Bishop of Birmingham supports move to reduce the size of the House of Lords

birmingham-211016c On the 5th December 2016, the House of Lords debated and approved a motion from Lord Cormack “to resolve that this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved.” The Rt Revd David Urqhart, the Bishop of Birmingham and Convenor of the Lords Spiritual, spoke in the debate, supporting the motion. 

Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I am pleased to be able to contribute to this important debate and am grateful to the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, in which we are allowed to participate from time to time, for bringing it to us today. I am also grateful for the remarks of the noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have already spoken. I have written down that I share their widely shared view that the House is too large, and I shall start on that point.

We have realised in recent debates, particularly those led in the past couple of months by the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Elton, that arriving at a satisfactory mechanism for achieving the best number for and the highest quality of the second Chamber is no easy task. We can and should, as we are doing today, grasp the opportunity to take responsibility ourselves for reducing the size of the House as best we can. We have already heard several suggestions for the best number: the same size as the other place—about 600; the number of 450 proposed by the Labour Party; or even a smaller number. We already have voluntary retirement, but in any new arrangements the reduction of overall numbers by compulsory retirement will also be ineffective unless there is restraint on appointments. This point was already made in some detail.

I am sure that more will be said today about who should make up the composition of your Lordships’ House, in what proportions and how they should be selected and appointed. My main point today is to remind us that the Lords spiritual have been capped by statute since the middle of the 19th century to the number of 26. Also, there is automatic retirement at the moment that a Bishop leaves their see or at the age of 70. Following the excellent reminder from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, the Convenor of the Cross Benches, we are unusual in that we are appointed by the Almighty and dismissed by the Almighty but with time for amendment of life before we have to face the Almighty. Clearly, while we remain in the House we do so with enthusiasm, participating on the basis of our full-time jobs in the regions. In the context of this debate, we fully participate in a sense of proportionality, in that the size of this Bench should be in proportion to the size of your Lordships’ House in future.

Of course, the number is not the only issue. This is particularly important when we remind ourselves, as we have already, that the work of the House is about revising, scrutiny and, sometimes, challenging. To achieve that, it is desirable to have the widest and most skilful and knowledgeable expertise available from all regions of the country participating in support of the democratic process of this legislature. In this, there is a vital contribution from the Cross-Benchers and independent Peers. As has already been pointed out, much of this has been rehearsed as far back as the White Paper of 2001, in the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and—as just mentioned now—the Bill of 2012. A welcome new critique was offered by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza—I look forward to hearing her remarks later in this debate—on not only the effectiveness of some of our arrangements but also the strain on services and administration under the current size of the House.

It is clear that there is no pain-free option, and there is a need for all sides to give a little in order for the upper House to function better. There is in some of the proposals an opportunity for a working group or, as has been mentioned, a Select Committee of all parties to agree a mechanism. The Lords spiritual on this Bench are more than willing to participate in achieving a fully working reform of this House.


Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Leader of the House): [extract] My Lords, I am grateful to everyone for their contributions to the debate and to my noble friend Lord Cormack for securing the opportunity for us to discuss this important matter. Today’s debate has shown that across the House there is a strong desire to ensure that we continue and, indeed, improve the way we perform our critical scrutinising and revising role. What has also come across loud and clear is the concern noble Lords have about the public’s perception and understanding of the work of this House. This evening has reinforced to me that many noble Lords believe that the size of this House presents problems on both counts…

… Following today’s constructive debate, we have an opportunity to make progress. It is clear that there is strong feeling across all Benches that the size of the House is an issue of concern and that noble Lords want to continue discussions about how we might address this, although I think it is also fair to say that there is not currently clear agreement on what a solution might be. In further discussions about our size, it will be important that we reflect on the work we do and how we can do it more effectively. As I have said, I am clear that any further reform must enhance our role as a Chamber of scrutiny and revision and that we must continue to be able to draw on a wealth of expertise and experience. I will reflect on the comments made this evening and consider how best to take matters forward. I will of course want to speak with my fellow leaders, the Convenor and the Lord Speaker, to consider the best approach.

As I have made clear, if we are to make any progress on this issue, we have to do it together as a House. The way forward will not be instigated, led and imposed by government alone. A number of noble Lords have suggested a Select Committee as their preferred way forward. As the House will know, we have a Liaison Committee which oversees Select Committees and is currently seeking submissions for next year’s ad hoc committees. That may well be a route that some of your Lordships wish to pursue. I would also like to consider whether a more immediate, practical step could be taken in convening a small, Back Bench-led consultative group whose work could be overseen, for instance, by the Lord Speaker. Such a group would be well placed early on to look at pragmatic options for progress on this issue, analyse their implications and identify the important questions that need to be resolved so that we can go further. Obviously, I will discuss this further in light of today’s debate, and I will bear in mind the strong desire that noble Lords have expressed for this to be a process led by Members. As the noble Baroness said, for any proposals for reform to have a chance of success, they will have to command broad consensus around the House.

I have heard the clear call from today’s debate and from the broader discussions that I have had in my time as Leader for a renewed momentum to have constructive discussions about our future on this issue. Although I come to this debate afresh, I am struck by the strength of feeling across the House on the need to try to make progress. I am encouraged that the debate today has set us on our way in a welcome spirit of partnership.

Given the focus of the debate on Lords Reform, several mentions of the Lords Spiritual were made throughout the debate, which are reproduced below:

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: …There are other ways of looking at this issue that have not been mentioned. An obvious point would be to support the Bill proposed by my noble friend Lord Grocott and end by-elections for hereditary Peers. Some of us would go further and end hereditary peerages altogether and the Bishops’ Benches, but that would require legislation and is just a personal view…

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: …It is not by chance that the media now routinely ask how a piece of legislation will fare in this House. I am not seeking to lay blame on any side of the political divide for that—I am not. We all—and I include the Cross-Benchers and the bishops—have to accept some responsibility for the inescapable reality that for the past 15 years or so this House has become more political in its behaviour. Too often one side of the House is frustrating the will of the elected Government because it can; while the Government are so focused on getting their legislative programme through at all costs that they struggle to discern when to stop and listen…

Lord Cunningham of Felling: …The details of the proposals will best be decided by a Select Committee of this House, which can thoroughly study all the issues, take evidence, listen to witnesses and come to a series of consensual conclusions—I believe this is possible—which protect party and Cross-Bench balance and, I might say, the Lord Bishops too. That is what our aim should be, and it is in the interests of all of us—Parliament and government—that the unnecessarily large number of Peers is reduced…

Lord Tebbit: …I hope I will be forgiven if I try to say a lot about a complex matter in a very short time. My proposals for reform of the House are based on these considerations. First, it should not be directly elected by the country at large. Secondly, it should be reduced in size to about 600 to 650 Members. Thirdly, the power of the patronage of the Prime Minister should be reduced. Fourthly, the composition of the House should be decided afresh, immediately after the forthcoming general election, and it should reflect the outcome of that election. Fifthly, there should be provision for the Bishops and the Cross-Benchers. Sixthly, the governing party should have about 250 Peers, of whom 20 would be nominated by the Prime Minister, the remainder elected by and from among the Peers of that party or parties. Seventhly, the Opposition should have 240 Peers, 20 nominated by the Leader of the Opposition and the others chosen by election among the sitting Peers of that party or its allies…

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: …Like others, I support looking at removing the voting rights of those who fail to attend on an agreed percentage of days over, say, the past two or three years. If one looks at the figures, one sees that some Peers attend less than 10% of the time, a lot of whom I could name. In fact, the worst attenders are the Cross-Benchers and the Bishops. They are hardly ever here compared with others.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Noble Lords should look at the statistics and they will find out that is the case. If we had a criterion of 40% attendance over the past couple of years, that would reduce the number substantially. A criterion of 30% attendance would also reduce the number to well below 600 Members. If we structured the criterion carefully on attendance, we could achieve the requisite number…

Lord Lisvane: … In his book The English Constitution, published in 1867, Walter Bagehot said—or rather, he put the words into the mouth of a stooge—that,

“the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it”.

Nearly 150 years later, we may reasonably amend that to say that the cure for criticising the House of Lords is to go and look at it: to see exacting scrutiny of legislation, not just of primary legislation but crucially, and uniquely, of the huge body of secondary legislation; exploration of subjects that the House of Commons, for very good reasons, does not have the time to debate—the debate initiated by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on Friday is an excellent example of that—authoritative examination of policies and issues through an energetic and respected Select Committee system; and the ability to ask the House of Commons to think again without challenging the primacy of that House.

Lord Scriven: …Let us think about it. What democratic legitimacy do we have to decide whether this House has a majority of government or not? What legitimacy do we have to decide whether the independents have 20% of the seats in the House? Why are the Bishops given a privileged status in this House, given that we are a multicultural country?…

The Earl of Kinnoull (CB):…My second point concerns the drivers of that growth. Obviously for the Bishops and hereditaries there is no growth. The Appointments Commission, with its wonderful record of success, is now rationed to just two people a year, which is not enough to keep it going. Sixty-two Members have come through that route; people are not going to live long enough. That is a problem.

The Earl of Glasgow (LD):…Apart from the Bishops, hereditary Peers like myself and some of the Cross-Benchers, who are chosen by the Appointments Commission, appointments to this House are nearly all made or approved by the Prime Minister alone. He or she hands out peerages to distinguished friends, powerful political supporters and ex-Ministers whom no one else knows what to do with.

Lord Haskel (Lab)…Conceivably, your Lordships could take things into their own hands, for example by introducing new Peers only when we think there is a vacancy. In a way, this happens with the Bishops.