On Wednesday 20 July the Constitution Unit and the House of Lords authorities hosted a special event at which Baroness D’Souza reflected on her five years as Lord Speaker in conversation with Professor Meg Russell. The conversation covered the highs and lows of her tenure, as well as the issues of the size, composition and reputation of the House. Raffaella Breeze and Jack Sheldon report on the event.
At an event held on 20 July, organised by the Constitution Unit and the House of Lords authorities, the outgoing Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza reflected on the highs and lows of her five years in the role in conversation with Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. Baroness D’Souza also used the opportunity to address the pressing issues of the size and reputation of the House of Lords, indicating her own preferences for a cap on the size of the House and restrictions on Prime Ministerial patronage.
Baroness D’Souza is the second peer to hold the position of Lord Speaker, established under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Both Baroness Hayman, the inaugural holder of the office, and Lord Fowler, the former Conservative cabinet minister who will take on the role in September, were also present at the event. Baroness D’Souza recalled her objectives when she took office in 2011: to guard the reputation of the House, to expand its outreach programme outside of the UK, and to strengthen the relationship with the House of Commons. If Baroness Hayman’s role had been to create the position, hers was to develop and consolidate it.
The growth of the international outreach programme has been a particular feature of Baroness D’Souza’s tenure. She emphasised the vital importance of building institutional links with other parliaments, for example through exchanges of officials with parliaments in developing democracies, and opening up second channels of communication with countries where bilateral relations have gone sour, such as Russia and Taiwan. Baroness D’Souza spoke about how the international outreach programme had allowed her to pursue some of her other interests, such as promoting the role of women in politics. As Lord Speaker she had also pressed for more efficient, focused meetings of organisations such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
Domestically, the Lord Speaker also has an ambassadorial role: Baroness D’Souza’s experience of the outreach programme to schools – building on Baroness Hayman’s ‘peers in schools’ initiative – and to other institutions in the UK demonstrated to her that ‘once people understand the role they are much more sympathetic to the House of Lords’. She suggested that the chamber’s ‘fundamental role of scrutinising and revising legislation’ is something that ‘everyone supports’.
A number of controversies involving the Lords have taken place during Baroness D’Souza’s time in office. She felt that the Lords tends to attain popular support when it ‘stands its ground’. Perhaps the highest profile confrontation was last October’s vote to delay tax credit cuts. In retrospect Baroness d’Souza thought that the Lords ‘among the public came out well’ from this episode. It was an example of the role the House of Lords should play, that of a body whose job it is to review legislation and to provide arguments which are ‘evidence based, not party political’. A vital counterweight to the government intended to ‘make it think again’. The fact that the issue was of clear concern to the wider public and to members of all parties in parliament demonstrated the need for the Lords to take the course of action that it did. It was ultimately the government’s own decision to drop the policy – they could have chosen to press ahead, but chose not to.
In her conversation with Meg Russell, Baroness D’Souza stressed the need for reform, but also acknowledged that change has been underway for decades, emphasising that incrementally, the House has become a very different place from twenty years ago.
In terms of future reform, Baroness D’Souza explained that she had established a small cross-party group (the ‘Lord Speaker’s Advisory Group’) to discuss how the Lords could be made more effective. She said that she set up the group because she thought it was important that the Lords, as a self-regulating body, could say to the government and the wider public that ‘things are not working as well as they should be and here are these are the changes that we suggest’. The group agreed a set of principles that Baroness D’Souza has previously outlined in a speech at the annual meeting of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes: that the Lords should be no larger than the Commons, that no party should ever have a majority in the Lords, that at least 20 per cent of peers should be Crossbenchers, and that the party balance should reflect the average votes cast in the last two or three general elections.
The primary problem was seen as the growing size of the House, something often discussed by the Constitution Unit in the past. Baroness D’Souza stated that the current number of peers is ‘not necessary to do the work that the House of Lords does’, as well as being ‘an enormous burden on both the administration [of parliament] and the taxpayer’. She suggested that a smaller, reformed and more focused House of between 450 and 550 peers would work better. Current numbers often mean that debate becomes a ‘charade’, with only time for one or two minutes per speaker. Agreeing that the Lords should be smaller than the Commons would, by in effect introducing a cap on its size, limit the patronage of the government of the day.
Baroness D’Souza acknowledged that achieving change along these lines was challenging. Although there are many peers who think the House is too large, she spoke about a ‘resistance to change’ and that there needs to be a real determination for people to get together and do something about it. There is a particular difficulty that the government is largely in control, and will be reluctant to give up its ‘very powerful patronage’ power – i.e. the essentially unrestricted appointment of peers. Without the Brexit vote this matter might have reached the Lords’ formal agenda before the summer recess, but there are now new preoccupations. However, it will inevitably return to the political agenda. In the short term Brexit is ironically likely to result in a ‘resignation honours’ list from David Cameron, and there are concerns that soon ‘the House will be close to 900’.
Size was not the only problem discussed during the talk. At a time when House has often been portrayed in a negative light in the media, Baroness D’Souza underlined the need for better external communication. She suggested a PR approach to the House’s communication strategy, to defend the House and provide ‘proper, careful, delicate, sober’ advice on communications. One of her frustrations has been that no single individual ‘speaks for parliament’, and due to lack of clarity about responsibilities, public responses to negative media stories have sometimes been slow. When the Lords got some ‘extremely unfortunate coverage’ concerning one peer in 2015 Baroness D’Souza felt very strongly that a ‘clear statement’ should be made on behalf of the House that the behaviour was unacceptable. However, it was not obvious who should make that statement. She decided on that occasion to do so herself. The role of the Lord Speaker in this sort of situation could be ‘discussed a lot more’ – it is a matter which ‘remains unresolved’.
Towards the end of the event Baroness D’Souza called for some reflection on the position of Lord Speaker, with proposals for a review having been on the table for a long time, but no such review yet having taken place. Praising John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, and his role in establishing the crèche and the education centre, she reflected that a strong Speaker ‘can get a lot done’.
In concluding, Baroness D’Souza said that ‘life is bigger than the House of Lords’. Meg Russell thanked her for her work, and also for her support of the Constitution Unit’s research, expressing good wishes for the future both to Baroness D’Souza and her successor, Lord Fowler. The event finished with a central message of desire for change, but also of celebration of an institution that plays an essential role in the British political system.
About the speakers
Professor Meg Russell is the Director of the Constitution Unit.
Baroness D’Souza‘s five-year term as Lord Speaker will end in September. Prior to becoming Lord Speaker she was Convenor of the Crossbench peers from 2007 to 2011. She joined the House of Lords in 2004.
About the authors
Raffaella Breeze is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.
Jack Sheldon is the editor of the Constitution Unit blog and newsletter.