House of Lords reform: what next ? - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

3  Removing persistent non-attendees

20. The issue of non-attendees was discussed in detail in the 2011 Report produced by the Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House chaired by Lord Hunt of Wirral. By removing those who have not engaged with the work of the House of Lords, the headline figures for the size of the House would, in theory, be reduced at a stroke.[46] Written evidence we received from Dr Barber suggested that such a move "should prove relatively uncontroversial."[47] A number of other written submissions, for instance those from the Green Party, Dr Gordon and Alan Renwick, supported in principle the idea of a removing non-attendees.[48]

21. Dr Ballinger stated:

    There is a strong argument to mitigate reputational risk by removing those who do not contribute to the work of the House. The Writ of Summons requires attendance. Newer peers are often told that they are expected to contribute, and if membership is to mean more than very occasional speaking and voting then a minimum level of familiarity with the workings and business of Parliament, shown through attendance, should be maintained by members.[49]

Dr Ballinger went on to argue that this would be best achieved through carefully crafted legislation otherwise, "if you are too tough, you will bring the backwoodsmen out and more people will turn up as a result, which will be deeply counterproductive".[50] Professor McLean also warned:

    Non-attenders who do not have a guilty conscience, or who value the opportunity to attend, however rarely, will have an incentive to continue to attend on the minimum number of occasions required to retain their membership.[51]

22. There are different ways in which attendance could be defined. In his written evidence, the Rt Hon David Blunkett MP suggested that voting could be used to determine whether peers should be considered to be 'non-attenders'. He argued that peers who had not voted in more than 10% of divisions for three sessions out of the last five should be removed from "a formal role". He added that: "they would of course remain Peers and could be allowed access to the restaurants and bars (but not offices, research and other working facilities). This would be commercially prudent."[52] However, Baroness Hayman cautioned that equating attendance to voting would disproportionately penalise Cross-benchers who often abstained more frequently than party-political peers to avoid being drawn into political arguments, or because the subject did not tally with their areas of subject expertise.[53]

23. Lord Cormack drew attention to the fact that attendance does not necessarily equate to effective participation. He suggested that rather than focus on levels of non-attendance it may be more useful to consider the quality of the contributions of existing Members:

    There are those who attend very regularly indeed and do precisely nothing. They do not speak; they do not take part in committees; they vote. That is in fact very convenient for the Executive or for the official Opposition, but it is not being a participating Member of the House of Lords. I believe that one has to have the courage to look at that and to say to these people, "You have been 300 times in the last year. You have not spoken at all. You have voted, but what contribution have you made?" One has to look at that, because I think that would have a dramatic effect.[54]

24. Our witnesses were clear that proposals to remove persistent non-attendees should not penalise those suffering from ill health or a temporary change in circumstances.[55] Lord Jay, Lord Hennessy and Lord Norton all said it would also be important to ensure that those who were not able to attend because they continued to work outside the House, and who could bring that experience to Lords' scrutiny, should be exempt from provisions for non-attendance.[56]

25. The issue of non-attendees is addressed in Baroness Hayman's Private Member's Bill. The relevant provisions state that peers who do not attend during a session would cease to be Members of the House at the end of the session. This would not apply to those with authorised leaves of absence[57] or where the session was shorter than six months. Non-attendance would be determined by the Lord Speaker upon certification that the peer did not attend at any time during the Session, "having regard to attendance records kept by officials of the House".

26. A number of submissions argued that a statutory non-attendance scheme would only have a superficial impact. The Campaign for a Democratic Upper House argued that by reducing the headline size of the House, it would "have the appearance of change, while doing nothing to address the main problems identified by proponents of so-called "housekeeping" measures."[58] Dr Russell also suggested that rather than non-attendance, "[i]t is the increase in attendance that is causing the problems. Yes, you would get the numbers that appear on the House of Lords' website down, but removing the people who already do not turn up wouldn't really change very much in terms of how the House is functioning".[59] Both Baroness Hayman and Lord Steel accepted that, in the bigger scheme of reform, this proposal was of marginal importance, but they added that it was one of a number of matters of principle which should be attended to sooner rather than later.[60] Lord Hennessy stated that "I think it is worth trying. It is fraught with peril and it might not produce much, but we need to look at all possible avenues."[61]

27. It is clear that there is broad support for tackling the issue of persistent non-attendance. Members of the House of Lords should be, and should be seen to be, actively engaging in the work of the House. Where this does not occur, action must be taken. In crafting an appropriate scheme on non-attendance, care must be taken to ensure that it does not penalise those who face ill health or a temporary change in circumstances or those whose ongoing work outside the House enables them to enhance the Lords' scrutiny function. There are a variety of ways in which non-attendance can be defined but the formulation contained in Baroness Hayman's Bill on House of Lords Reform, which states that peers who do not attend during a session would cease to be Members of the House at the end of the session, with the exception of those with an authorised leave of absence, appears to us to be broadly along the right lines.

46   Members Leaving the House, Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House, Report of Session 2010-11, HL Paper 83, para 18 Back

47   Evw 4 Back

48   Ev w6; Ev w10; Ev w21; Ev w22; Ev w32 Back

49   Ev w45 Back

50   Q 133 Back

51   Ev w14. See also Ev w6 Back

52   Ev w13 Back

53   Q 55  Back

54   Q 191 Back

55   Ev w32  Back

56   Q 77-82; Q 148 Back

57   Leave of Absence provides an opportunity for those who are unable or unwilling to play a full part in the work of the House, to step down from active membership. This could be, for instance, a result of professional commitments, ill health or infirmity. Back

58   Ev w29 Back

59   Q 133 Back

60   Q 12 Back

61   Q 82 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 17 October 2013