When I took my seat in the Lords as a very nervous 21-year-old, Manny Shinwell, the redoubtable Labour peer, welcomed me with the words ‘I knew your grandmother Nancy. She was a rebel like me. Enjoy yourself. You won’t be here long before they chuck you out.’ Forty-two years later I am still here — perhaps past my sell-by date. The House of Lords is bursting at the seams. The numbers must come down. And yet David Cameron must appoint more peers in the forthcoming honours list.
Every Prime Minister in history, from Harold Wilson with his ‘lavender list’ to Tony Blair with his cronies, has caused controversy when creating peerages. Cameron’s new peers will probably be no different, however carefully the names are chosen then vetted by the Lords Appointments Commission.
Even so, he has a problem, which is that Lords is so stacked against the Conservatives that to achieve anything like a working majority he would have to appoint far too many peers to an already overcrowded second chamber. Peers now overflow into what were visitor seats. Question time is only for those who can bellow the loudest. The House of Lords is second in size to only the Chinese People’s Congress and is the only parliamentary second chamber in the Commonwealth that is larger than the first. It cries out to be reformed.
The Lords has made some reforms. Peers convicted of a criminal offence can be thrown out, as can those who act inappropriately in their parliamentary duties. I did once, slightly tongue in cheek, try to argue that we should welcome them back to rehabilitate them into society. I was roundly attacked by the Lib Dems, who I thought were the caring party.
The coalition government in the last session of Parliament tried to implement the Clegg plan: a bizarre mixture of elected and appointed, with different classes of peers receiving different remuneration, but it was quite rightly thrown out by the Commons before it reached the Lords. It is respectable to argue for either an elected or an appointed second chamber, but Clegg’s plan fell between the two and satisfied no one.
Labour want an elected second chamber, which is not very popular with their own peers. It is entertaining to recall how Labour politicians such as Prescott and Hattersley, who were loudest in deriding the place as out of date, now feel most comfortable on the red benches.
What is to be done? If the House of Lords is to survive it has to come up with its own solution, but one that is acceptable to the Commons and the main political parties. Above all, it must, in time, reduce to about the same numbers as the Commons. The Blair reform of the Lords cut the number of members to 690; that has now crept up to 789, with more to join shortly. One could impose a retirement age of 75, the same as High Court judges, or make it 80, to be slightly more generous. Or one could impose a lifetime attendance limit of 30 years. Wherever one draws the line, there are always going to be a few whose contribution would be sorely missed.
One suggestion mooted was to remove peers who have not spoken. What a ghastly thought. It would mean every peer trying to speak on every issue to retain their seat. I would much rather get rid of the few peers who never stop speaking.
Perhaps the Prime Minister could agree to only appoint one new peer whenever two retire and so, over a period, cut numbers? To make a difference, we would have to persuade many more to retire than do now. A lot will depend on the behaviour of the opposition parties. Not having a majority is not necessarily unworkable. During the Wilson and Callahan years, Labour were outnumbered in the upper house. But the Conservatives, who had a theoretical 484 peers, more than double the 193 Labour peers, were careful never to push too hard, abiding by the Salisbury convention not to vote down manifesto commitments and flagship bills.
The test will come this autumn, when important government legislation starts arriving in the Lords. Will Labour behave? Will the Lib Dem peers try to make up for their lack of clout in the Commons and join Labour to defeat the government, thereby forcing the Prime Minister to consider creating yet more peers? We will see the alternative is either a mass creation of peers or more likely total abolition. Many MPs don’t see the need for any second chamber, a view that may be shared by many of their constituents.
Whatever happens, I would rather keep an appointed second chamber. We don’t need yet another type of elected representative diminishing the role of MPs in the Commons. We do need a second chamber to scrutinise legislation and ask MPs to think again when necessary.
A retirement age of 75 would give me another 12 years in the Lords. A 30-year term or the removal of the last 92 hereditary peers would see me chucked out.
Whatever happens, I’ve had a good run. Manny was only half right.
William Astor is the fourth Viscount Astor and sits in the House of Lords as an elected Conservative hereditary peer. He is also David Cameron’s stepfather-in-law.