Peers deride Tory plan to ship House of Lords to north of England

Rowena Mason and Peter Walker

Peers have openly scoffed at the idea of the House of Lords moving out of Westminster to York or another northern city, after the government confirmed it was looking at relocating the upper chamber.

A string of Tory, Labour and crossbench peers expressed disbelief on Monday that such a proposal was being considered, with some arguing it was impractical and others making jokes about it.

The idea was floated over the weekend and James Cleverly, the Tory party chairman, later confirmed the government was examining whether to move the House of Lords out of London to help parliament to better reflect the country’s diversity.

Many peers struggled to take the proposal seriously. Alan West, a retired Royal Navy admiral, proposed that the government could use a cruise ship for peers to tour the country.

Michael Forsyth, a Tory peer and former Scottish secretary, asked Earl Howe, the government minister leading a debate in the upper chamber: “Does he think that when the people in so many constituencies in the north lent their votes to the Conservative party, they were longing for more politicians to be sent to them?

“Or does he think they wanted a government that concentrates on the things that actually matter, like health and social care and infrastructure, and shouldn’t the special advisers in No 10 turn their attention to those matters?”

Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the Lords, suggested the proposal had come from “the same policy brain at No 10 that – desperate for Brexit headlines – came up with ‘Bung a bob for Big Ben bongs’.”

To murmurs of approval, she added: “There is a serious issue: this house is part of the scrutiny of parliament as a whole. Clearly the government must better engage with the regions and the nations. But does the noble lord feel that moving just one part of parliament – albeit to the fantastic York – sounds like the prime minister is as worried about Lords scrutiny as he is about Andrew Neil?” – a reference to the prime minister’s refusal to be interviewed by the BBC pundit during the election campaign.

The Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, who will become archbishop of York this year, joked that the Lords could work from a marquee in his garden. He asked the government to reconsider its plan, saying: “Some of the most important business is not in the chambers but in the corridors. It seems to me to be a very serious threat to our democratic processes if we are not in the same place.”

In response to some of the questions, Howe appeared to hint that the government may end up not proceeding with the plan. Peers reacted with laughter as he said: “I am not sure, my lord, how far the idea has progressed.”

He also said it had not yet been decided “what will be in the scope” of the new constitutional commission outlined by the Conservative manifesto and “whether this will include the House of Lords”.

Related: Shipping the House of Lords north is a great idea. Let’s send the MPs as well | Simon Jenkins

Despite the incredulous reaction in the chamber, several peers told the Guardian it was a good idea to spread power around the country. Jenny Jones, one of two Green peers in the Lords, said it could be “an excellent move. Anything that gets us out and about and meeting a wider variety of people is a really good idea.”

However, she said it would be vital that a move to York was used as a catalyst to revamp how the upper house operates. “For example, what we could do is sit in a circle, as many parliaments do, so it’s not the same adversarial lines drawn up on either side of a chamber.”

Other changes could include electronic voting, Jones said. “And we should have a building which meets the greenest standards – no gas-fired boilers. But with all those provisos I think it’s an absolutely fabulous idea.”

The Conservative peer and businessman Dolar Popat said he would welcome the move and also said it should be used as an opportunity to reform the Lords. “We are very London-centric as a country,” he said. “I’m London-based so it would involve travel, but then a lot of northerners come south, so it’s about time we swap it round.”

He said politicians had been talking about reforming the Lords for decades, and a move to York should be the impetus. “It should be smaller in size, no more than 400. It needs an age limit of 75, and frankly we need a time limit. It shouldn’t be for life.”

Another idea would be for professional bodies as well as parties to nominate new peers, he said. “What we need in the House of Lords is expertise, and that’s the way to get it.”