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Lord Speaker addresses Cambridge Union

1 May 2019 (updated on 1 May 2019)

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The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, addressed the Cambridge Union on 29 April, considering the role of the UK Parliament's second chamber.

Lord Fowler set out the role of the House, discussed the vital function it serves, and explained its democratic duty to provide a check on government.

I would like to address two questions this evening. First, ‘do we need the House of Lords?' and second ‘do we need a second chamber at Westminster?'

From my point of view as a member of the Lords it is not a bad time to ask those questions. The reputation of the House of Commons – whether fairly or unfairly – is not exactly at its peak. The future of the House of Lords is not foremost on the agenda – but it is just a lull in the battle. Sooner or later the attack will start again.

  • An unelected House of cronies;
  • A home for dodgy party donors;
  • Peers collecting £300 a day for attending Westminster but doing very little in return; and
  • An appointed House frustrating the will of the elected House of Commons.

These are just some of the charges made against the Lords over the last year or so. So, let me try to evaluate the contribution that the House of Lords makes.

Before doing so, let me dwell on some of the profound differences between the two Houses – epitomised, in part, by the different roles of the two Speakers. On the floor of the Commons, MPs stand up hoping that they will be called by the Speaker to ask their question or make their speech. In the Lords the procedure is self-enforcing: members sort it out for themselves. We operate on consensus.

So, the differences in procedure are clear enough but there are also strong similarities. Both Speakers, myself and Mr Bercow, chair our respective Commissions which oversee the governance of both Houses. Most of all - our job as Speakers is not to fall in automatically behind the Government of the day but to uphold the rights of backbenchers to scrutinise and challenge legislation and to discharge those our duties as independently and fairly as possible.

It seems to me that as Speaker I should not seek to be an active politician in the way I once was. I may have been a Thatcher Cabinet Minister and a former Conservative Party Chairman but that was another life. I do not get involved in the political debate on Brexit or indeed comment on whether politicians should go to the State Banquet for the President of the United States. And before you ask yes, I have been invited and yes, I have accepted.

Where I think I do have a right of intervention is whether the President should have been afforded the opportunity to address both Houses of Parliament like so many of his predecessors – like Ronald Reagan who I listened to in the Royal Gallery in 1982 who was not exactly an uncontroversial figure at the time.

Westminster Hall presents a special case. It is the oldest part of our Parliament and the focus of public life on significant occasions. It is where some of the world's most influential figures have spoken. So how is such an honour bestowed? It requires the explicit permission of me as the Lord Speaker and Mr Bercow as the Speaker of the House of Commons. If one of us refuses permission that amounts to a veto. In February 2017 Mr Bercow gave notice, without consultation, that President Trump would not be welcome to address Parliament in Westminster Hall. Let me give two reasons why I was concerned by that decision.

First, I fear it panders to those elsewhere who seek to ban speakers because their views do not coincide with their own. Of course, free speech must be exercised with respect for the law but it is fanciful to believe that this would exclude the President of the United States. Surely it is in our interests to listen to the most powerful leader in the world giving his views on the international position? It also seems to me that if our role inside Westminster is to uphold the rights of backbenchers and their right to free speech it would be ironic to apply a different standard to the elected President of the United States. It is my view that we should not stifle views we may disagree with or shy away from lively debate.

Second, I profoundly object to any attempt to ban the President when he is coming to Europe to mark the anniversary of the “D” Day landings when so many Americans were killed and wounded in defence of our freedom. I was very young at the time of the Second World War, but I remember episodes from it. My experiences were not remotely as serious as the London blitz 30 miles from where I grew up but I remember sleeping under a ‘Morrison' steel shelter to protect us; I remember the factories in our town becoming targets and my mother understandably hysterical when a German fighter strafed the back gardens of the road where we lived. But one of my main memories is of American air crew who were stationed at an airfield near the town. Although I didn't realize it at the time these were the crews of American bombers waiting to cross to Germany. They were young men about the same age as some of you in this room tonight and many, many were killed.

Without their effort we would not have had a free Parliament or have enjoyed free debate for the past 55 years, not to mention the freedom to demonstrate. So, in brief, I find it unacceptable that we should even consider turning our backs on the elected leader of a country to whom everyone in Britain today owes so much. Just as a post script let me add this: as yet the Americans have not asked that an address in Westminster be part of the President's visit. It is our loss.

But let me return to the House of Lords more generally and counter the charge that it is nothing more than and middle-class club.

  • It passed Alf Dubs's amendment to the 2016 Immigration Bill which gave child refugees the opportunity to come the UK and make new lives for themselves here;
  • It voted by a higher proportion than the House of Commons in support of Equal Marriage;
  • It was the first House to authorise the filming of live proceedings in Parliament;
  • It banned smoking in cars that carry children; and
  • In 2016 it intervened on the levels of tax credits and forced the Government to think again.

Against this background my first claim about the Lords is that there are men and increasingly women there who have an experience and skill in their own area which would be foolish to ignore.

Take arts and broadcasting as an example. We have broadcasters like Joan Bakewell and Floella Benjamin, Melvyn Bragg and Michael Grade.

We have internet giants like Martha Lane Fox. We have celebrated physicians like Ara Darzi and Robert Winston (who between them hold more than 50 honorary doctorates and fellowships), and medical professors Ilora Finlay and Sheila Hollins – both former chairs of professional medical bodies.

Or take the law – we have former Lord Chief Justices like Igor Judge and John Thomas, and former members of the Supreme Court like David Hope and Simon Brown, as well as leading practitioners like David Pannick and Helena Kennedy.

We have defence chiefs, leading environmentalists and educationalists, and leaders of business and enterprise.

I could go on but suffice it to say that I know of no similar senate which has such a variety of experience and skill. We have over 300 peers manning select committees examining area of policy that vary from international affairs to HIV and AIDS. Only last week we had Nick True's Committee proposing radical changes to further intergenerational fairness.

Perhaps if we called the Lords a Senate then the point would be underlined. But my first claim for the Lords is that there is here a wide if not unrivalled experience.

My second claim would be independence of judgement. Not in every vote or every case but the Lords is much less run by the whips than the Commons. Many of the issues they consider are issues of judgement. If the minister is thought to have a bad case, he or she will not be saved from defeat simply out of party loyalty. Indeed, we should remember that although the publicity inevitably goes to Government defeats in many of those cases the Government in the end accepts the amendment or redrafts one of their own to meet the case.

The point is this. The vast number of amendments to legislation passed or debated by the Lords do not remotely have the high profile of Brexit. The task of the Lords is the essentially unromantic job of going through legislation from the Commons line by line, checking that points have not been overlooked and that the meaning of individual clauses is clear.

It is low-profile work, but it is vastly important for organisations, commercial or voluntary, outside Westminster that have to live by the laws that are passed. And frankly, the use of the guillotine in the Commons means that whole sections of bills can come through to the Lords largely unconsidered. In the Lords there is no such guillotine.

But having said all this I do not deny that some major issues can place the independence of the Lords in conflict with the Commons and/or the Government.

Governments can be defeated but let us at least consider what actually happens when the two Houses disagree. If the Government is defeated in the Lords, it is not remotely the end of the matter. The Bill then goes back to the Commons and if the Commons stick to their vote then it is returned to the Lords – who, almost always, either immediately or at a later stage withdraw their objection. And they do that for one entirely overwhelming reason. The Commons is the democratically elected House; the Lords is unelected. The elected House has the final say. For example, during the passage of the recent EU (Withdrawal) Act, despite press speculation there was no major stand-off.

So, you might say what is the point of this process? The point is that the Lords have fulfilled their constitutional role as a second chamber in asking the Commons to take a second look. If the Commons keep to their decision, then that is the end of the matter.

Now a popular argument is that all difficulties in the relations between the two Houses would be swept away if we had an elected House of Lords. In the Lords there are members who take passionately opposing views on this – and remember I am independent on such an issue. But allow me to say that when I was first appointed I rather hoped to later become one of the first elected peers.

Today, I would just venture this. Far from reducing the clashes between one House and another it could increase them. At present the recognised convention is that the Commons has the final say. That is something I as an appointed peer recognise and accept. Had I been elected, the temptation would be to say that “my vote is as good as yours” with the result that you risk deadlock. Perhaps a way could be found around this with a piece of legislation, but then you come to a real show-stopper, certainly as far as the next few years are concerned.

The Prime Minister has made it quite clear that there is no prospect of the Government introducing legislation in this Parliament on changes in the Lords – even on changes which are less controversial. And if I was to make a prediction it would be that that would be the same whichever party was in power. No Prime Minister in the middle of the Brexit debate is going to become involved in highly-controversial legislation that has the capacity of gumming up the work of Parliament for months to come.

So, does that mean that nothing can be done to make changes in the Lords? The answer to that is “no”.

To my mind, the most fundamental criticism of the Lords is that with 782 members eligible to participate it is clearly is too big. It is too big and should be reduced. It was in that spirit that I set up a special committee under the chairmanship of Terry Burns, who is now the chairman of Ofcom, and they came up with important proposals which, crucially, did not require legislation – only the agreement of the House. They recommended that:

  • There should be a cap on the size of the House at 600 and that cap should not be exceeded by any Prime Minister;
  • New appointments should be based on the results of recent elections to the House of Commons; and
  • New members would be appointed for 15-year terms and
    that some existing members would be required to retire.

And the really significant feature of these proposals was that in a debate on them they were overwhelmingly accepted by the Lords themselves.

We haven't as yet secured all the changes we proposed but all in all, over 60 members have departed since the Burns Committee scheme was established and to her credit Mrs May has already made important moves. She has:

  • Agreed that a reduction in numbers is necessary;
  • agreed that she herself will follow a path of moderation in new appointments – in other words that the days of mass appointments under Cameron and Blair have come to an end; and
  • also made it clear said that no longer will the holding of a particular office mean that the holder comes to the Lords.

These are all significant moves forward and what really matters now is that we should get some agreement on the cap – the maximum number of peers that are in the House.

Of course, there are other issues. You have to remember that it was as recently as 1958 that women life peers were first appointed. They now make up 30% of the life peer total. Not enough, but it shows not only the direction of travel but the undoubted quality that has been added to the House. Indeed, the two most powerful people in the House – the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition – are both women. And indeed, we recently appointed the first woman Black Rod in the 650-year history of the role.

There is also an emerging discussion on appointing Non-Parliamentary Peers - Peers who do not have the right to sit in the House. This might be a way of recognising the contribution of, for example, some leading businessmen who we want to go on working in their particular industry or field. When Tony Blair appointed swathes of ‘working Peers' in the late 1990s and early 2000s he made the claim that the Peerage should not be considered an honour but as a full-time job. I think the time has come to think seriously about a new category of Peer who would not be given a seat in Parliament and would not be expected to turn up, contribute and vote.

My last word would be this. Before putting forward new plans of reorganisation, we should ask what we want the second chamber to do. Our role at present is to check and to improve legislation, and at times to ask the Commons to think again - while always recognising that, in the end, the elected House should have its way. We are already constrained in what we can do. There are a number of conventions and statutes which, together, enshrine the primacy of the Commons over the second Chamber:

  • For example, bills implementing manifesto commitments are not opposed by the House of Lords;
  • The House of Commons, not the House of Lords, decides levels of public taxation and public spending; and
  • Governments should get their business ‘in reasonable time'.

We do not have an ambition to increase our powers and even less a wish to destroy Government legislation. But we do not want to become a purely party-political chamber - we already have one of those. Of course, from time to time there will be differences along the way, but what I would ask is that the public judge us on the final outcome not the initial disagreement. Our aim is to improve laws, not to sabotage them.

Image: The Cambridge Union

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