Just over twenty years ago, the then Sir Patrick (now Lord) Cormack and I formed the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber to press the case for reform within the House to strengthen it in fulfilling its functions. The House carries out well its role in legislative scrutiny, facilitated by its composition (collectively, no one party having a majority, and individually, with members who have notable experience and expertise) and its procedures (all amendments being considered, no programme motions, any peer able to contribute at committee stage, amendments taken at Third Reading). We also have procedures that the House of Commons does not for scrutinizing delegated legislation, at both the input stage (Delegated Powers Committee) and output stage (Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee). The House also has a valuable range of select committees. Nonetheless, we believe we could strengthen how we operate – a view widely held by members, and the House does undertake reviews leading to reform (we have just introduced a new select committee structure) – as well as address criticisms levelled at the House. There is little public understanding of what the House does and what views are held often derive from the activities of individual members – the same applies to the Commons – and what funding is provided. Some people appear more aware of the attendance allowance than of the collective work of the House and what it does to ensure that law is good law or at least less bad than it would be were it not for the work of the House. The Lords adds value to the political process. Those who claim it is a significant cost to the public purse fail to look at the other side of the ledger. How do you monetize improvements to the law of the nation?
As the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, we have campaigned to strengthen the House through a series of reforms. Our manifesto was in effect embodied in the House of Lords Bill, which I drafted shortly after the group was formed. The Bill had four main parts:
To put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis
To end the hereditary peers’ by-election
To remove members who committed to serious criminal offences
To enable peers to retire and to remove those who fail to attend
The Bill was introduced as a Private Member’s Bill in the name of Lord Steel of Aikwood (a senior peer, not associated with either main party) and we were successful in getting it debated on Second Reading in July 2007. You can read the debate here. Although widely supported, there was not time available to make progress and the provision to abolish the hereditary peers’ by-elections was opposed by a small number of hereditary peers. Since then, we have pursued the component elements of the Bill. In 2014, we were successful in getting the House of Lords Reform Bill – enabling peers to retire, removing those who fail to attend, and expelling those convicted of serious criminal offences – on to the statute book. One of our supporters in the Commons, Dan Byles, was successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills and introduced it; he was energetic in building support for it and ensuring Government acquiesced in its passage. The following session, one of our number, Baroness Hayman (who had been the first Lord Speaker) successfully steered the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Bill on to the statute book, extending the power of the House to suspend members and introducing the power to expel a member, a power (unlike the Commons) it did not have.
There is still unfinished business. We have campaigned to reduce the size of the House. Although more than 100 peers have made use of the provisions of the 2014 Act to retire, we are still too large. In 2016, we tabled a motion ‘that this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved’. The motion was debated on 5 December and agreed without a division. In response, the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, established a committee under Lord Burns to recommend ways to reducing the size. Although the committee came up with proposals designed to get the numbers down – including a two out, one in provision – the Prime Minister has not shown the restraint necessary in creating new peers to help slim the size of the House.
Not unrelated, we continue to favour putting the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis. To that end, I drafted a Bill to achieve that. I was unsuccessful in the ballot for Private Member’s Bills at the start of the session. I have, however, been able to introduce it as an unballoted Bill. It had its formal first reading last Wednesday. There is an outside chance that there may be time for a Second Reading debate before the end of the session – it is way down the queue in term of PMBs awaiting Second Readings. However, there is good news in that I have been successful in getting a Question for Short Debate (QSD), which will be taken during our September sitting, asking the Government what plans they have to put the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis. This will provide a platform to make the case for the Bill.
You can read the Bill here. It embodies the principles embraced by the Campaign and which are widely supported in the House. The leading lawyer and cross-bench peer, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, has tweeted that it can expect wide support in the House. There is still a long way to go. The barrier to achieving change is not the House of Lords, but rather Government. The minister in the Lords, Lord True, recently said in response to a question about reform of the Lords that the Government do not favour piecemeal reform. Well, I do and it is piecemeal reform, unlike grand schemes of reform, that has proved successful this century.