House of Lords – reduction in the number of PeersJanuary 6, 2015
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for tabling this very timely debate. I wish to declare an interest as the youngest Member of, and a relative newcomer to, your Lordships’ House.
In my brief four or so years as a toddler here, it has occurred to me that any discussion of how this place should be reformed ought always to start on the basis of what it is for rather than primarily the process by which its Members are chosen or how long they stay. As a member of the general public, before I came into the House I had little idea of what it was for, grouping it simply under the vague heading of representatives chosen to help govern this country.
In my time in your Lordships’ House it has become evident to me that our primary function is that of a revising Chamber—a place in which to amend and suggest improvements to laws produced by elected representatives in the House of Commons, whose primacy over this House is enshrined in conventions around the treatment of finance Bills, in the ability to force certain Bills through under certain conditions and through party manifestos, and in deciding what laws the Government of the day want to have debated in each parliamentary Session.
In a real sense, and bearing in mind our wider modern audience, we function as a kind of human Wikipedia for the laws of this country, suggesting changes and improvements to legislation that may, for whatever reason, have been created less than perfectly in a hurry to respond to some crisis, scandal or tragedy, or without real historic knowledge when similar laws were drafted many decades ago, or even without relevant life experience. In the main, we perform this Wikipedia function well, and for relatively little cost compared with other countries, drawing on the long expertise of our Members and their interests and activities in and beyond the House both current and in the past.
That is not to say that there are not issues. We are perceived to be too big, at least for the start of each day’s Questions and major events. That brings a cost, although it should be noted that full-time senators and their staff would cost more per head. And some might argue that, given that our peerages are for life, we are not as accountable as Members in the other place, although that very much depends, I suppose, on how safe your seat is as an MP. All that provides ammunition for those who would like to abolish this House and replace it with an elected senate with fixed terms, even though the constitutional challenge of which House would ultimately then become the more powerful of the two over time as a result would have to be definitively addressed.
However, the question before us today is not whether this modern-day human legislative Wikipedia should have its contributors—or, rather, moderators—elected on the basis of popularity but how we address the size issue, which in turn has an impact on our costs, and potentially on how accountable we are, if not to an electorate then at least in terms of how much of a contribution we make while we are here. This in turn ultimately, for now, in my view comes down to how long Members remain in this House, whether legally or voluntarily, given that your Lordships’ House operates—in many ways like Wikipedia—largely on a voluntary and self-regulating basis.
So how should we reduce the number of those attending the Chamber? As the youngest Peer, one might feel tempted to argue for a cut-off based on age. However, I am fairly firmly opposed to this route. As a revising Chamber we need expertise in, and experience of, every activity in life, whether drawn from current or past endeavours in business, government and civil society, from people who would have been or were elected in the past, as well as from those experts who would never dare stand and would much prefer to devote their energy to their own field of science, art or the humanities or to other activities rather than be in the glaring limelight that is the staple of the modern-day elected representative. To force Members to leave simply because they are too old would cut us off from such expertise and would also, in my view, be unfair on those who enter this House later in life, having therefore only a few years in which to serve.
Another route is to go for fixed terms—say, of 15 years. Again, for similar reasons to those I have just given, I think that we would miss out arbitrarily on experience that can take a lifetime to build, not least of drafting legislation, since economies and policy often move in decades-long cycles. Nor am I convinced that fixed terms—nor, for that matter, an arbitrary age limit, which, given life expectancy, would have to be increased periodically—would help us to address the immediate question of reducing the number of Peers attending at peak times unless destabilising and drastic action were taken to implement such terms straight away or the age limit were set impractically low.
My proposal would be quite simply, and with possible small amendments, to invite Members of the House who had served the longest to voluntarily semi-retire by convention as active attendees of the Chamber and to become in effect honorary life Peers, retaining the ability at certain times of the year, such as post the Sovereign’s speech, to contribute if they wished—namely, to reduce the size of the House using tenure as the primary criteria. This proposal would be simple, objective —there can be no dispute about when someone entered—quick to implement and fair, since everyone would get a shot at sharing their experience. It would also, I believe, address to a large degree the concerns in general that exist around our size, our cost and even our accountability. In my view, knowing that your time will be up at some point makes you want to contribute fully while you have the opportunity. It is also a continuous solution. Unlike choosing based on attendance, it does not require periodic revisiting and the imposition every now and then of an arbitrary time window in which to assess attendance levels. Finally, it retains the idea that we remain Peers for life, with all the independence of thought that that brings, even if those who have been here longest voluntarily participate only at certain times of the year.
With the kind assistance of the Lords Library, I have run an analysis of average tenure. Through a voluntary reduction of the kind I have described, shrinking the House to 650 core Members—bearing in mind that not all of these would attend every day, so this would translate to a lower number of active Peers —would still give an average tenure of around 19 years. The raw data are available in the Library for those who want to run their own analysis. The average tenure would of course increase if the cap were higher than 650. With a lower cap, I fear that we would, sadly, lose a lot of experience, which is why I suggest that by convention certain debates, such as those post the Sovereign’s speech, be reserved for honorary life Peers to continue to contribute to. Such Peers, or retirees, would remain influential by continuing to be on the Estate, contributing informally as part of the wider activities that take place in Parliament.
I would very much welcome thoughts and feedback on this suggestion, and indeed I should like to ask the Leader of the House and fellow Peers what views they all might have of such a scheme. There remain issues that would need to be worked out, such as how this might apply to the hereditary Peers and what would happen if, theoretically, hundreds of Peers were brought in quickly over a five-year period, which would radically shorten the average tenure of the place. Then there is consideration of how such a move might affect the composition of Peers among the various political parties.
In my view, Bishops should be appointed on the same basis as operates today. For life Peers, leaving would be triggered whenever new life Peers were appointed. My initial thinking around hereditary Peers is for a similar tenure system to operate as with life Peers, but that when the longest-serving Peer due to leave upon the appointment of a new Peer is a hereditary Peer, the hereditary Peer is replaced using the same electoral system already in place but with the next longest-serving life Peer being invited to retire and to become honorary to allow the incoming life Peer to take their place. In effect, hereditary peerage elections would be triggered upon a particular hereditary becoming the longest serving Peer in the House overall and when a new Peer is appointed.
To address the issue of the House being flooded, which many argue rightly is the prime cause of our current size issue, it may be that we need to recommend a reasonable cap on how many can come in each year, although I suspect that this would need primary legislation and support from the Government of the day, which might not be politically feasible.
Much as it is difficult, we need to change as a House in order to safeguard what is special and effective about it. Change is difficult and I think that in addition to what I have suggested, and regardless of whatever method we ultimately choose to pursue, we need to support Peers in the big transitions both into and out of this Chamber, so that lives can be reconfigured and prepared for the changes that are involved. I have spoken about this on previous occasions and supporting transitions is an area in which we could do better generally so that it is less stressful not just for those of us in this House but for the increasing numbers in this country entering the period that we now call later life.
Reducing the size of this House through tenure remains the least worst of the options being explored currently. It may be that ultimately we need a combination of a very high age limit—if we must, although I would prefer to not have one—plus a tenure system with a high cap, and modifications to procedures of the House to arrive at a practical solution. As such, the suggestion of an options paper by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is most welcome. It could well be that such a process leads to a suggested age limit of, say, 85 or 90, with an average tenure of 25 to 30 years, with processes in place to ration suggested attendance at Questions and, on top of that, inviting fully non-attending Peers to become honorary life Peers straightaway. We might arrive at a steady-state number of 650 to 700 Members, of which 400 would attend almost every day. The key for me is that tenure is a key part of the mix and that the losses incurred in terms of experience to the House from other methods are minimised.
I ask the forgiveness of Peers who might object to my or other Peers’ suggestions in this area but, as others have mentioned already in this debate, if we do not act voluntarily now to address this in some effective way, legislation to force it feels sadly inevitable. Let us, come what may, act now so that change is not brutal and sudden for any of us, but that it is appropriate, in line with what we are here for, and effective. Let us, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, change now, so that we do not have to, “go gentle into that good night”.