Recently the Government sensibly stepped back from the ill-advised proposal to limit the House of Lords' ability to scrutinise secondary legislation. Today, in a Debate responding to the widespread concerns amongst Peers, it will have the opportunity to take action to curb, not the powers, but the size of the Lords.
That the House is bigger than it needs to be, is unarguable: nearly 900 members, almost half as large again as the House of Commons, and increasing at an alarming rate - 261 new Peers in the last six years alone: 374 in the decade before that. A number of reports have analysed the size of membership necessary to fulfil all of the House's functions. None has suggested that the House's ability to maintain its current high standards of scrutiny, investigation and challenge would be impaired by reducing its size to below 600.
When challenged over the size of the House, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, put the ball back into the Lords' court, suggesting the House should sort out its own problems and reduce its numbers through the new procedures to permit retirements. We believe there is a widespread consensus that much more needs to be done; the House's membership should not exceed that of the Commons; that the place of the independent cross bench Peers should be preserved at 20% of the total membership, that no political party should have an overall majority. And importantly that the House of Lords Appointment Commission should have a role in assessing the suitability of political peers nominated by the Prime Minister and other party leaders.
But crucial to implementing the reduction in the size of the House (and we do not underestimate the complexity of that task), will be imposing a firm cap on the absolute size of the House. Put bluntly, Peers will not agree to a cull of current numbers only to find they have merely created space for a new wave of Prime Ministerial appointments.
So the issue of the prerogative is important here as in other current debates. A cap on the size of the House is effectively also a cap on the prime minister of the day's prerogative powers. We believe that curtailing the exercise of patronage is an essential element in rebuilding public trust in the Lords.
As the first two elected Lord Speakers, over the last ten years, we have had the opportunity both to observe the quality and the effectiveness of the work of the House and of the damage done to its reputation by the widespread perception that its size is indefensible. We believe that the current method of nomination of political peers is outdated, and lacks the transparency and safeguards necessary in the 21st century.
There is a groundswell of opinion in the Lords that urgent action needs to be taken to protect the reputation of the House and the valuable work that it does. Experience shows that reform of the Lords is most successful when incremental. Reducing the size of the House is a reform needed most urgently. We should take action now.
Rt Hon Baroness D'Souza CMG (Lord Speaker 2011-2016)
Rt Hon Baroness Hayman GMB (Lord Speaker 2006-2011)Suggest a correction