appointments Commission to be widened for all prospective peers; all candidates should be required to satisfy the Commission that they both know what is involved and that they intend to make a contribution.
Frankly, that is the very least that can be expected for members of an appointed House which is part of the national legislature where members make laws and check the Government’s legislative proposals – always remembering that it is the elected MPs who are the final arbiters.
Lord Fowler is the Lord Speaker
You can access the full article on The House Magazine website here.