House of Lords should be half the size, says Commons Speaker

Peter Walker Political correspondent
Bercow said it was ‘patently absurd that the House of Lords is significantly larger than the House of Commons’. Photograph: Rick Findler/PA

The House of Lords should halve in size, John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, has said in a rare foray into political opinion during which he also argued for a longer weekly prime minister’s questions.

Speaking at the Institute of Government, Bercow – who, as Speaker, remains officially neutral on party political matters – said he would like to see an elected second chamber but: “I don’t think reform on any major scale is going to happen soon.”

He added: “One can argue the toss about the size of the House of Commons, but as far as the size of the House of Lords in concerned, it is, frankly, patently absurd that the House of Lords is significantly larger than the House of Commons.”

This point, Bercow argued, was not made “in a sprit of machismo, or personal or institutional pride, still less willy waving”, but only as the Commons is the elected chamber.

Bercow said there remained “a very good argument” for having a second chamber but ”should it consist of 800-plus members? Absolutely not. It could most definitely be halved in size, and I think most fair-minded people would say that it should be.”

The Speaker also said he would prefer the weekly PMQs to last an hour, rather than the current scheduled 30 minutes.

“I would very much favour that. Whether that’s the will of the house, I don’t know,” he said. Recent PMQs have stretched to 45 minutes or more. This was done, Bercow said, to allow MPs some “injury time” to make up for delays.

He said it was perfectly legitimate for the prime minister to open the session with a statement of condolence or other message, “but I don’t see why it should come out of parliament’s time”. Noise and heckling also held up proceedings, he said: “I think there’s much to be said for having some injury time.”

Asked whether it was among his roles to assist scrutiny of the Brexit process, Bercow said he certainly sought to “try to maximise participation” for MPs on the issue.

He said: “I don’t think it should be exaggerated, but the Speaker does have a role, basically, in seeking to ensure that government policy, pronouncements, expenditure, negotiation tactics, are the subject of questioning and scrutiny in the chamber.”

Bercow also expressed concern at the idea the government might not take part in votes on opposition day motions, as happened on Wednesday with a Labour-led motion opposing an increase to university tuition fees.

A lot of votes are “expressions of opinion” and not binding, Bercow noted, but added: “Parliamentary votes do matter, and I think it would be a very worrying development if they were to be treated lightly or disregarded.”

Bercow is not alone in seeking to shrink the upper house - the Lords itself also agrees.

Next month a committee set up by the chamber’s own Speaker, Lord Fowler, will report on how to reduce the size of the chamber.

It followed a unanimous vote in the Lords last December to look into how to make it less populated.

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