This has been a fairly busy week – although the House of Commons was not sitting, the House of Lords was. However, the highpoints for me were not related to sittings of the House, but giving evidence to two parliamentary committees. The subject was essentially the same as that on which I gave evidence in January to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, namely the role of the House of Lords.
On Tuesday, I gave evidence, with Lord Cormack, to the House of Lords Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House. We appeared on behalf of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which was responsible for achieving a debate in the House last December, when the House resolved that it was too large and that steps should be taken to see how the size could be reduced. The result was the Lord Speaker’s Committee, chaired by Lord Burns. We spoke to a discussion paper we had produced, which identified ways in which a reduction in numbers may be achieved in the short term (without legislation) and in the long term (by legislation). The committee plans to report by the summer recess.
On Wednesday, I gave evidence, alongside Lord Wakeham and Professor Meg Russell, to the Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernisation of the Canadian Parliament. The Committee is addressing ways of reforming the Senate and was keen to examine the role of the Lords and its relationship to the Commons. The evidence was given by videolink and the session was broadcast. (You can watch the proceedings here.) In my opening remarks, I stressed the extent the relationship is shaped by the second chamber accepting the supremacy of the elected chamber and seeking to fulfil a role that complements the Commons, fulfilling functions that the Commons may not have the time, political will, or possibly resources to carry out. There is a recognition that the Lords does a good job and in my view this is attributable to the composition of the House (collectively – no party having a overall majority – and individually, being able to draw on peers with experience and expertise) and its procedures, which differ in crucial respects to those of the Commons. The questions focused not least on the Salisbury convention.
There was also a concluding question about the greater voting independence of members in the UK Parliament. I drew attention to the evidence I gave to the McGrath Committee of the Canadian House of Commons in 1984, arguing that members needed to recognise that not every vote should be treated as one of confidence. In the UK, we got away from that erroneous view many years ago. Canadian parliamentarians have yet to do so.