The House of Lords is the largest parliamentary chamber in the world apart from China’s rubber-stamp assembly, but few attend at any given time, and no wonder. Stoppard (the most British playwright ever to come out of Czechoslovakia) had it right: “The House of Lords, an illusion to which I have never been able to subscribe – responsibility without power, the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages.”
There is frequent talk of cutting the numbers down, but those in the seats hold their position for life, and Prime Ministers do insist on sticking more cut-price peers in the House than leave it in the natural way. There should be a moratorium, except that it would leave in place those elevated in the last lot’s packing-the-benches exercise.
In the absence of the French solution (which is both illegal and immoral), the House of Lords can only be shrunk by stripping the rights from existing peers.
Not every Lord has a right to sit, but only those who receive at the opening of each session a writ of summons. Since Blair’s constitutional games, the hereditary peers (most of whom would be fitter on those benches than the rejected politicos who have been shoved in there) may not receive a summons unless given a life peerage. A peer otherwise entitled may request leave not to be summoned, and so must stay out unless he withdraws that request. Furthermore, certain lords are excluded by law, including holders of judicial office, those under 18, bankrupts, foreigners, those convicted of treason or those who have not attended for six months. It would be but a little stretch to add more reasons to withdraw a summons.
What of those who cease to provide substantial public service outside the House? They are the nominal nobility of the land, and noblesse oblige: a true nobleman (if not the paper noblemen of the current House of Lords) recognise that with the privilege of the title and wealth comes a duty to public service. Many a Lord serves as a magistrate or in the Army, or commands a local TA unit. Some sit for little reward on committees of national or local import, or for no reward as charity trustees (and those charities may be worthy ones, not the fake charities which besmirch the name).
On the other hand, some of this generation of pound-shop peers have got there simply for sitting on quangos, without necessarily doing a good job or making the quango actually worthwhile in its existence. Once such a person might have received an OM or MBE as a thank-you: now honour-inflation gives them a peerage. Such service if it is a career should not be enough and might be better as a disqualification. The army, the justices’ bench and public service for duty not for career are noble. If the ermine is just for show or to give a leg-up in a career drinking taxpayers’ money, it should be stripped off their backs.
Come to that, it would be a good exercise to keep out of the Lords any whose main income is derived from taxpayers’ money, apart from an army officer’s salary.
The rules also exclude a peer from sitting if he or she is a member of the European Parliament. That one is by the board now, but what of others who are in the pay of foreign powers, or in thrall to them? What of peers who conspire with foreign powers, which is easy for a susceptible man to slip into? They should not be in Parliament. They know who they are.
Maybe some of the less worthy lords could be bribed to go away. If that sounds underhand, it is no more dishonest that living the high-hog on taxpayers’ money.
New conditions on the writ of summons would be valuable. The lurking danger is that wokeists will hijack the idea, and force exclusion for imagined transgressions and a careless word here or there, or they could take over the approval panels and impose those rules where there are no rules. Quis judicat ipsa judices? This needs careful work.
It may be that in these ways so many would be hurled from the benches that the House shrinks to manageable size. It may be that so many are sent away that more peers are needed. Appointing peers – that is another challenge.