Lord Fowler: The Lords cannot justify its current size

Posted On: 
16th September 2016

Lord Fowler is determined to make his mark on a House in desperate need of reform. The new Lord Speaker talks to Daniel Bond about cutting the size of the Lords, the Strathclyde Review and why the new government won’t always be getting its way 

Will it spark a round of deselections and a civil war in the Labour party? Will Theresa May’s shaky majority in the Commons be put to the test? What will happen to the former chancellor, now left seat-less? The knock-on effects and long-term implications of the Boundary Review published this week are potentially enormous. 

But one debate certain to be shot back to the top of the agenda is reform of the House of Lords. Labour has put the Lords question at the heart of its case opposing the Boundary Review this week, with shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Ashworth accusing the government of seeking to disadvantage his party by cutting the number of MPs – whilst “at the same time stuffing the House of Lords with 260 unelected peers at a cost of £30m”.

Whether the boundary changes go ahead – and that’s by no means certain – the debate over Lords reform is only likely to intensify. And it’s a debate the new Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, believes the second chamber can no longer ignore.

“At the moment the size of the House hangs over it like a cloud, so anything you do it always comes back to ‘aren’t you too big?’” he tells The House, as we sit down in his impressive new office. “I don’t think that we can justify a situation where you have over 800 peers at the same time as you’re bringing down the Commons to 600 MPs.”

Fowler is only the third holder of a post whose remit is still evolving following its creation in 2006. But while he knows the limits of his powers, the man elected over the summer with some 70% of the vote is determined to make his modern mark on the chamber. “As I set out in the speeches, the hustings, I’m in favour of change. And that’s the basis on which I got elected,” he says.

Fowler speaks animatedly about his ambitions to improve public understanding of the Lords, and about his diplomatic work in building links with other parliaments across the world. But it’s his role as a champion and facilitator of reform that will prove the biggest challenge.

And while he vehemently rejects the tabloid characterisation of the Lords as a ‘bloated’ and archaic institution, he admits the size of the House has become a distraction and must change.

“There is now a consensus in the House, a very broad consensus – not everybody but as broad as you can make it – that the House of Lords is too big and it needs to be reduced in size,” he explains.

“I think apart from anything else it rather takes away from what the House achieves, because people turn round and say ‘you’re the second biggest assembly apart from the Chinese’ or something, that’s always the line.

“We get a lot of stick, we get a lot of criticism. What we don’t get is any appreciation of the very good work that takes place here. One of the reasons we don’t get the credit we deserve is that the size of the House gets in the way of that credit being given.

“There are – how should I put it? – a few passengers. I don’t disagree with that. But the characteristic of the Lords is that it’s hardworking and conscientious.”

So how much of a reduction would he like to see?  “We should certainly not have more peers than there are Members of Parliament. I think that’s a principle that would probably find agreement amongst most of the House,” he replies.

“I would not regard that as a defeat for the House of Lords, I would regard that as a very big asset for the House. If you get rid of the ‘too big’ argument, perhaps the public and politicians can concentrate upon what we actually do, which I think is fundamentally important.”

As “the servant of the House’”, Fowler is clear that it is not for him to decide on the details of reform. But he urges his colleagues to take the lead on this question, and fears that, if they don’t, change could be forced on them from the outside. 

“I think it’s up to the House,” he says. “I think that if it can be agreed as a general principle that the size of the Lords should be under the size of the Commons then I think we can start making decisions.

“But frankly we’ve been faffing around on this for some time now. And my fear would be that unless we take the initiative here someone else will take the initiative – like the government – and seek to force something upon us. I think that would be rather foolish.”

The re-emergence of the debate about the size of the Lords comes just weeks after one of the most controversial peerage lists of recent years. New appointments rarely meet with approval from the press, but David Cameron’s resignation list – dubbed the ‘Dishonours List’ – was particularly badly received, and sparked a round of negative headlines about “cronyism”.

Fowler won’t be drawn on individual appointments, but admits the scope for reform goes much wider than reducing the size of the House. “There are other issues that have to be discussed as well. But I think before talking about prime ministers’ powers and whether there should be checks on that, let’s do what we can do, what in a sense is entirely in our power to do. The trouble is at the moment the first steps haven’t been taken on this. If we do it step by step we’re getting somewhere. But let’s do something. Let’s not just leave it.”

As for the elephant in the room, creating an elected chamber, Fowler is clear he’s highly sceptical. Last month former prime minister Gordon Brown became the latest figure to set out a plan for wholesale reform, calling for the Lords to be replaced by an elected senate alongside a more federal UK structure. 

But Fowler fears the introduction of a wholly or partly elected chamber could create “a recipe for conflict between the two Houses”.

 “When I came to the Lords I accepted the fact that if it came to it the Leader of the House could get up, bang the despatch box and say ‘my Lords, the elected House is down there, this is the unelected House, and you haven’t got the right to hold this up’. And broadly thinking – with exceptions – that seems the sensible way of going.

“If you have two houses that are both elected, and I come to the house as an elected peer, I’m liable to say ‘look my vote is just the same as those people down there’. You run the danger of conflict between the two houses.”

“But all these things are open to debate,” he adds, pointing out that the idea of introducing an elected element to the Lords has its supporters. “I think we should get on with that debate.”

The other big question of reform facing the Lords is over their powers on secondary legislation. Late last year a furious David Cameron vowed to curb the ability of peers to block such measures, following the controversial vote on changes to tax credits.

For opponents of the government the vote was the House of Lords at its best; a revising chamber encouraging the executive to think again on a controversial and ill-thought through proposal. For the government, it was an outrage; a group of hostile Lib Dem and Labour peers running roughshod over convention, ignoring their mandate, and risking a constitutional crisis in the process. “The House of Lords behaved wrongly, deplorably and unnecessarily,” Lord Strathclyde vented as he announced his review, eventually coming forward with a recommendation to end the power of peers to veto secondary legislation.

Fowler approaches the issue with an open mind and, like the rest of the House of Lords, will wait to study the final proposals from the new May administration when they come forward. But he warns the government they “need to be very careful” about how they proceed. 

“It was perfectly legitimate, what happened,” he says. “Let me confess, I voted and spoke in favour of the government measure at the time. But I think the people who opposed it were right, and I was wrong.

“It wasn’t the government saying ‘this is a matter of absolutely crucial necessity, we’re going to bang it through’, because they dropped it, almost immediately. It was voted down in the House of Lords and the government didn’t come back with it, they thought ‘we’re not going to get it through the House of Commons next time, let alone the Lords.’

“But that’s very much the exception, when you get to that stage. The number of times the government gets defeated on something like tax credits is very, very rare, and I don’t think one should overreact to it. Personally I would be pretty cautious if I was the government on this.”

He continues: “I have absolutely no difficulty with the fact that the House of Commons takes precedence. I have no difficulty with that whatsoever. But it shouldn’t mean the unchallenged domination of the executive.

“So we’ve got to find a sensible way through this, without actually reducing the Lords to a position of irrelevance.”

Prime ministers, he says, have in his experience viewed the Lords as little more than an annoyance and a roadblock to their agenda. “I worked with two prime ministers when I was in the Commons, and I think it’s fair to say that both Margaret Thatcher and John Major weren’t concerned really about the House of Lords, they were most concerned about getting their measures through,” he says.

“I remember Margaret Thatcher, on one occasion when we’d been defeated on something or other, saying in Cabinet ‘what’s happened to all those peers that I’ve appointed?’ It was rhetorical question thankfully.

“So there is this degree of frustration in Number Ten sometimes that they don’t get their measures through. But it is now inevitable that governments, whatever colour, are sometimes going to be defeated, because there isn’t a natural majority for any one party.

“I think governments have got to come to terms with that, accept that, and also understand that their arguments have got to be good.”

Part of the problem, he feels, comes from a lack of understanding among ministers and MPs over the workings of the upper house – and that’s something he wants to change.

“I don’t think the Commons, Members of Parliament, fully understand what happens here. I say that as a confession of my own. I was an MP for over 30 years and I had only the sketchiest idea of what took place in the House of Lords. I had bills from time to time when I was a minister. But I really didn’t totally understand how the House of Lords operated, and what it was doing.

“In the Commons I was perpetually voting on issues according to the party whip. Here the party whip obviously matters, but it doesn’t matter to anything like the same extent. It’s not just the crossbenchers who are independent, it’s members from parties as well.

“So I think that in many ways my first role is to try to expand the understanding – of the public, of politicians – on what the House of Lords is all about, and to establish that the Lords is not some remote organisation which doesn’t have really much relevance, but that it has a great deal of independence – probably more independence than the Commons.

“My view is that the House of Lords is a defender of public rights. And if there is a bad argument they’re liable to knock it down.”