We need fewer but better engaged members of the House of Lords
The House of Lords | PA Images
The House of Lords plays a crucial role but our numbers are too high. It must be populated by members willing to play their part in proceedings
On Tuesday 29 September I had the great honour of being one of Sir Patrick McLoughlin’s supporters when he took his seat in the House of Lords. For me it was a moment of real nostalgia. I first met the new Lord McLoughlin when I visited the Cardinal Griffin school in Cannock during my election campaign in 1970. His headmaster wanted me to meet one of his younger pupils who was very keen on politics. He was indeed and I promised that his class would be the first I invited to Westminster in the event of my winning. I did and they came.
Just 10 years or so later he appeared in a miner’s helmet in one of the most iconic election posters when he was campaigning to be the Member for Bilston. Within a couple of years he had succeeded Matthew Parris as MP for West Derbyshire. When I left the Commons in 2010 he was opposition chief whip and destined for even higher things.
He will be a great reinforcement to our benches in the Lords. He comes in at a time when the House of Lords faces greater challenges than at any time since the reforms of 1999 – and on many fronts.
Every one of the prime minister’s near-40 new Peers has had, or will receive, the courteous welcome extended to everyone who enters our House. Some will bring a refreshing new vigour to the place. But we do have to reduce our numbers so that we are no larger than the Commons. This was the unanimously agreed conclusion of the committee under Lord Burns, established by the Lord Speaker and subsequently endorsed by the whole House without a division.
I am one of those who believes very strongly in an appointed House. An elected chamber would inevitably become a significant challenge to the supremacy of the Commons. It would also be a much more partisan and political chamber without the large number of independent cross-bench Peers, and it would be shorn of the experience and expertise which is the distinguishing feature of the Lords.
The obstacle to a reformed appointed second chamber is the executive. It refuses to consider plans to reduce our numbers by obliging those who play little or no part in our proceedings to retire and, even more important, by declining to accept a self-denying ordinance on the number of new Peers. A peerage could be an honour conferred without the automatic right of sitting in the second chamber; or newly appointed Peers could, as bishops do, wait to be introduced until a vacancy occurs.
Because the House of Lords scrutinises legislation infinitely more carefully than the Commons – securing hundreds of improving amendments to government legislation each session – and yet, at the end of the day cannot frustrate the will of the elected House, there is no risk of prolonged deadlock. All this is thrown into sharp focus by our current problems.
The Covid parliament is a one-dimensional parliament. Recent debates show how restricted the hybrid House is; there is no opportunity to frame legislation that is having a more blighting and restrictive effect on lives and activities than was inflicted on wartime Britain. Although we go through the motions, there is no real opportunity to hold the government to account. There is no chance to intervene. Nor is there any of that spontaneity which is a hallmark of debates in normal times.
We do, of course, still have the ultimate weapon of delaying legislation for up to a year and, if the government really does persist in a measure that would allow our executive to break international agreements, that is the ultimate option we might contemplate.
We live in interesting times and Lord McLoughlin joins us at what could come to be regarded by historians as a crossroads in our parliamentary history – one where the House of Lords could be called upon to play a crucial role.
Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and Life President of The House magazine